Collaboration at the Table

Peter Brook’s excellent The Empty Space has been my reading of late. It’s a wonderful book on theater, but not wholly irrelevant to thinking about role-playing games, either. There are many parallels one can draw between gaming and other media—novels or short stories, plays, improv, movies, TV shows—and much to be gained from looking at media with longer critical traditions.

So, Brook has been talking about the problems with the various participants in an instance of theater. He has moved from the actors and directors through the audience and reached the writers. Audience and actors are clear enough roles in a role-playing game, and director is even relatively clear, but there’s an important sense in which there is no writer—or, to be more precise, no one author. Each participant takes on this role in some fashion at different times, even in the most GM-heavy game. So what does Brook have to say about group authorship?

… as, for example, when a group of actors and writers in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, wanting a play on Vietnam that did not exist, set out to make one, using techniques of improvisation and authorless invention to fill the vacuum. Group creation can be infinitely richer, if the group is rich, than the product of weak individualism—yet it proves nothing. There is eventually a need for authorship to reach the ultimate compactness and focus that collective work is almost obliged to miss.

Group creation can’t be as compact and focused as individually authored work!? Well, yeah. That doesn’t mean it’s not as good, because “good” needs to be defined under some metric. And the “good” we seek in a tabletop role-playing game is, I think, very different from the good we seek in a novel, or a play. We want not just a good resulting narrative, but also, probably more importantly, a good experience of play. If that can result in a good narrative, all the better.

This cuts directly at the heart of an idea I had been forming and playing with. In line with the “being awesome” idea expressed in Austin’s last post, it seems a good general principle to give players what they want—that’s part of the fun of a game. But some traditions of role-playing game design feel that we cannot trust players, and if allowed to have what they want, they’ll run rough-shod over all that is good and artistically meritorious in the game. Even if you don’t take that extreme a stance, there’s still some merit to making a game that makes the players want the right thing. This is very well-expressed in Dread, where the players want, out of narrative motivation, to pull from the tower, so that they can reach for that hope of escape. And this is the right thing for them to want, because it raises the tension as the tower gets more precarious, and brings everyone closer to the next horrific death.

But perhaps the right thing to want isn’t, intrinsically, the genre-appropriate good-story-making thing? Perhaps it’s “whatever’s most fun”? Well, here’s where I come full-circle. What’s most fun, at least to my mind, is a good and satisfying story, for the same reason I would watch a movie or read a book. Stories are fun. And that, dear readers, is why I sit down at the table to play.

So I am left trying unsuccessfully to resolve these two points: much of the fun I get from a role-playing game is the story, but a group creation is inevitably less focused and tight than an individually authored story. Not worse, as such, but certainly more diffuse.