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Friday, 10 May 2019

A journal of the play years

Here's the thing about write-ups. The point of a roleplaying game isn't to create a story. "But, but..." you may say, especially if you've bought into all that genre-flavoured, trope-carbonated Hollywood screenwriting fizz. And I do like stories. I read a lot of them. I even write a few. But the second life conjured up by a good RPG session goes way beyond any of that break-to-act-two nonsense.

I'll give you a really good example. Watch The Knick. The first eighteen episodes are tour-de-force writing, as superficially formless as daily life and yet driven by conflict, emotion and need. In the last two episodes the writers were forced by Cinemax's cancellation of the show to tie everything up with a bow -- not even a suture -- and that meant scraping the barrel of trope-driven, by-the-numbers storytelling. Suddenly characters were having arguments that the actors obviously couldn't bring themselves to believe. Previously complex characters stood revealed as dastardly villains. An interesting and rather touching romance turned out to hinge on an improbable master plan. Two of the hospital staff abruptly decided to turn into psychotic murderers and then got together. Where before we'd had great original drama, now we had the most disappointingly cliched melodrama.

That's the kind of cookie-cutter plotting that comes from treating the narrative as an artifice to grab the attention of bored audiences rather than, as they had done previously, allowing it to find its own shape from the many nuanced processes going on inside. The determination of incident driving the illustration of character.

So I'm wary of going into a game with the intention of doing write-ups because it can make the roleplaying self-conscious. Players start worrying about whether their character will come across well, get enough of a starring role, be perceived as having an interesting (ugh) arc. That said, when the write-up is done in character and comes with all the unreliability and partiality that implies, it can be fun. And as I get older it gets harder to remember what happened in the session two weeks ago, so write-ups are useful mnemonics.

Preparing for one of our Christmas specials, it occurred to me that, although my group don't often bother with write-ups, nevertheless we'd accumulated enough of them in twenty years to fill a book. So I put them all together and printed up a dozen copies to hand out to the players, with this introduction:
Getting around the table for an evening’s gaming is a highlight of the week, and lots of fun even when (as often) we’re simply larking about.

But when the magic starts to work, and we steep ourselves in the world, and the characters speak through us – then our imaginations join together and take flight. And that’s when we might say to non-gamers: we have seen things you people wouldn’t believe…

Stories matter to human beings. They entertain, but they do more than that. They are how we see the world. And in our games we’ve had the privilege of getting inside the story. The joy of creating it together with good friends. The wonder of experiencing things beyond the everyday.

This book collects some of the fugitive scraps of those marvellous moments together. Long may it continue.

ADDENDUM: The point here, of course, is "the joy of creating [a story] together with good friends". That's why roleplaying is such a unique experience -- like life, what matters is not the story that emerges, but the fact that you make it happen and you experience it with people you care about. But for those who are interested in my group's write-ups, you can find a lot of them just by excavating the deeper strata of this blog. For instance:

I could go on, but it's safe to say that's probably more than enough.