February 9, 2008
As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, one of the goals that Pat Harrigan and I had for Second Person was to provide a set of writings that take tabletop games seriously. This means seeing them not just as computer game incunabula, but looking carefully at their structures, experiences, and histories.
Now these essays are becoming part of the First Person thread on electronic book review. This release includes full-length essays by Will Hindmarch, Rebecca Borgstrom, and James Wallis:
- “Storytelling Games as a Creative Medium “ by Will Hindmarch. This essay takes as its starting points White Wolf’s seminal storytelling RPG, Vampire (in its various editions), and Greg Costikyan’s famous argument that games and narrative are opposed (also revisited by Costikyan in his Second Person essay). He argues that the “key to maintaining player freedom in a storytelling game is the abandonment of expectation” combined with the crafting of context. See also Hindmarch’s note on gameplaywright.
- “Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design” by Rebecca Borgstrom. In an essay shaped both by her work in the tabletop RPG field and her background as a computer scientist, Borgstrom analyzes the “Traits,” “Character Creation,” and “Magic” chapters of a sourcebook for White Wolf’s Exalted line, The Fair Folk. She argues that each “datum provided by a role-playing game is a trade-off between lost possibility — the stories you can no longer tell — and structure, which helps tell the stories that remain.”
- “Making Games That Make Stories” by James Wallis. He points out that, in “the ongoing debates about storytelling and narrative in [computer] games, the various commentators often overlook a key point: even in the most cutting-edge examples of the state of the art, it is not the players who tell the story, it is the game.” He then describes and analyzes a number of games that use the creation and telling of stories, by the players, as an integral part of play — including Dark Cults, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Once Upon a Time, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Pantheon. See also Wallis’s note on COPE.
Next are five shorter contributions outlining specific aspects of innovative play and story structures:
- “Design Decisions and Concepts in Licensed Collectible Card Games” by Eric Lang (with Pat Harrigan), outlines some of the design challenges in creating games from two rather divergent literary licenses: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the Cthulhu Mythos developed by H. P. Lovecraft and game publisher Chaosium.
- “One Story, Many Media” by Kevin Wilson, describes the work of developing board games from licensed properties, with an eye toward story, from the narrative universe of Cthulhu and the very different game form of Doom.
- “On Mystery of the Abbey“ by Bruno Faidutti, discusses a game like Clue set in a world like The Name of the Rose, and argues “there is no ‘first’ and ‘second’ between game systems and game setting, but that when the design flows well, as I like it to flow, systems and theme regularly generate each other in a dialectic process.”
- “Creating a Meaning-Machine: The Deck of Stories Called Life in the Garden“ by Eric Zimmerman, describes an “interactive paper book” of card-like pages that can create a wide variety of elliptical stories about the biblical Garden of Eden.
- “On Life’s Lottery“ by Kim Newman, discusses a different kind of interactive book — using the familiar structures of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” as a way to let readers guide a character, Keith, from birth to a number of possible outcomes.
Finally, Jan Van Looy offers a riposte — “Dungeons, Dragons & Numerals” — in response to Erik Mona’s essay from the previous release. He argues that Mona is insufficiently attentive to the ways in which the first tabletop RPG is “very much a product of its time, depicting the world as a market and man as an uomo economicus.”