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.

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  1. 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. []
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By now, I expect everyone who reads this has seen the recent XKCD, and read the hover text:

(For the record: the hover text says “Also, all financial analysis. And, more directly, D&D.”)

What do we make of this? There’s a lot of (I think fruitless) argument one could have back and forth over whether and how this applies. I think it’s pretty clear that it does apply, and that it isn’t a bad thing. We like narratives, and we like random things, and we like coupling them.

But what this really puts in my head is that many RPGs have something more than this: they have systems that couple not just the fiction to the RNG, but also couple the weights of the RNG to the fiction. And this, exactly, is why rightward-pointing arrows are that cool and worth talking about.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of L.A. Noire, which is a fantastic game. The most important part of the game is not the action sequences, not even the snooping for clues, but the interviews and interrogation. But sometimes it’s pretty clear how the conversations have a directed acyclic graph underlying them. Of course, there’s really no other option when coding an interactive scene in a video game, and it’s a good model. But what’s really exciting in a tabletop RPG is that, essentially, that graph is dynamically updated with each change you make in fiction, in response to every moment of creative insight and contribution you as a participant have.

These are awesome games, and I am so happy to be living in a time when they are exploding with diversity.

Now, there’s one thing in particular about them that’s hard to deal with, and that’ll be my next post. They take, quite frankly, a lot of energy, and the knowledge of and fear of that energy can provide a barrier to play. I won’t write more about this now, but I will say thanks to Alex P. for putting the question of how to deal with that in my head. I’m working on some ideas.

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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.

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