the Fairgame Archive

2006-03-27: The novel rpg
by Emily

This kind of follows on Meg's post about storytelling & myth, looking at stories and their structures and complexities. I want to talk about types of stories, narrative length, narrative form and translating from one to another.

By narrative forms I mean how the narrative is presented: written word, moving pictures, role played.  Role playing is really a wierd bastard child of acting and storytelling, but I'll set that aside for another time since we could easily argue all night about just that. : )

Short and Long Stories

So what about narrative length? If we look at narratives within a single form we can see that certain stories take longer to tell: a short story vs. a novella vs. a true novel and on up to multiple volume series etc. The shorter the framework, the more compact the elements. I dearly want to say "the less complex", but I'm sure that we could find many exceptions: short stories by faulkner that blow novels by "insert-bad-sci-fi-writer-here" out of the water and what not. I'm talking about general trends.

Given a short story, there are just so many elements that will fit in a narrative. So many characters, so many plot arcs, so many degrees of depth of concepts/setting elements and action that will fit comfortably.  If you try to fit the cast of War and Peace into a 101 word short story, you will be sadly disappointed. Or even if you bring them all into a medium length novella, just introducing their stories and issues would probably take all the space you have, so they would never be resolved, never be fulfilled. It would likely suck, in short.

The Conversion Factor

This issue comes up quite a lot when translating a story from one form to another.  Folks in Hollywood love to adapt books(gives you a proven market and all that). But the narrative space in film is way less than that of a novel.  Many of the best films adapted
from books are adapted from short novels, or novellas.  Hence, African Queen, Stand by Me, and Maltese Falcon. The amount of narrative meat in stories this long are just about right for a 2+ hour movie.  Any longer than this and, as any good screenwriter student will tell you, you have to adapt out lots of elements: focus on the primary plot arcs, take out extraneous locations and scenes,composite characters whose issues overlap into one to give the greatest narrative wallop for your time and money's worth.

This is part of the reason for the success of long-running continuity-heavy series like Buffy, Babylon 5 and tons of others now. A single episode of a television show doesn't have enough time to really allow you to develop any stories of real interest. If the characters will end up just how they were at the start, how much can really be said in between? You have to erase all the good stuff you did, or make it have not impact on the characters.(Some shows, like Simpsons & South park transcended these bounds by commenting on them & playing with the form.) But if you allow the characters to develop over time, in meaningful ways, you can build a narrative of similar complexity & interest to a novel in film format, but you need time & space to do so.

And on to RPG

So, now what about role playing?  Many of the indie games that have been written in the last 2-3 years are very good at the short to medium length campaign.  My Life with Master seems best for 1-3 sessions. Dogs seems good for a run of 4-8 sessions. Polaris and the Mountain Witch, perhaps the same or slightly shorter. YMMV. Sorcerer, Burning Wheel & The Shadow of Yesterday are set up for longer term.  So what's the conversion for them? Looking at written fiction as a standard, how much narrative is fitting into these different games? Are they suited to short-stories, novellas, novels, what?

Breaking the Ice, Under the Bed: definite short-story level games. 1—2 characters (remember, the protagonist in UtB is the child, not the toys), one issue that gets resolved, only the aspects of the world that relate directly to the events of the plot are fleshed out. A bite sized story.

Then we have novella length games—My Life with Master is the perfect example. It is an adaptation into rpg format the Frankenstein's monster story which began as a short book, and has been made into a film countless times.  Again, it's the resolution of the issues surrounding 1 character (the Master) as reflected and played out by the minions & their struggle to overcome it. It's very analogous to the search for the falcon in the Maltese falcon—there are many characters but they are tightly bound together in their quest for the bird. In both, the story is tight & satisfying.

Next is the full-length novel. Too much for a movie without serious revision (eg no Tom Bombadill in Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring etc), but well suited to a mini-series (eg the 2000 version of Dune done on tv—not perfect, but much closer to the book than the Lynch film).  Between this and the novella is where most of the recent crop of indie games fall. Dogs, Capes, Mountain Witch, With Great Power, Polaris, Primetime Adventures. Each orchestrates solid exploration of the issues of several characters.  The stories of the characters interweave to make a narrative that is has more dimension than the single issue of a novella. Each player brings a character that has a sizable narrative punch.

What's still missing

A big difference here though is that, still, the focus of the world creation is still very close to the bounds of the characters. There are depths to a novel, even a short one, that an a film or an a rpg has to go a long way to reach.  Brazil & Delicatessen are films that begin to have the establishment of world & setting that can be found in your garden variety novel. In standard rpg, the setting materials provided with the text allow you to have that kind of experience—if you take the time to read them. In my experience, that mattered if enough of the players were invested in bringing the world in to actual play. If it was part of setting, but only the gm was really invested in it, our experience of the setting remained flat & one-dimensional.

The other issue is that characters develop over time & in novels or series they move from one set of problems & interest to others. Look at the hobbits from LotR. Frodo begins with the black riders & the chase as his main issue, with the ring as the motivating factor but a fairly side issue day to day—to the end, where the act of putting one foot in front of the other is embattled by the weight of the ring, and his final issue is whether he still has the strength of will to be able to fulfill his mission: and fails. Games like The Shadow of Yesterday & Sorcerer that allow you to cash in your keys & build a new kicker, have that kind of long-term issue-resolution-and-development built in. Capes & With Great Power are set up to do this too, which makes sense since they are adapted from another classic long-running narrative form: the comic book.

Where we're going

So, I'm looking forward to having not only novella level games to play, but novel & series level role playing narratives that I can really sink my teeth into and chew for a long time. There are games brewing that look like they've got this kind of potential. Galatic & Shock: come to mind. I'm looking at what would make this possible in my games & I know it just isn't there in several of them (Shooting the Moon is another short-story game, looks like city of the moon is going to be novella-novel length. I've got hopes for my sci-fi game, Sign in Stranger: the scale of issues will start small (figuring out how to get food that won't kill you in your new neighborhood on an alien planet) and escalate on up to dealing with issues of assimilation and then on into interplanetary or interspecies conflict that the characters are caught up in. Face of Angels has scale escalation like that, so I should be sure to take a look at it.

But what I also miss from my long-term, pervy free-form days is the depth of detail and elucidation of the setting and world around the characters.  The descriptions of the rolling hills of the Rohan lands may be the passages that people skip in The Two Towers, but what would those books be without the rocky, blasted landscape of Mordor, and the eerie lights and spectral faces in the paths of the dead? Or the love of the hobbits for their beer and their homes, and the elves for the fading glory of the Valar. We've got the tools to get everyone writing & scripting compelling character plotlines & arcs, now I'm itching to play games that get us all in the act filling in the world & using those broader swathes of story elements to create something altogether novel.

2006-03-27 19:55:22 Brand_Robins

The cyclical nature of development patterns has often been a subject of mild fascination to me.

Fantasy started off, in a real way, with novels and novellas. William Morris, Henry Haggard, and Dunsany all worked in novels. (Dunsany also did short fiction and prose-poetry, but King of Elflands Daughter was probably more influential in the early period.) They developed much of the form, and with the density of Morris and Dunsany a lot of the baroque, towering imagery as well.

Then along comes the American wave of Weird Tales and the big three: Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard. By the time Howard died the static imagery and romantic ideals of the earlier (English) writers had been hammered out flat dead. Weird Tales also made fantasy (or at least Swords and Sorcery, though the full differentiation of the two is partly in response to the change) a genre of short stories.

After that we get back to the novels, again with an English flavor. We get Peake, Lewis, and then Tolkien doing new and exciting things. They return the novel form and the romantic sensibility, though often with a darker and more realist tinge. They create elaborate worlds, and in Tolkiens case actually spend more time making the world than making the stories.

While the fame of Tolkien is spreading we still have lots of folks doing good work in short stories and novella format. Leiber and Morecock and other Brits are still working in pulps, and pushing boundaries and furthering the short, harsh form that Howard pioneered.

The Americans are still writing novels, but we're getting lots of energy and focus and people pushing into new territory. Le Guin, Beagle, Norton, and Vance all did things that (while now old hat) were interesting in their day.

And then Tolkien goes and fucks it all up. Lord of the Rings becomes so synonymous with fantasy in the eyes of many fans (who were brought into the genre by it) that much of the rest of the genre dies on the vine. After folks like Terry Brooks codified the genre and form in Tolkien's image, the fundamental force of "selling fantasy" becomes the BFT—the Big Fat Trillogy. Fantasy is no longer even a novel form, it is a series of long books filled with fat form.

Jordan, Donaldson, Kurtz, Salvatore (ug) and Martin and others would come to dominate this mode of the fantasy novel, becoming some of the highest selling fantasy authors ever. However, in the current scene there is also a lot of rumbling. A lot of fantasy fans remember (or have discovered) the old days of the short story, of Howards reckless pacing and brutal simplicity, of Dunsany's stateliness and Smith's oddity—and the call for shorter, harder, faster stories is starting to grow.

Maybe, when combined with long tail publication models, it will even grow into something rich and strange. There have been internet mags of short-fantasy that have risen and fallen quickly over the last few years: some of which have even had some larger market influence. Short fan-fic also is stirring interest in shorter forms, and big name anthology collaborations have started selling books full of short stories again. And the graphic novel market and the writers who cross over there from (Gamien, especially) have started shifting the waters again even in mainstream publishing.

The thing about this that I find most interesting is the way that it compares against and informs the (much shorter) history of fantasy RPGing. We have a distributed and often eclectic early age, moving through periods of consolidation under a banner (TSR rather than Weird) and then over-domination by a single form and fixation on Tolkien and long, trilogy like forms (much of post-Dragonlance fantasy), followed by a period of fringist experimentation (the Forge, a few other pioneers) amidst a market flooded by the BFG (too many to list) and a lot of underground rumbling leading to a long-tail marketing movement of the fringe to different forms.

In this area, however, I think we may have outstripped the fantasy fiction market. Mostly by virtue of being smaller and fringier, and thus having less mass-market bulk to move. Thanks to folks like Ron (Robert E Howard), Ben (Dunsany), and Borgstrom (Clark Ashton Smith) we've seen a shift in fantasy RPGs to different forms—at least out in the tail end. We've gotten back to the short story and have gotten good at it in a very short span of time.

Not to mention that we've also had some people break us out of the fantasy mold. One of the things I didn't talk a lot about above was the non-fantasy influences that all the writers above brought to the field: much to its enrichment. (Lovecraft brought horror, Howard the western, Tolkien brought Blake, etc.) When genres break down and accept input from other streams is often when you get the best new movements. And as we've had our Barry Hughart (Timothy), our Mary Stewart (Emily), and our Bruce Sterling (Joshua AC) I think we're at a point where our non-genre modes are starting to get to full functionality as well.

So now I'm all hot to see what we can bring to the novel when we return to it, what fresh eyes will bring us.

2006-03-28 01:34:57 droog

I was just reading this the other night, and I wonder about its application to what you're talking about:

"Now, with Tolkien, that history and geography already existed in his writings before The Lord of the Rings. But in my fantasies, I have often mentioned events or places which I didn't yet know anything about ??? for example, some of the later exploits of Ged mentioned early in A Wizard of Earthsea. These were, when I wrote them, merely words ??? "empty" nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were. And this indeed happened. . .

In the same way, I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn't know anything about each island till I "went to" it.

Then there is detail. The more realistic, exact, "factual" detail in a fantasy story, the more sensually things and acts are imagined and described, the more plausible the world will be. After all, it is a world made entirely of words. Exact and vivid words make an exact and vivid world.

The fantasy writer must "believe in" the world she is creating, not in the sense of confusing it in any way with the actual bodily world, but in the sense of giving absolute credence to the work of the imagination ??? dwelling in it while writing, and trusting it to reveal itself."

2006-03-28 14:09:45 Emily

Brand, that was awesome.

We've gotten back to the short story and have gotten good at it in a very short span of time.

Yes, you're completely right. It is no mean accomplishment to have gotten the short form right.

Though, of course what we're doing is something wierder & even more interesting: creating the conditions for people to make their own fiction in each of these veins. Not performative, not consumable really by anyone other than the participants, but I know I've had some of my best fiction experiences in the last year while playing role playing games. Dreamation 06 alone did it for me between the Hare & Hound & my BtI game with Kat.

LeGuin wrote:

The fantasy writer must "believe in" the world she is creating, not in the sense of confusing it in any way with the actual bodily world, but in the sense of giving absolute credence to the work of the imagination, dwelling in it while writing, and trusting it to reveal itself.

It's just some accident of fate that makes rpg seems unrelated to fiction. What she says here sounds similar to the process that I've heard from other authors which is so much like what you do in rpg. But it's the collaborative nature of rpg that makes it so different, and in many ways, more limited than writing. You can't edit (very well), you can't know what will come up later. Though flags and all the other techniques people have come up with make this more and more possible. More and more lately I've been thinking about the "narrative" part of the word narrativism.

On the other hand, the sense of being in the unknown that LeGuin describes here actually sounds a lot like the collaborative, develop in play stuff I've been part of. It's my guess that that is something we'll see more of as we get at the novel level and beyond—having more elements in play, floating around or anchored in the world, than are needed in the moment, so that meaning can accrete around them amd emerge from what happens in play.

There's this synergy that can happen, I've heard it described about Universalis, where you take a whole mess of elements & mess around with them. Your zombie monkey astronauts and your psychic witch war and your candy factory on the moon, or what have you. And you play with them, and play with them, and play and then *bam* suddenly lightning strikes and you see how this connects with that which connects with this other thing that somebody else made up and the game pulses with meaning for everybody there. When it goes right, the pitch session in PtA is like that.

So, I have seen that happen in our lean & mean shorter-form games, but I look forward to seeing games that give us more room to let those islands arise from the mist slowly over time.

2006-03-28 20:26:36 Tom

The problem with Long Form RPG is that it requires committment.  With a capital C.  You might think you're committed to the Jordan novels or the Harry Potter books, but that's just peanuts compared to Long Form RPGs.

You have to be ready to hunker down and really play.  Not just every other week for a couple of months, but regularly and steadily, both during game sessions and between them.

The author of a novel is the sole creative force and they've had time to go through several iterations from their rough draft.  You get to share creative direction with a bunch of other people and you pretty much have to get it right from the get-go because "do-overs" or "edits" are pretty hard to come by.

I think the reason we've gotten so good at short form RPGs is because it's possible to do it well.  Doing the Long Form well requires a lot of factors that rarely come together well.

That said, I've been in a fairly regular D&D game for over 4 years now.  Obviously part of the reason is the people I'm playing with, but another reason is that D&D is simply a game of "kill people and take their stuff" over and over again.  As you rise in level the challenges scale up, but a long, arcing narrative is mostly just window dressing to get you to the next fight.  It's really the sitcom solution—the characters change, but only superficially, the underlying situation never really does.

But I think new Long Form tools are coming on-line.  I think the very best of the bunch is the Lexcion, the game you play before you play the game.  It gets creative input in from all the players, shapes the direction of play, and provides a solid foundation on which to collaboratively build the setting.

But still, Long Form games will always be a problematic issue for RPG development simply due to the committment required.



2006-03-29 03:56:48 Matt Wilson

I think what you need for long-term RPGs is something in the reward cycle that functions like an endgame but isn't the ending.

Like, say it's PTA. You keep track of all spent fan mail. When the total reaches 50, you get to do a two-hour special hosted by David Hasslehof where funky things happen if you get dealt a one-eyed jack.

It's not the reason you play, but it's a reward both for playing regularly and playing well.

2006-04-06 13:12:17 Tris

Emily - How much do you see long and short form as related to actual length of play?

Can we have a novel-style game that clocks in at 3 hours total play, or a short-story style game that lasts for 40?

2006-04-06 13:30:03 Emily

I think that if a novel complexity level game clocked in at 3 hrs, it would be very compact—probably be much of the events in summary.  You could very well create an epic level tale, but you would miss the small moment-to-moment interactions and conversations that make up a novel.

A short style game that lasts for forty sounds like it would have to be like Ulysses—making it a novel despite the scope of the events!

2006-04-08 04:34:52 Charles S

I agreed that time is what makes a game a novel length game.

A short story can describe the rise and fall of empires, and a novel can describe one relatively boring day in a single persons life.

I agree with Tom that the major limitation on long games is not within the system, but rather within the real world constraints. This is more true for the 2+ year game than for the 10-20 session game. The mid-length game (10-20 sessions) probably suffers at least as often from inadequate system as it does from real world constraint, but I suspect that very long games probably fail due to real-world issues as often as they fail due to system issues.

However, the presence of real-world constraints does not mean that whatever ad hoc systems we are using are actually the best systems for long games, so there is almost certainly room for development at the system level specific to very long games.

2006-04-08 16:11:01 Ben Lehman

Agreed heavily with Charles.

The upshot of that for a designer is that, if your system is for 10+ session games, your system has to be able to handle the real-world stresses on the game.

I've got a couple of things bouncing around to do this.  Nothing serious, yet.



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