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Friday 14 March 2014

Blank slates

A while back, I was on the phone to Leo Hartas and he was telling me of an idea he'd had to extend his Playrama cut-outs range. What he had in mind was a series of cardboard figurines for use in role-playing games. Each character would have a name and a made-up background: Sir Percival of Dragonne, that kind of thing.

I was just about to say it myself when I heard Leo's son Inigo in the background: "That's completely wrong, Dad. The whole point of role-playing is that you get to make up your own character. You don't want to be told who you're playing."

Inigo's right. In my view, the referee of a role-playing game ("games master" if you must) gets to control the world, all of the events and the NPCs, but the PCs are sacrosanct. The players are in charge there. If I'm going to start laying down the law to my players about their own characters, I might as well stop running the game and spend my time writing a novel instead.

That's the same philosophy I applied to my gamebooks. It's not easy. On the one hand, you want the reader to feel in charge - that's the whole promise of "YOU are the hero". But to deliver a satisfying story, characters have to be changed by the things they experience. In a second-person gamebook, then, there's the dilemma. Do you make character development explicit in the text (which requires you to tell the reader how they feel about things) or do you let the text just describe what happens and allow the emotional and/or moral journey to occur in the mind of the reader?

It ought to be the latter, but many readers do seem to want spoon-feeding rather than the unfettered freedom implied by interactivity. "The book was unsatisfying," they may say; "it didn't tell me how I was supposed to feel." And in videogames these days we're used to having very strongly defined characters (Lara Croft, the Witcher) and only rarely get the protean possibilities of an enigmatic personality like everyman Gordon Freeman.

In Frankenstein I got the best of both worlds. Most of the book is narrated in first person, allowing Victor Frankenstein to develop just as a character in a novel should - the difference being that your advice shapes how he develops.And in one part of the book, you are given the traditional second-person treatment but even there the inner life of that character - vengeance or love, hope or despair, anger or pity - is entirely up to you:
A thaw sets in as the days start to become noticeably longer. One morning, you are cupping your hands to drink from a pond when a shaft of sunlight hits your face, which appears with fiery clarity in the water.

Of course you’ve seen your reflection before. But this time it comes as a shock. You are so used to spending the day watching the family that you have come to fancy yourself as one of them. The red, gristly countenance with the round yellow eyes and skeletal grimace is like some creature of the depths staring up at you from the water. You feel a thrill of fear, as if it might reach up and drag you down into a mire of darkness from which there is no escape.

You scurry back thirsty to your lair, pulling the twigs and leaves behind you as if that might shut out the scrutiny of some immense, unseen, celestial eye that is somehow judging you. And if such an eye exists, what does it make of you?

* That you are hideously ugly?
* Or rather that you’re different?
Many of my old gamebooks describe events in the character's past - a foe, a murdered friend, a missing brother - and even define a role such as the Dragon Knight of Palados in The Temple of Flame. But the character's emotional and moral reactions to what he or she experiences (and even gender) are left to the reader. The process of reading a book does not, after all, happen on the page but in the mind. The book is a key to unlock creative experiences of your own. Never is that more true than in overtly interactive fiction. The journey is not in the hands of the writer, it's up to you. But for that to work, you have to be willing to bring your imagination.

Illustration by Quentin Hudspeth and used under Creative Commons Attribution licence.


  1. I think there's room for both: at times, I enjoy playing a strongly authored character, and at times I like being able to dictate what I think the character should be like. The advantage of the former is that it allows me to explore different points of view than I might normally encounter.

    1. That's why I like role-playing - though the point there of course, is to create and inhabit a character unlike yourself, not to be told what to think.

  2. I remember someone on a podcast talking about doing a pacifist run of Fallout: New Vegas. They reach the point in the game where you confront the person who shot you in the head at the start of the game. To their surprise, although they couldn't actually forgive the person, they could say something along the lines of "What's done is done; what's important is where we go from here." Then the game takes that and the plot goes on from there.

    So the game is saying "You're a hardbitten unforgiving futuristic cowboy in a post-apocalyptic Western. You can be hero or villain and react to the situation as you want, but you're still they guy who got shot in the head and wants to know what the hell it was about." So it sort of splits the difference.

    1. Jamie would be the guy to talk about that, Neil. He's played all the Fallout games. I like the sound of what you're describing, but it still sounds much more restrictive than face-to-face role-playing.

  3. I accept the character restrictions that come with the format because I've never really regarded gamebooks as roleplaying. That said, I remember once, a very long time ago, clashing with someone over whether the reader's character in a gamebook should be allowed the option of committing immoral acts (e.g, slaughter of innocents): my position was yes.

    1. I always came at writing gamebooks from the perspective of roleplaying, so it surprised me to learn that most gamebook readers don't roleplay. I accept the reality of that, but it still doesn't quite compute for me.

  4. Mr.Morris, you wrote "In my view, the referee of a role-playing game ("games master" if you must) gets to control the world, all of the events and the NPCs" but who says that's always the case?
    I can tell you about several rpgs where there is no such thing as a GM figure (referee is just plain wrong to me: in sports a referee is not a player; in RPGs the GM is just a player with different roles).
    When I act as GM playing my Apocalypse World campaign, I build the setting upon the answers to the questions I make to the other players who plays characters (the manual instructs me to do so after all). I try to stay away from interfering with their agency as much as I can, because I know that despite any game's best design, it's always possibly to fall into the mistake.
    And as per the preset characters... lots of rpgs are made with pre-made characters. Think of all the live action scenarios that are built on that very premise. That's roleplaying too. The point is that you have a set situation, and you play to see what happens. You don't have a heavy handed GM that tries to force the players down a path he has decided.

    1. You can certainly play with preset characters, Tazio. I have done that occasionally and enjoyed it, but I much prefer to develop my own persona in play. (Which itself is different from designing a character in advance, of course.)

      As you say, what I call the referee or umpire is just another player with different roles. When I start to disagree is if one of those roles is God :-) I am pretty wary of group-run games, though, because in the examples I've seen the players are all acting authorially most of the time. They'll say things like, "Little do we know as we drive past the gas station that our rival is inside buying Coke." And if they are thinking like that - passing the narrative like a ball, so to speak - then I don't think they are inhabiting the characters, which for me is the most fun aspect of role-playing.

      But overall I agree with you. Role-playing is not one straitjacket that everybody has to wear.

    2. Mr.Morris,
      thank you for your very kind reply. First of all, it is a honor to be able to interact with you. Your books are an important part of my childhood and I owe it to you, Mr.Thomson and other authors of gamebooks, for having developed the love for reading I have.
      That was something I really needed to say.
      Moving on to your, I must say very solid points, I can only tell you that we feel the same way. I do prefer much to build my own character rather than having one handed down to me. I've seen some pretty effective games that give pre-made characters and scenarios like Montsegur 1244. Yet it definitely is not my cup of tea. If anything, my favorite type of rpgs are those where you have very clear limits to what type of character you can play, and then build on those limits. They foster my creativity to come up with a character I can find interesting.

      The example you make of a gm-less game is one of bad roleplaying, most definitely. That's exactly how you must not play any of those games, and just to think that anyone would play like that makes me cringe. But of course, we can say that system matters as much as we want, you can't hope that a good system makes up for bad players...
      Just to clarify things, the narrative shouldn't be passed like a ball. If you do it that way, you leave other players with the additional burden of having to build on the piece of incomplete narrative you just tossed to them, and that's hardly fun. Sure it happens, but in a functional group, narrative should be built together and played to see what happens.
      I have created my own gm-less roleplaying game and playtested it several time until it would be ready to be published, and it's built to focus entirely on the characters. I'd love to discuss this further with you if you would like, but I am a little unsure if it were appropriate because I feel like I am already abusing the space of your blog as it is...

    3. I'd love to hear more about it, Tazio - and I think I'm speaking for many of the blog's readers when I say that. The purpose of my posts is really just to stimulate a discussion, and I like nothing more than when the comments range far and wide and turn into long and thought-provoking digressions from the original topic. So - fire away!