I like games.
This comes as no surprise, I know; it’s about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I’ve written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill.
Anyway, GenCon (the annual giant gamer nerd-prom) was last weekend, and to mark it there’s been an RPGaDay hashtag and commentary program doing the rounds. (I’ve been posting notes on my Google + account, if that is a thing that might interest you.) Games have been on my mind, but so has writing – and it occurred to me that while I’ve made general comments about games (specifically RPGs) being good resources for writers, I’ve not ever spelled out which games might help with that.
WAIT NO LONGER
Here, then, are five games that set out to do very particular things and help create or facilitate very particular kinds of stories, and that do that in a way that can directly translate into key lessons for writers. You should check them out – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re generally pretty cheap and they can do good things for your brain and your words.
Spark is a toolkit for creating and running games that focus on a core set of themes. Players and GM collaborate on outlining a world/setting and three broad themes (Beliefs), such as ‘Everyone has a price’ or ‘You are your culture’, that are expressed through it and its various factions. Characters have their own Beliefs that align with or challenge those setting Beliefs, along with a handful of broad stats and skills.
Play revolves around collaboratively setting up scenes with three components – a Platform (situation), a Tilt (something that pushes PCs to engage with the situation) and a Question (what is to be solved/discovered). The aim is to create a Question that challenges a setting Belief and that pushes the PCs into conflict – with factions, with each other and with their own Beliefs – in order to follow their own agendas.
Writing lesson: Stories have subtext, subtext is driven by theme, and theme can be embedded in every scene and external plot driver. Push characters to question those beliefs, and to engage directly with theme, and you can create rich, complex stories.
The default setting of My Life With Master is 19th-century Europe, where a scheming Master sends his twisted minions out to prey upon local villagers for unspeakable purposes – and you play the minions, forced and cajoled into escalating monstrousness. Characters have only two stats, Self-Loathing (how much you hate yourself for obeying your Master) and Weariness (the degree to which you’re given up resisting), along with a pair of unique, non-numerical strengths and weaknesses.
Play has a specific rhythm that builds up inexorably over time. The Master applies increasing emotional pressure on his minions, forcing them to terrorise the villagers – but also giving them opportunities to make connections and friends. The stakes escalate and the minions do worse and worse things to those they wish to love until one of them overcomes control and stands up to the Master. Which doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, mind you.
Writing lesson: Internal conflicts can as powerful as external ones, especially if that conflict turns into action. A character who doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway, who tries to free themselves from control (whether they succeed or fail), can be fascinating.
Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monsterhearts trims that down and sexes it up to create a game about supernatural powers and teenage passions. Players choose a ‘playbook’ for a particular archetype, from vampire and werewolf to clique leader or misunderstood teen, and quickly finetune it with abilities and benefits. They then connect characters together with ‘Strings’, knots of emotional connection to help them influence (or be influenced by) each other.
What happens in a game of Monsterhearts? Teenagers fall in love, have sex, meddle with the occult and end up doing terrible things in the name of desire. To get what they want – each other – PCs have to use up their Strings and create new ones. Anything meaningful requires a roll, and failure (and sometimes success) enacts a heavy price. And at some point, PCs are bound to lose control and lash out at those around them, possibly supernaturally, only to regret it later.
Writing lesson: Desire, fear, love, hate, passion… these things can be as much of a plot driver as any kind of external situation or control. Characters who act from emotion push stories forward, as much with their mistakes as their successes, and you can find great drama in the aftermath.
I’ve talked about Fiasco before, but that’s because it’s great – a toolkit for making Coen Brothers/Breaking Bad/plan-gone-wrong stories in almost any genre. Using a ‘playset’ of ideas based on a broad story or setting concept, such as ‘small town news channel’ or ’1930s transatlantic ocean liner’, players quickly sketch out characters, their relationships and three or more elements attached to those relationships – a Place, an Object and a Need.
Players then take turns to create scenes, either framing one around their character or deciding on the outcomes, and assigning white/black (good/bad) dice around the table. At the midpoint, players roll dice to introduce a twist and then continue. While the Place and Object play important roles, it’s the Need (and the Relationship connected to it) that drive play to the bitter, tally-up-your-dice-and-roll-’em, most-of-you-are-fucked-now end.
Writing lesson: Some pundits say there are only 20 stories, or 12, or seven, or three. But if you want to get really reductive, there’s only one – what will you do to get what you want? Boil everything down to that one question, then write up from there, and you get a gut-punch narrative.
While all those other games are about character, Microscope is something completely different – a game about history and the big picture. Players choose a concept, such as ‘an ancient empire rises and falls’, pick a beginning and an end for the timeline, and collaborate on setting and tone elements like ‘magic exists’, ‘magic doesn’t exist’, ‘aliens’, ‘robots’ or whatever. No character creation; no GM.
Players then take turns to create sub-Periods within the timeline, to populate Periods with key Events or to suggest Scenes for Events. You can jump around in time freely, adding Periods at any point. Once some groundwork is laid, players can zoom in to play out a Scene in detail or discuss an event, picking out specific elements (Legacies) to colour and influence the next round of establishment, until you can stitch a convincing narrative line from the timeline’s start to its end.
Writing lesson: Not everything is about character, and some stories are bigger than people. But if you pick a point and zoom in, you can crystallise all that scope into something we can connect to, something with a face, and through that create something grand that feels convincing.
In other news, we have an apartment, we move at the end of the week, we’re packing and spending all the money we can spare on the process.
Good times. Good times.
Please send bourbon and all your drugs.