Game Mastery

Structured Creativity – Scripted vs Improvised Gaming

by on Oct.10, 2008, under GM, writing

I’m having a very hard time writing this post. This is at least my 5th attempt. Rather than building up to the point I’m trying to make I’m going to start with the point and babble from there.

Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo to try and write a novel. I knew I wasn’t going to write a good novel. I just wanted to see what it was like and learn a thing or two about writing, a topic I’ve always found interesting. It was something I’d wanted to do since reading Stephen King’s On Writing, but had been putting off.

One of the ideas I like in King’s book is that he doesn’t plan things out ahead of time. I mean, he plans out the big ideas, but writing the book is as much a discovery for the writer as it is for the reader. I think he likened his style to uncovering a fossil – he knew what the whole thing should look like, but had to unearth the details one at a time.

I liked that approach. It made sense. I’m the sort of person who gets bored if I know what’s going to happen, so I have to do things in a way that keeps me on my toes. I put in for vacation time at work and committed to writing for NaNo by the seat of my pants.

It failed, badly. To write a 50k word novel in a month, you need to put away 1,666 words a day. I didn’t do that at all. At first I chalked it up to being a newbie and I’d just make up the extra words once I got the hang of things. Wrong. I wrote less and less each day as my enthusiasm waned.

But I didn’t want to waste my vacation time or come out of NaNo saying that all I’d learned was that I’m a lazy writer. So I started over. This time, I did what everyone else suggested and used an outline. Granted, I couldn’t finish NaNo in the one week of vacation time I had left. But I did write 12,000 words that week, so for that one little slice I got to experience NaNo.

Anyway, here’s the part that I found postworthy. I was worried I’d be bored following my scripted outline. Even if each chapter was only a couple sentences, I still knew what was going to happen. It seemed like that would stifle creativity. In actuality it brought out a whole new level of creativity. Because the main plot was already set I was forced to be creative in other places. I took more time with description, something I’ve usually failed at. I took more time setting up witty dialog. With less freedom in the main plot, I had to seek out other parts of the story to satisfy my creative urges. I can’t stress this enough. If you’re a creative person, you’re going to find ways to be creative. When the structure was laid out ahead of time, I got to be creative elsewhere.

The other effect that an outline had is that I focused on how and why instead of where. I’ve always believed that a story is about the journey, not the destination. But in writing unscripted, I was trying to discover the destination and ended up focusing on that instead of the path to the destination.

So how does this relate to gaming?  Well, all too often I see people attack railroading your players into one particular course of action.  I’m not about to start advocating a railroaded game, but I don’t think it’s as bad as people say.  If your players want to improvise, they’re going to do so.  Maybe they’ll improvise the plot, maybe it’ll be the details.

The last major game I ran was different from the others because it was on a weeknight.  Instead of killing 12 hours of a  saturday, we had a tight 7-11 schedule.  That gave us 4 hours to play on a good day.  Even less if someone stayed late at work or if the last combat ended a little early and there wasn’t time to start something new.  I hadn’t realized what a difference the schedule would make, and ran the game in my usual sandbox style.  The biggest complaint I got about the game was that there wasn’t enough structure.  The players wanted to get things done.  They wanted to be told “tonight you break so-and-so out of jail.”  That way they could focus on the task and accomplish it, instead of roaming through the sandbox and stumbling on something to do.  They were still left with the freedom of figuring out the details.  Hell, they still had the freedom of wandering off track and doing whatever they wanted to my poor city.  But what they really wanted was a clear destination, even if I left it up to them how to get there.

I don’t think I realized at the time why they needed that level of structure.  I didn’t figure it out till after NaNo.  Hell, I don’t think I made the connection till writing this post.  Yes, an open sandbox environment can be great, but you need to give your players something to work with.  You also need a good idea of what is going to be accomplished in each game session.  Each time you gather to play the game, something important and meaningful should happen.  Just because there’s a structure to the game doesn’t mean it has to limit the players.

I feel this post is deteriorating into a series of do this, but don’t go this fars.  Let’s just cut it off after this next one. Give your players a destination, but don’t make them go there. Now they have freedom and a goal.  I really wish I’d thought of that line when I started this post.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Jokasti

    Did you do/ are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? I tried to, but joined a week into it, so I’m going to do it for sure next year, but with a plot 🙂

  2. sagotsky

    Nope! I might have considered it if I had a) free time and b) an idea. For the NaNo I referred to in this entry I actually took a couple weeks off of work (since I had vacation time, but no dollars for a real vacation). That wasn’t going to happen this year.

  3. Jokasti

    Too bad…
    But you saved yourself the carpal tunnel!

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