Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Romancing the Kindle

My wife is an e-book convert. Or at least I think she is, to judge by how thoroughly she has stolen my kindle and, when the kindle is unavailable, my ipod touch with the kindle reader.

The conversion has a simple basis: she was looking for something to read one night, and I asked what author's she was looking for. She rattled off a few, including Jude Devereaux and Julie Quinn[1], so I fired up the kindle, bought a book or two and handed it over. This lead to a discussion of exactly how many of these books were online, followed by a buying spree on Amazon that loaded my kindle down with romance novels. So I haven't seen my kindle in a while, and am wondering if we need to become a two kindle household soon.

Anyway, this is all relevant because my wife also enjoys sharing these novels with me as she reads them. I know more about the characters of Dianne Gabaldon than I have any right to , and I keep myself sane by putting it all through a gaming filter as I listen. And what continually strikes me is that it is really, really gameable, but in a way I'm not sure any game can capture.

So there's a generalization about genre fiction that it has poor characterization because the characters are there in service to the tropes of the genre. It's not totally true, but there's truth to it, and I feel like there's an inverse rule applied to romance novels. They are so strongly about character and characterization that the plot, tropes and rules can all be askew in service of the character interaction. This character-centric perspective kind of screams out for gaming, and the simple plot formulas[2] would certainly be easy enough to pursue, but it also highlights where it's hard to tie to a system.

I've got no objection to social mechanics in games, but they are ham-fisted tools at best.[3] Really bringing a cast of living, breathing characters to life is a GM skill, and not a trivial one, especially when looking to have interactions that are more sophisticated than the one-note dynamics that define so much genre fiction.[4] I know some GMs that could pull it off, and while they might do it better or worse in certain systems, the system would really matter almost not at all in this context.[5] So how do you package that?

I've got no easy answer for that, and in the absence of an answer it's not even worth tackling things like the myriad ways romance makes gamers uncomfortable. Instead, I'm just going to pound my head against it for a while longer, and sooner or later something's going to give.

I think I'm going to dust off my copy of Ken Hite's Nightmare's of Mine (a fantastic book on horror in RPGs) and look at it through this lens. It strikes me that good horror has many of the same problems as romance, and while its emphasis is on tone rather than character interaction, it still is far more art than craft to run good horror. Maybe there's a lesson to steal there.

1 - Quinn's ebooks were especially interesting because she's done a very clever thing. She has written epilogues to many of her books, talking about what has happened to the characters, which she sells as $2 ebooks. This, to my mind, is freaking brilliant.

2 - By which I mean clear obstacles, some element of mystery and tidy resolution. I'm not even touching upon actual sex because, to be frank, it's role in romance novels seems awfully varied.

3 - At worse they are barely removed from "I be social at him!" as a problem solving solution.

4 - As an example, games love using noir to highlight social situations. No sleight no noir, but the dynamics boil down to who is lying to who about what - it can make for a powerful _story_, but it does not tend to make for deeply fleshed out characters.

5 - Beyond the level of friction it represents, but that's a function of player comfort, not the specific system. If everyone at the table is comfortable with GURPS, for these purposes it's interchangeable with Risus or anything else. This is not an assertion that system doesn't matter, only that in this situation system is pretty far down the stack of things that matter.


  1. I think a romance rpg has to have the player create the romantic partner over time. And when the partner is fully defined as a character then the romance is complete.

    It begins with something small that attracts the character's attention. The gamemaster then starts adding obstacles that must be overcome, and as they are overcome the partner is rewarded with greater definition. But it is the player that provides that definition.

    I think very few people really know why romance works and this is the problem in gaming it (at least given the number of poleaxed expressions I've seen at weddings and proposals). They know that they have found it, but the why often escapes them, save in retrospective.

    And it is the predestination, this guarantee of eventual success, of achieving not just a happy ending but a glorious ending, that makes romance novels so attractive to their readers.

    In other games, I find it fun to remember that historically the arrows of Eros/Cupid were considered a curse rather than a blessing. Romantic love was the cause of more problems than happy endings.

    [Romance is, of course, quite distinct from seduction and sex, both of which are readily handled by most game systems.]

  2. That is a fantastic way to model it!

  3. I've ran games over text chat that heavily featured romance, however I'm very wary of bringing RP romance into face-to-face games. There are a few reasons for this.

    It's awkward for most people to role-play emotional attachment with a character when it's a another heterosexual guy RP'ing the prospective partner. Not usually something gaming buddies are comfortable exploring. However over a text medium it's easier to get lost in the imaginings of the character rather than be preoccupied by the player acting that character out.

    Even when it's a member of the opposite sex you're playing across from, there are some inconvenient questions arising from romantic gameplay... the line between flirting and RP can get blurry. Interestingly, it's been my experience that comfortable female GM's have less hangups initiating this sort of gameplay then guys.

    Anyhow, here's a point in-favor of a good social system that makes sense beyond the arbitrary "I be social":

    If the system can create justification why and the effects of how a given character feels about certain things in his life, this removes some of the awkwardness from playing out their attachment for that thing or person. As in all things, if the system is an impartial arbitrator that is sensical enough that all parties agree it's more or less correct, then it removes most of the trust issues between the GM and the players which I think is the root of my argument.

    Incidentally I've had some recent revelations on social systems that I really think could change the way gamers see them, I'll have to mention them to you sometime.

  4. So far, I have avoided jumping on the Kindle-waggon for a number of reasons. Your post has given me more cause for concern.

    Should you become a two Kindle house hold:
    1) Can two Kindles share the same account?
    2) If not, can you transfer purchases from the original account to the new account?
    2) Also, I wonder how long before we see the first divorce case where couples fight for custody of the digital bookshelf?


  5. @biff:

    We are a two-Kindle household. I like cheap genre fiction, and the Mrs. likes enormous David Foster Wallace doorstops. Both are ideally suited to the Kindle.

    We have both devices linked to one amazon account (mine). When you purchase a book from the Kindle itself, it automatically downloads to the purchasing device only. From the amazon.com site, you can send it to either device.

    On the device that did not download the book, the purchase still appears in the 'archived items' folder and can be downloaded to the second device as well.

  6. Ok, I had to buy a romance ebook for my nook. If Deb thinks it's worth reading, it must be more interesting than I thought most romance novels were.

  7. @Pym Be warned, it's a powerful crapshoot. There's good stuff in the market, and some really, really, really, really, profoundly terrible stuff.

    I should get a list from her at some point.

  8. First, Diana Gabaldon is awesome, and your wife is awesome for reading her works. The Outlander series, right?

    Second, [1] /is/ freaking brilliant. I don't know why more authors don't do things like that. I wish Jim Butcher knew about that. :-P

    Third, I half-agree with the "ham-fisted" comment, though I think it really depends on the purpose of the rules in the nature of the fiction. I mean, I think Burning Wheel has some excellent Social Combat stuff, but its goal is different from D&Ds Persuade.

    I don't have anything real to add, really. This comment is kind of useless. :-P


    p.s. Going to Origins this year?

  9. So far as "good stuff vs stuff to avoid" you can't go past sites like Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books -- where the good, versus the risibly bad are cheerfully reviewed.

    They are also a goldmine for stuff like links to parody videos of twilight, with Bella substituted for a cheeseburger...


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