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Roleplaying as Live-Action Fan Fiction

Roleplaying games are the result of authors trying to convince you to do live-action fan fiction for them. A group of friends gets together and acts out characters in a universe and setting that someone else created, but interpreted for their purposes. It’s a process that is so seemingly simple that it’s easy to ignore all the transformations that occur when half a dozen people sit down to kill some Orks. These transformations are powerful enough that some argue they transcend fan fiction and become something else, as Jennifer Grouling Cover does in her book, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.

The manual for a roleplaying game is an extremely complex piece of fiction. It’s a manual, a setting bible, an art book, and an anthology of short stories. All of these pieces must support and enhance the others in a way that is easy and entertaining to follow. In much the same way, the process of creating the manual is often the result of several (sometimes very different) people working together to realize a vision.

As with all stories, you begin with the developer. The roleplaying developer has an idea. Like any author, the developer has done some research, has taken some liberties, and has fragments of characters and themes that s/he wants the players to build into living, breathing fiction. Developers have ideas for what the manual will look like, and ideas for what a game using the manual will look like. That is, at the end of the day, there is a kind of game the developer envisions that you will play with his book.

They put together a collection of material they’ll want to refer to or use. They write outlines or some other form of initial treatment. Then they put out a call for help.

Many fiction authors write by themselves, but in this case the developer needs to parcel out his vision. He’s got some rules, an idea of what he’s looking for, and samples from hopeful freelancers. He builds a team. The team knocks heads. By virtue of including other people, the vision changes. It may be slight; it may be better; it may be worse; but you can’t add eyes without changing what you see. We are given a singular vision; we give back a collective one.

Chapters are written. Red lines go down. Mistakes are corrected. Deviations from the collective dream are scrubbed or built upon. Rules are expanded, compared to the fiction, revised. Calls for artists go out. Visual art comes back and is carefully placed where it best supports the text. The dream becomes a thing.

The thing is not the dream, though. It’s an interpretation of the dream. The intention of one person has become the intention of many, and that intention has been realized as a book. Many of the assumptions, the history, much of the context has been cut away: for clarity, for consistency, for page space. What the first author wanted has been mediated by a group, and then further transformed into a book.

This book serves as the refined instrument to define how the roleplaying game should work. This would be the end of it … if we were writing it for robots. We’re not. Not yet.

The person who actually wants to run this game, to enforce the rules, becomes a new arbiter. Beyond new characters or circumstances, beyond new continents added wholesale, the new arbiter makes changes. He shapes mechanics: that desert setting doesn’t have rules for sailing, but you want to feature a group of sandsail nomads, so you need to add those rules. You need to see how they balance within the system, predict how they will influence the choices of your players and their characters. The book has inspired an idea of what this story should look like, but the game master only uses that as a part. The fiction that has been offered is changed to suit the reader’s purposes.

This person running the game—this game master—his players have their own ideas, though. This is a collaborative game, and the stories they want to play and experience will differ between each other and the game master. The story changes again. What the game master built, the players furnish.

The authors have framed the most persuasive narratives and setting that they can with the hope that some will survive to be acted upon. They support their arguments with mechanics they hope are compelling. But that’s all it is: an argument. Please play me. Please play me this way. The game master must make the same case to his players, and the players right back and in between. You can’t just ask a player to read: you have to ask him to participate. It’s a kind of negotiation that authors typically don’t have to do with their readers, but that makes it the most collaborative—and for some, the most compelling—kind of storytelling there is.

MATT MAGELSSEN-GREEN is a writer and aspiring scholar from Alexandria, Virginia. Previously published in the late and lamented Steampunk Tales, Matt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University. He also leads the Games Engagement and Research (GEAR) student group and is vice president of the Mason chapter of the Society for Technical Writers. His current research interests include tabletop roleplaying games, augmented reality, communication and organization of creative/entertainment organizations, and how creativity is fostered by context.

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1 comment:

Matt Magelssen-Green said...

While reviewing some materials for another project, I realized that the comparison between fan fiction and TRPGs has been made before by Jennifer Grouling Cover in her book The Creation of Narrative in Table-top Role-Playing Games.

Many apologies for not catching that sooner.