Making s*** up.
Isn’t that what RPGs are all about? Yes and No. RPGs are games of the imagination; we visualize in our minds fictional worlds which we engage with. But maybe the creation isn’t as deep as we think; we are often using our imaginations to draw up different tropes, borrowed bits of creativity from other places. A bit from a character in this novel, a bit from a movie, etc. We aren’t usually in an RPG using our brains to do all the heavy lifting creatively. We use rules and the aforementioned tropes to create a solid ground that we use our minds (and maybe some props) to see.
What I’m getting at: Imagination is not the same as creativity. While the ability to visualize and sense things that do not currently exist is a key component used in creativity, not all imagination could be described as creative.
(Please don’t think my point is to rank the two. Imagination and creativity are both vitally important to just about anything, and they both need places to exist in our hobby.)
My point is — actually, let’s do this .
Picture an elf. What does he/she look like? What activity is the elf ready to engage in?
Now, picture a daizoowhoozle. I don’t know what that is; you’re on your own. What does the daizoowhoozle look like? What is it, even? How did it get in my blog post?
The elf came to mind faster, right? The daizoowhoozle took work. An elf is fictional but still “exists”. The daizoowhoozle takes work because it isn’t anything. There ‘s a good chance to bring it into being in your mind, you might have borrowed from something else you already had in mind. But the elf you definitely borrowed from somewhere else. This borrowing is powerful and probably explains why there are so many fantasy games on the market. The collective library of imagined creatures makes great reference and affords you the luxury of not having to explain yourself in detail all the time. You can explain the differences in your version of an established thing. Nothing wrong with this –imagine if every RPG you read had to explain gravity! That would get boring pretty fast.
I can ask you to put your right to play a character on the line (survival), or I can challenge your character’s goals and needs in the fiction. I can also ask you to create something from whole cloth. This can be done in a meta-sense — what do you the player think happens at this part of the story? — or it can happen in fiction, where your character needs to make something. A favorite challenge of this sort I like to use is to force a player-character into a situation where she must give a speech. I let the character’s abilities contribute, but then the player needs to figure out at least part of a speech to provide as a character. Games can just ask players to directly contribute to the creation of content, which is another creative challenge that empowers players to be mini-GMs or even co-GMs.
It sounds all roses, but two major drawbacks manifest. One of the comforts of formal systems is their ability to generate a predictable system of consequences and feedback. When you use them, you are given a pretty powerful tool to figure out how things should go. This is the “physics” engine of your story.
When you ask PCs to create things out of thin air, you take away that safety net and risk two things: paralysis and exhaustion.
Paralysis comes because a person might not, if given a very open framework, not have anything to say. It’s an artists’ maxim that constraints aid creativity, and it applies in RPGs as well. A blank check sometimes equals a blank stare.
“Make something!” is exciting to some people, but frightening to others. The former flies with the freedom, and the latter is going to need guidance from you to fully utilize their freedom.
Exhaustion can come to those energized and frightened in equal measure. A more typical game has only a few moments of gonzo “what next” off-the-cuff craziness, bound on both sides by more structured play. If you push that too much, eventually people experience “creative fatigue”, where the quality of their ideas or willingness to generate them starts to lag.
RPGs are traditionally built — I am aware of the exceptions, just hold on a moment — to peak and valley creatively. The rules guide you to point A, describes the physics and fictions, then gives you some place to create within. You can play many sessions nestled comfortably within the rules without the game asking you to do create anything from whole cloth. Everything you do is an extension or reaction to game elements.
But at another extreme we’ve got something like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I love Do. But Do is one of these games that RPG vets tend to scratch their head at. The goal of Do’s system is to provide a framework for you to write a story. As such, it takes away the challenges of desires and survival mechanically. Your main challenge in this game is to narrate the challenges of desire and survival with the cues given by your Pilgrim “letter” and from the drawing of stones. It’s not a game where you roll dice to figure out if you can stab a dragon in the eye.
It is a lot of fun! But if you expect a game more centered around the first two challenges, you might be dissapointed. Creative challenges aren’t regarded as a worthwhile challenge and I say boo to that; It may not be the sort of challenge you like, but creating things with others in a more direct and less competitive sense can be very fulfilling.
Games like Fiasco provide their challenge 99% as creation. There are no rules for facilitating other challenges. Your mission is to make a story and guide it to its conclusion. This is another game that can confound expectations, but is otherwise brilliant.
Creative challenges expand your game in amazing directions but require a lot of mental energy. Be careful how often you use them and what guidance you offer.
When you are thinking of creative challenges in your game, think of it in this way: What elements of the fiction could you just let your players define? How can players beat a problem by having their characters create something? I’m probably going to touch on this in a larger sense soon, but in the meantime, let me know what successes/failures/confoundments you’ve had utilizing creative challenges in your games!