Roll for Creativity Check

Written by . Posted at 12:28 am on June 8th, 2011

I haven’t written on my blog in a while. I apologize. I’m certain all of my loyal readers would be filling my inbox with inquisitive messages as to my well-being if we weren’t already friends on Facebook.

I suppose that isn’t entirely the truth. I have a few blogs in the old “pending” queue that I’ll probably never post. Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m thinking when I write these. Yet here I am again.

Occasionally, finding something to write about is hard. It’s not just time constraints or other projects, although that’s part of it, but sometimes its a struggle to think of something that I care enough about to actually attack with the keyboard. Luckily, some of those other projects encourage creativity to help keep that part of my brain at least somewhat pumping.

As a tabletop gamer, I’m not ashamed to admit that I play my fair share of Role Playing Games (RPGs). Laugh if you want to, because RPGs are moving geek into the mainstream like never before. Thanks to the popularity of World of Warcraft and other RPG-based video games—which trace their roots directly back to Gary Gygax and D&D—the idea of spending an evening pretending to be a mace-and-spell-wielding Cleric is no longer relegated to the typical stereotypes of unwashed bodies in stuffy rooms with pimple-faced virgins.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to act as Game Master for a Gamma World campaign with my best friend and our wives. There aren’t too many games, video or otherwise, that allow you to play as a mutated Cockroach that can kill a yak from 100 feet away—with mind bullets! I didn’t write the campaign; I went to the forums at Wizards of the Coast website and found a pre-written romp titled “Scales & Salvage” by Caoimhe Ora Snow. A lot of fighting and action, some story, a very “4th edition D&D” feel overall, all making a good primer.

This past week, I signed up to help out with Free RPG Day at my closest Friendly Local Game Store, running a game of “Laser Squid Nemesis” for a group. I also used the store’s online message boards to find a group interested in running a game of Pathfinder. The group was looking for a Game Master as well, so I volunteered. While there are a wide selection of pre-made Pathfinder campaigns, the cost for a full series (if you go that route) can be intimidating.

Instead, I’m opting to write my own campaign based on an existing country in the Pathfinder Mythos. I want to be creative, but at the same time its been long enough since I attempted to do any world-building that I don’t trust that I could successfully build a convincing world and an entertaining campaign.

For the uninitiated or unaware, a standard RPG campaign is a flexible story, similar to one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we loved as kids, but more customizable. It involves background, a solid reason for your players to be where they are doing what they’re doing, reasons for your players’ characters to continue down the path toward the final goal, entertaining your players, and all while trying to balance the three basic player motivations*: 1) Action, 2) Intellect, and 3) Social Interaction. Action refers to things like combat and fast-paced narration and interaction with players. Intellect usually involves some type of mystery or puzzles that challenges the players mentally and gets them to think, which adds to the submersion aspect of RPGs since they are solving things with their own minds and not rolls of the dice. Last is Social Interaction, which includes “geeking out” that typically involves Monty Python quotes and Firefly episode discussions, and in-character interaction, like when your Half-Elf Rogue needs to communicate to the party Dwarf Fighter that he is about to step in a carefully-hidden trap. I realize this doesn’t help the stereotype, but it is what it is.

Last, as I mentioned above, a campaign has to be flexible. I can’t reiterate that enough. You simply never know what your players will do with the story you’ve given them. Before the campaign starts, have an ending in mind, plan out how the characters could (and I stress “could” rather than “should” or “will”) reach the final big reveal, and get ready to narrate and adapt to everything in between. There are tricks for helping to keep your players on a tight leash, but that’s a topic for another day.

I have to admit, as a professional developer, I don’t get many chances to use this side of my creativity. The creativity I get to use in my job is creative problem-solving, something I also enjoy, but it doesn’t give me the same feeling that writing or drawing does. Last Thursday night, my wife and I went to see X-Men: First Class. We showed up early to get good seats, and while waiting for the previews to start, we spent the time talking about major plot points for the Pathfinder campaign. I came up with a solid reason for the characters to be in the country my story takes place in, a motivation for them to pursue the quest, and a plot device that would help make things extra interesting and provide good reason why the events shaping their world were happening.

I thought I had a pretty good plot, something intriguing, something that would grab the players’ attention and keep them coming back for more. The problem came the next day when I was on my way to work and realized I had just rehashed the plot of The War of Souls by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Obviously it wasn’t on purpose, probably just my subconscious digging through some images and plots in my head that have stuck with me, but now what? Do I keep going or am I back to square one?

One of the great things about RPGs is that the point is not to “win.” Unlike board games, there isn’t always a pre-defined “win condition.” Instead, those of us who enjoy RPGs often feel that if you’re having fun, you’re winning. Playing RPGs starts the creative juices flowing, often by combining creative problem-solving with creative narration and a bit of imagination. Writing campaigns bumps up those skills even more by requiring the author to create the puzzles, the challenges, and the story for the players before they ever sit down at a game table and roll dice.

Authors, artists, and musicians often strike on similar themes or “borrow” from the work of others and re-tool them into something with more of their own “signature.” It’s not plagiarism, it’s just impossible to avoid being influenced when you’re constantly reading, listening, and watching. I shouldn’t have to give up on the ideas I really like if I’m flexible enough with the other plot points and can re-write everything into a story arc that only slightly represents a story I read 10 years ago. Even if I end up scrapping the campaign to avoid having players feel like we’re replaying the books because I’m a huge fanboy (which I’m not, they were good but I didn’t remember a lot of the details until I looked them up on Wikipedia), I’ll still work on flexing my creative muscles and have fun working on it.

And in the end, that’s a win.

*Three basic player motivations are based on GNS Theory by Ron Edwards (see article in link) and re-presented by Tracy and his son Curtis Hickman in X-Treme Dungeon Mastery (illustrated by Howard Tayler).

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