Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Short Story, Tall Tales

Blame it on Hemingway. As much as I love fantasy stories and tales, often times they become so self engorged with describing details and setting scenes that it becomes distracting. The overload of detals diminishes my imagination as the reader. The end result is it pushes me out of the scene or story rather than drawing me in and making forget about the world outside.

Ernest Hemingway is, in my opinion the finest American writer. While I do not like everything he has written, the vast majority is, to my mind perfect. I think the sledge hammer for the power of fine writing, and especially Hemingway’s writing, kicked me in the head like a mule when our Sophomore lit class had the following exercise: Read the short story "The Hills are like White Elephants" and when you finish, describe what the two main characters look like.

So we all did it. We turned in our brief paragraphs and the teacher wrote on the board outlines of we said the characters looked like. No one really had the same description even though we all read the same story. So here comes the mule kick: It turns out, nowhere in the story does Hemingway actually describe the characters appearance, yet through their conversations we all got an impression (albeit different) of how the characters looked. Fucking genius.

Now flip to the opposite writing style provided by Mr. George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice & Fire series.” Friends swore I would love it’s politics, gritty combat, and low magic setting. I picked up the first book and tried to read it 4 times before I finally got into it. It is a great story and I very much enjoy it despite the overly verbose descriptions of every meal and of every outfit worn. It literally takes a monstrous force of will to drive me through these endless and needless (in my opinion) details that actually detract from the story. In fact, I might even say one could shave hundreds of pages from each novel and improve them by cleaning up the overly descriptive manner in which Mr. Martin lavishly details each meal or outfit.

So what does this have to do with gaming? I believe Hemingway’s writing style illustrates that brevity and clarity should be the goal of any good writer. In good rules and good adventures that sort of brevity and clarity translate into more opportunity for the individual or group to make the game their own. The Moldvay B/X rules accomplish this brilliantly for D&D. They provided the skeleton upon which we as players added the heart, mind, and soul of adventuring to give it life.

One of the many failings that I believe sprung from (and grew) as a result of the 1st DMG is the idea that the more rulings one creates for any event in an RPG, the better and perhaps less confusing the game becomes. Much like a novelist who insists on detailing every spice in a meal, every type of bead on a gown, or every coat of arms at a tourney, nothing is left to your imagination. Does this excessive detail make the novel better? Does having a rule for what happens if my character in chainmail falls out of a boat, and a rule for the wizard in robes, and a rule for the Paladin in plate make a game of imagination more fun to play?

By increasing the rules to cover more and more situations, one takes out of the referee’s hands the chance to be creative and to make the game their own. The more details and rules put into the books to cover any possible situation helped to create the rules lawyer. This breed of individual would be much better shown the door when the words ”game” and “fun” are in the same room with this individual. The rule for everything idea stifled creativity and imagination, and also created multiple text book sized necessary reference tomes to “play a game.”

As I write my own RPG rules set, and concept how I plan to lay out the entire line, much like Hemingway I sit back and then cut back. I am trying to parse it down to what matters in order to play the game, without answering every question nor providing every potential detail on how you should do it. I want to provide the Hemingway short story form of an RPG giving the players the ability to dream up their own worlds and flexibility to create their own tall tales using it.
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