Today I promise to bore the bejillikers out of a goodly percentage of readers, but I hope a few–those inclined to games and gamification, at least–will find some use for the prose below. If you are averse to seeing a grown-ass man nerd out, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.
Recently I’ve returned to tabletop role-playing games after a hiatus of about eighteen decades, and my poison of choice this time around is a game called RuneQuest. As systems go, it’s quite a bit different from the TSR Hobbies games I grew up on, and the folks I now game with are a different breed as well. When I was a whelp I might dive into a prefab dungeon with a few friends, kill a few critters, and steal their stuff, but the folks I game with today run bona fide campaigns in fully-realized worlds, worlds invested with histories, mythologies, and multiple cultures. The players are fully-formed as well, with careers and backstories, passions and ambitions, vices and grudges, and allegiances to families, friends, and factions. We might wind up killing critters and stealing their stuff, but we’ll do so as citizens of the milieu, and we’ll have to live with and live out the consequences.
The game design mirrors this deep, serious, organic sensibility. The old games I played involved a handful of more or less static attributes, the acquisition of stuff, and the more or less linear improvement of expertise (and I’ll credit this primarily to the way we played, not to the systems themselves). Fighters were strong, and as they killed critters and stole their stuff they got better at killing critters and gained access to a better class of stuff (with which they could kill tougher critters). Magic-users used magic and, as they participated in the killing of critters, they learned new critter-killing spells. Paladins spent most of their time being sanctimonious killjoys, and as they killed progressively tougher critters they became increasingly adept at killing joy as well. RuneQuest, however, asks players to be far more conscious of and open to developmental possibilities, as very few fates are foreclosed to them–so long as they are willing to invest time and experience to realize those fates.
The old games I played had cumbersome, often exclusive mechanisms for multi-linear development. (I understand they’ve changed quite a bit in subsequent editions, so please forgive the archaism of these dated impressions from my playing days.) A nimble mage, for example, could learn to pick locks, but he would be obliged to table his magic to do so. At day’s end, the player who wanted to become a half-fighter/half-cleric could learn both trades, but he’d be at a fairly serious disadvantage against those who’d simply pursued a single game vocation. In RuneQuest, expressions of complexity occur on a localized scale, and why they might defer other sorts of development, they do not preclude them–though the narrative may. If Chuck the Mage wants to learn to pick locks, he needs to spend some time in the game world fumbling with locks or hunt down someone willing to teach him. If he’s prepared to make a significant initial investment, he can open up Lockpicking, but doing so diverts time and energy from the development of other skills in the short term; continued investment will then allow him to improve his lockpicking incrementally, in very small steps, but he can develop his magic side by side with it. It’s a much more fluid, organic process, and much more challenging to play. And, for the purposes of a writer, far more valuable.
In the RuneQuest world, story drives the developmental engine. Let’s draw up a provisional critter, Misty the Mystic. In the character generation process Misty would need to explain how she came about her mysticism (which involves membership in a group that could teach her the requisite skills), and then she would need to invest an initial pool of developmental points augmenting the mystical tricks of the trade. Since Misty does not live in a vacuum, she’d also need to invest in the qualities of her culture as well as the skills required by her profession. (My character in the world is a courier, for example, so I invested my initial points in those skills that would make me geographically and culturally familiar with the area in which I normally make my deliveries.) From there, Misty can flesh out her existence however she likes. The most material constraint on what she can do, however, is interaction within the milieu. If she decides she wants to master a very specialized skill that a Mystic does not natively learn, for example (such as lockpicking, trading, or seafaring), she’d have to connect with an individual or group that already knows how to do what she wishes to learn to do and then earn their trust and tutelage. With access to training, she’d then need to diversify the experience she earned over the course of her adventures, using some to beef up her mystical skills and some to beef up those skills she chose to open. If she wished–and if she spent a great deal of time in the world cultivating the connections, fathoming magical mysteries, and investing the necessary experience–she could even gain expertise in a brand new sorcerous tradition (which might be commensurate to a . There’s calculation to be done along the way, since opening up a new skill merely gives a player a modest chance (around 25% on average) of succeeding at a new endeavor, while deep investment could make our Misty really, really good at her mystical business. It’s all up to the player’s ambitions.
Or, better still, it’s all up to the character’s ambitions. That’s perhaps the most important lesson I’m learning, and one that’s of greatest utility for a writer. (It helps that I began playing RuneQuest while teaching Stephen King’s On Writing, in which he glosses how an author’s initial sense of a character might be erroneous.) As a player, one with a growing familiarity with the game mechanics, I have begun to discover how one might best take advantage of the features of the system. All the skills one might open up, for example, are expressed as percentages, and if one joins a brotherhood or sisterhood in the game and develops several skills valued by the group to 50%, 70%, 0r 90% expertise, one can unlock useful, powerful features of membership. Misty the Mystic, for example, might invest a great deal of energy and effort in serving her cult of fellow mystics and, by improving her cult skills determinedly, could learn to penetrate illusions or see the future, mystical abilities safeguarded by members of higher rank. If she wanted, she could be extremely purposeful and tactical about development, allocating just enough effort to each required skill to reach the needful percentile threshold. It’s a legitimate way to play the game, but it’s one I’m trying to understand and resist this time around.
Rather than imagining how to best empower my courier via the RuneQuest mechanics, I’m trying to imagine–given his personal history, attitudes, and alliance to a syndicate of city spies in the service of the throne–what he would do to better serve his own interests. With a focused effort I could develop a pair of skills (one is at 48%, one is newly opened) and get them up to 50% in a matter of months; those improved skills, when coupled with existing skills already over 50%, would allow me to access some pretty nifty spy syndicate benefits. Serious reflection on my courier’s qualities of character, however, suggest that he’d prioritize other avenues of growth. He’ll profit from this growth, of course, but as a living, breathing being, not as a collection of percentages. What the courier needs and, by extension, what the group he belongs to needs, call for a more responsive, more lived arc of development.
Giving the story over to the character, insofar as doing so is possible, is hard imaginative work. It goes against the grain of my will to efficiency (which would normally spur me to maximize gameplay benefits) as well as my obsessive-compulsive tendencies (which would normally prompt me to develop a wide array of skills as evenly as possible, so that I am left with no glaring vulnerability in any area). But it is teaching me to give the reins over to the courier, to take his volition and sentience seriously, to subordinate all other developmental motives to the elaboration of his story. It’s a tough tale to tell, but nice work if you can get it.