It’s Personal

 

personalize-it-main

 

Twice a year, like clockwork, I ponder the correlations between writing fiction and running role-playing games.  The first is in the spring when I start thinking about what games I want to bring to AmberCon Northwest (an excellent roleplaying convention in Portland that centers around the Amber Diceless RP Game).  The second time is in November immediately after the con wraps and I have to decide whether my games were a success.

Some writers I know gaming and writing are two very different things.  I beg to disagree.  On the gamemaster side of things, you’re creating plot, history, world-building, secondary characters, and conflict.  The only thing that is different is that the main characters are out of your control … though a good GM will find ways of giving player characters growth through an emotional arc–exactly what a good writer will give their own main characters.

My metrics for gauging success of both novel-style fiction and gaming are the same: Did you enjoy it?  Were you engaged?  Or, better yet, did you have a stake in how it turned out?  Did the ending satisfy?  Do you want more?

The mechanics for building a satisfying story differ for each form–or at least I find them to differ substantially in most respects.  The thing I have been coming back to though, the similarity between them, is finding ways to make the plot personal to the main characters, whether they’re yours or a player’s in your game.

Okay, I say that like I know what I’m talking about, but this is all a work in progress–a hypothesis undergoing rigorous testing.

By “make it personal” I don’t mean that the player characters are the center of the plot–though if it’s a small enough group and they’re tied together in some way, maybe they are!–but that the choices they make can change the outcome or move the plot forward in significant ways.  Their choices have consequences, for good or ill.  The plot moves forward because the PCs made choices.  Even choosing not to choose is something which should bring consequences.

And that’s not any different from making the plot of a written story tie intimately to the main character, even when the events propelling the MC into the plot didn’t have anything to do with them previously.  With written fiction, we have the luxury of knowing our character’s backgrounds, and knowing which part of their history is driving them with each scene.  With gaming, not so much, even if your players send you a ten page history to work with.  The best–if not only–thing we can do to make a plot personal to them, is give them the chance to make decisions which matter.  Each time they move on a decision, there’s buy-in.  Once there’s buy-in, stakes can be raised.  Once stakes are raised, consequences become greater and rewards that much sweeter.

So that’s my goal for my upcoming games (and the story Simone and I are in the middle of) … to make it personal.  I’m sure I’ll let you know how successful I am come mid-November.

How do you make your RP scenarios and/or stories personal to the main characters, assuming the plot isn’t all about them?  This inquiring mind wants to know.

 

A New Hope

 

No, not that one, not Star Wars Ep. IV, though it qualifies.

I’m talking about the feeling that comes from experiencing a story with a Happy Ending™.   Not even a Happily Ever After™ ending, but simply the heroine-prevails-in-her-quest ending, whatever that quest may be.  It brings satisfaction that wrongs have been righted, justice prevails, and the worthy find love.  In other stories, something intrinsic to the human condition endures, and we, or those important to us, will be able to partake of it.

I remember how terrible the last half of 2001 was.   The US was attacked on September 11th, and then we took war to the Middle East.  So much pain and national anxiety.  At the end of the year, for the holidays, Warner Bros. released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It was a fun movie, I’ll grant you, full of good performances by actors I enjoyed.  But what hit me like a blow was how much hope it instilled in me at the end.  I wept as the credits rolled.  It was all out of proportion to the movie itself, but I felt that if Potter could overcome his trials and tribulations, then we, as adults and as a country, could surely emerge from the pain and hatred and fear we were snarled in.  I felt hope again for our world.

That’s some good, heart-tugging storytelling.

Maybe at that time, I just needed to believe in the possibility of happy endings, and that–like young Skywalker, and the hope he embodied–the sunset would be followed by a new, better day.

 

Epic yearning!

Epic yearning!

Happy Endings aren’t an American invention, but we do tend to eat them up.  I sort of blame Disney–or maybe Frank Capra–and I’m sort of not kidding.  They’re hard to get away from, and I sometimes wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by not embracing more ambiguity as the curtains fall.  Ambiguity makes us dig for the hope we want, makes us examine possibilities.  Ending with uncertainty is less like hot chocolate and Milano cookies on a cold winter’s night, and more like a meaty borscht–complex and nourishing, but we have to work to get it in the bowl, and we often are unsure of the ingredients.  Ambiguity makes us wonder what’s next?  Happy Endings rarely do.

All this is to say that I wonder about the stories we, as a people, tell.  I wonder in our communal psyche demands the reassurance and certainty of a Happy Ending, even when we know they’re rarely “real”.  I wonder which stories give us the tool to find our way through this crazy world, and if it’s simply a matter of having our Milano cookies along side our borscht.

What kind of endings do you crave?  Which ones satisfy you?  What do you want from your stories?  Inquiring minds wanna know.

 

"Delicious ambiguity." -- Gilda Radner

“Delicious ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner

 

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