Messy and personal vs. Simplified and random

…In which I try to clarify my thinking by writing an essay to myself. Hopefully you find it useful, too.

GMs and players come to the table with a more or less conscious answer to the question: “What do I want from the game experience?”

Do you as a player want to cash in on a promise? The promise that your character will become rich and powerful? That you will gain special items, or develop unique abilities?

Or do you want to be surprised? Do you want to explore a setting together, solve unexpected problems, develop your character as an alter ego, or immerse yourself in a mood?

How strong are your preferences? Are the wants and preferences in the group congruent with each other? This is one of the reasons why it is so useful for a GM to lay out the themes and style of play before the game commences. Hopefully this clarifies the direction and harmonises expectations. Sometimes the congruence stems from the game itself: It is so obvious what it is about. At other times, the game is open-ended.

Expectations, old and new

Some weeks ago I re-read two traditional RPG scenarios — those included in the Norwegian translation of the 80s version of Dragonbane. The scenarios were profoundly boring. Mainly because there was no «pay-off», no meaningful change possible at the end. There were simply wandering monsters, and sometimes a magical item to be found. This reveals the premise: “You as a player have so much time to spend playing that you don’t mind the time spent on «grinding” to gather XP and resources, to increase the might of your character.” Campaign play is the standard mode — where a dungeon crawl is only a small part of the long journey of the character’s development.

This is such a contrast to what I want as a GM and player today:

  • Compelling characters
  • Exciting premises
  • Fascinating central conceits
  • Challenging events that demands a meaningful choice, revealing what kind of characters we play.
  • That we — or the world — are somehow changed after the adventure.

Put another way: I have an aversion towards mindless, time-consuming random encounters. That’s too much like real life! I want elements of a good story in the games I play. And I don’t need a long campaign. I would happily play shorter campaigns, one-shots, or a single, multi-session scenario.

That is not to say that the game needs to be cinematic, with well-crafted story beats and coherent storylines. That’s a pre-planned story — not an improvised game.

Randomness and resonance

Given the above, it can seem like the old approach lends itself well to randomised content. This is the world of creating a location where there is a 34 % chance of 2D4 kobolds attacking, or 3D10 gold coins hidden in a corner. This facilitates an experience where one explores an environment, enjoying the challenges as they appear, making meaning as one goes. And of course it is helpful for the GM not having to detail everything beforehand.

One might think that the other approach, dealing with a situation containing the ingredients of a story, lends itself less to randomised content. But of course it is useful there, too. Especially when we consider the beauty and challenge of roleplaying games: Everyone, including the GM, “plays to find out”. And that means that the GM, even when setting up a complex and interesting situation, in a fantastical location or two, should not have all the answers beforehand. And having to assemble and think up all the ingredients: creatures, locations, names, factions, motivations and problems — is hard work.

However, the point I’m slowly getting to, is that the ingredients one puts in can resonate more or less with you, the GM — and, by extension, your players. And I think the ingredients will resonate more if you have a personal connection and affinity with them. Because creating a roleplaying scenario is like creating a piece of art. And this “resonance” is what makes for a memorable and enjoyable experience. It is the opposite of generic and soul-less content.

Creativity in the age of language automatons

At the time of writing, it is less than six months since the large language model ChatGPT burst upon the world scene, giving millions of humans the ability to collaborate with a language-based artificial assistant that is able to generate coherent-sounding answers to almost anything.

At the same time AI art bots, interpreting natural language prompts, can generate more or less convincing illustrations. (Just remember to watch out for the number of fingers.) These coherent-looking outputs are based upon a vast “training set” of human-made art and photos — used mainly without consent.

In other words, it’s faster and easier than ever to create content.

As many have pointed out, conversing with such an automaton can serve as a useful starting point for creative work. It is like having someone you can throw a question at and receive a response that is workable. “No, that’s not it, dear machine — but you are onto something”.

As some have said: “Your work won’t be replaced by AI. It will be replaced by humans editing the AI’s output.”

Because the output is often off, derivative, bland, or simply not the factoids you are looking for. Funnily enough, the first machine that we can talk to is not the logical, flat-voiced, staccato robot envisioned in vintage science fiction. Instead, we’re all chatting with a confident bullshitter who has no “awareness” whatsoever.

And that’s where the human element comes in. You as a creator.

Because the conflict between personal and random is a false dichotomy.

Random content can enhance any roleplaying game. You can create tables that surprise and delight. And the automatons can help with that. Random elements can work as “found objects” — unexpected objects in unfamiliar contexts that make you see them with fresh eyes. And of course there is any number of pre-existing random generators online, or in RPG books. They can be a great resource.

But they need your discernment to work. You need to resonate with them. And you need to decide what ingredients in your game can be random, and what you would like to decide beforehand. Because the personal, self-created elements make it easier for you to improvise. When you know the theme, mood and what a location feels like in your mind — it’s easier to impart that to your players.

Using your own ideas is like mining an ore. There are precious metals — figuratively speaking — inside you. These can be whatever your scenario or campaign needs:

  • Places (from regions to monuments to buildings)
  • People/characters/monsters
  • Fronts/factions/groups/organisations
  • Animals, weather, objects, clothes
  • Events/motivations — what’s going on behind the scenes?

How to create something personal?

Creating something personal that is of value to you can be hard — and it can feel messy. Give yourself permission to create elements or worlds that are not well-functioning or coherent, especially not in the beginning. You just need to come up with something that sparks your interest, that engages you. Let’s take a look at a simple process and a couple of examples.

Let’s say you’re creating a scenario.

  • Find somewhere you can be undisturbed. Bring a notebook.
  • Set a time limit, let’s say 2 minutes.
  • Close your eyes. Focus inwards in a way that is comfortable.
  • Imagine for a few seconds that you are running your scenario. The players are happy and you’re enjoying yourself.
  • Let any inner pictures/emotions arise that could be interesting to explore. It can be places, characters, scenes, moods or more.
  • Notice any associated concepts or words that arise.
  • When the 2 minutes are up, open your eyes and write a mind map or take a few notes of what came up. Don’t worry if it is short, or messy.

In my case, I asked myself the question “What would I like to experience together with my players?” I didn’t use the structure above, I just asked myself the question and let it hover in my mind for a while. In my case, it often starts with some visual images, some set pieces where the action takes place. Over the course of some weeks, a few elements appeared in my mind and seemed to stay there:

  • A dense, green forest
  • A white temple or lab in the middle of the forest, at dusk, golden light streaming from its windows
  • Sleek, white robot servants, like the “Drone Hosts” from the TV-series Westworld (spoilers here)
  • The ideas and mood from the 1966 story “Light of Other Days” — one of the most touching sci-fi stories I’ve read.
  • The concept “Data lake“.

At this time, I have almost no idea how these elements fit together. But I’m sure I will think of something. I just need to sit down and write some notes about key locations, key NPCs, and their needs and motivations. And how the player characters fit – or does not fit – into this situation. What the players do should be up to them, but I will try and imagine at least three possible outcomes of the scenario, to be somewhat mentally prepared. One useful question is: What will happen if the PCs do nothing?

This way of engaging with your own world and game ensures that you have some solid building blocks when starting to narrate the world to your players. And you don’t have to know all the answers before you start playing. Maybe save some details for what happens on-the-fly during the conversation at the table.

By the way, I just noticed that Sly Flourish recently published a similar approach on his blog: Build your World with Immersive Daydreaming. I like it!

More than usual

To sum up: What does it mean to create something personal? It needs to be something you’re interested in, that excites you more than usual. Something that fills you with wonder, or at least amuses you more than usual. Pay attention to your feelings. A writer friend once described the feeling as looking for what makes your heart beat faster.

The messy part comes from our unconscious. The elements we come up with are not always logical, or simple, they do not always fit, they can span multiple categories, and be contradictory.

Anyway, pick elements that feel meaningful and exciting to you. Don’t overthink it. Your interest and appreciation may be picked up by players, paving the way for that rewarding play experience.

Do not worry if what arises are tropes or clichés. We often start there. They work, because they are powerful. But see if you can make a twist, a personal version. Play with expectations, like the pirate captain in the 2007 movie Stardust. But sometimes reinforcing clichés can make a strong statement, too: Yes, the policeman is as corrupt as you think.

As I mentioned, random elements and tables can be great tools. I’ve made tables myself. Heck, I even used ChatGPT to come up with some items for characters. But the point is to use it as an assistant. Don’t let yourself become the AI’s assistant.

At the same time, keep in mind the words of John Battle: “Instead of writing a random generator for a thing, just write the good version of that thing.”

But sometimes, as we’ve talked about, you want the random element. You want to be surprised, you want to outsource the worldbuilding. My only caveat is: Don’t let it become a random time sink. Let it be acceptable and fun. If you and your group are happy with 4 kobolds attacking, go for it.

My point in writing this post is to support your endeavour to create something personal. Because it can be a source of satisfaction to you and your players. Of course, there is no surefire way to success. The way consists of trying, and trying again. This is not the same as advocating for time-consuming, well-structured prep. Sometimes it can be enough prep to have a few elements that sing, just enough for a satisfying session. You do not have to plan too far ahead. You can build upon the loose threads and themes introduced in the first session. That way you marry pre-planned coherence with the creativity of the players.

Creating signals, not noise. Keeping it personal.

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