It’s an ineffable quality. I think of it as traction, or grabbiness. It’s that quality that makes you just want to play something, and not just want to, but to know what you need to do in play. This character has to do this, to want this. This situation needs to explode in this fashion.
Imagine for a moment that your brain is a pseudo-random-number generator. Presented with a blank page, it will produce more or less the same results. A great way to spark creativity is to give yourself something other than the same blank white page to start with. A great way to stifle creativity is to start with something complete. You want some suggestive marks, but nothing excessive.
I’m going to talk about this in the context of character creation systems, since that’s what we’ve been talking about here of late. Any game with a pre-defined setting takes the first step to marking the page. Some games can carry it further. Lifepath-like systems are one option. You see this in Smallville and Burning Wheel, and a related system in FATE, characters go through phases, in which you must decide certain aspects of their history and thus their state at the beginning of the game. It’s a gentle way to lead you through thinking about who your character is, and to help you make mechanical choices in the process.
Leverage gives an interesting alternative approach, which Rob Donoghue alluded to a few weeks ago. You define just the broadest details of your character—at about the level of a character’s class in D&D. The rest you define in play. We’ve just recently played this game, and found it quite interesting. It did definitely require some adjustment though, and a clear image of what you wanted before you went in.
This is a lesson we’re learning about. In a Dragon-Guarded Land is a game full of blank pages, and if you do it wrong, nothing to push off of. There’s no mathematical optimizing available in a character, so there’s no concern, like there is in Shadowrun, that you’re making a strictly-worse character. Instead, all of the choices in character creation are essentially about narrative positioning—what situations you want your character to excel in, what buttons of theirs you want pushed. This makes character creation surprisingly hard, in a fashion that might be improved with something like FATE‘s phases, something to guide you. Of course, setting and guided character creation aren’t necessarily enough; it takes a bit of time to learn how to make a fun character with strong motivations to play in The Shab-al-Hiri Roach. But they certainly help.
This is an important difference between playing a story-game and writing a novel: a game should give you things to push off of, to get some traction. It may or may not want to tell you which way to go when you push off, but it should at least give you some suggestive marks on the page.