Saturday, June 11, 2011
I've been running pen-and-paper role-playing game campaigns for most of my life, on and off. When I and two friends of mine started, I was about thirteen or fourteen. In the beginning, we took turns dungeon mastering (nobody wanted to), but eventually that role settled on me. I don't think I've been a player in a pen-and-paper campaign since then, except one very brief foray into a Rolemaster campaign some fifteen years ago. I figured out that wasn't for me after it took ten minutes to resolve that I had shot an arrow, and missed.
Dungeon mastering -- or gamekeeping, or gamemastering, or whatever, depending on the ruleset in use -- has been one of my most significant creative outlets. One game system calls it storytelling, and I think that hits pretty close to the mark. They're like group improv sessions in many ways. Quite often I have no idea whatsoever where a session is going to go, and the ones I find most satisfying are precisely the ones that take off in unpredictable directions, with the players riffing off each other and me riffing off them. Usually the ones where I've done my homework are the boring ones.
I do work on the background a bit. On occasion, I even write stuff down, or draw maps. There was one story arc that involved a bit of warfare, and I had to know the lay of the land for that. But even that emerged collaboratively, with the players asking questions about locations and the map emerging as the story progressed.
Entire geographies, mythologies, histories, pantheons, religions, and philosophies have emerged that way. It's a kind of magic. From the illusion school, I think, with perhaps a bit of enchantment thrown in. I'm often as surprised by them as my players. Sometimes the most fun bits emerge precisely from the poorly thought-out bits, when there's a contradiction or an impossibility that demands resolution.
The trick is that I don't need to know all that much more about that background than my players. I just need to be able to supply enough detail on the fly, as things progress. Since we don't write stuff down, the past is somewhat flexible as well. It's a continuing story that only exists as it happens, and then in the fragmented memories of each of the participants. I don't need to know exactly how far it is from Last Canal to Capital City, or what's in between. The players don't know either. Nor do the characters; they're just traveling, on foot or by cart, by barge or on horseback, asking for directions as they go. Eventually they get there, unless they get sidetracked and end up somewhere else.
Sitting around a fire, telling each other stories. That's what it is, really.