Pretending to be Creative

There is a fundamental problem with the roleplaying aspect of the rules for coming up with an idea. That is, in order to describe it, you have to come up with an idea. There is no way around this, but I think there are two approaches that can mitigate it. First, in pre-written scenarios, the author can provide a default description of the idea, possibly differing for differing levels of success. This requires creativity, but so does the rest of writing a scenario.

Second, we can be generous with what we allow players. Any description that does not break suspension of disbelief should be allowed, and should be allowed to be as good as the dice say it is. It might not look like a timeless work of genius to the players, but “a portrait of a mildly good-looking woman, half-smiling”, or “a play about a prince dithering over how, and whether, to avenge his murdered father” also don’t sound particularly brilliant, but they are the concepts of the Mona Lisa and Hamlet, at the level of description we can expect in a game.

In fact, I think we should hand out bonus dice for the pool for descriptions. Coming up with your own rather than relying on the default one should be worth 1 die, at least, with 2 or 3 dice for descriptions that actually impress the other players or GM. In keeping with the philosophy that says that the mechanics should tell you what’s important, they should tell you that describing what your character does is important.

However, the game should still provide more support for the role-playing, by the way it describes the statistics and rolls. For this, I need an example.

Let’s take artistic creation, for any medium. (The issues that depend on the medium are questions for the next stage, that of putting the idea into effect.)

The three statistics of the idea are Originality, Resonance, and Transparency.

Originality is the most self-explanatory. It measures how different the idea is from ones that have come before, and whether it looks derivative. For game purposes, we’ll ignore the risk of parallel creation, at least for now.

Resonance is the emotional impact that the idea has. The characters get to choose what kind of emotions the idea evokes; this statistic just measures how well it does so.

Transparency, finally, is a measure of the ease of converting the idea into a finished work of art. If an idea has low transparency, it is not at all clear how to actually make it work. On the other hand, with a high-transparency idea, you can quickly see how to do it. My choices of metaphor there should also make the origin of the statistic name obvious.

Simply naming the statistics creates an important support for role-playing. Players can now say “I come up with a way to inspire deep indignation at slavery, through images of children being sold away from their mothers” when they successfully increase the Resonance of an idea.

For Originality, it’s obviously hard to describe something completely original, but you can say things like “I find a new way to set up the situation of selling a mother’s children so that it does not seem hackneyed”. A large part of the reason for having the statistics is so that players can, effectively, say “I am creative and original, making a powerful work of art”, without actually having to do it. Thus, we want players to be able say what aspects of their work are original, without needing to give an original description.

Transparency would, obviously, have to be described in terms of the intended medium, for example by saying “I come up with a variation on the sale of the children that immediately suggests a natural composition for a painting of the scene”.

If we put all of these together, at the end of the process the players can say “We have a concept for a picture, which depicts the sale of a slave’s children to a different owner. This depiction emphasises elements that have not been prominent before, so it is a fresh look at the idea, and it inspires indignation against slavery (rather than pity, for example). What’s more, the concept for the picture almost tells you what the composition of the picture should be”.

Obviously, that’s not enough to actually paint the picture in the real world; it’s not a concept for a work of art. On the other hand, it certainly tells you enough about the concept for it to be possible to describe both it and the resulting art work in play, and to have viewers react to it in a way that should seem plausible. The latter is what we need for the game.

The examples given would also, I think, be worth 1 bonus die each. They don’t have much in the way of content that might impress the other players. If the starting brief were broad enough, the first one, the idea of selling children away from their mothers, might be worth 2 dice. It is a powerful image, and it could plausibly do what it is said to do.

You could also break it down a bit, saying what you were aiming for before rolling the dice to improve the quality of one bit of the idea, and then using the result to judge how much of what you wanted, you actually got.

Of course, I suspect that it would take a bit of practice before players became comfortable doing this quickly, but then it takes a bit of practice to get into any kind of role-playing, so it’s not to be expected that this would be any different. Using the default descriptions at first might well be a good idea, to give the players a handle on what they are supposed to come up with. That also suggests that we might not want to make the default descriptions in a scenario too creative, so that the players will feel that they can come up with ideas that measure up to them.

So far, we’ve been talking about describing the results of the characters’ actions. However, it would be good to be able to describe what they do, as well. That’s going to be the topic of the next post.

Posted in Game Design.

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