July 22, 2005

City of IF

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 5:23 pm

I just finished reading a fantasy novella titled The Archer’s Flight. As the book’s introduction notes, it was the result of an unusual process:

It was serialized, appearing in seventeen chapters over a year’s time, but that’s not what’s unusual about it. It was published on the Web, but that’s not the unusual part either. What is unusual (and as far as I know, unique) is that this story’s readers chose the actions of its main character. Each published chapter ended in some dilemma for the protagonist, Deica; the audience collectively decided what she would do (via posting and voting on a web site), and their decision led to the next chapter. This was not a group of writers offering advice on what would make the best story; rather, the readers took on Deica’s role, as they would in improvisational theater or a roleplaying-type game. They decided what they would do if they were her.

Mark Keavney is both the author of The Archer’s Flight and the originator of the method used for its creation. He calls this method “storygaming” and describes it in detail in his essay “The City of IF Story.

Keavney started out as a traditional tabletop RPG gamer, but grew dissatisfied. His goal in originating storygaming was to find a way to preserve much of what he valued in such games but avoid some of what he saw as their weaknesses. On one level storygaming is simply a method, which he describes as follows:

Author creates chapter – The storygame author creates the first chapter of a story. The chapter ends at a “decision point,” where the main character has a chance to take some significant action. For example, in a fairy tale genre story, an initial episode might describe how a fisher-boy out on the sea encounters a talking swan who asks him to take her into his boat.

Players suggest actions – Next, the storygame players take the viewpoint of the character (the same character for everyone) and suggest what the character should do. In the example above, the players might invent and debate different options, such as taking the swan into the boat, leaving her in the water, asking her what she will give him if he helps her, etc.

Author creates options – From the pool of suggestions, the author chooses a few of the most popular and interesting possibilities to be voted on.

Players vote – The players vote on the options. The winning action becomes the basis for the next chapter, and the cycle begins again. If the players had decided to take the swan into the boat, for example, the author might write another chapter in which the fisher-boy takes the swan home and shows it to his mother, who is angry that he hasn’t caught any fish and sends the boy to bed without any supper. The next decision point might then be what the boy does when locked in his room.

In section 4 of his essay he describes his first experiences with this method, working with a small group of invited participants:

Over the next six months, I told the beginning of the story that would eventually become “The Archer’s Flight” (now a published novella). It was the story of Deica, a human girl raised in a village of centaurs, who grows up an outcast because of her strange form.

For the first few chapters, nothing too unusual happened. This activity was new to everyone and the players were still feeling out what to do and how to play, but I was impressed by the quality of the suggestions and by the players’ ability to post them in-character. The story progressed through Deica’s teenage years where she secretly learned archery from her grandfather to an important turning point where her village was threatened by a great serpent. The villagers had beseeched a local hero for help; Deica’s grandfather and the other village elders were meeting with him and his soldiers the next day. The decision point was what Deica would do.

I was looking forward to the suggestions, because the situation offered a good dramatic conflict and a rich set of options. Deica was proficient with the bow and could be a real help against the serpent, but the centaurs wouldn’t normally let a girl (let alone a “deformed” one) take part in a battle like this. Would she plead with her grandfather to stand up for her? Would she crash the meeting and show the centaurs how well she could shoot? Would she secretly tag along behind when they went hunting the serpent? I had already thought about the different ways the centaurs might react and was planning ahead to the finale, when Deica would join the battle against the serpent and (presumably) fire the decisive shot.

And then one of the players suggested that Deica disguise herself as a boy and run off to the big city, and the other players voted for that suggestion. The suggestion was perfectly appropriate: Deica was adventurous, she felt alienated from the village, and from an early childhood experience she had a special reason to be afraid of serpents. It was also completely unexpected. Suddenly I had to write the next chapter about Deica’s travels to the big city, and I had no idea what the city would be like, what she would do there, or how I could possibly tie this back to the huge loose end of the serpent attacking her village. All my plans for the story were going awry.

And I loved it – because this was what I’d experienced in roleplaying games: that no one knew where the story was going, but we were going there together. I happily cast aside my plans and started to make new ones. And for me, that was the moment storygaming was born.

This was so successful that Keavney threw open the doors of his site, hoping to give birth to a wide, vibrant storygaming community. Instead, what momentum there was seemed to dissipate. It became clear that storygaming didn’t work as a method on its own — it worked as a method in the context of a certain kind of community (much as is the case with tabletop RPGs):

In the fall of 2004, I had some conversations with a few new members about my plans for the site. I realized from these conversations that I had things backwards. I had been thinking of the site as a place to storygame. I’d assumed that if I provided a compelling storygame experience, everything else would follow, including an online community. But the members, even those who were enjoying the storygaming, were asking me what else there was to do at the site. To them, Interfable was a gathering place for a community, and storygaming was just one thing that the community did. And so the way I thought about the site underwent a profound shift: I started thinking of it as an online community first, and a place to storygame second.

Once I made that leap, I started adding to the site things that didn’t directly affect the storygaming, but that the community needed (and asked for): recognition of achievement, places to gather, the chance for members to contribute in their own way. I shared responsibility for running the site with the members, appointing a “City Council” to help moderate forums. Together we created new forums where players could bounce around ideas, write their own storygames, or just have conversations; we created site ranks based on number of forum posts to reward the players who were most active; we instituted a contest for the best New Storygame of the Month. We also added a chat room, which may have been the biggest change: now for the first time members could actually have conversations. Finally, in March 2005, I moved the site to a new domain that better matched the new site identity: it was no longer Interfable; it was now the City of IF.

These changes led to huge site growth. Once I gave members the ability to create their own topics, they rushed to post storygame ideas, give feedback on other’s stories, and post general conversational topics (one of the longest threads on the site today is titled “How old is everyone?”) Traffic levels rose by a factor of four over a few months.

Even more important from my point of view, the quality of the storygaming improved. Once the players got to know each other, they were much more active in the storygames. They debated and built on each other’s suggestions. They declared and explained their votes, trying to sway others to vote the same way. Conversations started taking place, whereas before the storygame topics were just a series of suggestions. This made the storygaming itself more compelling, which in turn built the community.

This sort of insight is what interests me about the storygaming project. Keavney had an idea, tried it out on a small scale, tried it out on a larger scale, revised it, and now has something with which he’s happy (though, at the end of his essay, he also reveals next-stage ambitions). What he learned in the process was that the kind of activity that interests him could not build a community by itself and could not exist successfully without being embedded in an appropriate community. This kind of fact can be disguised when we do our only testing with small groups of participants that we’ve recruited — or when we do no testing at all, and instead argue for our design ideas entirely from a theoretical stance.

As for The Archer’s Flight itself, I enjoyed it. But I also was a bit disappointed when I reached the end. It’s novella-length, but somehow has the feeling of being the first few chapters of something much longer. Of course, that longer thing may be the complex of storygames set in the same world that are found on the City of IF site, which I haven’t yet begun to dip into. In any case, I was willing to forgive The Archer’s Flight its brevity, and, instead of simply seeing it as a story, also view it as a document that shows what can grow from Keavney’s approach. However, frustratingly, there’s no easy way to access the “game” portion of this “storygame.” I’d expected Keavney’s book to have, perhaps as an appendix in the back, a description of the storygame’s decision points and how the eventual outcome was reached (as in the excerpt about the dragon attack above). But there’s no material like this in the book, and there are no accessible links to the original storygame from the City of IF website itself.

All that said, I think Keavney’s project is certainly a useful one for us to consider here. To that end I’ve invited him to share his thoughts with us on GTxA. He is one of the few people I know who has, over the course of years and without financial support, publicly scaled up an idea for a new form to an extent that provides meaningful results.