Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Let the Dice Fall Where They May

I've always tried to make games into stories. My chess game is erratic because I automatically think in terms of what the queen or knight would choose to do rather than what is strategically the best move. When I play Risk, I tend to roll well in North Africa, for example, which I attribute to that space harboring General Rommel, who is on my side. (Oddly, nobody ever thinks to deploy General Patton against me.)

Most board games, alas, are not amenable to this treatment. When I discovered role-playing games - by which I always mean real, free-form games played with other people, not computer games - I took to them at once, because the whole point of them is to play a character and create, as part of the social group of players and GM, a story in the genre of the game. My fondness for Sims is rooted in the same tendency. One reason I play Sims2 and doubt I will ever play Sims3 is that 3 has no storytelling tool.

The experience of story creation in game format, however, is very different from that of writing one. One of the most fun things about the game/story format is that the creator is not in control. No one likes a "railroad GM," one whose story is set down to run on rails and will work out roughly the same regardless of how the dice roll and what choices the players make. Sit down any bunch of gamers and start them telling their "war stories," and time after time you'll get hear about crucial dice rolls falling at an extreme - the natural 20 rolled by the least powerful party member that saved them all, the critical fumble by a key character that resulted in a Total Party Kill, the failed saving throw that changed everything.

Recently we had one of those failed saves in our group, which resulted in the party rogue succumbing to a magic-induced psychosis and plotting to assassinate the entire party. The player hated it, but as an honest player he played it out, laying a plan that should have worked and, if it had, would have required a complete rethink of the game and new characters all round, probably with the insane character as a major nuisance villain. Only a miraculous series of successful saving throws and the rogue's underestimation of the party cleric prevented this; and now we get to play out the change in the relationship between the now-cured and wildly remorseful rogue and the friends he turned on. Similarly, in recent Sims games the unexpected birth of twins, an alien abduction, and a lightning strike fire that killed a teen on the verge of college have thrown my expectations for the neighborhood into a cocked hat. I am left scrambling to adjust my responses to the new realities and relationships. This is all to the good.

Sometimes, I wish mainstream story forms relied more on dice. Last night I mistimed cooking dinner and had to be in the kitchen for large chunks of the second episode of Terra Nova, but I couldn't feel that as a hardship. Damon didn't have to fill me in on the parts I missed, because it was clear from what was going on when I came into the room what had happened in the interim since I left it. The design of the plot spread out before us like a map. A familiar map; not drawn well enough (though the dinosaurs are pretty good; but I prefer mammalian megafauna to dinos) to hold my attention on aesthetic grounds. It desperately needed a failed saving throw or a critical fumble or a natural twenty rolled by a character which the staging had earmarked as a mere secondary.

It's not that I have spoiled the show for myself by understanding the structure of the one-hour TV show and the genre conventions of science fiction. I understand the structure and genre conventions of the puzzle mystery, too, yet I can read and reread Agatha Christie's and Dorothy L. Sayers's work endlessly, caught up in the sheer pleasure of their execution.

We are all sophisticated critics these days. We may not be able to articulate them, but we know about The Hero's Journey, three-act structure, and of course the TV tropes. We apply them without thinking - and that's our problem, not when viewing, but when creating.

What we've got to do, when creating, is recreate the sensation of the critical fumble, the natural twenty, and the random lightning strike for the reader. This may or may not entail recreating it for yourself. Ideally we are in full control of our material and balance the element of unpredictability with the necessary structure and coherence that fiction (and for that matter narrative non-fiction) requires. But we don't live in an ideal world. Your first draft may be a major structural mess. You may not know until the final scene that a gun needs to be lying on the mantel in the first scene. You may be on the fifth draft before you realize that your narrator cannot be your protagonist. You may be find yourself casually writing a line like "Bean'd jump off a cliff if I asked him to" and only then realize that your heroine needs to ask her faithful steed to jump off a cliff in the climax.

It doesn't matter; not as long as everything's in place in the version the reader sees.

No comments:

Post a Comment