I’m delighted to say that the ALA (American Library Association) has named Pandora’s DNA a notable book of 2015, along with 25 other wonderful works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Seth Berkman of the Jewish Daily Forward has a nice interview with me about BRCA, larp, and Pandora’s DNA up. You can read it here.
This morning, while I’m still in bed, and George is telling me about his silly dream, a nurse calls to tell me the results of my latest transvaginal ultrasound, a scan I take every six months to screen for ovarian cancer.
“We did see some cysts on your ovaries,” she says.
In an instant, my heart drops. Maybe I have ovarian cancer? At the least, this sounds like it will require surgical follow up. Am I going to die of ovarian cancer? Less than half of women diagnosed with the disease survive.
“They are the type of cysts we expect to see on someone who is ovulating,” she adds. She pauses. It lasts only a second but feels like an eternity.
I have no idea what that means.
“So your scan was normal and there is no cause for concern,” she says.
Talk about burying the lede.
And then I am supposed to go to work, like it is a normal day.
On October 15, I had an incredibly fun time answering questions about breast cancer, mastectomy, cancer risk, and fashion as part of my Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, as part of my launch-day activities for Pandora’s DNA.
A few months back, photographer J.R. Blackwell took these shots in anticipation of my upcoming book tour. I highly recommend J.R., who was a pleasure to work with.
You can click on them to download the high-res versions.
Another early review from Publisher’s Weekly, which gave Pandora’s DNA a second starred review.
“With her remarkable memoir, Stark gives us medical history and personal testament that intelligently balances hard-edged science with boundless hope.”
Larp is a young art form, and for most of its life, it’s been part of a largely oral tradition. This makes some sense–larp is ethereal, existing only in a particular time and place–and it’s hard to hang on to a ghost except through stories and memory. Today I want to talk about how larp’s oral tradition shapes larp culture and the emerging written tradition might change that.*
Larp is moving from a largely oral tradition to a largely written one.
In folklore, and oral tradition is one where information and cultural practices are transferred from one generation to another via speech. As a young art form, larp is just at the cusp of being two or so generations old, and as it gets older, more and more of the traditions are being written down. So I’d like to dispense with the generational requirement and say that the oral tradition in larp consists of all the wonderful tips and tricks on exotic larp mechanics and on how to play, design, and run games that are trapped in the heads of the current generation of larp elders, and have not yet been written down.
I think larp is undergoing a shift where it is moving from a substantially oral tradition to a written tradition. But, Lizzie, you say, there are lots of books about roleplaying. Sure, many larps in the US have always had extensive rulebooks, but, say, the Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook tells me nothing about what happened at your event last weekend and how you employed these guidelines to create a scintillating story. The rulebook is the tool, but the oral tradition is what enables people to use that tool to create art.
In recent years in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, larp documentation has come into vogue. For example, the hugely influential 2010 coffee table book Nordic Larp (now available for free download) included photos and essays of a few dozen games from Nordic larp’s 15-year history. The recent Larps from the Factory collected instructions on how to make a few dozen short larps from the Norwegian scenes in Oslo and Trondheim, as well as collecting some information on the cultural context of these games. In the last two years, no fewer than four books have been published, each documenting a single run of a weekend larp, including the Mad About the Boy book from the US run of the all-women game, the Kapo book on the prison larp, the Just a Little Lovin’ book about the Danish run of a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York City and the White War book about soldiers deployed to a culturally different locale (all free downloads).
And yet, for all this writing, for all the rulebooks, documentation books, and theory books, there is plenty of practical information that has not been written down. For example, you will not find instructions on how to run a Norwegian improvised ritual workshop or an Ars Amandi (technique for using arm-touching to represent emotional and physical intimacy) workshop in print. There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps; only incomplete lists of game mechanics exist; many larpwrights do not write down instructions for their games, rendering it difficult to know what has been tried; and there has been precious little written about some vital components of larp-organizing, such as dealing with problem players, how to be inclusive, and how to push scenes as an organizer to make them more satisfactory for everyone.
Some of these textual silences are simply the product of a tradition still in its infancy–folks haven’t gotten around to writing them down yet–and some of these silences are strategic.
The oral tradition has advantages.
Keeping certain information oral is a way of controlling access to the information. A few weeks ago I met an Australian game designer who liked to create intense, real-life narratives. She does not make scripts for her games, she told me, because they can produce powerful experiences for the players. She feels responsible for her creation and doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in just anyone’s hands. This means that if you want to run her games, you have to meet her, which gives her a chance to check you out and make sure you’re OK.
Oral traditions produce a chain of custody for certain types of knowledge. If I want to run a ritual workshop and benefit from the expertise of seasoned veterans, then I have to find a knowledgeable person and personally ask them for the knowledge. And they, in turn, can decide whether I am worthy and capable of both producing the workshop and respecting the tradition. It also means that I get the knowledge from the source on a personal level and can ask follow-ups and for advice. In contrast, when learning from a written document, one has only the text, which can be open to misinterpretation, and certainly can’t field your questions afterward.
Oral traditions control and confine the reach of a piece of knowledge, and this raises some interesting questions. In cultures that pride themselves on egalitarianism, is it moral or just that I as an individual get to decide what the masses can handle and what they can’t? If I create something mindblowing, should I drop that on an unsuspecting public or create a community that will view it in the right context? It probably depends on whether the technique in question is more like atomic energy–useful but hard to control and catastrophic in the right circumstances–or fire–a basic need that is relatively easy to control the bulk of the time.
Writing stuff down creates abstraction.
In Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, he talks about what happened when the Greeks moved from an oral culture to a written culture–one of the rare examples of a culture adopting writing naturally, rather than having it thrust upon them. You can see the process happen through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was not literate, Plato could write but wasn’t a literate native, and Aristotle grew up in a world with the technology of writing. Similarly, their theory goes from concrete to abstract. Socrates asks famous people questions about concepts that seem concrete but are actually complex and slipper, concepts like “justice.” His student Plato knows how to write but still uses oral formats–stories and dialogues–to get his philosophical points across. He develops a more abstract theory of forms–the idea that all apples are apples because they access the form of the ideal apple–the platonic form. Then you get to Plato’s student Aristotle, and suddenly we aren’t talking about forms, but about abstract concepts like being and matter.
Similarly, in larp, we’ve started out writing down rules systems and play experiences, which seem concrete to me. Now we’re in a great age of naming subtle things about the roleplay experience from bleed (the mixing of player and character emotions) to steering (being nice to that new kid by the punch table even though your characters have no reason to talk) and other theories. I’d say these are useful abstractions because they give larpers vocabulary to talk about game nuance. There is also a lot of academic theory about larp that is impenetrable to the layman. And obviously we didn’t have that until people started studying larp and writing about it.
Writing a tradition down changes it.
“Gather round, children, and listen to me tell the story of how I journeyed to the brink of Mount Doom to throw the one ring into the lava flow. It was back in ’73, and you have to understand that I was feeling a little peckish on my first day in the field…”
When a tradition is oral, you have to experience it in whatever way the teller chooses. Maybe that involves a long, rambling start that provides lots of contextual information. Maybe that involves learning about the simplest things first, and only then learning about the complex things, if the speaker thinks that best. Oral traditions can provide a lot of deep context.
When a tradition is written, the audience has control of how they experience the narratives. You think my blog post is boring, so you skimmed to the end. I open up the instructional book on writing larps, and I skip from how to craft a compelling adventure narrative past the psychological safety section, and straight to the part that tells me how to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a reader, I can skip around important contextual information and the beginner’s exercises.
Written traditions also let you bypass the informative, but often very dull step of trial and error; instead of trying seven ways to make a mechanic for violence work, I can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. But this knowledge comes at the expense of a deeper contextual understanding of the work, and at the risk that I am simply blindly repeating what is known to work because it’s always been that way.
Writing down a tradition changes how the audience experiences it. I think the pan-Nordic scene is at an interesting place in its development, as the first wave of larpwrights tries to figure out how to transmit its deep knowledge to the next generation through such ventures as the larpwriter summer school. It’s coming up with pedagogical frameworks and a curriculum to teach the next generation how to do what it does, without having to suffer through 15-20 years of experimentation. And that requires codifying some of the concepts around larp design and putting that deep experiential knowledge into words, with all the consequences that entails.
* Disclaimer: Today I tread into the land of folklore studies, but I’m not a folklorist nor well-read in the field. I did bounce some ideas off of my father-in-law, who is a professor of an African oral tradition and who has taught folklore and told me about some of the common dilemmas, which appear in this post but chances are good that I’m not using language as precisely as a real folklorist would, and/or that I’m repeating ideas that are old-hat to folklorists. Your mileage may vary.
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Whether I’m writing or designing a game, for me, to create is to look critically at my own work. Different ways of looking yield different effects in the finished product; when a thing looks good through many critical lenses, then I know it will hold up as a piece of art.
Last week, I talked about one such lens–the idea of premises. This week, I am going to talk about perhaps the most powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal: the inside-outside story.
I learned about the inside-outside story from writer and legendary writing teacher Pamela Painter, who said, in an interview with Superstition Review she picked up the concept from writer and teacher Ron Carlson. For writers and game designers of all stripes, I heartily recommend the book What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. And I write this with some apologies to Painter, as my copy of her book is somewhere in storage, so I don’t have her words at my fingertips, just my memory of them.
What Are Inside and Outside Stories?
The inside story is the internal struggle that the characters undergo. The outside story is typically the plot or action that takes place.
- Harry Potter Series. The inside story is about a young boy growing into himself and figuring out who he is. The outside story revolves around the trials and tribulations of battling Voldemort.
- Pride and Prejudice. The inside story is about Lizzie Bennet overcoming her prejudiced nature. In the outside story she undergoes a series of romantic mishaps and falls in love with Mr. Darcy.
- Anna Karenina. Has several inside stories to go with its several point of view characters. In Anna’s inside story she comes to terms with herself as a sexual being. In the outside story she has an extramarital affair and ruins the lives of herself and those around her.
You can use the concept of inside stories and outside stories to talk about many narratives–the inside story is the transformation of a character or characters, while the outside story constitutes the actions that happen.
The Relationship Between Inside Stories and Outside Stories
When making a story, the inside story and the outside story should be related. In the above examples you can note that it is through fighting Voldemort that Harry Potter discovers who he is. Lizzie Bennet is able to fall in love with Mr. Darcy only because she overcomes her prejudice. It is the extramarital affair that brings about both Anna Karenina’s sexual awakening and her suicide.
It is also possible to create a work in which the inside and outside stories correspond more closely, which creates an aesthetically satisfying thematic unity. Pamela Painter calls this an inside/outside story. For example, in Chip Cheek’s short short “Hickey,” the protagonist tortures herself by thinking about torturing the boy who has a crush on her. The inside/outside story is present in some of the most classical literature and short stories. For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ search for self (inside story) corresponds to his search for a way home (outside story).
How This Relates to Roleplaying Games
Oh boy. I see the concept of inside and outside stories every time I sit down to play a game. The concepts of inside and outside stories seem endemic to the format. As a player in a roleplaying game, my character necessarily has her own inside story, which happens inside my head. The outside story is what happens between me and other characters and the framework of the game.
As organizers and game designers it is possible to shape both a character’s inside story as well as the outside story of the experience, and I think it can provide a useful way of talking about game design.
As always, I’m more acquainted with larp and freeform games than tabletop, so while this may be more broadly applicable to roleplaying games, I can only speak from my own experience.Your mileage may vary.
The Inside Story and Gaming
One cool thing about inside stories is that every player in your larp will have one, so the inside story is very inclusive of participants. When some Nordic game designers wrote in the Dogma ’99 manifesto, “There shall be no main plot,” preferring instead plot for all characters, I feel they were effectively making an aesthetic move toward designing inside stories. Only five people can solve a given puzzle at a time, and only ten can go to the secret meeting, but 100 people can fall in love or betray each other, etc. during the course of a game.
The inside story represents a democratization of the larp plot. And with the emphasis on inclusion in Nordic larp and freeform, I think it is no accident that so many of these games turn inward.
This is not to say that traditional games don’t have an inside story–they absolutely do. But often, framing this inside story is left up to player choice. When I’m thrown into an indie game or story game, quite often it’s the game master who frames the situation and leaves it up to me to react. Of course the plot of the game influences my internal state, but it’s up to me to string those reactions together into a meaningful whole. Sometimes I’m able to, and sometimes it just feels like a picaresque–a string of experiences united not by theme, but because I’m the one doing them.
Controlling the Inside Story
It is possible to dictate inside stories to players and still leave them some choice. I am reminded of the game In Fair Verona by Jesper Bruun and Tue Beck Saarie, about life in the Little Italy ghetto in Manhattan in the 1920s. The core mechanic of this game was tango dancing–that is how the characters along this street expressed themselves, and the theme of the game was love.
During the workshop, we each received a character dilemma. Mine was something like, “always thinks she’s right and can be preachy.” Tue and Jesper told us that if we overcame this dilemma during the larp we would find love. If we did not overcome this dilemma, we would not find love. At the beginning of the game we were to take a dance with the person with whom we had a negative relationship, and this would catapult us into our character dilemma.
In practice, this was a very effective way of giving us each the same plot with different sensibilities. This story is something writers call a “last chance to change” story. Either our characters would take the last chance, or they wouldn’t. How we handled the dilemma was up to us, our dancing, and the conversations we had along the way.
It’s also possible to have a scenario in which players experience different inside stories around the same themes. The larp Play the Cards by Tyra Larsdatter Grasmo, Frida Sofie Jansen and Trine Lise Lindahl (with Katrin Førde) revolves around themes of status within a close-knit high school. Characters are assigned playing cards–each suit represents a different high school clique, and the value of the card represents a character’s standing in that clique. The head of each group can change the cards of its members at will, rendering the painful status jockeying of high school visible and transparent.
In Play the Cards, the pre-written characters are quite different, but the mechanics of the game support status play and the high school setting supports anxiety around that status play. That tight thematic focus creates strong inside stories, though the story of the clique queen who gets dethroned may be quite different from that of the low-status player who ends the game as the head of a clique.
There are many, many more ways to manage the inside stories of players.
The Outside Story and Gaming
In roleplaying, the outside story often takes the format of traditional plot. There is a dragon we must kill, a bomb to diffuse, a robbery to botch, and so on. This outside story is usually in the hands of the organizer or game master, though sometimes it is also in the hands of the game designer. It can provide adventure and entertainment.
While I like adventure and entertainment quite well for their own sakes, I’m really impressed by games that reach beyond toward thematic resonance and enlightenment.
A well-constructed outside story can enhance an inside story, or help the players form a coherent experience of their own. One way to create a resonant story is to work backwards. If I’m sending the players on a quest to kill a dragon, is there a way to help them experience a metaphorical quest for self as well? If this is a game about the era of McCarthyism, what kind of internal story might have resonance with the themes of inquisition and rooting out the non-conformists? What kind of mechanics or situations would really bring these themes out?
We can talk about inside stories and outside stories in gaming, but I also wanted to point out that there are some wonderful classic games that accomplish the challenge of lining up inside and outside stories.
One such game is Emily Care Boss’s The Remodel, which is about four women who have just had major midlife changes, such as marriage, losing a business shared with a friend, meeting a daughter put up for adoption 20 years ago, and divorce from an abuser. The woman who is recently divorced is remodeling her house, and the other characters in the game have pledged to help her. Game play switches between scenes in which these women remodel their lives and scenes in which they remodel that house, creating resonance between inside and outside stories. In my run, at least, this thematic unity created a powerful sense of kinship among the characters, and to a certain extent, the players, during the game. We were all accessing the same core story through our individual plot lines.
Another take on the inside/outside story duality comes from classic jeepform game Doubt by Tobias Wrigstad and Fredrik Axelzon. Doubt is about Tom and Julia, two actors in a relationship together. Presently, they are performing together in a play about a marriage on the rocks; they are playing Peter and Nicole on stage. During the course of the game, Tom and Julia will be tempted to cheat, revealing larger issues within their relationship. To make things more confusing, two players portray Tom and Julia, and two portray Peter and Nicole (as played by Tom and Julia on stage).
Doubt is a clever game because it functions like a mirror facing another mirror–the relationships reflect one another on numerous levels. On one level, we might consider the inside story to be Tom and Julia’s crumbling relationship, and the outside story to be Peter and Nicole’s crumbling relationship performed on stage, and those two are in unity. On another level, we might consider the inside story to be the internal doubt that the characters in both couples feel, which mirrors external doubts about their relationships. The relationships of Tom and Julia mirror those of Peter and Nicole. The doubt the characters feel mirror the problems inherent in the relationship.
So those are two methods of creating an inside/outside story with a roleplaying game. In The Remodel, the players all have the same inside story couched with different outside stories, and united thematically by the framing story in which they remodel a house. In Doubt, the inside story is given to two characters, and the outside story is given to two other characters (though on another level, all characters have the same inside story), and the game depends to a certain extent on the two sets of players watching each other to understand the mirroring.
Making the external and internal struggles match each other creates powerfully resonant aesthetic experience.
The Place of Metatechniques
Metatechniques can be used as a portal between inside and outside stories to enhance play.
Metatechniques are ways of breaking the flow of narrative to heighten the drama. They are also a way of letting players communicate information about their characters to one another without letting their characters in on the drama.
For example, monologuing metatechniques allow a character to open a window into their internal thoughts. Different games have different ways of initiating monologues–sometimes the players control the tool and sometimes the organizers do.
Let’s say the character of Sally is at a dull dinner party and is asked to monologue and she says something like, “Those two look so happy with their children. It makes me feel inadequate because I’m not able to have children.” The players of this game all hear her, but presumably the characters themselves are unaware of Sally’s infertility. Now the other players have the opportunity to help Sally’s inside story along by repeatedly bringing up the topic of kids or referring to this in some other way. By necessity, the character of Sally will now have to deal with her fears, which forces her inside story to develop.
Another example is the metatechnique of bird-in-ear, used in some small freeform games. Bird-in-ear allows the game master or another player to whisper internal thoughts into a character’s head during a scene without stopping play. When I use this as a game master, I use it pretty much exclusively because I can see an inside story developing during a scene that the players might not be catching because they are busy being in scene. By underscoring that theme in their ears, one can help players develop this internal conflict.
Go Get ‘Em Tiger
I think the concept of inside stories and outside stories is useful for game designers and organizers who want to create thematic resonance in their games. And I think it’s an interesting lens for looking at stuff like plot, metatechniques, and mechanics. I’ve undoubtedly only scratched the surface of its applications here, so I invite you to come up with more uses and analysis. Feel free to post ideas in the comments.
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For me, a good game is tight and lean. It’s tight in that it tells me a particular story and wants me to have a particular experience. It’s lean because there is nothing extraneous–all of the game mechanics, the workshop, etc.–aims at heightening that core experience. In other words, the game has a strong premise and does what it takes to realize that premise during play.
I realize, of course, that this is only one style of game, but it’s the kind that sings to me. Having a premise is not part of some unified theory of game design–but it can be extremely useful when designing a game.
Although I’m relatively new to game design–my second American freeform game is due out this year–I’ve edited a bunch, played a bunch, and I have longtime experience with other forms of narrative, such as short stories, novels, etc. What I haven’t done is read a bunch of game design theory, and I think it’s pretty likely that someone else has written about this before. I’m not meaning to crib anyone’s ideas, so feel free to post think pieces or other sources in the comments.
For me, the experience of designing a game goes hand in hand with finding a premise.
What’s a Premise?
Premise is a term I’ve borrowed from some of the theory around novel writing; it’s the core of your story. It is what your game is trying to get at. It is the universal human truth embedded in your story. A premise is what your game is about, and you should be able to state it in a sentence or two without referencing the setting or plot.
Strong premises are usually couched in universal terms–they are a way of describing how your game taps into the shared experience of being human. They are part of what makes your game accessible to a wide audience. I might not be able to relate to being a mutant with superpowers, but anyone can relate to themes of loneliness and isolation. In the words of my journalism prof Samuel Freedman, great art boils down experience to the periodic table of human emotion. Premises express which periodic elements you are striving for in a game.
Therefore, premises usually explain what your players will experience. If the premise of my game is “pride leads to downfall,” then as a game designer I need to find a way to generate those emotions in the players using the tools of structure, character descriptions, setting, and mechanics.
I think “premise” is a slippery concept, so I wanted to give some examples to help explain what I mean.
Examples of Premises
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: The psychic wounds of war prevent healthy relationships.
- Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein: (Male) Friendship conquers all.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Society gaslights intelligent women.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: One must overcome one’s character flaws to find love.
- Xena: You can’t escape the sins of your past.
- Law & Order: Crime doesn’t pay, but sometimes legal loopholes condemn or liberate the undeserving.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High school is hell.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Humanity and decency are universal values.
- Fiasco by Jason Morningstar: Outsize ambition and poor impulse control lead to disaster.
- Under My Skin by Emily Care Boss: New love alters old relationships forever.
- Robin’s Friends by Anna Westerling: We must rise beyond petty conflicts to sustain meaningful friendship.
- Let the World Burn by Petter Fallesen: Romantic passion can be a destructive force.
Some observations about the premises
Of course, the premise of a work will depend a bit on your point of view, and what you see as essential to the narrative–I can imagine disagreement with many of the premises above. But you get the idea of what a premise is.
You’ll also note that there are nearly infinite stories that could be told about each of the premises. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco particularly proves this point. In Fiasco, players select a setting–it could be a film noir setting, a setting more like Fargo, an 80s wedding, or a rock band on tour, and then build their session within the constraints of the structure of the game. Though these different settings produce different individual sessions, the core of the game, that concept of exploring failure, remains a through-thread. The premise is robust, and it’s the individual trappings–the setting, plot, and characters–that make each instance of the game unique.
Premises help you get to universal human truths, and through setting and characterization, you make those truths particular and concrete.
How Does Premise Help Me Design a Game?
For me, the process of designing a game is the process of finding the premise–refining the premise also means which elements should be added to or pared from the narrative.
Let me explain with an example. About a year ago, I had the idea of making a game about an artists’ colony. In the US, artists’ colonies are retreats where artists go for a number of weeks to focus exclusively on their work, and often result–like many other closed institutional societies–in a social fishbowl. I wanted to replicate the colony experience in a few hours for some larpers, and maybe get people inspired to work on their own artistic projects.
My first draft of this game was heaving on the bells and whistles, each mimicking a different aspect of the colony experience. The game had 7 identical periods! People were switching characters all the time! There was self-directed meditation! And people drew from stacks of cards to create characters.
Though the play storm went great, the first play test was a failure. I had reproduced the feeling of a colony with some success, but the game had no shape and often felt tedious to the players; I had a long way to go in concentrating the reality of colony life into an experience that would be interesting to play for a few hours. The game’s lack of focused premise was part of the problem–in larp, as in literature, it’s necessary to concentrate real life, and usually, to weed out the boring parts. I was generically reproducing colony life rather than working with one particular aspect or dynamic, which is probably all it’s possible to tackle in a four-hour game.
So I asked myself, “what interests me most about this setting?” as a way of zooming in on a premise. I decided that the most interesting part of the colony experience to me was the juxtaposition between working on intensely personal writing during the day, and then switching into cocktail-party mode at night. I suspected this juxtaposition had forged fast bonds between me and other colony artists.
And that became my premise: Switching between reliving a trauma and cocktail-party sociability bonds people.
With that in mind, I looked at my over-complicated game design and stripped away the mechanics that made no sense–the character-switching, for example, which mimicked the way people were entering and leaving the colony all the time, but didn’t support the core experience I wanted to produce.
The most recent play test of the stripped down and refined game, at Intercon in March, went much more smoothly, and I will publish the game, called In Residency, later this summer.
You can also use a premise to add elements to the game. If this is a game about uncertainty driving unpleasant choices, then I better find a way to make the characters feel that uncertainty, and I better give them some unpleasant choices to make.
All of which is to say that I rarely begin with a fully-formed premise–though some game designers might!–rather, through the process of designing I discover what my premise is, and that in turn tells me what to add, what to keep and what to cut from the game.
So for me, to find the premise is very much to design the game.
The Premise Should Be Accessible to All Players
Once you have identified the premise of your game, it’s important to ensure that all players can access that premise through their characters. If this game is about magic, and five of the six players get to use magic, the sixth one is going to feel cheated, left out, and pissed.
This does not mean that every player has to have the same experience. Premises are flexible, and it is possible to engage with them on many different levels. If the premise of the game is “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I could give group A absolute power and let group B bear the consequences of the ensuing corruption. Both groups would be engaging with the premise through different angles. But what I wouldn’t want to do would be to make a group C off in the corner that wasn’t affected by the dynamic between A and B.
Sometimes, you can evoke the presence of something through its absence–and this is totally OK so long as you do it intentionally and not by accident, and it’s OK if it works for the narrative, and for the players who portray that character. For example, if this is a game about nine friends falling in love, and one is left out, that might be OK–perhaps that character ends up as a sounding board for the others, which heightens the theme for most of the players, and gives the unloveable character a longing for love that will never come. The absence of love then becomes a presence in the game that serves to mirror and reflect the core premise, adding an additional dimension to the overarching narrative.
Premises and Sandbox Design
I think premises work best when you’re going for a strongly narrative design, as opposed to a sandbox design. In a narrative design, the designer drives the arc of the story with the tools available, but in sandbox design, the designer gives the players the tools for fun, and lets them use those tools to create their own narrative.
As a player, I have a tough time with sandbox design* for two reasons–I end up with decision paralysis (should I do this? or this? what am I supposed to be doing? oh god! everyone is having fun and I’m left out because I’m doing it wrong), and because I like knowing where the arc of the story is going. In a sandbox game, you often have to create that narrative for yourself.
So in sandbox design, I think it is largely up to the players to create their own premises, while the designer decides what tools to place within the environment. So I’m not sure whether asking premise-based questions would help much with this sort of design.
Some Questions to Help You Focus Your Premise
What are the stakes?
How would you make me care about this game if I wasn’t interested in the setting? What’s the universal human story here?
What one element of this situation are you MOST interested in?
What elements of the game are working best? How can you focus the game on them more strongly? What sort of experience are those elements creating?
What do you want your players to be saying about your game after it’s over? What’s the take away?
If you’re interested in reading more about novelistic premises–and I think there is some ground worth plumbing here, you might check out Six Ways to Define the Premise of a Story, which details methods for inventing and describing premises. Per the comments, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing also contains some wonderful stuff.
*This is not to say that sandbox design is not cool and wonderful and worth exploring, even for me, just that it’s not my favorite because I have a hard time making my own fun in game settings.
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