Do you write? Even if you don’t, you know about it because writers write about it. You sit down, intending to write, and instead just stare at that blank page for a while. You get up, clean the kitchen. You sit back down. If you’re like me, you realize that there’s a problem on your server that you need to work on before you think you can write. You go and do that. You come back to the page. It stares at you, all the cleaning and playing with server configuration having failed to magically make the page not-blank.
Sure, every writer has their tricks, their ways of making that page stop being so damn blank. But what do we have as role-players? If you think one person alone in front of a pad of paper has enough distractions, imagine a room full of people all trying to find ways to distract themselves from the blank page that they’re all collectively staring at.1
But we all want to play. We just need somewhere to start. As I see it, we have two options for kickstarting play: tropes and system.
I’ll start with tropes. The chief comes to your desk saying that there’s a probable homicide at 28th and Vine, hop to it. A bounty is posted and everyone seeking fame and fortune set out to claim it. Your characters are all drinking away their last adventure in a tavern and a mysterious hooded stranger approaches you with an offer.
We’ve all played these before, but we don’t really know where each of them will go. They are conventional beginnings in the meta-genre of role-playing games. It’s important to the nature of an RPG that no one know where the game will end when it begins, so the writerly trick of thinking about the ending of the story first isn’t very useful, and these sorts of conventional beginnings help fill the gap.
But these can get tiring. I remember how, when playing D&D in high school, almost every game began with an offer to escort a merchant and his goods through dangerous woods. We didn’t even vary the terrain! And this is a problem with conventional beginnings—they become their own kind of blank page. You know the set up, you know the start, but what you lack is a spark of something different and interesting to make the game sing, make the story stand out in your memory.
So, can system offer us something better? Of course, I have a bit of a vested interest in saying yes. I want it to be true. But I think that there are plenty of examples of games that do this well. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco is a great example, of course—it’s easy to slip into playing it without quite realizing, since it provides a compelling system for spattering some suggestive blotches on the blank page and asking you to start filling in the shapes. I think that a lot of Vincent Baker’s games do this, to a degree, too, by providing an answer to the question of “what do I do now?” from the beginning of character creation seamlessly through into actual play.
This is, to my mind, a major reason for group character creation, especially in the story-games model where it’s strictly required. It encourages an interwoven and unstable situation, which does everything but set the opening scene for you. But even if the game you’re playing doesn’t do this, there are ways to make people want to jump in, want to see and play and experience their characters in action. Once you have that, people will put aside their laptops, stop arguing over whether the Daleks still present a credible threat, and start to play.
Take, as an example, the start of The Big Lebowski. Whatever you think about this movie, it undeniably has a clean, simple, and powerful beginning. One man is mistaken for another, some thugs pee on his rug, and he goes to seek reparations from the other Lebowski. What’s going on there? There’s a platform established, quickly and with reference to well-known stereotypes and tropes, which is then upset in a way that gives the basic pieces of a story: the main character now has a want and an obstacle. That’s all you need to start with. So ask people to think of what they want and why they can’t get it. If your system doesn’t help you answer these questions, there’s always the greatest resort of all storytellers through time: steal shamelessly from other stories. The more you steal from, the more your ideas will take on a distinctive life of their own, too.2
- And yet of course, we do play, and love it. But sometimes, and you all know what I’m talking about, it’s really hard to start playing. [↩]
- In my favorite game of Promethean: the Created, the initial situation was a bizarre child of The Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men and any number of stories about looking for a parent-figure. It made itself into something distinct. [↩]