Friday, April 15, 2011

What Not to Write

Thinking about other characters and how they can drive play lead me back to a thought that lives in the same orbit as the thinking in my Getting Villainy Done post. The hang up I’ve been running into is this: games are full of things that are _interesting_, but just because something is interesting as a fact does not automatically make it interesting to *play*.

If you look at a random setting, it is probably chock full of color, and much of it will be compelling and, as a reader, really help you bring things to life. Griffon-riding mailmen! Elemental Zeppelins! Randian Cults! Whatever they may be, most of this information will be presented in a way that makes an interesting read, but very rarely in a way that directly suggests _play_.

This is, I think, by and large unintentional, or perhaps to put it another way, well-intentioned. The idea is that if the written material is reasonably comprehensive, then the GM is capable of extrapolating interesting adventure hooks from it. Cynically, this also allows for material to cater to more tastes, as a certain category of buyers doesn’t want adventure hooks, since those go outside the bounds of “How the world works”, which is what really drives their need.

The problem with this approach is simply that it allows for unhelpful writing. I won’t call it lazy, because I know it’s not - these writers bust hump to make things interesting and fun to read. But if the author doesn’t need to think about how the setting material’s going to be used, then she may not, and the net result is really interesting color that does little to nothing to drive play.

This problem becomes more profound when you start talking about lateral play. Players who write back stories have even less interest in playable information than setting designers. They often have deep piles of self-reflective information or arbitrary (and usually lame) SEKRITS that they absolutely won’t tell any other player about.

That’s not a terrible problem in its own right. Lord knows that’s how it’s always been. But this becomes a more pressing issue when you start thinking in terms of what playable information characters are going to have in their background. That is to say, players are well served by mastering playable information too, if only to help come up with character backgrounds that will actually engage other players, rather than be just another failed special snowflake.


  1. Very interesting thoughts, very relevant to my upcoming game. Please continue - I'm dying to see what ideas you come up with.

  2. I'm eager to see your discussion of what makes good playable content. I aim to get better at writing playable content rather tahn simply interesting descriptive setting.

    I've been toying with lateral mechanics in a One Piece hack from Smallville. No direct relationship stats, but each characters ambitions depend on other characters in different ways.

    In addition, the manga/anime beats rely on back and forth between allies as things get bad for one, another jumps in right at the perfect moment, when the original char takes a back seat. I'm looking for ways to intuitively give players that interactive plot power.

  3. It doesn't affect your core point, but I love the idea of an adventure built around a griffen-riding mailman. Why they hell do they ride griffens? Why is the level of training necessary to ride a griffen justified?

    Hell, I could almost envision a game built around a team of griffenmailmen who have to fight their way through grave danger to deliver critical messages to the rich and powerful :)

  4. @Linnaeus I was part of a PbP focused solely on a team of Orien Couriers each with a unique (and problematic) package to deliver across Khorvaire. It was fascinating and convoluted.

  5. Not much to say here, Rob, except that this issue is foremost on my mind while working on Places from the Paranet. If I do nothing else but succeed at this litmus test of yours, then the effort will be a worthy one.


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