A Game isn’t a Novel

by David Meadows 15. April 2019 21:42

 

I have just finished running a section of the game set in 1962. At the rate I’m (not) writing at the moment, it will be decades before I write it up on the web site, so I’m not going to be spoiling anything for readers by discussing it here. And I want to discuss it as an example of how I got the game completely wrong.

 

I started with a few parameters: the game would be set in the 60s, it would involve espionage to give us a change in tone from the war stories of 1940, and of course it would have to have links to the background of the wider universe.

I picked an old set of rules called The James Bond Role Playing Game, which is basically exactly what it says it is. So naturally the players would be a team of British M.I.-6 agents sent on a mission to an exotic locale to spy on a shadowy organisation.

That was the broad outline. From there, I did what I always do: I started to plot the game the way I would a novel. I had no idea of (and no control over) what the players would do, of course, but I could create a setting, a plotline, and a cast of characters for them to interact with.

I started with a villain. Then added a twist so the villain wasn’t who everyone thought it was. Then gave the villain a henchman. Then added six businessmen that the villain was trying to influence, and gave each of them a henchman. Then added three spies from other intelligence agencies that had their own agendas. Then added in one innocent bystander just as a plot hook. So far I have a cast of 18 characters, all of whom have a background, a personality, a set of relationships, a motivation, and a path they will take through the story if the players don’t interact with them.

Then the setting: an island, which needed a geography and a history, an airport with arrival and departure times, a hotel with everybody’s room carefully allocated, a timeline of comings and goings, a weather timetable, phases of the moon...

You name it I thought of it and wrote it down. I could tell you everything about my setting. If I had no players, the story would have run like clockwork, on its own, as all these characters’ relationships unfolded on this island. I could have written a novel with all this in it.

But a game isn’t a novel. It has one huge difference: players.

I put so much effort into making all this background for the players’ characters to interact with, but I neglected to remember that the players also have to interact with it. For an entire afternoon, I have five people that I am solely responsible for entertaining. And because it’s a game, the players need to, well, play. They haven’t come to passively listen to me unfold an awesome story I’ve written, they’ve come to co-write the story with me.

And here’s the problem: spying stories don’t work as team events. James Bond works alone. When you do have an ensemble of characters in a spy story, they split up and work alone. It’s not like super-heroes, where you need to come together to defeat a bigger menace. Spying by its nature is solitary. Go on, think of an example where it isn’t (and I’ll explain why you’re wrong).

So, sure, I knew this. I never meant for all five spies to descend on one hotel room and jointly search it. That’s why I added in so many characters to interact with and a timeline with so many events happening over the course of the story. One player could search the villain’s hotel room, another could be listening in on a bug he’s planted, another could be seducing a potential informant, the others could just be waiting until it was their turn to use their unique skills in some part of the plot.

In a novel, this would be great. You could move from spy to spy, following each for a chapter, unfolding the plot for the reader.

In a game, this is fatal. It means you have three-fifths of your players doing nothing for three-fifths of the afternoon. And that’s the worst thing a gamesmaster can do. Your only job is to entertain your players for an afternoon, and you’ve failed utterly.

I still think the 1962 game is one of the best stories I’ve ever told.

But one of the worst games I’ve ever run.

A game isn’t a novel. It’s a game. Must remember this in future.

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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