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Introduction to this edition

This is a digital reconstruction of Inter*action #1, a quasi-academic

’journal of role-playing and story-telling systems’, which was
published in print format by Crashing Boar Books in mid-1994.

Inter*action lasted one issue. By the second issue both the magazine
and the publisher had changed names: Inter*action had become
Interactive Fantasy, the ‘journal of game design and criticism’, and
Crashing Boar Books had transformed into Hogshead Publishing,
the company that later published Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Nobilis
and the New Style line of games. The magazine’s key staff remained
the same over its short run: the editor was Andrew Rilstone and the
publisher was James Wallis.


Inter*action was an attempt to bring insight, intelligence and

consistency to the discussion of narrative-based games, which at the
time primarily but not exclusively meant tabletop RPGs. We were
inspired by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and in later issues
by Chris Crawford’s Interactive Entertainment Design. We tapped
friends and contacts across the world and at all levels of the industry
for articles, using the tendrils of fandom, conventions, APAs and the
nascent internet RPG community to make links and spread the word.

We were astonished by who responded. Although Inter*action/

Interactive Fantasy only lasted for four issues, its list of contributors
is almost a who’s-who of forward-thinking tabletop designers of the
1990s. From ground-breakers like Jonathan Tweet and Robin D.
Laws to industry stalwarts like Greg Stafford, Allen Varney, Nicole
Lindroos-Frein (now Nicole Lindroos-Pramas) and Greg Porter, we
were very fortunate. People wanted a venue to share their ideas and
philosophies of design, and IF was briefly it. In retrospect the jewel
in our crown came in issue 2, with Greg Costikyan’s masterful and
often-cited essay ‘I Have No Words And I Must Design’, but every
issue had high points, and some were very high indeed.

Over the years, many people in the industry have told me how
important Interactive Fantasy was in shaping their thoughts and

one 3
approaches to game design, and they’ve all had the same question:
why did it fold? The answer is simple: it was losing money. Lots of it.
We didn’t break even on a single issue.


This digital reconstruction is not 100% faithful to the 1994 printed

edition. The original layout has been recreated but the fonts are
not exact matches, and lines and pages break in slightly different
places. However, any page-references to the print edition should
be applicable to this edition. Advertisements have been scanned
and reproduced. A few schoolboy errors in typography have been
tightened up and original typos corrected.

The original creators remain the owners of the copyright in their

articles. I have worked hard to contact them; I failed in a few cases
but where I succeeded they have unanimously granted permission for
this re-release, and they have my thanks for that. If you believe you
are the rights-holder for any of the content of this publication but
you have not been contacted by me about it then please let me know.


This document and its contents may be freely reproduced and

distributed on the following conditions:
1. It is not changed or paraphrased in any way; except (i) for the
excerpting of individual essays, or (ii) to be translated into other
2. If excerpted or translated, the original publication and all
relevant authors must be acknowledged.
3. No form of payment may be charged for its distribution or for
any or all part of its content.

If you have any questions about any aspect of Inter*action or Interactive

Fantasy then please contact me.

James Wallis
London, 2012

4 intervaction
The Journal of Role-playing and Storytelling Systems
Issue 1

‘Fantasy gaming has the potential to open the door to a

universe of meanings, if only we would enter.’
(from ‘Shared Fantasy’ by Gary Allen Fine)

3 Editorial

10 Role-Playing Games by Andrew Rilstone
16 Live Role-Playing: the meta-play by Jay Gooby
21 Freeform Games by Andrew Rilstone
25 Re-enactment as Interactive Narrative by Nick Middleton
28 Solo Gamebooks by Marc Gascoigne
36 Improvisation in the Theatre by Michael Cule
40 Psychology and Psychotherapy by Keith Hurley

50 Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going by Greg Porter
59 Do The Right Thing by Allen Varney
66 Realism vs Playability? by James Wallis
84 CAR-PGa by Paul Cardwell, Jr.

90 The Hidden Art by Robin D. Laws
98 Interactive Fiction and Computers by Phil Goetz

118 SLA Industries reviewed by James Wallis
122 Casalana City Guidebook reviewed by Andrew Rilstone

IA 01

one 1
The Journal of Role-Playing and
Storytelling Systems

Issue 1

Published by:
Crashing Boar Books
29a Abbeville Road All contents are copyright ©1994
London SW4 9LA by their original creators. Short
Great Britain excerpts are permitted for the
(+44) (phone number removed) purposes of review or reference.

ISSN 1353-4548 For information on subscrip-

tions and forthcoming issues,
Editor: Andrew Rilstone please see p. 126. For informa-
(email removed for this reprint) tion on advertising, distributing
Publisher: James Wallis and stocking Inter*action, please
(email removed for this reprint) contact James Wallis at the ad-
dress above or on (+44) (obsolete
Writers: phone number removed).
Paul Cardwell, Jr.
Michael Cule Deadlines for next issue:
Marc Gascoigne Editorial: 31st Oct 1994
Phil Goetz Advertising: 7th Nov 1994
Jay Gooby Publication: 31st Nov 1994
Keith Hurley
Robin Laws With thanks to:
Nick Middleton Greg Costikyan, Chris Craw-
Greg Porter ford, Demon Internet Services,
Andrew Rilstone David Hall, Paul Johnson, Rich-
Allen Varney ard Lambert, Ian Marsh, NAC,
James Wallis the committee and attendees of
Sto-Con-Trent, the subscribers,
Cover by Paul Johnson Jonathan and Tracy Tweet, Don
Woodward Jr,, the writers, Erick
Printed by Intype, Wimbledon Wujcik.

2 intervaction
Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame
And eke, men shall nat maken ernest out of game.

You hold in your hands the first issue of a magazine that we believe
should have been launched a decade ago.
In the last twenty years, role-playing has grown up a lot—crawled
out of the dungeon where it was born and clambered onto comput-
ers, onto television screens, and now hovers on the brink of virtual
reality and who knows what else. And yet, we believe that much of
the hobby media has remained firmly in the nursery. Inter*action in-
tends to take interactive narrative—role-playing and story-telling sys-
tems—with due seriousness: to focus on the cutting edge of the field.
It will concentrate on systems that encourage creativity, exploration,
and story-telling, and promises to neglect the slaying of goblins and
the stealing of gold pieces.
The astute reader may have observed that we have kept the word
‘game’ off the cover of this, our first issue. Do not despair: you will
find lots of discussion of role-playing g*mes, computer g*mes and
solo g*mebooks in this magazine. Nevertheless, we prefer the term
‘interactive narrative’. That may sound intimidating, but ‘game’ is a
loaded term.
When we talk about ‘games’ we usually mean sports, or abstract
games like chess or monopoly, or something frivolous and silly, ‘fun
and games’. Frivolity and competitiveness do not seem to us to be
very appropriate words with which to describe the complex, time-
consuming, subtle and creative pastimes that go by the name of ‘role-
playing games’.
The word ‘play’ is a lot more promising, since it has a double
meaning. It means ‘to engage in a sport’, but it also means ‘to en-
gage in a theatrical performance’. People play Hamlet, but they also
play football. Small children seem to use the word in both senses at
once. ‘Let’s play soldiers!’ they say, which means—let’s play a game in
which we pretend that we are soldiers, a game that might degenerate
into ‘tag’ or ‘hide and seek’ at any point. Etymology is on the side of
the children. In Middle English, the word ‘game’ and ‘play’ were in-
terchangeable. ‘Let’s play a game of the nativity’ meant ‘Let’s stage a

one 3
nativity play’. Freud tells us that, for children, the opposite of play is
not ‘what is serious, but what is real’. The child knows the difference
between playing at being a monster and actually being a monster, but
the play world may seem every bit as important to them as the real
Desmond Morris talks about the exploratory function of play. A
child, he says, like a monkey, enjoys making marks on a piece of pa-
per; exploring what can be done with shapes, discovering what lines
and colours can do. Gradually, they realize that they can use their
crayon not merely to make patterns, but also to make shapes—faces,
cars, trains, whatever. They can use art to represent reality: what they
started out doing for fun has become useful. This representational
function takes over from the purely exploratory function.
‘It was an act of discovery,’ says Morris, ‘of invention, of testing
the possibilities of graphic variability. It was activity painting, not sig-
nalling. It required no reward—it was its own reward, it was play for
play’s sake... Photography and its offshoots have rendered represen-
tational information painting obsolete. This has broken the heavy
chains of responsibility that have been the crippling burden of adult
art for so long. Painting can now once again explore, this time in a
mature adult form. And this, one need hardly mention, is precisely
what it is doing today.’
This is exceptionally well balanced advice. Rediscover, says Mor-
ris, the childish experience of play for play’s sake, but do it in a ma-
ture, adult form. ‘Gaming’ sometimes seems to be an almost self-con-
sciously childish pursuit. Gamebooks are published by juvenile im-
prints; computer adventures are aimed at adolescents, fantasy stories
take their source material from fairy stories. Role-playing games can
involve ‘toy soldiers’ ‘dressing up’ and ‘play fighting’ and the cry that
‘role-playing is let’s pretend with rules’ goes up from the first page of
nearly every role-playing game.
And there is the other cry, one that this magazine, with its stated
intention of treating gaming in a mature, intelligent, critical manner
will doubtless provoke from some quarters: the cry that ‘It’s only a
game!’ Players, some players at any rate, seem to want gaming to re-
main a childish, frivolous, marginal pursuit: not worthy of serious con-
sideration and therefore, of course, immune from serious criticism. At
the other extreme, there are those who—equally self-consciously—try
to legitimize what they do. They are keen to emphasize that ‘role-play-
ing isn’t just for kids.’ If they play with toy soldiers, they are careful to
call them miniatures. If they play live-action, they worry that their cos-
tumes and rubber swords might give people the wrong impression.

4 intervaction
But why worry? While gaming remains intimately connected with,
say, Dungeons & Dragons, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Treas-
ure Trap, there has been no shortage of products that claim to be
artforms, to be methods of self-exploration, to be realistic historical
simulations. Indeed, one might wonder whether the complex—some
would say over-complex—rules systems associated with, say, Advanced
Dungeons & Dragons are part of this legitimization process. The ado-
lescents who play the game have just grown out of ‘playing soldiers’
or ‘playing with dolls’. Perhaps they need complex, difficult rules to
escape the suspicion that what they are doing might be rather child-
ish, whereas many adult games, more confident in their maturity,
are willing to embrace much simpler—perhaps more playful—rules.
‘When I became a man, I put aside childish things: including the de-
sire to appear very grown-up’.
If the editors of Inter*action were forced to make a decision, they
would place themselves in the second camp. We think that role-play-
ing and other forms of interactive entertainment are worth taking
seriously. We intend to bring the full force of whatever learning or in-
telligence we have to bear on asking basic questions about our hobby.
What is that we do? Why do we do it? How can we do it better? What
effect might it have? But we also recognize the tension, the paradox
even, in taking a ‘game’ seriously: in being mature about something
that has its origin in quite such a childish impulse.
It was the same impulse that attracted most of us to the hobby in
the first place, whether our point of entry was Dungeons & Dragons,
Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy or Gauntlet. An infatuation with Tolkien,
Star Wars or cyberpunk. An attraction to fantastic imagery. A vague
feeling (fundamental, surely, to being adolescent) that you are not
quite at home in this world. Some games might almost have been
written with this adolescent world-view in mind. The sad, gaunt vam-
pire, tormented by urges he can barely understand. The faceless
space-marine, all but helpless in a crazy, hostile universe. The root-
less adventurers, in the wilderness at the edge of their society, seeking
aimlessly for ‘experience’.
Role-playing games seem to appeal to a basic sense of discontent.
‘Leave your world behind!’ they say. ‘YOU can become a hero’. ‘Be
part of the legend’. ‘Relive the glories of King Arthur’s court’. Escap-
ism is what sells role-playing games, but escapism of a very specific
kind. RPGs offer the discontented adolescent—or the bored, over-
worked adult—the possibility of becoming part of a different world.
‘Other people read about imaginary worlds,’ role-playing games
seem to say, ‘but we can take you there.’

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However, the can’t. Role-playing games fail, almost by definition,
to deliver what they offer. No amount of dice, computers, or costumes
can give you the firsthand experience of another world that so many
of us crave. That may be one reason why the publishers’ claims be-
come so hyperbolic.
‘Not just a game,’ claims every single computer adventure ever
published, ‘a complete world.’ And we buy them, and discover—of
course—that they are just a game. When live-action role-playing first
appeared on the scene, we were told that this was the next step to-
wards reality: finally, it was said, you could actually experience a fan-
tasy world at first hand. It failed, of course, to deliver: it merely re-
placed the artificial constraints of dice and miniatures with the artifi-
cial constraints of poor costumes and inadequate special effects. Peo-
ple are now muttering that Virtual Reality may achieve this dream of
unmediated access to an imaginary world. When that fails, they will
start talking about direct sensory input or the holo-deck.
Role-playing games fail to deliver what they offer, because what
they offer is something that can never exist. But they deliver some-
thing good: something fascinating, worthwhile and interesting in it’s
own right. Rather than retreating behind clichés of ‘it’s like let’s pre-
tend’ and ‘it’s only a game’ we should be examining, analysing and
promulgating this fascinating new thing, this strange and complex
and still-growing new way of telling and reading and writing stories.
Morris says that painting was freed from the chains of represen-
tation, and that artists therefore recaptured something of the child’s
wish to explore colour and shape in its own right. But he adds an
important rider: modern non-representational painting does so in a
mature form. The painter does not attempt to forget what he knows
of colour, of ink, of the world. But still he plays and explores. It is in
this sense that we believe that interactive narrative should be seen as
‘play’. The sooner we get rid of the sense that role-playing and com-
puters are a type of ‘game’, a type of competition with winners and
losers and complex rules, the happier we will be. But we should never
lose the sense that it is play: play in the sense of the free play of ideas.
Play in the sense of asking ‘What if?’, ‘Why?’ and perhaps most dan-
gerously ‘Why not?’
And play, perhaps in the most important sense. The child knows
that whatever happens in their game of soldiers, they won’t be killed:
that they can break the game off whenever they like. Play gives you
great freedom to experiment, because what happens in a game
doesn’t matter. When Alan Ayckbourn’s (largely hostile) play about
role-playing games was reviewed in the left-wing Tribune newspaper,

6 intervaction
the reviewer commented: ‘The fantasy game emerges as a triumph of
private space in a dreadful world: more people play dungeons and
dragons (sic) than go to political meetings.’ Just so.
There has been a movement to get role-playing legitimized in
some sense as ‘serious art’. In so far as ‘art’ means ‘a person express-
ing, and playing with, what is most important to them as well as they
know how’, then this is an idea that we can wholly endorse. But occa-
sionally one hears people suggesting, say, performance role-playing
(great actors as characters, a great writer as referee, and a TV audi-
ence witnessing the result) or else what might be called ‘consumer
role-playing’: role-playing where great writers or games designers
have pre-ordained what can happen. We are suspicious of these ide-
as. Part of the point of role-playing games is that no one is watching,
no one is listening apart from the people playing. And this frees them
to explore, to investigate, to discover, to say new things and tell new
Joseph Campbell speaks of the need for, and the loss of ‘sacred
space’: somewhere of your own to inhabit and do what you want with,
and who cares what the rest of the world says? Salman Rushdie visual-
izes the novel as something so ultimately unimportant that it provides
the imaginative space to explore the most important ideas. Role-play-
ing has, perhaps, some affinities with both these notions. That, then,
is our project. To look at the entire field of interactive literature—of
role-playing and story-telling systems—of grown-ups at play. To con-
sider it with all the critical rigour that films, theatre and the novel
have enjoyed. To criticize commercial products, and to be aware of
what the grassroots of the hobby is creating. But never to loose sight
of the fact that it is only a game. And therefore, the most important
thing in the world.
Welcome to Inter*action. We intend to be here for a very long time.

Andrew Rilstone is one-third of the design team of Once Upon a Time, the
story-telling card game that has been loved by everyone from college dorms to
elementary classrooms. He was briefly half of the editors of Gamesman maga-
zine, and is still liable to start to whimper if you ask him for the details. He
was all of the editors of Aslan, an influential fanzine that pioneered concepts of
freeform role-playing, systemless play, improvisational gaming and very long-
winded debates. He is currently writing a gamebook, a novel, a radical new
SF role-playing game, and a lot of short stories in which he whinges about bad
clergymen and teachers.

one 7
8 intervaction

Is roleplaying the same as role-

playing? What is the difference
between re-enactment and recreation?
Interactive narrative already takes
in a huge range of activities, and
innovations like virtual reality are
threatening to transform the field.
OVERVIEWS is the first part of an
ongoing examination of all forms of
interactive narrative and role-play,
described by experts and leading
one 9
Role-Playing Games
An overview

by Andrew Rilstone

Role-playing games resemble Christianity and science fiction in that

any one attempting to define them is guaranteed to make at least three
enemies. The very fact that the essays in this section of Inter*action
are drawing a distinction between ‘role-playing games’, ‘live action
games’ and ‘computer games’ will offend some people, implying as it
does that ‘live action role-playing’ and ‘computer RPGs’ are not role-
playing games at all.
We are stuck with the fact that people use the phrase ‘role-playing’
in at least three different senses:
1: To refer to the playing of roles generally: in life, in theatre, in
the consulting room.
2: To refer to a wide range of board games, computer games, PBM
games and live action games in which players control the actions of
fictional characters.
3: To refer, specifically, to a type of interactive narrative of which
Amber, Shadowrun and Shatterzone are examples.
Inter*action uses the term ‘role-playing game’ in this third, narrow
sense. Please do not take this as implying any sort of value judgement
about the other fields.
It is easy enough to describe a role-playing game in this narrow
sense. A group of people sits around a table, with formalized descrip-
tions of imaginary characters on pieces of paper in front of them.
There are normally dice on the table, and sometimes even models
representing the imaginary characters. Everyone starts talking at
once, usually loudly; rolling dice and ignoring the results, and scrib-
bling notes on their ‘character sheets’. If an outsider were able to dis-
cern what was going on in this hubbub, he would find that it boiled
down to a protracted question and answer session between the ‘play-
ers’ and ‘referee’. It would not be too much of an imagination to say
that the entire role-playing hobby is a series of subtle and complex
elaborations of the formula:

10 intervaction
Role-playing games by Andrew Rilstone

Referee: ‘What do you do now?’

Player: ‘I do such and such’
The outsider would also find that the game occasionally shifted
into ‘role-playing’ in a more conventional sense—the participants
improvising conversations between imaginary characters. (In some
gaming groups, this ‘talking in character’ is the be-all and end-all
of role-playing games: in others it hardly ever happens.) From this
chaos, a more or less well realized story emerges. This story (or the
vicarious experience of an imaginary world, which comes to much the
same thing) is the purpose of role-playing games.
It is much harder to define what is going on, but one possible defi-
nition might run as follows:
A role-playing game is a formalized verbal interaction between a
referee and a player or players, with the intention of producing a nar-
rative. This interaction is such that the fictional character (controlled
by the player) has complete or nearly complete freedom of choice
within the fictional world (controlled by the referee).
What is essential in this definition is the freedom of choice allowed
to a player’s character, compared with the very limited range of choic-
es available in most computer or boardgames. In any given situation,
a character in a role-playing game should be able to take any action
that that character would be able to take if that situation were to occur
in real life. I wonder whether the distinction between player and ref-
eree is a corollary of this—role-playing games require human referees
because no one has yet developed a computer or rules system which
can allow complete freedom of choice.
These definitions are perhaps over-subtle. For all practical pur-
poses (and much as many of us would like to deny it) we can define
role-playing games as ‘games directly or indirectly derived from, and
bearing a family resemblance to, Dungeons and Dragons.’
Role-playing games in this narrow sense came into being with the
publication, in 1974, of a set of three unassuming digest-sized du-
plicated booklets that became known as ‘Original D&D’, written by
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. They were originally intended as an
expansion to a set of medieval battle rules called Chainmail. This bas-
tard parentage came close to strangling the nascent artform at birth.
Nearly twenty years on, the role-playing hobby finds it hard to escape
from terms like ‘campaign’ and ‘combat round’; from the assumption
that combat necessarily implies dice, and from the belief that role-
playing games and metal miniatures are inextricably linked.
There is evidence of a shadowy, pre-D&D history of role-playing
games. Prof. M. A. R. Barker was using gameplay (albeit of a more

one 11

traditional wargaming type) to develop his Tekumel world before he

encountered D&D. Greg Stafford, having despaired of seeing his fan-
tasy fiction published, conceived of a board wargame, White Bear and
Red Moon as a means of exploring his personal world, Glorantha.
If one wishes to look further back then such diverse elements as
the ritual re-enactment of tribal myths; the commedia del arte tradi-
tion; some of the more deranged pieces of experimental literature in
the 50s and 60s and some types of charades and parlour games have
all been seen as precursors to role-playing games. The writers of role-
playing products, are, for some reason, particularly keen to claim that
their games are a direct descendant of the imaginative ‘lets pretend’
games that virtually all children play1.
It is debatable whether Gygax and Arneson intended D&D to be
a role-playing game in any modern sense. Gary Gygax is markedly
hostile to modern developments in interactive narrative, although he
has also, incredibly, claimed that he does not perceive much differ-
ence between D&D and current products. Certainly, early D&D did
not encourage the development of character and plot that are now so
central to role-playing games. My own feeling is that Gygax designed
D&D to be a personalized, tactical-level miniatures wargame, using
the now-familiar setting of the ‘dungeon’ as its battlefield. As play-
ers began to take an interest in their characters as more than painted
playing pieces, something resembling ‘role-playing’ as we would un-
derstand it came into being.
The influence of D&D, malign or benevolent, on subsequent role-
playing games and elsewhere in the field of interactive fiction can
scarcely be over-estimated. Despite there being literally hundreds of
different role-playing systems, arcane expressions such as ‘3rd level
cleric’ ‘experience points’ and ‘lawful evil’ still represent a lingua franca
within much of the hobby. The most basic form of D&D adventure—
the exploration of an underground complex filled with monsters and
treasure—forms the basis for many solo fantasy game-books; the ma-
jority of computer adventure and role-playing games, all indoor live
action centres (almost by definition), some postal games, a number
of board-games, and has arguably influenced TV programmes such
as The Crystal Maze and Knightmare. Considering that this rather un-
likely and arbitrary formulation has no obvious precursor in legend
and literature this is remarkable: all the more so since the publishers
of D&D have moved increasingly away from dungeon-based adven-
tures, offering much more sophisticated scenarios, and a number of
more or less well developed game worlds.
Even more striking is the way in which all role-playing systems,

12 intervaction
Role-playing games by Andrew Rilstone

virtually without exception, continue to bear a family resemblance

to D&D. No system has dispensed with character sheets; only one
published system has dispensed with dice; virtually all systems de-
scribe characters in terms of numerically quantified ratings in various
‘attributes’ that seem intended to represent a sort of distilled spirit
of ‘strength’, ‘dexterity’, ‘aura’, ‘technical skill’ or whatever. There is
tragicomedy in the way that a game like Werewolf, which goes to great
lengths to establish its credentials as a politically correct, mature and
fashionable product; that defines itself as a story-telling game rather
than a role-playing game; that encourages referees to make use of
quite sophisticated narrative structures and talks about the psycho-
logical effect that the game might have on its players; also contains
rules for wargaming miniatures.
A history of the development of the hobby is vastly beyond the
scope of this article. If the mechanics of role-playing remain sadly
influenced by D&D, the themes and subject matter have changed
beyond recognition. Articles of this type often say that there are role-
playing games dealing with every conceivable theme. This is only
true if you find it difficult to conceive of themes other than space
opera, cyberpunk, swords and sorcery, superheroes, survivalists and
Gothic horror. Relatively few role-playing games have dealt with west-
erns, espionage or war stories, and mainstream genres remain all but
untouched2.The styles of play that role-playing games adopt has also
mutated and diversified. Games like Ghostbusters encourage a humor-
ous playing style; Star Wars revels in a deliberately unrealistic rules
system that encourages players to perform far-fetched, cinematic
stunts; Vampire encourages character study, self-exploration and plac-
es an emphasis on atmosphere; Amber and the forthcoming Bugtown
encourage players to write, paint, or compose music around their
character; Middle Earth Roleplaying encourages players to interact with
a detailed, complex and realistic interpretation of Tolkien’s world.
Where D&D promised to be as limitless as your imagination, current
role-playing games tend to set themselves extremely narrow briefs:
D&D was (supposedly) about all of fantasy: SLA Industries deals with
one, specifically constructed future world.
Given this current tendency for ‘game’ to mean ‘world with rules
system attached’ it is not surprising that a present trend is to produce
rules systems (e.g. GURPS, The Amazing Engine) that can be applied
to a number of different worlds; and to create ‘worlds’ (TORG, Dream
Park, Rifts) that are specifically created to allow players characters to
shift between genres. Arguably, market forces have dictated this trend
towards single-world systems: companies need to sell products, and

one 13

they can best achieve this by creating ‘brand-loyalty’ to a particular

world. At present, this seems to be working to the customers’ advan-
tage: the range of richly detailed game-worlds available offers a posi-
tive embarrassment of riches.
Perhaps unfortunately, no thumbnail history of the hobby can
avoid a mention of the Games Workshop phenomenon, even though
they themselves have long declared their independence, avowing
themselves to be the promoters of the Games Workshop Hobby. GW
were one of the first companies to import D&D into England in the
1970s, but since the middle of the 80s, have produced and sold exclu-
sively their own, rather narrow range of games.
With GW, gaming has come full-circle, since what has made them
rich—second only to TSR—is science fiction and fantasy miniatures
wargaming. Their powerful ‘cybergoth’ imagery, the club atmosphere
in their shops and some very careful marketing, as well as good de-
sign in the actual games has made their products extremely popular
to the teen market. They also have no role-playing content whatsoev-
er, despite sometimes describing themselves as ‘3D roleplay’ games.
Role-playing enthusiasts have been claiming for some time that
GW sounds the death knell of role-playing games, as the company di-
rects potential players away from role-playing games and towards fan-
tasy wargaming, or, conversely, that it represents a potential renais-
sance because Workshop players will start playing traditional role-
playing games as they mature. The truth, ten years on, is that it has
made very little difference to anybody.
Role-playing games, like other forms of interactive narrative, rep-
resent a fundamental blurring of the distinction between creator and
consumer, between story-teller and listener. Unlike other forms of in-
teractive narrative, they can, in theory, be played with no tools and
virtually no financial outlay: all that is necessary is that there be in-
teraction between a player and a referee. As such, they have the pos-
sibility to become a truly popular artform with individuals and small
groups creating virtual worlds for their own enjoyment. If one be-
lieves that this is a laudable aim, one should perhaps regard the grow-
ing commercialization of what was once a cottage industry, and the
tendency of role-playing gamers to embrace every new technological
advance, with a healthy amount of suspicion.

Andrew Rilstone is editor of Inter*action.

14 intervaction
Role-playing games by Andrew Rilstone

I cherish the idea that when little Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë started to pass the
time in Haworth vicarage by spinning an elaborate fantasy world around a collection of
lead miniatures that they found in the attic, they not only changed the direction of the
English novel, they also invented the first role-playing game.
The only exceptions I am aware of are Alma Mater, (which deals with American teen
culture) and the licensed Dallas game, which was only borderline role-playing in any case.
Steve Jackson’s monumental GURPS meta-system has provided background books on a
large number of historical settings, but even here, the reliance on SF and fantasy themes
is striking.

one 15

Live Role-Playing
The meta-play

by Jay Gooby

Imagine a play where the benefit of the performance is for those par-
ticipating. This performance has no audience and occurs not on a
stage, but in castles, woodlands and manor houses. The actors have
no scripts, instead, they create the story, change and develop it by
their own actions. This is live role-play: a meta-play with the singular
purpose of entertaining and educating its performers.
Live role-play (LRP or LARP), emerged about twelve years ago in
1982, with its roots firmly planted in the soil that bred table-top role-
playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest. That first
LRP system, Treasure Trap, held many similarities to the role-playing
games of the time: the idea of taking on the persona of certain (by
now) stereotypical ‘character classes’ and races; the fantastic world
possessed of inherent magic where adventuring was a viable career
option. The vocabulary of early LRP was almost entirely derived from
that of table-top role-playing ideas and principles: the ‘adventuring
party’, the ‘encounter’, the ‘monster’.
The innovation of Treasure Trap was to take the mechanics of ta-
ble-top role-play and to make them ‘live’. Instead of rolling a die to
see whether you succeeded or failed in a particular action (e.g. fight-
ing with someone, casting a magic spell, running, leaping or hiding),
with live role-play these dice rolls became real actions. Sword fighting,
running, leaping and hiding actually took place. Spells were ‘cast’ by
quoting a line followed by the effect of the spell: ‘By the power of the
fire elements—Fireblast!’ Those having the spell cast at them reacted
appropriately, role-playing its effect upon them. Physical combat oc-
curred by way of ‘safe’ weapons. These were swords, axes, maces, etc.
all constructed from high-density foam glued over a rigid central core
and covered with appropriately coloured tape1.
Certain conventions were also introduced to simulate the impos-
sible: a hand in the air signified invisibility, a call of ‘Time-freeze’
indicated that the players in a game should shut their eyes and halt

16 intervaction
Live role-playing by Jay Gooby

in their current positions—time effectively was held—until ‘Time-in’

was called, thus permitting instantaneous actions such as teleports or
transformations to occur.
Twelve years later, nearly all live role-play uses the principle me-
chanics developed by Treasure Trap, but these have been subsumed
with those of freeforming and improvisation, as well as with the more
mainstream aspects of theatre and film. Indeed, some LRP today is
the nearest you’ll get to participating in a real-time movie. They are
total immersion experiences where you are plunged into a living,
breathing world for days on end. This ideal of ‘living’ is the Grail of
live role-play, for as a participant you are invited to suspend your dis-
belief and to interact in a place that is ultimately only as real as you
make it.
There are two principle forms of live role-play: the linear adven-
ture or live-combat scenario; and the interactive scenario (known as
‘interactive literature’ in the States). Both of these place a different
emphasis on the ideas of narrative and interaction, however they do
share some elements, the most basic of which is the character.
In any LRP scenario you will be adopting some form of persona
or character. You will be expected to role-play their emotions, feel-
ings and ideas. Effectively, you will be imposing their world-view
upon yourself. The extent of this characterization depends largely
upon the kind of scenario, but at the very least you should be pre-
pared to talk and act in-character, in a wide variety of situations. The
live environment encourages this. Characterization quickly becomes
unconscious and instantaneous, and rather than the listen-think-ex-
plain (roll dice) approach of normal role-play, there is only a see-re-
act process occurring. To further aid characterization, costumes and
props are employed. Donning a costume that has been created with
a particular character in mind, greatly aids the assuming of that role,
in the same way that wielding a weapon (no matter how ‘false’) gives
a sense of exhilaration and urgency towards combat, that dice never
could. Thus physical cues play a major role in helping to promote
the illusion of reality. At the most basic level it helps if the site of the
scenario resembles where the scenario itself is supposedly based: our
stage of castle, woodland or manor house.
These cues or ‘physical representations’ aid characterization, they
become an integral part of the experience, for live role-players are
not actors, they are both less and more. An actor is trained to read
scripts, to take direction and to use their own interpretation of a par-
ticular character in order to bring that character to life. They are part
of the entire package that is a play. The lighting, set dressing, props

one 17

and costuming exist primarily for the benefit of the audience, not the
actor. Live role-players however, crave these things. They are an es-
sential part of the ‘performance’, if you will.
Characterization is further aided by ‘character sheets’, anoth-
er hangover from table-top role-play. Character sheets describe
what skills that particular persona has. They let the player know the
boundaries of their ability, and go some way to giving an idea of what
kind of person that character is: are they illiterate, do they know how
to fight, are they dextrous? They are a curriculum vitae of sorts.
One final legacy of table-top gaming normally found on an LRP
character sheet, is that of ‘hit points’. These are the gauge by which
physical combat is measured. For years, combat was of principal im-
port in LRP, a game often consisted of little else but meeting and
then fighting with things, and as such its importance has perhaps
been overestimated. A character will therefore have a list of skills and
a set of statistics stating how many ‘hits’ or blows with a weapon they
can take. One hit with a sword equals one hit removed from your hit
point total. Different weapons may do differing amounts of damage,
thus simulating heavier, sharper or more skilled attacks. Combat is
simple. To inflict a hit on someone, you really do hit them (with a fake
weapon), but ‘pulling’ your blow (i.e. not putting anywhere near your
full force into it). The person under attack attempts to parry or to hit
those attacking, in a game that
hearkens back to fencing with branches and sticks. Futuristic or mod-
ern-day scenarios employ much the same principle, but with fake,
replica or blank-firing guns instead. You simply point and shoot, just
like a game of Cowboys and Indians.
The extent to which characters interact and develop is largely de-
fined by the kind of game they are playing. In linear adventures, the
emphasis is on action and combat. The story of the scenario is very
rigid, the path through it leading directly from A to Z. At each point
along this path, there will be an encounter, where the characters must
overcome or defeat a problem or enemy. Ultimately they will reach
point Z, the goal of the story, and will face a final battle where they will
either succeed or fail. They won’t lose the game itself, because it is not
a win/lose situation, but there is the chance that the characters will fail
in some personal goal or quest, which they accepted by undertaking
the challenge in the first place.
Linear adventures can be thought of an exploration of someone
else’s narrative—it has been planned from start to finish, the influ-
ence of the characters within the story exerting only a ‘defeat or be
defeated’ attitude to the plot devices within it. They are often based

18 intervaction
Live role-playing by Jay Gooby

upon a sole idea or theme, with few or no subplots to confuse or fla-

vour the major issue. Game duration is often short, four to six-hour
scenarios are common. Games exceeding these, twelve or twenty-four
hours say, soon develop a different emphasis, there has to be more
to them than fighting encounters, otherwise player boredom soon
sets in. So, rather than holding to the rigid structure of encounter,
encounter, encounter, there is a more malleable format. Characters
are left to find their way about the story, wandering or being chased
through it, discovering focal points, and then using these to navigate
their way to the end.
Characters in live-combat scenarios are measured by their level of
skills, the number of battles they’ve fought in and the length of time
they have survived. In general, there is little effort made at the more
realistic aspects of characterization, tragedy motivates two-dimen-
sional characters to battle their foes. Humanity and realistic drive
take a back seat.
The interactive scenario extends the principle of exploring a nar-
rative. The scenario is little but a skeletal framework of a story, it too
has focuses and plot-pillars, but these exist to provide an opportu-
nity for the narrative to take a new direction. The story in an interac-
tive scenario is almost entirely driven by player actions, with each fo-
cal point having any number of possible outcomes. Realistically there
does need to be an ending, but again this is merely another pillar
which can fall in any direction.
An interactive scenario is characterized by its myriad of plots, sub-
plots and themes. All will have some relevance to the story as a whole,
but each will be separate enough to be seen by those characters par-
ticipating in them as stories in their own right. Only when a particular
number of plot pillars have fallen will the greater picture reveal itself
in any detail, the particular import of each theme being decided by
the way the pillar was pushed in the first place.
‘Character briefs’ are used to incorporate characters into the story
that is the interactive scenario. These are descriptions written by the
creators of the scenario for each character. They describe their ac-
tions up to a point just before the scenario takes place, people they
have met, things they did or that have happened to them in the past.
Not short, they provide the all- important ‘hooks’ to pull characters
into the scenario, and to set them up with contacts and information.
Characters tend to be more precocious, more rounded and three di-
mensional, their drives go beyond that of seeking the killers of their
parents. They have friends, enemies, those they know can be trusted,
people they know to avoid, all of whom are other characters, played

one 19

by other people that they have actually met and interacted with, or
will do so at some point. Progression is not measured by gaining new
skills or levels, and certainly doesn’t occur as quickly. It is a slow, grad-
ual process, involving the making of new friends and acquaintances,
it is a process much like that in real life, of maturing and gathering
Live role-play today encompasses many, many different genres. It
would be pointless to list them, but suffice to say that you could try
anything from modern-horror through to high-fantasy. It is also far
more than just a game. Corporations test their employees through
role-play, youth rehabilitation explores concepts that would be other-
wise alien to the participants, and friends can explore their relation-
ships and perceptions of one another at a tangent. The combination
of role-play and dressing-up is how, as children, we learnt a great deal
about the world around us. It is perhaps one of the most powerful
narrative tools we possess.

Jay Gooby is Events Organizer for The Adventurers’ Guild, an international

live role-playing society. He is also an undergraduate reading Computing
Systems at Nottingham-Trent University. Currently working as a UNIX de-
veloper in his industrial placement year, Jay spends ‘far too much’ of his spare
time thinking about, planning and doing LRP.

Today it is rare to see a ‘gaffa tape’ sword, with far more advanced techniques and materials
such as casting, injection moulding and liquid latex being employed to achieve realistic
‘fantastic’ weaponry.

20 intervaction
Freeform Games
An overview

By Andrew Rilstone

Freeform1 games are a sub-category of live-action role-playing. They

appear to have been invented independently in several gaming
groups in Britain, America and Australia in the middle of the 1980s.
They remain primarily a fan-led phenomenon: to my knowledge
there have been only two professional products dealing with freeform
role-playing games2. For this reason it is not easy to generalize about
the games.
Freeforms resemble other forms of role-playing in that players
take on the roles of imaginary characters and tries to fulfil aims that
character’s aims and goals, or just have fun pretending to be some-
one else for the evening. That said, it is quite surprising how many of
the assumptions of conventional gaming freeforms manage to invert:
1: Conventional role-playing games are based on the interaction
between a referee and a small group of players.
A freeform game, on the other hand, is based almost entirely
on the interaction between players and other players. The simplest
freeform scenarios involve little more than player characters walking
around a room talking to one another. In a large freeform, it is quite
possible that a player might not meet the referee at any point in the
2: In a conventional role-playing game, each player controls a sin-
gle character, and the referee controls a large number of ‘non-player
characters’ (NPCs).
In a freeform, the players still have one character each, but there
are no NPCs: every character is a player character. This means that
freeforms tend to be much larger affairs than traditional role-playing
games. It’s hard to run a freeform with less than twenty players: a con-
vention game might involve several hundred.
3: The traditional referee is running a ‘scenario’: a sort of partly
written plot around which they and they players improvise a story.
This is typically a list of locations and NPCs, and a general plot into

one 21

which the main characters—the players—can be inserted. It might be

said to be a script for story with the main characters missed out.
By contrast, the freeform referee will certainly have written a ‘sce-
nario’ before the game starts, but it is unlikely to have a linear plot. If
a traditional scenario says:
‘Thongar is on a quest to slay Elrod’ (where Thongar is a player
character and Elrod is an NPC), a freeform scenario is more likely to
‘Thongar killed Elrod’s mother: therefore Thongar and Elrod
want to kill each other’, (where Thongar and Elrod are both player
characters). Given the size and complexity of most freeforms, this is
likely to turn into:
‘Elrod believes Thongar to have killed his mother: the murder-
er was in fact Thangar, Thongar’s evil twin. Mrs Elrod (secretly, the
high priestess of the local coven) was not in fact killed in the attack,
but escaped. However, she cannot reveal her survival to her son until
Thangar is dead.’
In short, the referee works out a complex series of character inter-
relationships, comes up with a reason for the characters to be assem-
bled in one place, and then stands back and watches the fireworks,
sorting out any problems which may arise. If a traditional role-play-
ing scenario is a plot without the characters, the typical freeform is a
set of characters and a location without a plot.
It follows that where, in conventional role-playing games, the
players get to design or invent their own character, in freeform games
those characters are normally allocated by the referee.
Freeform games are normally live-action, or at least semi-live ac-
tion events. That is, the players wear costumes and the referee goes
to at least some trouble to produce appropriate scenery. However, it
is common enough to run a game with no costumes, in which case
players might be asked to wear badges describing the character they
are playing. Some freeform referees allow players characters to fight
with standard LARP weapons: others prefer to use dice, cards, or
other rules mechanics to adjudicate combat. This is not as intrusive
as it may sound, as there is not likely to be much combat in most
freeform scenarios.
Rules mechanics may also be used for activities like sneaking,
spying and seduction, although this writer, at any rate, regards that
as an unnecessarily breaking of the illusion. The great strength of a
well run freeform game is that players have a sense of unmediated
access to an imaginary world. There are no intrusive rules or referee,
and normally no cries of ‘time out’ or ‘double damage!’ However,

22 intervaction
Freeform games by Andrew Rilstone

this sense of reality is not achieved without accepting a number of

serious limitations.
The first, of course, is that freeform games tend to have extremely
limited settings. A big convention game is unlikely to manage more
than six or seven rooms, and a club game has to make do with only
one. Continent-spanning quests are not a possibility. Secondly, the
referee has to come up with a more or less convincing reason why
such a large and disparate group happens to be assembled in one
place. Parties, balls, and diplomatic meetings are common themes for
freeform games, but the bar or tavern is probably the single most fre-
quently used setting, so much so that if I ever have to play in another
one I will grab the referee and throttle them.
Another major problem is that even the most minor ‘walk-on’
parts have to be taken by players. In a referee-moderated game, there
is no problem in having storm-troopers or bar staff who have no par-
ticular function in the game other than to chat with the PCs or get
shot at by them. In a freeform game, such characters have to be made
interesting in their own right, or else eliminated altogether. One can
argue that this is one of freeforming’s strengths, forcing referees to
create worlds in which even a lowly bartender is a fully rounded per-
sonality. In practice it often leads to artificially contorted plots in
which the serving wench at the tavern turns out to be a foreign agent
in disguise who is spying on the clientele to implicate Elrod’s mother
in treachery and seize control over the Coven for herself. There can
be no boring, ordinary characters in freeform games.
A final problem is that the referee has to thoroughly brief every
player before the game starts. It’s become traditional for freeform
referees to distribute envelopes full of data to layers a week or so in
advance. Even if these envelopes contain many pages of information,
the referee has no guarantee that the players will assimilate it all and,
inevitably, a single player who has not read their character notes can
radically change or ruin a game.
Role-playing games are often compared with children’s ‘let’s pre-
tend’ games. In fact, ‘let’s pretend’ has relatively little common in
terms with the highly formalized and rigid table-top role-playing
games, but applies very well to the best sort of freeform, in which
players can dress up as a character and literally ‘play’ at being them
for an evening.
But such a description belies the complexity and subtlety that the
best sort of freeform can achieve. The freeform player can stand back
from the action, observing, perhaps, a huddled conversation going
on at the other side of the room, which, perhaps, will suddenly ex-

one 23

plode into a fight. In each of the huddled groups that he is watch-

ing, several different storylines are going on. You may choose to step
forwards and listen to what is being said in one of the groups. But,
of course you are not an observer but a participant: your presence in
that particular conversation, confrontation or will affect it and change
it: it in turn will intersect with the story of your character and change
that. The story rattles on for an evening, or a weekend, or perhaps
even a week, and no one, not even the referee can ever experience
the whole of it. If there are two hundred players, then you have two
hundred different, interlocking first-person narratives—narratives
that could take unpredictable directions—stories that are being cre-
ated and experienced simultaneously. This experience has no obvi-
ous precursor in art, film, literature or conventional role-playing: if
traditional role-playing represents a new way of creating, telling, and
experiencing stories, then perhaps freeform games might be said to
represent a new type of story.

Andrew Rilstone is editor of Inter*action.

Just to confuse the issue ‘freeform’ is also used much more generally, as an adjective, to
refer to any game that de-emphasises rules and formal structure as in ‘Ghostbusters has a
freeform approach to character design.’ The editor promises that these terminological
inconsistencies will be ironed out by issue six at the latest.
Morgana Cowling’s Freeform Book, published by The Australian Games Group (TAGG),
and White Wolf ’s over-packaged box set Vampire: Minds Eye Theatre. The popular Host Your
Own Murder sets bear some affinities with freeforming, but are beyond the scope of this

24 intervaction
Audiences, Actors
and Enactment
Re-enactment as interactive narrative

by Nick Middleton

Historical re-enactment is conventionally conceived of as the recre-

ation of historical facts. In the United Kingdom it is perhaps best
known through the English Civil War, Dark Ages and Roman period
events staged by such amateur groups as The Sealed Knot, Regia An-
glorum and The Ermine Street Guard. These groups regularly put on
recreations of famous historical events (usually but not always battles)
in their respective periods, with as many as several hundred partici-
pants in authentic (i.e. historically accurate reproduction) costume.
The English Civil War groups in particular have high membership
and their large shows attract substantial audiences, often being staged
for major custodians of antiquities such as English Heritage or Cadw.
Many people’s impression of re-enactment is governed by these
large scale events and possibly by memories of the various Monty Py-
thon sketches that lampooned the hobby. The reality, as ever, is rather
different. There are a large number of re-enactment societies, cover-
ing every conceivable historical period (for clarity I am expressly ex-
cluding LARP and freeforming groups such as the Barony of The Far
Isles) and varying in size from half a dozen to several hundred mem-
bers. There are some professional and semi-professional organiza-
tions as well, but again for clarity I will deal exclusively with the ama-
teur groups.
There are three broad styles of re-enactment commonly encoun-
tered. Most groups are a blend of two styles, but rigid distinctions are
not possible for the most part as these are groups of hobbyists; people
will turn up to one sort of event but not another and most groups have
a varied programme to cater for the diversity of their members’ tastes.
The traditional re-enactment is the recreation of a battle that ac-
tually occurred, ideally on the site of the original battle. The Eng-
lish Civil War was the first period to be developed in this fashion but
groups now exist for most periods, up to and including the Vietnam

one 25

War. The audience (members of the fee-paying public as a rule) are

spectators, usually behind safety ropes and given the benefit of some
form of commentary. Varying degrees of effort will go into authentic
arms and armour, fortifications and special effects (cannon fire, lime
and water, fire-arrows, blood capsules etc.).
The battle may be very closely scripted to follow historical fact, at-
tempting to present a scaled-down representation of exactly the ma-
noeuvres and tactics of the original conflict—for example the Bos-
worth Field Battle re-enactments that take place at the original site but
it is not possible even with the co-operation of the majority of Wars of
The Roses groups to even approximate the true numbers deployed.
Alternatively, a scenario for conflict which fits the historical period
may be developed in which the available numbers are more plausible.
In the Wars of The Roses period an encounter in Cheshire between a
party of Yorkist scourers and a newly recruited levy of men en route
to join a larger Lancastrian army at Chester could be devised. Such
an encounter would be typical of the minor conflicts of the period al-
though the exact details may be supposition or speculation.
This is basically wargaming. Individual participants perceive a sto-
ry, a sequence of events ordered in time and conditioned by the over-
all flow of battle, but the whole is structured around presenting an
explicit, overt spectacle to the audience. The audience has no power
over the flow of events and the participant has only limited determi-
nation of their own course of action within the larger pre-directed
structure of the battle.
At the opposite extreme is what might be termed Diorama Re-en-
actment. In this a smaller group of participants in authentic costume
act out roles in front of an audience. They may populate a building
(e.g. portraying an entire Regency household from the master of the
house to the scullery-maid) or other appropriate setting, a military en-
campment on the eve of battle for example. The audience are much
closer, aware of individual participants as individuals. The spectacle in
this comes from the costume and recreation of historical personages.
As an example, consider the Hurray For Henry shows staged for
English Heritage in the summer of 1991. Here a small group of par-
ticipants portrayed King Henry VIII and the inner members of his
court on an informal tour of the southern coastal defences in 1534.
Within simple time limitations, the participants improvised in char-
acter, with the audience cast as the local common folk, allowed into
His Majesty’s presence as a gesture of affection. The audience is still,
in this form, passive in the sense that they have no control over the
development of the story that unfolds before them. The participants

26 intervaction
Re-enactment by Nick Middleton

have a greater engagement, but are still constrained, not least by an

awareness of time limits and the requirements of pacing, to keep an
essentially passive audience’s attention. This form most strongly re-
sembles improvised theatre, the participants consciously playing to a
passive (or largely so) audience and aware of time constraints.
Between the two forms lies a hybrid that is both a logical develop-
ment of Diorama Re-enactment and a result of the influence of table-
top and live action role-playing games on wargaming re-enactment.
In it the participants take on roles much as in Diorama (although
usually of a lesser stature, representing typical historical personages
rather than documented ones), but the time constraints are less (usu-
ally the limit is the opening times of the venue) and there is a plot,
in the sense of a wider significance to events determined before the
event. However, individual participants improvise within their char-
acter, role-playing their actions. The audience are largely or totally
invisible to the participants, wandering at will through the site. They
construct their own version of the plot through the events they wit-
ness, e.g. seeing the reconciliation between the returning soldier and
his wife below stairs rather than the hostile reunion of the heir of the
house and his crippled half-brother above stairs.
Implicit in what has gone before is that in this form, the overall
sequence of events is not known to all participants and the audience,
whereas in the other two it is. As a generalization this is true (a re-en-
actment of Bosworth Field is a forgone conclusion in terms of story)
and this is why this final form is interactive. Participants in the Hur-
ray For Henry shows knew the story, even if the detail was varied every
performance, but the Lawyer to Owen Ap Merredith of Gwydir only
knows his past. The analogy here is the Murder Mystery Weekends,
but with an audience. For the participants it is purely a role-playing
experience, but the audience construct the narrative they experience
by choosing which characters to follow, which rooms to enter.
Re-enactment, like any hobby, is a continuum of different styles
and approaches. It best defined by its differences from LARP as more
theatrical and from theatre as more like role-playing. That its funda-
mental aim is to immerse audience and participant in the past makes
gives it its natural disposition to interactive narrative. This is however
a new development in the field and the future will decide how exactly
historical recreation marries with narrative freedom.

Nick Middleton has been involved in the Stafford household of Livery and
Maintanance, and other Tudor and Wars of the Roses re-enactment groups,
for the past five years.

one 27
Solo Gamebooks
Introductions to interaction

By Marc Gascoigne

In 1982, the largest publisher of children’s books in the UK, Puffin

Books, released a strange book by a pair of unknown authors, Steve
Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Called The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it
was the first mass-market solo fantasy adventure, and it kick-started a
whole new branch of the role-playing hobby. The book took the form
of a fantasy role-playing adventure, with combat and other chance
events resolved using dice rolls against predetermined character at-
tributes, arranged into book form. Wherever there was a choice, the
reader had the option of turning to one or other of the numbered
paragraphs, the route continuing through the book, jumping back-
wards and forwards between sections, until eventually they had ex-
plored the dungeon and reached the treasure at the end. In effect,
the book acted as a referee, revealing only the result of their specific
actions. The book was an immediate success, verging on a sensation,
and single-handedly launched the solo gamebook industry.
Of course, solo role-playing adventures were not an entirely new
idea. Shortly after Dungeons & Dragons had made its mark on the
world, Flying Buffalo had released their own fantasy role-playing
game. Tunnels & Trolls was massively simplified in terms of rules com-
plexity and approach, and its broad sense of humour was very differ-
ent to D&D’s somewhat academic style. Alongside its regular multi-
player dungeons, Flying Buffalo also released a series of solo dun-
geons for T&T. These followed the form typical of early role-playing
adventures: they were dungeon-based, mostly concerned with fight-
ing and incorporated a hodgepodge of influences from just about
every mythological pantheon on Earth. What they did do, though,
was over a series of releases work out the basic framework one needed
to use to create a solo adventure.
Following the T&T solo adventures, Judges Guild released a series
of solos for D&D. Again, they were crude in design (it goes without

28 intervaction
Solo gamebooks by Marc Gascoigne

saying that they were crude in printing, layout and artwork; Judges
Guild was famous for it) but did spread the concept of solo gaming
to different game systems. In the UK, meanwhile, fanzine author Bri-
an Asbury self-published his Solo Dungeon, which was the most con-
sistently balanced and playable adventure yet. And, of course, fairly
sophisticated adventure games were being written for every type of
home computer there was, though these, often more concerned with
puzzles and jokes than ‘the stuff of heroic fantasy’, would not always
capture the atmosphere of a proper fantasy role-playing game.
All of these products, many distributed by their own company,
Games Workshop, inspired Jackson and Livingstone to realize that
solo adventures could, if handled properly, be very popular. Build-
ing on what had already been done with the form, they knew to keep
the rules short and flexible; the more complex your rules, the more
paragraphs you used up trying to cater for all eventualities rather
than advancing the plot. Also, they did away with the misconception,
common to earlier adventures, that the directions given to the reader
should be so accurate they could map the adventure, having to in-
clude directions along the lines of ‘the tunnel runs 12 metres due west
then turns north for 3 metres’ detracts from the heroic atmosphere
that one is trying (emphasis on the ‘trying’, perhaps) to summon up
for the reader.
When Jackson and Livingstone attempted to interest publishers
in their idea, they met with universal incomprehension, even despite
Ian’s previously published guide to role-playing games, Dicing with
Dragons. Eventually, however, after more than a year of indecision,
Puffin Books took the plunge, and was rewarded by large sales. The
success of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain can be put down to many
things: it was the first mass-market example of something that was
inevitable, true, but it was also done well: it was compact and simple,
managing to encapsulate all the appealing ideas of more complicated
role-playing games in one handy (and cheap at only £1.25) introduc-
tory paperback. Besides, with the promotional weight of both Pen-
guin Books and Games Workshop behind it how could it fail?
This first gamebook was soon followed by sequels. In Steve Jack-
son’s The Citadel of Chaos (FF#2), published at the beginning of 1983,
magic was introduced for the first time, using a very simple system
of known spells that had to be re-learned (at various opportunities
through the adventure) to be re-cast. It was plain that the gamebooks
became very popular very quickly; this particular book was reprint-
ed to meet demand nine times in 1983 alone. In Starship Traveller
(FF#4), the location moved logically to the other popular setting for

one 29

role-playing games: outer space. Despite the success of multi-player

games like Traveller, however, SF gamebooks were (and are) never as
successful as their fantasy counterparts, though reasons for this are
not particularly clear. It could be that the setting, in harking back to
SF rather than the new growth area of heroic fantasy, was seen as old-
fashioned; possibly the adventures, which often had to move between
different planets and never really generated a properly rooted sense
of atmosphere, were just not appealing enough. Whatever the reason,
after Starship Traveller, the next five FF books were all straight fan-
With the success of Fighting Fantasy, other publishers had sud-
denly woken up to the concept of gamebooks (and the money to be
made publishing them). Jackson and Livingstone were approached
by a number of them; preferring to remain with Puffin, however, they
passed on the offers of work to their creative staff at Games Work-
shop. Hence, the bookshop shelves were soon groaning under titles
by the likes of then-White Dwarf editor Jamie Thomson (the time-trav-
elling Falcon series and the martial arts-based Way of the Tiger), Ian and
Clive Bailey (the Lovecraft-inspired Forbidden Gateway series) and Joe
Dever (the Lone Wolf series). The latter proved especially popular, as
they approached the genre in the manner of more sophisticated role-
playing games, based around a central, named hero who increased in
abilities and powers from book to book. The explosion in gamebooks
saw authors using all manner of different genres as settings for their
books. Esoteric writer (and creator of the supernatural role-playing
game Man, Myth & Magic) J. H. Brennan’s Fire*Wolf series was said
to be for adults, although the only evidence of this was one barely
hinted-at sex scene. ‘Real-life’ gamebooks, tied in to events in history
including the Colditz escape and the English Civil War, were tried by
Hutchinson and Virgin; the latter were among the most inept game-
books ever published. Hodder & Stoughton even applied the form to
their Enid Blyton and Asterix ranges, with delightful packages that
included their own special dice, maps and props (a series that contin-
ues sporadically to this day).
In the Fighting Fantasy series, too, this search for new genres was
apparent: House of Hell (FF#10) was a modern-day haunted house
story; Freeway Fighter (FF#13) a Mad Max/Battlecars adventure; Ap-
pointment with FEAR (FF#17) a superhero caper. Some genres, how-
ever, took the form onto dodgy ground; a couple of ill-advised illus-
trations of sacrifices in House of Hell, along with somewhat gory fight
scenes in other gamebooks, brought Fighting Fantasy to the attention
of an evangelical group, though their sensationalist report (and its

30 intervaction
Solo gamebooks by Marc Gascoigne

subsequent reporting on the BBC national news) merely proved good

publicity for the range.
No genre, however, proved as successful as heroic fantasy, though
there was experimentation with this form too. Steve Jackson’s linked
four-book Sorcery! series built upon the simple FF rules, but incorpo-
rated a massive set of magic rules, with a long list of spells that had
to be memorised by the reader. The series also pushed the consistent
background and the sheer epic scale of the quest, which covers more
than 2200 paragraphs (a regular gamebook might last for 400). It is
an impressive achievement, as detailed and as convoluted as any epic
fantasy novel, but its sheer size and the wait for successive volumes
condemned it to be a doomed exercise, a grand folly.
Less grand a folly was TSR’s attempt to introduce gamebooks to
the US market. Their Endless Quest series was hampered by misguided
attempts to almost totally play down any game elements, including
dice rolls and puzzle solving. Needless to say, they did not do par-
ticularly well, even with the cachet of having the famous D&D logo
behind them; later attempts, such as the Advanced D&D gamebooks
which actually used different rule systems (none of which, strangely,
were related to AD&D itself!) from book to book, did similarly poorly.
Even worse were the Marvel Superheroes books, a series which were
only published in the UK when TSR made them a condition of Pen-
guin’s license to handle the best-selling Dragonlance novelizations. Of
the astonishingly awful romantic HeartQuest gamebooks (and indeed
Puffin’s own abominable, pony-obsessed Star*Rider series aimed at
girls, despite the evidence of their own market research that revealed
that a third of FF readers were female), the less said the better.
Two-player books were also tried by various publishers. These
came as two books, one for each player, which were written so that
when both players were at a particular location they would meet each
other in the text, and typically fight each other—unfortunately there
was often precious little else to do in these books. Joe Dever’s Com-
bat Heroes cleverly stretched the form to its logical conclusion, adapt-
ing the method used in WW1 dogfight game Ace of Aces of presenting
pictures, rather than text, at each stage of the game so both players
constantly saw their surroundings—and if they were lucky, their op-
ponent—with each turn of the dungeon passage. Two-player game-
books were not a major success, however; they were hampered by the
need for at least two books (and if you bundled them together in a
card sleeve, as FF’s Clash of the Princes did, ridiculously VAT bumped
up the price even further), and the need for a second player negated
the most obvious appeal of the solo adventures, that they could be

one 31

read like any other book: alone.

All of this interest in gamebooks coincided with the upsurge in
popularity of more sophisticated role-playing games (ultimately, it is
clear, they were all part of the same phenomenon), so it was not sur-
prising that some authors would try to use the gamebook style as the
format for introducing younger players to multi-player games. The
Fighting Fantasy rules were restructured for multiple players as, well,
Fighting Fantasy, and were accompanied by books detailing mon-
sters and also what had by now developed into a (mostly) coherent
FF world, Titan. The barmy Elizabethan-set Maelstrom was also pub-
lished by Puffin, to general bafflement. More successfully, Dave Mor-
ris and Oliver Johnson’s Dragon Warriors appeared from Corgi, who
later failed to capitalize on their success by republishing Tunnels &
Trolls and various adventures in paperback form (these still clog re-
maindered bookshops throughout the UK).
By now the gamebook format had even penetrated the main-
stream media. In the field of comic books, there were various 2000
AD spin-off solo adventures, using cartoon panels rather than par-
agraphs, based around characters like Judge Dredd, Nemesis and
Slaine. Knockabout produced a You are Margaret Thatcher book, to
some delighted media attention. Other publishers tried more sophis-
ticated, adult themes, including being a politician and a pop star,
though with no great commercial success. Even ‘top-shelf ’ magazines
went in for jokey articles where the reader had to survive an office
party while scoring, in great pornographic detail, as many times as
possible—with ‘hilarious’ consequences.
It was the main core of fantasy gamebooks, and ultimately the by-
now multi-million selling Fighting Fantasy range, however, which was
the strongest, most enduring format. As the pressure on Jackson and
Livingstone to keep repeating their successful format increased, they
opened the series to other writers, with the ‘Jackson & Livingstone
presents’ series. At first these were very similar to the original game-
books (those written by namesake US hobby mogul Steve Jackson
proved especially confusing to young fans!), the influx of new blood
led to advances in the form. There was only so much that could be
done with the dungeon-crawling format. Adventures now ranged far
and wide across the world of Titan, and beyond, to other planes and
times. Characters in different adventures used new skills or spells,
or they were accompanied by companions (and in Ian Livingstone’s
Armies of Death, by whole legions, who fought massed battles). There
were games and puzzles, storytelling asides, dreams and diversions.
In similar ways to some computer games, the hero now had to find

32 intervaction
Solo gamebooks by Marc Gascoigne

various different items which would prove the keys into different
parts of an adventure, or the means of gaining vital pieces of infor-
mation from encountered characters. Unlike many computer adven-
ture games, however, the gamebooks still insisted upon total internal
consistency. Puzzles were logical; answers, characters and events were
consistent with the adventure’s fantasy background and the world of
Titan as a whole.
Despite the increased sophistication and quality of the adven-
tures, it was obvious that the law of diminishing returns had set in,
just as it had in the general field of gaming as a whole. In simple
terms, the craze had died down, and what was left was the hobby.
Those publishers who had leapt onto the bandwagon initially wound
up their series; those who had been late (like Allen & Unwin, with
their Fatemaster series) jumping on had missed the boat and were
being rewarded with poor sales. Joe Dever’s popular Lone Wolf and its
associated, magic-based GreyStar series were nearing their end, and
were now being superseded by novelizations set in the same world.
For Puffin and Fighting Fantasy this decline was less noticeable.
World-wide licensing of the titles was proving popular, especially in
Japan. Puffin, too, tried novelizations, though an interrupted sched-
ule did not help their sales. A need to push a more sophisticated side
of the game had led to Dungeoneer, the first volume of Advanced Fight-
ing Fantasy, which was a brave attempt at producing an introductory
role-playing game that was very easy to understand yet sophisticat-
ed enough to be entertaining and long-lived; two further volumes of
AFF rules and adventures have now appeared. Ultimately, however, it
was the gamebooks which continued to be the backbone of the range,
and these were now becoming very sophisticated, while still remain-
ing true to the very rigid strictures of the form.
In the summer of 1992, the Fighting Fantasy series celebrated its
10th anniversary and its 50th (regular) gamebook with Return to Fire-
top Mountain. A discreet flash on the back cover of that book noted
that the series had achieved more than 12 million world-wide sales.
There was some discussion about whether the series would stop there,
but levels of sales—the ultimate arbiters for any publisher—have
meant that the series is continuing. Recent titles have pulled back a
little from the experimental edge, perhaps, but continue to push gen-
tly at the boundaries of what can be done within the strict format of
the genre. Paul Mason’s forthcoming Magehunter (FF#57), for exam-
ple, is based around a dimension-hopping, form-swapping renegade
sorcerer; to succeed, the hero must not only track down and find his
prey but must make sure he is in the right body before he transports

one 33

himself back to his home plane. All this is some way from beating up
some orcs and finding the right three keys to open the final treasure
chest, as one must do in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, yet still oper-
ates firmly within the areas defined by the Fighting Fantasy series.
Puffin are also trying to lure in new readers. Tying in to the video
game explosion, gamebooks based upon Sonic the Hedgehog and Eter-
nal Champions are being presented as a cheap and easy way of contin-
uing one’s adventures with one’s favourite heroes. It is possible that
these will see the start of a new trend so that alongside any successful
multimedia project one will see tie-in gamebooks alongside noveliza-
tions, comic books, T-shirts, et al. It’s equally possible that potential
readers will save their pounds for buying the real thing. For younger
readers, Puffin are about to launch First Fighting Fantasy, using plen-
tiful illustrations and simplified rules to attract very young gamers at
an age far younger than that of the average FF reader; again, this is
an experiment that will have to be very carefully handled and mar-
keted if it is to work.
More generally, other publishers have decided to take the plunge
again and have initiated something of a renaissance in gamebooks,
most especially with Dave Morris’s Virtual Reality gamebooks. Perhaps
there is a new generation who, whether through prolonged exposure
to and acceptance of the idea of role-playing games, or the popularity
of computer games, want to try gamebooks again; perhaps publish-
ers have just forgotten how many failed to make a profit out of the
craze the last time round. In the US, TSR are preparing a new range
of Dungeons & Dragons gamebooks, though once again they seem to
have decided to forego most of the gameplay in favour of easy op-
tions and long passages of description.
In 1994, the gamebook format is rigidly defined, and all pub-
lished works within the field fall into this very narrow band. While
individual books within the different series, and various series them-
selves, are pushing back some boundaries of what can be done us-
ing the form, such innovations remain firmly within the formats of
mass-market paperbacks targeted at young readers. As it stands, in
terms of doing something new and potentially exciting and enlight-
ening, the gamebook form is most definitely not being used to its full
potential, but the tension between innovation and the need to actu-
ally sell enough copies to make them attractive to a book publisher
prevent most different attempts from making it past the pipe-dream
stage. If anything more interesting can be done using the solo ad-
venture form, it is unlikely that it will occur in the gamebook field. In
the future, it will surely be in the field of immense stylized computer

34 intervaction
Solo gamebooks by Marc Gascoigne

adventures, using the as-yet unexplored corners of hypertext, and

exploiting that delightful inverse ratio between the immense storage
capacities and the cheap reproduction costs of a CD-ROM, where the
new forms and ideas will occur.

Marc Gascoigne is a freelance writer and editor, and has written a number of
solo gamebooks, novelizations and related works.

one 35
Improvisation in the Theatre
As Discipline, Tool, and Political Statement

by Michael Cule

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them
Hamlet, by W. Shakespeare. III.2

Hamlet: Now this is an improvisation exercise. There are no rules, no

constraints. Let your imagination free itself. You can be anything you like.
A drama student: I know! Let’s all be trees.
Hamlet: Don’t be a pillock!
Hamlet, by The Comic Strip.

There are three stage in the history of improvisation in the theatre

that I’d like to distinguish, and three kinds of use that improvisation
is put to. All three still exist in the theatre today, although to varying
degree; all three have reflections in role-playing games.

Commedia Dell’Arte: Improvisation as a discipline and an artform

The earliest form of theatrical improvisation is perhaps the closest to
what goes on around a gaming table today. From the fourteenth to
the eighteenth century, beginning in Italy and spreading to France
and eventually to all of Europe, there was a form of theatre that was
totally improvised: created by the players on the spot. There were
no scripts, although there were traditional characters and situations
which were reused over and over again in different combinations. It
needed the highest skills both of individual performance and group
co-operation: this was commedia dell’arte.
Commedia troupes were travelling players: they travelled from
place to place erecting their sets wherever they could and playing
to whatever audience they could find. The richer troupes played to
nobles and in civic theatres, the poorer played in inn courtyards and
barns. The standard stories would vary to include local references and
jokes, and play to the prejudices of the audiences. I imagine that the
troupe would set up their stage and decide which of their standard
routines were best fitted to the local situation and go out and run with

36 intervaction
Improvisation in the theatre by Michael Cule

the ball, playing off each other and the audience. How much new ma-
terial would be included in each evening’s performance would vary
with the standard of the troupe.
The characters were traditional and the players wore standard-
ized costumes and masks (except for the young lovers who were bare-
faced). We might see the origins of ‘archetype’ character generation
systems in the characters of commedia. There were the madcap serv-
ants or zannis, (from whom we get the word ‘zany’), the boastful sol-
dier who runs at the sight of a mouse (usually a Spaniard in Italian
commedia), the doddering, rich man Pantaloon (originally a Venetian
merchant); the learned doctor whose patients always die; the young
maiden and her lover, the maidservant. You can see the origins of Star
Wars’ character prototypes here.
But although the characters were old favourites and audiences
wanted to see them again and again, there was a tendency for them
to become more and more individualized and distinguished from
one another. Actors would take a stock character and give them more
and more of a personality, making a name for themselves in the pro-
cess. And when they died, the character they made would become
part of the repertoire of the commedia everywhere. From among the
zannis came Arelecchino/Harlequin and the hunchbacked Pulcinella
who became Mr Punch. The boastful Capitano developed into Scar-
amouche, a trickster figure who starts fights and lets others finish
But then, as commedia spread and mutated (into Harlequinade,
into the Punch-and-Judy show, and eventually into the English pan-
tomime) it began to become rigid. The routines and characters that
had been springboards became traps, no longer changing and flow-
ing to fit the talent of a particular actor at a particular time, but be-
coming straitjackets. Also, there was an attempt in the early nine-
teenth century to reclaim the theatre for literary virtues. Commedia, al-
ways a rare and difficult art, died out and its remnants were absorbed
by low ‘illegitimate’ theatre. Purely improvised theatre is very rare
nowadays and probably will always be so. The technical complexity of
theatre in the twentieth century also militates against unplanned per-
There may be a moral here: role-playing as an artform. We’ve
started to throw off the shackles of overly complex game systems that
we inherited from wargaming. But perhaps we should be worried
about the upcoming expansion of computer systems and Virtual Re-
ality. It may be that the artform will be bent to do what the technical
systems are good at.

one 37

Stanislavski: Method and improvisation as preparation

It was with Stanislavski and the development of a more realistic act-
ing style at the Moscow Arts Theatre in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century that improvisation returned to the theatre. But not
to be shown on stage. It was a tool for the actor in rehearsal, a means
to make the bare bones of lines and stage directions live.
It is this form of improvisations that I’ve had (and most actors
have had) most experiences with. The aim is not to replace the writ-
ten text but to fill in the background to it. You may be asked to play
the scenes that are not in the play: I recently took part in a short film
which began with a man bringing a woman back to his flat. To give
some depth to the scene we improvised the couple meeting and flirt-
ing in the restaurant beforehand.
Or to take another example, I was at a workshop on the charac-
ters in Hamlet and was asked to summarize what had happened to the
character I wanted to portray (Claudius) as if by his best friend, after
it was all over. (‘Damn me! Don’t think anyone was surprised that the
election went the way it did. Except for that effete idiot, Prince Ham-
let.’) This form of improvisation is the actor’s equivalent of prelimi-
nary sketches. You scribble them, you look at them afterwards, and
you take what is useful in them for the final portrait.
It is also useful as a loosening-up exercise, to get the juices flowing
and to learn how to react with the other performers. Often, a director
using this sort of technique will say: ‘You and you. You’re on stage at
the start; you come on. Let’s have some sort of encounter, you’re in
the park... ’ and then see what happens.
One rule is almost always imposed in such freeform improvisa-
tion: don’t block. That means you accept whatever the people in the
situation throw at you. If that say, ‘Is that your elephant?’ you don’t
come back with, ‘There is no elephant.’ A very good rule for role-
players too.

Collective Creation: Improvisation as a political stance

Normally, a theatrical performance is a very hierarchical event. Mi-
chael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting puts the people who put up the
money and the director at the top of the tree. The pecking order goes
down through the leading actors, the wardrobe and design depart-
ments, through the minor actors and the stage management to the
theatre cat and the writer at the bottom. It is both funny and true.
And it has to be that way. You have limited time and a limited
budget (and perhaps limited talent). Decisions have to made and as
every Sandhurst cadet knows, sometimes it’s better to make some de-

38 intervaction
Improvisation in the theatre by Michael Cule

cision even if it isn’t necessarily the best one. If the director doesn’t
like what you’re doing then you do it their way or get replaced.
But some people don’t like this. There have been all the way
though the twentieth century attempts to make theatre by a collec-
tive process. This isn’t the return of commedia: the final production is
fixed, not improvised afresh every night. But the material is created
by the company in rehearsal. Everybody has an input, there is no sole
author. The director becomes less of an autocrat and more of a secre-
tary to the committee. At least, that’s the theory.
You may have gathered that I’m not entirely in sympathy with this
approach to the theatre, which is unfair of me since I’ve not really
done any since I was at school and had to suffer in the back row of the
dreadful ‘collective’ piece that drama teachers tended to put together
when they had huge number of stage-struck pupils to deal with. It’s
partly the memory of these dreadfully bathetic production and partly
the experience of committees of actors (in Equity general meetings
and at a co-operative agency I was once involved in) that puts me off:
there’s nothing I loathe more than a bunch of egos in a small space
all crying, ‘Mr Chairman!’ It’s also partly that such hyper-democratic
approaches don’t appeal to my political prejudices.
But I don’t suppose that such prejudices of mine will stop the
movement from resurfacing. It produces some good theatre and has
produced one masterpiece: Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely
Sometimes, role-playing seems like this also. But there is a pecu-
liar combination in the role of the GM that makes total democratiza-
tion of RPG unlikely: the GM is a performer, the writer, the director of
the troupe and the referee of a wargame. And that last power (which
I don’t think can be taken from him) ensures that the vestiges of hi-
erarchy cannot be removed. The final moral is: the GM has the last
word. And that is how it should be.

Mike Cule is a professional actor.

one 39
Uses of Role-playing
Within Psychology and
by Keith Hurley

Role-playing has been defined as ‘... a situation in which an individual

is explicitly asked to take a role not normally his own, or if his own,
in a setting not normal for the enactment of the role...’ (Mann, 1956,
p. 227), and has carved a respected niche for itself amongst the vari-
ous facets and approaches to psychology and psychotherapy. Role-
playing theories and techniques can be found in use in such varied
disciplines as social and developmental psychology, psychotherapy
and even Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), where it is used to
help the designer appreciate the user’s point of view. The aim of this
paper is to provide an overview of some of the more common uses
of role-playing within psychology in a form suitable for those with lit-
tle prior knowledge of the discipline. It is by no means an exhaustive
catalogue of the uses of role-playing but rather more of a sample in-
dicative of the general state of affairs currently.
Role-playing or role-taking skill is thought to form an important
part of social cognition, communication and interaction. Indeed the
basis for many uses of role-playing is that it reflects an underlying em-
pathy, or ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. Developmental psy-
chologists maintain that the changes evidenced in a child’s play and
social interactions as they get older is, to some extent, a reflection of
their role-taking ability (Mussen et al, 1990). The acquisition of role-
taking skill has been divided into five stages (Selman, 1976). These
stages, however, also reflect the child’s abstract reasoning ability and
their ability to express their thought processes, so it is possible that a
child may have some empathic understanding of a situation but may
express it in a manner quite different to the manner in which an adult
would express themselves.
Stage 0: The Egocentric Viewpoint (0-5 years). Children at this stage

40 intervaction
Psychology and Role-playing by Keith Hurley

cannot envisage others holding differing outlooks on social situa-

Stage 1: Social Informational Role Taking (5-8 years). Child is aware
that others may perceive a situation in a manner that differs from the
child’s outlook.
Stage 2: Self-Reflection (8-10 years). Child can appreciate that people
are aware of other’s thoughts and feelings and that others are aware
of the child’s. The child also realizes that this mutual awareness af-
fects each person’s perspective.
Stage 3: Mutual Role-Taking (10-12 years). Child is capable of put-
ting themselves in another’s situation and is aware that others can do
the same.
Stage 4: Social and Conventional Role-Taking (12-15 years). The
child realizes that there are perspectives shared by social groups (e.g..
fantasy gamers) that ease communication within the group.
When asked to describe others, young children will usually refer
to physical characteristics and overt behaviour. Children older than
8 will begin using more abstract terms but often in an inconsistent
manner and, by the age of 15 will have begun to realize the complex
nature of others’ behaviour and its relationship to external factors
(Shantz, 1983).
Correlations have been found between role-taking ability and mor-
al behaviour such as helping, sharing and altruism, and also with gen-
eral intelligence. Lack of role-taking skills has been found to be typical
of juvenile delinquents and that training in these skills can subsequent-
ly result in significantly lower levels of delinquency (Chandler, 1973).
How can role-playing be used to aid people’s social development?
Within psychotherapy there are a number of methods that utilize role-
playing techniques to a large extent: Psychodrama, Fixed-Role Ther-
apy and Behaviour Therapy amongst others. Psychodrama involves
the client acting out their concerns and achieving a catharsis, or emo-
tional release, and thereby confronting problems. Through a process
of role-reversals and assumption of various personae the client is en-
couraged to view their concerns from otherwise unconsidered per-
In fixed-role therapy the patient is given a pattern of behaviour,
differing from the patient’s normal behaviour, to enact both in the
therapy session and in everyday life. This approach was developed
by Kelly (1955) with the enacted role serving to help protect the pa-
tient as they explore their environment. Unfortunately, early research
provided only suggestive evidence that these therapies had any effect
(Jones & Peters, 1952; Edwards, 1940)

one 41

Behaviour therapy involves substituting effective patterns of so-

cial behaviour for ineffective ones and is used in situations such as
assertiveness training. It takes the form of a number of scenes, each
one progressively more difficult, which the subject role-plays, with the
therapist assuming the role of whomever the subject wishes to be-
come assertive with. It is rather like a role-playing version of system-
atic desensitization where ‘anxiety-producing stimuli (such as a spider
to an arachnophobe) are paired, in a graded sequence or hierarchy,
with a state of physical relaxation until the most difficult situation can
be faced without anxiety.’ (Dworetsky, 1988, p. 538)
In order to establish the efficacy of role-playing as a technique
Janis and King (1954) began a systematic study of role-playing and
its effects on attitude change. Their study involved asking college stu-
dents to make a speech, elaborated from a brief outline on one of
three topics. The subjects were asked to make the speech as if they
firmly believed in the position assigned to them, a position calculated
to be contrary to their private beliefs. After delivering their speech
and then listening to two other speeches, one on each of the oth-
er topics (both of which represented positions the subject disagreed
with), the subject’s attitudes to the topics were reassessed. The results
showed that subjects were more influenced by the role-playing con-
dition where they delivered a speech than by listening to the other
speeches (Goldstein & Simonson, 1971). Further experimentation
seems to suggest that the important factor in attitudinal change is the
element of improvisation, perhaps because the process of improvisa-
tion leads the subject to develop arguments which are directly op-
posed to their private beliefs, so undermining these attitudes (Zim-
bardo, 1965). Conflict Resolution Theory or Incentive Theory has
stemmed directly from this explanation. A succinct synopsis of this
approach was provided by Janis and Gilmore (1965, pp 17-18):

According to this ‘incentive’ theory, when a person accepts the task

of improvising arguments in favour of a point of view at variance
with his own personal convictions, he becomes temporarily
motivated to think up all the positive arguments he can, and at
the same time suppress thoughts about the negative arguments
which are supposedly irrelevant to the assigned task. This ‘biased
scanning’ increases the salience of the positive arguments and
therefore increases the chances of acceptance of the new attitude
position. A gain in attitude change would not be expected, however,
if resentment or other interfering affective reactions were aroused
by negative incentives in the role-playing situation.

42 intervaction
Psychology and Role-playing by Keith Hurley

Similar effects have been shown using topics concerning emotive

issues (Culbertson, 1957) with effects being accentuated by social re-
inforcement such as being declared winner of a debate by one’s peers
(Scott, 1957).
An example of how effective emotive role-playing can be was pro-
vided by Janis and Mann (1965) who used role-playing to help sub-
jects reduce smoking. It was felt that, given the habitual nature of
smoking, cognitive role-playing might not be an effective approach
as the subject would simply distance themselves from the role-playing
and thus not experience the role for themselves. In order to obtain
the necessary empathic contact each subject was required to act out
the role of a patient who is receiving the results of tests from their
doctor. The experimenter, acting as the doctor, delivered the diagno-
sis in a dramatic way calculated to instil fear in the subject.
The beliefs and attitudes of the 26 female smoker subjects were
assessed prior to the experiment. The subjects were randomly as-
signed to either a role-playing or non role-playing (control) condi-
tion. Those in the role-playing condition were required to complete
five scenes designed to arouse fear in the subject. Scene one involved
the subject engaging in a soliloquy about her fears regarding the di-
agnosis. The second scene saw the doctor informing her she had lung
cancer and needed surgery. In the third scene the subject expressed
her anxiety and concern about her situation. The fourth involved her
making arrangements to be admitted to hospital and discussed her
not exactly hopeful prognosis. In the fifth scene she conversed with
the doctor about the link between smoking and cancer. Those sub-
jects in the control group listened to a tape recording of a role-play-
ing session (SPPR).
An assessment of the subject’s attitudes was conducted immediate-
ly after the experiment with a follow-up session two weeks later. Over
the two weeks ten of those in the role-playing condition decreased
smoking by an average of 10.5 cigarettes per day over the fourteen
subjects, as opposed to 4.8 cigarettes over five of the twelve control
subjects. Further follow-ups provide startling indications of the long-
term efficacy of emotional role-playing with the effects of the single
session still in evidence eighteen months later (Mann & Janis, 1968).

Apart from actual therapies, role-playing has also been used with
some success as an assessment tool. For example Rehm and Marston
(1969) developed a method of assessing heterosexual anxiety in
males. This consisted of an audio tape which presented ten different

one 43

social situations, each containing a scenario where the subject has to

respond to a comment by a female, such as where a scene in a col-
lege cafeteria is described. The subject is told that he is leaving when
he is approached by a woman. A female voice then says, ‘I think you
left this book.’ The subject was asked to place himself in the situation
and to respond as he would to that situation. This was repeated for
each of the ten scenarios and the responses recorded and later ana-
lysed for anxiety and for a range of other characteristics. The scores
obtained for subjects who volunteered for a therapy programme were
found to be significantly different to those obtained for subjects who
had not volunteered for therapy and were found to change as a func-
tion of therapy undergone. Other assessment procedures have been
developed for such areas as assessing interpersonal skills (Goldfried
& McFall, 1975) and assertive behaviour (McFall & Marston, 1970).
There are, however, a number of problem associated with role-
playing as an assessment tool. One of the main difficulties is achiev-
ing standardization between tests, especially with regards to confed-
erates utilized by the experimenter. It is entirely feasible for a subject
to score quite differently on an attribute when they have to role-play
with a poorly trained or inexperienced confederate than when they
role-play with a highly skilled confederate. Other problems include
the possible occurrence of a halo effect, where judges tend to give
similar marks to the same subject across different situations, and the
important question of whether subjects are actually role-playing in
a given situation and not just reacting to cues available to them that
may enable them to determine the purpose of the experiment (de-
mand characteristics) (Goldfried, 1982).
From a psychometric point of view, these and additional problems
associated with role-playing tests have conspired to produce wide-
spread inconsistencies between tests. Face validity (or how much a
test intuitively seems to measure what it is designed to measure) is
generally the only basis on which these tests have been constructed,
with tests varying between one another in terms of length, method of
presentation (live vs. taped), sex of confederate and a whole range of
other variables (Hopkins, Krawitz & Bellack, 1981). In fact it is quite
possible that the way someone performs on a role-playing test will not
correspond to how they would react if confronted with a similar situ-
ation in real life. Studies which have examined this have shown that
traditional role-playing procedures have only modest validity (Bel-
lack, Hersen & Turner, 1979; Bellack, Hersen & Lamparski, 1979).
It is perhaps not surprising that role-playing games have attracted
some attention from the psychological community, using, as they ap-

44 intervaction
Psychology and Role-playing by Keith Hurley

pear to, a therapeutic technique for a recreational purpose. However,

most of the research to date appears to have been driven by the me-
dia furore surrounding the hobby but no conclusive information re-
garding detrimental effects of role-playing as a hobby have ever been
produced. Studies have been undertaken to assess emotional stabil-
ity (Simon, 1987), feelings of alienation (DeRenard & Kline, 1990)
and general personality profiles (Douse & Macmanus, 1993). The re-
sults of these studies show little difference between the personalities
of gamers and those of non-gamers. Research has concentrated on
the possible detrimental effects of role-playing with, to the author’s
knowledge, none being conducted on the possible benefits. The sub-
ject topic may be more confused than it seems at first, as even ex-
perimental role-playing procedures within psychology have failed to
demonstrate much more than suggestive evidence of their effective-

Keith Hurley was born in Coventry in 1972. He lives in Cork, Ireland and is
studying Applied Psychology at University College, Cork. A role-player since
before his parents care to remember, he has written articles for the now-defunct
RPG Quarterly fanzine. Enjoys roleplaying, gore movies, scuba diving and
bitching about censorship.

Bellack, A. S., Hersner, M. & Limparski, D. (1979). ‘Roleplay tests for
assessing social skills: Are they valid? Are they useful?’ Journal of Con-
sulting and Clinical Psychology 47, 335-342. As cited in Goldfried, 1982.
Bellack, A. S., Hersner, M. & Turner, S. M. (1979) ‘The relationship
of role-playing and knowledge of appropriate behaviour to assertion
in the natural enviroment’. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
47, 670-678. As cited in Goldfried, 1982.
Bellack, A. S. & Morrison, R. L. (1982) ‘Interpersonal Dysfunction’.
In Bergin, A. E. & Garfield, S. L. (eds) Psychotherapy and Behaviour
Change: An Empirical Analysis. New York: Wiley.
Chandler, M. J. (1973) ‘Egocentrism and Antisocial Behaviour: the
assessment and training of social perspective-taking skills’. Develop-
mental Psychology 9, 326-332. Cited in Mussen et al. (190)
Culbertson, F. M. (1957) ‘Modification of an emotionally held atti-
tude through role playing’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology

one 45

54, 230-233. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.

DeRenard, L. A. & Kline, L. M. (190) ‘Alienation and the game Dun-
geons & Dragons’. Psychological Reports 66, 1219-1222.
Douse, N. A. & Macmanus, I. C. (193). ‘The personality of fantasy
game players’. British Journal of Psychology, 84, 505 - 510.
Dworetsky, J. P. (1988). Psychology. St Paul, Mn: West Publishing Co.
Edwards, E. D. (1940) ‘Observation of the use and efficacy of chang-
ing a patient’s concept of his role—a psychotheraputic device’. Un-
published Master’s Thesis, Fort Hays State College. As cited in Gold-
stein & Simonson, 1971.
Goldfried, M. R. (1982). ‘Behavioural assessment: An overview’. In
Bellack, A. S, Hersin, M. & Kazdin (eds) International Handbook of Be-
haviour Modification and Therapy. New York: Plenum.
Goldstein A. P. & Simonson N. R. (1971) ‘Social psychological ap-
proaches to psychotherapy research’. In Bergin, A. E. & Garfield, S.
L. (eds) Psychotherapy and Behaviour Change: An Empirical Analysis. New
York: Wiley.
Hopkins, J., Krawitz, G. & Bellack, A. S. (1981) ‘The effects of situ-
ational variations in role play scenes on assertive behaviour’. Journal
of Behaviour Assessment (In press).
Janis, I. L. & Gilmore, J. B. (1965) ‘The influence of incentive condi-
tions on the success of roleplaying in modifying attitudes’. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology 1, 17-24. As cited in Goldstein & Si-
monson, 1971.
Janis, I. L. & King, B. T. (1954) ‘The influence of role play on opinion
change’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49, 211-218. As cited
in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1965) ‘Effectiveness of emotional role play-
ing in modifying smoking habits and attitudes’. Journal of Experimen-
tal Research in Psychology 1, 84-90. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson,
Jones, F. D. & Peters, A. N. (1952) ‘An experimental evaluation of
group psychotherapy’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 47,
345-353. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
Kelly, G. A. (1955) The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Nor-
ton. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
Mann, J. H. (1956) ‘Experimental evaluation of role play’. Psychologi-
cal Bulletin 53, 227-234. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
Mann, L. & Janis, I. L. (1968) ‘A follow-up study on the long term ef-
fects of emotional role playing’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychol-
ogy 8, 339-342. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
McFall, R. M. & Marston, A. (1970) ‘An experimental investigation of

46 intervaction
Psychology and Role-playing by Keith Hurley

behaviour rehearsal in assertive training’. Journal of Abnormal Psychol-

ogy 6, 295-303. As cited in Goldfried, 1982
Mussen, P. H., Conger, J. J., Kagan, J. & Huston, A. C. (190) Child De-
velopment and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.
Rehm, L. P. and Marston, A. R. (1969) ‘Reduction of social anxiety
through modification of self reinforcement: An instigation therapy
technique’. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 32, 565-574. As
cited in Goldfried, 1982.
Scott, W. A. (1957) ‘Attitude Change through reward of verbal behav-
iour’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 55, 72-75. As cited in
Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.
Selman, R. L. (1976). ‘Social cognitive understanding: A guide to ed-
ucational and clinical practice’. In T. Likona (ed.) Moral development
and behaviour: Theory, research, and social issues. New York: Holt, Rine-
hart and Winston. As cited in Mussen, et al (190).
Shantz, C. U. (1983). ‘Social Cognition’. In P. H. Mussen, J. H. Flavell
& E. M. Markman (eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol 3. Cognitive
Development (pp. 495-555, 4th ed.) New York: Wiley as cited in Mus-
sen, et al (190).
Simon, A. (1987). ‘Emotional stability pertaining to the game of Dun-
geons & Dragons’. Psychology in the Schools, vol 24, 329 - 332.
Zimbardo, P. G. (1965) ‘The effect of effort and improvisation on self
persuasion produced by role-playing’. Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology 1, 103-120. As cited in Goldstein & Simonson, 1971.

one 47
48 intervaction

We play interactive games for fun – to

spend time with our friends, to create
enjoyable stories, to exercise our brains
and our imagination. Inter*action is
interested in serious fun and in this
section will be taking a serious look at
where the hobby is right now. It looks
at the games you already play, and talks
about their history, their design and
some of the ideas behind them.

one 49
Where We’ve Been,
Where We’re Going
A preliminary taxonomy for role-playing games

by Greg Porter

Role-playing games as a formalized, written set of rules are a recent

literary phenomenon, and have undergone a rapid series of changes
since their inception, probably more so than most other fields of lit-
erature. This is probably due more to the technological infrastruc-
ture available at the time of its inception than anything else (fast,
affordable, widespread communication), but still, anyone who could
time-jump from the early days of role-playing games to today would
see little in common between the games they played and the current
incarnations except the idea of using paper and dice to represent a
character and random chance.
To quantify that difference, just to satisfy my own curiosity, I de-
veloped a personal scale of ‘generations’ to distinguish between the
mechanics and conceptual bases of different systems. All gamers
know that Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and Amber are two radically
different game systems, but no one has really sat down and said ex-
actly how. I originally thought of a tree structure, showing the deriva-
tion of each system from the ones before, an evolutionary tree of the
gaming world. For instance, Empire of the Petal Throne is an obvi-
ous descendant of D&D, and you could also draw family lines down
the Ghostbusters–Star Wars–Shadowrun–Vampire path, or the Ars Magica–
Torg–Earthdawn or Fantasy Trip–GURPS paths. But there are just so
many games out there, tracking down all the designers to ask their
references and inspirations is an impossible task. Maybe someone who
really has no other life can tackle that project, but not me. I decided to
try to quantify things by a scale of pseudo-evolutionary advancement.
This generation system is also a sort of an evolutionary tree, to
let people track and trace the changes and influences each previous
game had on the next generation. Originally the generations were
based solely on game mechanics, but discussion with other people

50 intervaction
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going by Greg Porter

showed that this wasn’t enough. For instance, Ars Magica is perhaps
typical of an earlier generation for its mechanics, but is far ahead of
most other games in that generation for its depth of background de-
tail. Is it one generation, or the other? To differentiate, each ‘species’
of game has two overriding characteristics:
Rules: The ‘realism’ quotient, both in an absolute sense (‘can
you be decapitated by a single blow from a two-handed axe?’), and
in a subjective context, i.e. whether the rules encourage play that
is true to the genre (silly cartoons, caped crusaders, grim merce-
naries, etc). In general, low-generation rules have more loopholes,
inconsistencies and dead-ends that interrupt the role-playing or
detract from the enjoyment of play. Higher generation games may
use the same basic concept but in a more elegant way, or with more
flexibility. For instance, a rigid character class in a low-generation
game might mutate into a flexible character template in a higher
generation game.
Background: Does the world have a consistent rationale behind
it? Do the societal, technological and paranormal (i.e. magic, etc.) un-
derpinnings of the game world stand up to close scrutiny, or are they
cardboard cut-outs that only work if you are too busy killing things to
notice their flimsiness? For instance, I have yet to understand why the
technology behind Star Trek replicators hasn’t caused a fundamental
change in economics (‘Captain, would you like your pay in replicat-
ed Hope Diamonds, or replicated gold ingots?’). Or for that matter,
why isn’t the normal phaser setting ‘wide-beam vaporize’ whenever
you aren’t worried about taking prisoners? In general, a low-genera-
tion background makes it harder for the referee to build a workable
These are the things under consideration. Things like ease of use,
indexing and other traits may be more common in a particular game
generation, but not define it. Any game can be poorly indexed, have
typos or other problems regardless of when it was produced. Also
note that ‘generation’ is independent of publishing date in this case.
An earlier game can be of advanced generation, while a later game
can be an evolutionary throwback.
I don’t expect this taxonomy is going to be perfect. For instance,
I can see the need for a subspecies to cover ‘beer & pretzels’ role-
playing games, but I am not sure if they should follow the normal
sequence, but with a different audience, or be a non-consecutive gen-
eration all their own (Generation X?). But this system is a start, and a
way to provide an objective comparison of different games.

one 51

Examples given of particular games are those the author is familiar
or had experience with, and are not meant to imply that the system
was the first to display a particular characteristic, just that it is a rep-
resentative sample of a particular generation.

Generation 0
Freeform, rule-less role-playing. There are no formalized systems,
no good way to arbitrate disputes. It also includes any incidental
role-playing that is used for strategic or entertainment value in other
games, such as playing a general in H. G. Wells’ Little Wars, etc. The
latter end of this generation includes such proto-rpg campaigns that
were going on in the late 60s in Britain and the U.S. (for example,
Tony Bath’s Hyborean Campaign, as chronicled in the various issues
of Slingshot from that time). It can also include structured events like
historical re-enactment groups, or semi-structured events like tour-
naments, feasts and fairs held by the Society for Creative Anachro-
Game Mechanics: None, both objective and subjective realism are
based on the knowledge and tastes of those playing the game.
Background: Varies from none to extraordinary, depending on the
people involved in the game. Obviously a serious interactive fiction
effort will have more detail than a group of children playing Cops &
Examples: Cowboys & Indians, Cops & Robbers, Social Democrats
vs Tories, etc.

Generation 1
First formalized rule set, i.e. Dungeons & Dragons (or the fantasy sup-
plement to Chainmail). The concept of fixed characters, specific at-
tributes and the use of dice to cover the aspect of random chance
when attempting to perform a difficult action are introduced.
Game Mechanics: Character generation is characterized by rigid
character classes, character levels, strict personality alignments. Ob-
jective realism factor is negligible, genre-based realism is drawn from
a very limited fictional subset and is often lacking as well. Rules are
entirely on a special case basis, with no intuitive or extrapolatable
functions. Often uses a plethora of dice types (i.e. d3, d4, d6, d8, d12,
d20, d100 and combinations or multiples of same).
Background: World background is nebulously defined, if at all.

52 intervaction
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going by Greg Porter

Generation 1 games Key concepts

Dungeons & Dragons Character races & classes, polyhedral dice,
hit points, etc.
Generation 1a
D&D clones, any game which uses the same basic concepts with little
or no modification. Genre may vary, but the game system itself draws
very heavily from Generation 1 concepts.
Game Mechanics: As Generation 1. Some perceived flaws may be
Background: World background may be better defined, often with
a history, timeline or societal structure notes. Empire of the Petal
Throne is an example of Generation 1a game mechanics with a great
deal of thought applied to the game background.

Generation 1a game Key concepts

Empire of the Petal Throne Based wholly on a single literary world

Generation 2
Mutation of Generation 1 games. Other people have played enough
that they have modified the Generation 1 game extensively, and in-
corporated these new ideas and concepts into their systems as a re-
sult of this experience. Generation 1 influence is still strong, either in
what is included, or what is excluded from the rules.
Game Mechanics: Usually includes classes and levels, but not so
strictly defined. Makes some attempts to be realistic, or fix perceived
flaws in Generation 1 systems (including but not limited to: Level-
based ‘hit points’, armour that affects chance to hit rather than dam-
age, alternate types of magic systems). May be extremely detailed, al-
most always in a ‘special case’ sense, leading to thick, often poorly in-
dexed volumes, or volumes with numerous supplements, each cover-
ing an uncommon rules situation. Subjective realism is usually much
improved over Generation 1 games as well, either through closer at-
tention to detail, or as a side effect of a better campaign reference
frame (see Background).
Background: Generation 2 backgrounds always have some overall
background, which is covered in detail either directly (overall history,
maps, campaign reference notes) or indirectly (personal history, soci-
etal norms, legal systems). Generation 2 games evidence a shift from
‘dungeon crawls’ to plot-based adventures and non-hostile interac-
tion with non-player denizens of the game world.

one 53

Generation 2 game Key concepts

Chivalry and Sorcery Time-based experience gains
Palladium systems Psychological traits for characters
Space Opera
Warhammer FRP

Generation 2a
Refinement of the Generation 2 concept. Often includes elements
transitory between Generation 2 and Generation 3.
Game Mechanics: More realism and internal consistency, some abili-
ty to extrapolate new rules from existing ones. May abandon the class
or level concept entirely, or make it flexible enough that it approach-
es what might be expected in the ‘real world’. For instance, Traveller
character generation is based on professions which give certain skills
and bonuses, but one can change careers, and the skills and bonuses
are often available in more than one career path.
Background: Basic rules will include enough game world detail to
allow the GM and players to understand society and the basic geo-
political situation. For systems which become successful, this detail
often improves markedly with introduction of new material in sup-

Generation 2a game Key concepts

Traveller Career path, extended game world timeline
GURPS Multi-genre, single dice type, point-based
Aftermath! Effort placed into realistic combat system
Runequest Location-based hit points, multi-genre system

Generation 3
Introduction of ‘meta-rules’, a rule system that is designed to be
used with more than one genre, and which has a solid, expandable
base. Another Generation 3 idea is the game whose genre reality is
an overriding concept. Such a game cannot be a meta-system, but
can work much better for a narrowly defined genre than any meta-
system can.
Game Mechanics: May not be perfectly objectively realistic, but is
usually internally consistent, and with guidelines on how to expand
the rules set to cover situations not explicitly mentioned. Subjective
realism is often good, but is limited by the multi-genre nature of the

54 intervaction
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going by Greg Porter

meta-system. The level, class and alignment system is usually com-

pletely abandoned. The type of dice used to resolve skill use, attrib-
ute use or other rolls is often the same type (i.e. three six-sided dice;
one twenty-sided die, percentile dice), with very little use of other
types within the system. The cleanest break point between Genera-
tion 2 and Generation 3 games is that of point-based character gen-
eration. Most Generation 2 games use random dice rolls, while most
Generation 3 games use a somewhat variable pool of points with
which to purchase character abilities, or some other non-random
means to let the player choose exactly what they want.
Background: A Generation 3 background usually covers almost eve-
ry aspect of a genre that characters will need to interact with. Cur-
rency, language, legal systems, travel, history, important personages
and behind-the-scenes intrigue are necessary elements for this gen-
eration. In addition character generation often contains elements of
character personality that allow deliberate sculpting of a particular
race, profession or attitude, which is then reinforced by the game-
world response to those traits. Many of the meta-systems lack these
elements in their basic rules, but incorporate them in supplements
that cover a particular genre. GURPS is the best example of a back-
ground-less system, with excellent supplement material.

Generation 3 game Key concepts

GURPS Multi-genre, single dice type, point-based
Runequest Multi-genre
Champions/Hero system Multi-genre
TimeLords Non-hit-point damage system, proportional
scaling of skill modifiers
To Challenge Tomorrow Non-hit-point damage system
Traveller: New Era Multi-genre
Pendragon Character as a family rather than individual,
excellent historical research
DC Heroes Single unit measurement system (same unit
covers time, mass, distance)

(GURPS and Runequest are strictly Generation 2a systems, but were

the first to do a good job covering multiple genres, while the Hero
System is arguably the best example of meta-rules, but its multi-genre
use was I think serendipitous rather than deliberate).

one 55

Generation 3a
Generation 4 games go in radically different directions, and Genera-
tion 3a games begin this trend. They cling to the core of Generation
3 ideas, but often have some element that begins to question funda-
mental game and game-world design tenets.

Generation 3a game Key concepts

Ars Magica Each player has multiple characters
Lace & Steel Use of cards instead of dice for combat

Generation 4
Introduction of some entirely new game mechanic that alters the nor-
mal flow of play in an RPG. Examples include overt plot change in
the middle of play, dice-reduced or diceless resolution systems, aban-
donment of traditional attribute or skill systems, or overt emphasis
on story and plot rather than tactics and combat resolution. While
generations 1-3a are linear descendants of each other, generation 4
games are like branches off the trunk of the same tree, spreading in
different directions. Systems may or may not be ‘meta-rules’, depend-
ing on their origins, but most Generation 4 systems are geared to-
wards working extremely well in a particular genre.
Game Mechanics: Both objective and subjective realism are high
when the two are compatible, otherwise subjective realism usually is
better. Rule mechanics may be designed expressly to create a ‘feel’ for
the game setting, inherently rewarding or punishing certain types of
character behaviour.
Background: If a meta-system, this depends on the level of support
given, but even if ‘genre-less’, the game will still provide extensive
notes on the various aspects of creating a game-world, running a cam-
paign and other details required for good game-mastering. If a genre-
specific game, it will provide all the level of detail of a Generation 3
game, but may have a twist, such as allowing buyers of the game some
input on the direction of future events published for the game world.

Generation 4 game Key concepts

Amber Diceless role-playing
Over The Edge Freeform skill/attribute combinations
Torg Destiny Deck
CORPS Automatic successes, compressed rule set
Vampire Story-driven rather than plot-driven
FUDGE Public domain, anyone can write for it

56 intervaction
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going by Greg Porter

Generation 5+
There isn’t any Generation 4a or 5 yet. Presumably, these will be vari-
ations of Generation 3-4 games, taken in some direction not possible
for strictly pencil and paper role-playing. One can imagine rule sets
being computerized to the extent that players and GMs no longer
need to know them, but can simply describe their actions, and the
computer figures out the rest based on character abilities and situ-
ational modifiers, whether it be a casual encounter on the street or a
complicated fire-fight. This lets the GM get on with being a referee,
story-teller, or whatever, instead of being a human index to a set of
arbitrary laws for an imaginary universe.
On the other hand, a character and set of rules could be placed
on a personal digital assistant, which each player and the GM would
have. Messages could be passed between units by infra-red link,
whether text, secret information or alterations to character abilities
due to game-world effects (damage, drugs, etc.).
With information storage increasing by leaps and bounds, and
multimedia PCs becoming more common, an entire adventure could
be placed on CD-ROM, with a built-in ‘computer GM’. The sophisti-
cation of this would vary based on the programming and computer
(what is not possible today might be easy five years from now). The
game would tread the thin line between interactive movie, role-play-
ing and video game, with elements of each.
If the information networks become more sophisticated, live role-
playing by Net might become more common. Already, role-playing
by email or bulletin board system is common. Using a common net-
work and a central computer, video conferenced games could take
place between widely separate groups.
This could gradate into Virtual Reality role-playing, or with the
proper combination of hardware and software, many groups could
conceivably play a game in the same universe at the same time. Im-
agine playing a superhero in a Virtual Reality city where anyone you
meet could be another player, where several professional GMs man-
age the background details, but the plot moves itself through the ac-
tions of the players, rather than being driven by a pre-arranged plot.
Is this going to happen on a large scale anytime soon? Doubtful.
But it is worth thinking about.

one 57

Greg Porter is president of the Blacksburg Tactical Research Center (BTRC),

and has been designing games since 1984 (and publishing them since 1987).
He is the designer of TimeLords, CORPS, Macho Women with Guns,
Black Death and 3G^3, as well as having numerous articles and playtest
credits to his name. He says that any reference to his own creations in this ar-
ticle is either the result of coincidence, competence or a bloated ego, depending
on who you ask.

The following people contributed materially to electronic discussion of the

game generation concept, and while they might not agree with the final results,
their input was appreciated: Steve Barr; Roger Burton-West; Marc Carlson;
Robert Day; David Nalle; Ken Rolston; Jonathan Tweet; Ray Winninger;
Loren Wiseman.

58 intervaction
Do the Right Thing
A commentary on morality in role-playing games

by Allen Varney

What an argument. For an hour the discussion proceeded, or rather

raged, on the GEnie computer network’s Gaming RoundTable con-
ference, one Thursday night in December 1991. I in Texas typed
madly at others in Arizona, Wisconsin, and elsewhere across America.
Their responses scrolled up my computer screen as fast as I could
read. In that transcontinental coffee-house, anyone with a modem
could insult a dozen people in five American states all at once.
The quarrel revolved around my ‘Roleplaying Reviews’ column
in Dragon magazine (175, Dec 91). The favourable review of GDW’s
then-new Dark Conspiracy RPG mentioned that its premise of ‘good
PCs’ fighting evil monsters is at least an improvement over the moral
vacuum of the Twilight: 2000 game’, also published by GDW. A former
GDW employee disagreed vehemently with this characterization of
T:2000. The conflict broadened to cover the whole issue of morality
in game design.
After an hour of rabid typing we had gained little beyond sore fin-
gers and strained backs. But the issue haunted me: can a role-playing
game design be moral, immoral, or amoral? If it can be moral, should
it be?
Varying viewpoints drew me back and forth, until I finally cast my
thinking as a Galilean dialogue of sorts. Before treating the general
issue, we start with a sample discussion, the immediate cause of the
‘Why is the T:2000 game amoral?’
Twilight: 2000 (first edition 1985, second edition 1990; now up to
version 2.2) postulates a full-scale nuclear war in Europe and else-
where, leading to the collapse of most nations by the year 2000. The
player characters, American soldiers in war-torn Europe (usually Po-
land) struggle to survive and get back home. Facing enemies, illness,
radiation poisoning and a crippling scarcity of resources, the stranded
troops are forced to—well, they’re not forced to do anything. T:2000

one 59

does not describe what kinds of adventures to run, the tone or con-
ventions of its genre, appropriate character types or short-term goals
beyond brute survival. In place of such valuable campaign advice it
offers little more than the final message from HQ (‘You’re on your
own. Good luck!’) and that distant goal: getting home.
‘That isn’t amoral. That goal is completely natural.’
So said reviewer Rick Swan in a 1985 Space Gamer review of the
first edition: ‘I’ve yet to come across a more engaging premise for a
role-playing campaign. And a war-based game that still retains such a
strong sense of humanity is an accomplishment by any standards.’
Humanity? The game leaves the means to its goal utterly open.
T:2000 offers no imperative or restriction on how the PCs may act,
but here’s how they sometimes do act. Heavily armed and backed
by game mechanics that keep PCs alive far longer than NPCs, the
soldiers loot, ransack, and strong-arm their way across Poland. Why
shouldn’t they? Who will tell them not to?
Certainly not GDW. I do not find ‘a strong sense of humanity’
in Twilight: 2000 or most of its supplements. With a few honourable
exceptions, such as Loren Wiseman’s Bangkok: Cesspool of the Orient,
its supplements focus relentlessly on hardware and practical surviv-
al techniques. Scenarios meticulously describe devastated landscapes
with a neutrality that mirrors the game as a whole. Timelines describe
the collapse of world civilization briefly, clinically, as though this were
just a pretext for matters of real interest: all those equipment guides.
‘There’s nothing wrong with equipment guides. Nearly every
game has them. And would the text be improved by obvious hand-
wringing? Can’t we safely assume that the designers disapprove of
world catastrophe, without requiring ritual displays of Political Cor-
The text’s wording is not the issue. Rather, examine its focus, the
matters it emphasizes as important.
T:2000 adventures take place all over Europe and America, but
the ruins of the indigenous culture evoke only passing interest. Goals
usually emphasize gaining valuable equipment. (The notable excep-
tions here include several adventures that send the PCs to overthrow
one or another minor dictator, or to oust Cuban invaders from Tex-
as.) Adventures seldom present NPCs as unique members of a unique
society; more often, they are generic allies or antagonists, simple in-
struments, their motives drawn from a deck of playing cards. Again,
the Bangkok supplement stands out among the few that treat locals
as anything but targets, henchmen or information sources.

60 intervaction
Do The Right Thing by Allen Varney

‘I could argue that T:2000 espouses patriotic ideals, because it

lets the PCs help rebuild a wiser America, one less likely to succumb
to calamitous war.’
In the adventures, rebuilding receives only cursory mention, of-
ten as a mere scenario hook (‘Find this pre-war cache of truck parts’).
The societies shown are fascist dictatorships, fanatical religious sects,
and others that no one would be disposed to support, though again,
descriptions are neutral and objective, with notions of ‘good guys’
and ‘bad guys’ left entirely to the reader. The climax of a given ad-
venture is almost always a fire-fight. Even if the PCs want to rebuild,
this soon becomes impossible in the published adventures, because
war-induced climatic change creates crippling drought nation-wide.
These products do not establish patriotic ideals, but an almost pure
moral vacuum.
‘What’s the problem with T:2000 in particular? Many games are
like that. Nearly all post-holocaust settings, most of the cyberpunk
games, and many fantasy RPGs give no thought to ethical values.
(“Okay, let’s go down into the lair of the monsters who haven’t been
bothering anyone, kill them, take their possessions, and then head
back to town.”)’
I don’t dispute this. T:2000, as the game I mentioned in the re-
view, simply provoked the argument. Its amorality makes greater im-
pact than most other games, because it hits close to home. We our-
selves are the society it blows up a few years from now, for the sake of
what its design notes call ‘escapist entertainment’.
But almost any setting’s inherent morality rewards examination.
Pick a game and try it yourself. It’s probably best to skip the comedic
RPGs, such as Paranoia and Toon, and those intended as satire, such
as the Car Wars background or the old Games Workshop Judge Dredd
RPG. Morality itself, or a vicious parody of it, can become the subject
in these games.
‘What should a game do, then? Should it impose a moral code on
the PCs? “You can’t legislate morality,” either in society or in games.’
In society, coercing others to follow rigid guidelines is wrong, nar-
row-minded, and obviously unworkable. This is the antithesis of free-
dom, because the coerced party cannot choose the guidelines nor es-
cape them.
A game’s setting, however, does not ‘legislate morality.’ Nobody
forces you to role-play in the setting as written. If you don’t like the
designer’s guidelines, drop them or drop the game. Instead, a setting
offers suggestions, viewpoints, like those in stories or films.

one 61

‘But a good campaign setting should offer unlimited options. I

don’t like games that build in brute-force rules like ‘hero points’, me-
chanics that reward a specific agenda. A designer who tries to force
the players into a mould just restricts adventures and players alike.’
Flexibility in a rules set is wonderful. My favourite system, Hero
Games’ Hero System, imposes no moral restrictions. The referee has
total leeway in constructing a campaign setting.
Rules differ from campaign settings, though. Just as a setting
doesn’t necessarily make for good adventures simply because you
can do anything you want, so the reverse is true, that a good setting
doesn’t necessarily imply unlimited freedom of action.
‘But this still doesn’t justify placing restrictions on a setting. A
reasonable designer could easily argue that an agenda limits the
game’s usefulness. Life has no obvious agenda, so a game that sim-
ulates life shouldn’t either.’
Rules mechanics usually represent physical reality: how people
and objects move and act, effects of damage, and so forth. A cam-
paign background represents the reality of a culture: what the inhab-
itants live for and aspire to, and how they interact. To impose a moral
agenda on the physical world (that is, the rules) is dangerous and lim-
iting. But a useful, effective cultural background requires it.
Why? Every culture depends on guidelines: how to determine sta-
tus and procure justice, what is worth striving for, ceremonies of birth
and marriage and death, definitions of good and bad behaviour, and
so on. Most of these guidelines vary widely among cultures. Some
societies, such as ours, offer a bewildering variety of views on every
issue. The point is, every society addresses them all in its own way.
These are the universal concerns of life and the concerns of story.
Characters in a role-playing setting presumably face the same issues.
Their varying solutions create the conflicts that produce powerful ad-
ventures. Players become more deeply involved in a scenario when
setting and NPCs are plausible, when they address the same univer-
sal concerns that real societies do. This implies a moral basis for the
‘That extends to the player characters?’
Yes. A setting’s morality lies in the actions it makes available to the
‘Why would players become more deeply involved in an adven-
ture when their characters’ actions are restricted?’
Say rather, ‘defined’. They act from points of reference. They
know typical behaviour, so that if and when they deviate from it, that
departure creates drama.

62 intervaction
Do The Right Thing by Allen Varney

Without societal guidelines, too, it’s harder to acquire goals.

Here’s a line from writer Thomas M. Disch’s 1981 story ‘Understand-
ing Human Behavior.’ It concerns a man who has his memory erased
so he can make a new beginning: ‘The major disadvantage of having
no past life, no established preferences [was that] he just didn’t want
anything very much.’
Not every way of establishing campaign guidelines can succeed,
and some approaches are disastrous. At one extreme lies ‘Here is the
one true way. Stray not from it, upon pain of dismissal from the game’.
At the other we find the games wherein PCs can bless or slaughter as
they like, where every action equals every other, all occurring without
significance against a background as impersonal and vacuous as out-
er space. The latter setting inspires no more interest than the former.
A balance is the key. What actions in a setting are considered posi-
tive, what negative, how broad is the range for each, and how does
the design encourage or discourage each? The answers make up the
campaign setting’s moral viewpoint.
‘But the referee determines a campaign’s viewpoint! A group
of players can just throw out the designer’s definitions of right and
wrong, then play the setting as they like. Some referees and players
don’t want their games to be stories, or they prefer a neutral back-
That’s fine. They can play any way they want, obviously. The issue
is the designer’s attitude toward the material, and the kind of experi-
ence the design tries to create for the players.
A coherent moral viewpoint strengthens most adventures, because
it inspires atmosphere, thematic unity, well rounded characters who
reflect their settings, and clear, believable goals. The products that
players use are better for that viewpoint, even if they discard it in fa-
vour of their own, or none.
‘If campaign settings should include imperatives and restrictions
in order to reflect a moral view, what agenda should they offer?’
‘Morality’ here doesn’t mean one particular moral agenda. I don’t
say every RPG should advocate, for instance, trade surpluses or Zoro-
astrianism or safe use of strawberry ice- cream. ‘Morality’, in this case,
means any reasonably coherent viewpoint about behaviour, a sense
that some actions are right and others are wrong, and a willingness to
assert that view.
So the designer should have an agenda. Its details are a matter of
choice and open to discussion by the players.
‘I have moral beliefs of my own, but I see no reason to foist them
on the players.’

one 63

The morality of the setting need not be the designer’s own code of
behaviour. Quite the contrary. But the designer should convey ideas
of right and wrong appropriate to the setting and its adventures.
‘Sounds like American President Dwight Eisenhower’s assertion
that everyone should have a religion, and he didn’t care what it is.
What specific RPGs express a morality, then? What kinds of games
would you call immoral?’
Among moral games, Chaosium’s superb Pendragon game of Ar-
thurian Britain stands out. Both mechanics and campaign material
define the code of chivalry that guided the Knights of the Round
Table. Then there are any number of games with less sophisticated
(‘mind-numbingly simplistic’?) good-versus-evil conflicts, such as
West End’s Star Wars RPG and all the superhero games. Any game
with an alignment system must also qualify, though I find these prim-
itive and narrow.
Morality advanced for didactic rather than dramatic purposes ap-
pears in the old Dragonraid game, explicitly based on Christian val-
ues and Bible knowledge. This, however, is not the approach at issue
At the other end of the spectrum some would place the grow-
ing category of ‘dark’ RPGs: the White Wolf games (Vampire, Werewolf,
Mage); the Swedish horror game Kult; In Nomine, a French design re-
cently translated and published by Steve Jackson Games, that gives
players that so-long-awaited chance to play punk demons; and the
honoured precursor of them all, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Some
lists would include FASA’s Shadowrun and other near-future games.
Of the dark RPGs I have seen, I wouldn’t label any immoral, as
opposed to amoral (a subtle distinction). But opinions vary, and I see
how the seeming nihilism of Vampire or Call of Cthulhu might persuade
a reader that the designers advocate contempt for humanity. For me,
immorality lurks in less obvious places: for instance, in openly sexist
games that promote objectification of women. In this vein I have heard
of, but so far have avoided seeing, farcical games like Macho Women
With Guns and a recent superhero(ine) RPG called Superbabes. The al-
leged humour in these games exempts them from this discussion.
Designers of campaign settings should create a moral framework.
Individual disagreements with the nature of specific frameworks
make up part of the industry dialogue, but here this is a side issue.
‘Some settings and games are amoral. Why is that bad? Lots of
people play them and have fun. Do these settings somehow corrupt
No, they don’t. If the players have fun, that’s great.

64 intervaction
Do The Right Thing by Allen Varney

‘So what is the point here?’

There are other grounds for discussion besides danger, though we
seldom hear of them nowadays. People seem to assume that if they
don’t hurt anyone, all approaches are equally valid.
That works for living your own life. If only more people really be-
haved that way! But craftspeople work by standards. Nobody argues
that all approaches are valid when, say, building a piano.
In the craft of game design, attention to morality improves adven-
tures. Most designers would agree with this pragmatism, and might
even wonder why the fuss. But according to least one moral agenda
(mine) a moral view is more than pragmatic; it indicates the highest
Conscientious designers of scenario settings and role-playing ad-
ventures do the best work they can—not to guarantee future assign-
ments, but because self-respect obligates them to work to the limits
of their powers. That must include the desire to communicate some-
thing worth hearing. This might be a joke or funny situation, a scene
of beauty, an insight into the way people live or the consequences of
In the last case, the insight must convey, at least implicitly, judge-
ment. How does this behaviour influence the setting? What are the
strengths and drawbacks of this way of life? Without this moral judge-
ment, the designer might as well leave the job to someone else and
take up knitting, because this so-called creator’s work is really saying,
‘Look: no action is more worthwhile than another. All actions are jus-
tified. People are objects, societies are trivial, and concern about how
things turn out is pointless.’
Adventures in the field have come a long way from plotless num-
bered-room dungeon crawls. We still have far to go. Happily, the
many designers I know are intelligent, ethical people who have no
shortage of opinions and are willing, to say the least, to express them.
They can lead us on that ongoing journey, the quest to do the right

Alan Varney has freelanced for companies such as TSR, FASA, West End
Games, Hero Games and Steve Jackson Games. He reviews RPGs for Drag-
on magazine. He recently completed an expansion set for Magic: The Gath-
ering, and is writing a novel for FASA’s Earthdawn line. In 1992 and
93 he took a seven month trip around the world that included a stay with
Inter*action’s publisher.

one 65
Realism vs Playability?
Rules, environments and characterization

by James Wallis

The argument about whether role-playing game (RPG) rules should

sacrifice realism for playability or vice versa has been around almost
as long as the role-playing hobby itself, and shows no sign of dying
yet. It resurfaces every few months in fanzines and amateur press as-
sociations (APAs), at conventions and in the RPG discussion areas
on electronic networks and bulletin boards. Other discussions about
role-playing game styles tend to get sucked into its pull, for exam-
ple debates about random versus deterministic role-playing, and the
same arguments are brought out each time with a fresh coat of paint
on them.
It’s a stupid argument. Stupid because it has no answer, stupid be-
cause it has no depth. Those who debate it very rarely want to look
beyond the side that they are arguing for, or to analyse what it is that
they’re actually arguing about. The subject extends far beyond sim-
ple styles of gaming, into the heart of the way that role-playing games
are structured; and it is perhaps because of this sort of argument that
the design of role-playing games lags so far behind the way that role-
playing is implemented in the other fields where it is used.
I prefer to refer to the ‘realism versus playability’ debate as ‘sim-
ulation versus storytelling’ because such arguments generally break
down into two camps: those arguing for game systems which attempt
to simulate a version of reality, and those arguing for rules systems
which create an atmosphere in which realism is less important than
the smooth flow of the story. This division was recognizable as far
back as the mid-1970s:
‘D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] players can be divided into two groups,
those who want to play the games as a game and those who want to
play it as a fantasy novel, i.e., direct escapism through abandonment
of oneself in the flow of play as opposed to the gamer’s indirect
escapism—the clear-cut competition and mental exercise any game

66 intervaction
Although styles of role-playing have changed since 1977 and D&D
is no longer the only game in town, the two sides remain the same:
the divide between them may have moved but itis still just as wide.
Inter*action is more interested in the more narrative approach to
RPGs but both styles of play are equally valid, and both have their
roots in similar fundamental principles of role-playing system design.
The pursuit of either an ideal simulation system or an ideal story-
telling system is a short-term fix in the quest for a long-term goal:
the creation of a believable and enjoyable role-playing environment2,
where characters who are also believable and enjoyable to play can in-
teract with each other and with the environment itself.

Environmental projection
All forms of role-playing are based on the idea of the creation of an
environment: an area in which the participants can assume other
roles and behave genuinely as if they were in that role, rather than
just acting it out. Its two central features are a suspension of disbelief
and a suppression of the true self, both of which allow and encourage
the participants to assume and act out their temporary roles in a sup-
portive atmosphere. Some forms of role-play require that the partici-
pants in the role-play should be aware of their true selves as well as
their assumed selves (’characters’) while the role-play is in progress,
but in most cases any analysis or out-of-character action should wait
until the role-play is over.
A successful role-playing environment is defined by comfort and
believability: the participants must feel secure in what they are doing
and in the roles they are taking on, and they must be able to believe in
what they are doing and in the simulated background against which
they are acting out their roles. The environment should also have
some kind of internal coherence; some set of rules, whether explicit
or assumed, that define the way in which it functions. The most obvi-
ous of these coherent structures is ‘reality’, meaning the background
to the role-play behaves in exactly the same way as our own world
In role-playing game terms, an environment is the complete game
experience, the blending of the background, rules system, style and
characterization. They differ from normal role-playing environments
because of the much tighter structure of their rules systems (most
non-game role-playing uses no formal rules at all) and backgrounds.
RPG environments need several factors not present in most role-
play. Their sense of internal coherence must be much more explicit

one 67

since RPGs are very rarely set against a backdrop of our own reality.
They must also have a sense of permanence and process, the impres-
sion that if the players’ characters were to disappear, the background
world would continue to exist and function without them. They must
contain a sense of free will, allowing the players’ characters the im-
pression that they can do anything, provided it is within the limits of
the background. Most importantly they must be believable, not nec-
essarily in a rational ‘this is a possible past/future’ way, but in a way
that lets the players lose themselves within it. The best role-playing
experiences are the ones in which the participants are able to forget
that they are taking part in a game; when the fiction becomes, howev-
er temporarily, more important and more true than external reality.
Most RPGs manage to create a successful environment for their
role-playing, but usually this is through the imagination and work of
the players and referee rather than down to good design. Most RPG
systems seem to be unsure of where they stand on the issue of story-
telling versus simulation and so tend to try to straddle the fence, be-
ing all things to all gamers, rather than aiming down a single design
path. This, combined with the way that most new RPGs are based on
ideas taken from earlier RPG designs, rather than from any projec-
tion of the way that role-playing might work or an analysis of the way
it does work outside the RPG hobby, has led to a state where the ma-
jority of games have a muddled structure and no clear idea about why
they work the way they do. Even White Wolf ’s so-called Storyteller
system makes so many concessions towards simulation gaming styles
that it ends up perched uneasily between the two sides, rather than
explicitly aiming towards a narrative style of role-play.
It’s impossible to understand how a role-playing game should
work simply by looking at other role-playing games: the field is still
too young to have produced any beacons of great design that all other
systems should follow, and the shadow of the original D&D rules can
still be seen lurking darkly behind the tables of almost every RPG sys-
tem on the market. To best analyse the structure of a typical RPG, it
should be compared to the other forms of role-play that exist outside
the gaming hobby.

Why RPGs need rules

Leaving aside the fact that one has rules and the other doesn’t, the
two major differences between the principles of role-playing games
and most other role-playing activities are the setting and the nar-
rative structure. RPGs are very rarely set in an ordinary present-day
background. The majority have a sword-and-sorcery setting, while

68 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

others deal with the near future and far future in all its possible per-
mutations, history, themes licensed from books, television or film, or
even realities which bear no resemblance to anything we would rec-
ognize. Even when the setting is contemporary Earth, the game will
always focus on one aspect that drags it away from the conventional:
superheroes, horrors, improbable secret agents, the undead or a Bur-
roughs-esque hyperreality.
The reason is obvious: role-playing a character just like yourself in
a world just like this one would be very boring. People role-play rec-
reationally for a number of reasons. In his book Shared Fantasy, Gary
Allen Fine lists four primary justifications given by gamers for their
hobby: ‘the educational components of gaming; gaming as an escape
from social pressure; games as aids in increasing one’s sense of per-
sonal control or efficacy; and games as aids in dealing with people’3:
Ignoring the social and educational aspects, we are left with escapism
and catharsis, both of which are much more widely available in a fan-
tasy world than in one set in a concrete and all-too-familiar reality.
The important difference between these fantasy worlds and our
own is that the fantasy worlds all depend on at least one ‘hook’ that
makes them different from our own—magic, technology, superpow-
ers, general weirdness—which requires a detailed description so that
referee and players can understand how it works and how to use it.
This kind of description is usually best put in the form of rules, which
I call ‘background rules’. Just because they’re rules does not neces-
sarily mean that they are mechanics or use mechanics: a background
rule can be as simple as a description of the game-world’s currency
system, or a note that gravity in the game is slightly weaker than in
real life.
The other way that RPGs differ from other role-playing activities
is in their narrative structures. Non-RPG role-playing is typically in-
tended to last only a single session, sometimes only a few minutes and
usually not more than a few hours. RPGs, by contrast, are designed
to build game narratives that can sometimes continue for years, even
decades. This has two effects on RPG design: it means that the game’s
background must be defined in enough detail to provide a believable,
consistent and complete setting for a narrative of that length; and it
means that some system must be provided for defining the characters
who participate in the creation of that narrative, and in particular de-
fining the ways in which those characters can interact with each other,
and with the rest of the background.
Historically this has meant that RPG characters tend to be de-
fined in terms of their abilities: what they can do and how well they

one 69

do it; because some impartial and objective system is needed to de-

termine the success or failure of a character’s actions. Everything else,
such as deciding, creating and role-playing the character’s personal-
ity and history, has usually been left up to the player. This makes an
interesting contrast with most other role-playing activities, including
ones such as freeform gaming which might seem to be very similar
to RPGs, where characters tend to be defined entirely by personality,
emotions and history; by who they are, rather than what they are. The
system used to define a RPG character can be called ‘character rules’
and, as with background rules, they do not have to have any connec-
tion with mechanics, although at present all do.
All role-playing games have the same basic purpose: to define a
way of putting a small cast of central characters against a coherent,
believable and interesting background: the creation of a role-playing
environment. To do this, all RPGs are made up of a combination of
four sections: the game background; the game mechanics; the defini-
tion of a character’s role within the game; and the game’s atmosphere
and style, usually given as notes to the referee. Some rulebooks break
these down into four distinct sections (Paranoia), some let sections
overlap (Toon) and some run sections into each other, allowing one
part of the game to define another (D&D, SLA Industries), which may
or may not be a good thing depending on whether or not it’s done in-
tentionally. Background rules usually appear in the first two sections,
character rules in the second and third section.
The important thing to note about these four sections is that the
games environment, insofar as it can be defined by the rules alone, is
not the sum total of all four sections added together, it is how much
the four sections overlap. This is partly why AD&D continues to be a
huge success while so many of its supplementary background packs
languish and fail: AD&D’s basic game background is described en-
tirely by its mechanics (both background rules and character rules),
and to add a different background would really require a complete
overhaul of the mechanics, including rewriting every spell descrip-
tion and magic item to fit the new genre, to make it work. The other
reason AD&D continues to succeed is its advertising budget, but we
won’t go into that here.

Do RPGs need mechanics?

In the early days of role-playing, it was accepted that RPGs would
have mechanics; in fact many early games are composed almost en-
tirely of mechanics (D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Bifrost and others). This
was due to the way that the early games were designed: they had

70 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

evolved from skirmish wargames, and as a result shared many of the

same ideas and game mechanics, as well as a wargame’s ideology
about how the game should be played. Combat was and remains a
high priority: I have yet to see a RPG that does not have a combat
system of some kind.
It’s arguable at what point RPG characters started to develop
personalities and the games began to move away from the wargam-
ing ethos towards a more laid-back philosophy in which the narra-
tive was more important than the number of orcs with critical hit
wounds. It seems likely that the trend began with gamers adapting
published systems to their own ends rather than with any leap in
commercial game design: even though Ed Simbalist, designer of
Chivalry & Sorcery, was using phrases like ‘living novel’, ‘psychodra-
ma’ and ‘the experience is itself the thing’ in 19794, his game system
was still based heavily on the game concepts that had gone before it
(Simbalist, 1979).
Nevertheless, over the last ten or fifteen years, the emphasis of
almost all role-playing games has moved from the mechanics to the
characters, and from the concept of characters as proxies, effectively
the player in a different body, to the idea that characters should be
recognizable individuals. With this shift, and possibly with players’
greater familiarity with the techniques of role-play, has come a gradu-
al reduction in the amount of rules mechanics required to administer
a game. Mechanics have been replaced with background; rather than
showing characters what they should do by ensuring the rules won’t
let them do anything else, today’s designers feel confident to let the
game background describe what is and is not possible, and trust that
the players will not abuse that.
The gradual reduction of mechanics has been taken to its logical
conclusion by one-page games systems such as S.I.M.P.L.E. (Frank
Carver, 1993) and SLUG (Steffan O’Sullivan, 1993), but role-playing
with no mechanics has so far only happened in games groups with a
yen to experiment, and in almost every field of role-playing outside
the games hobby. It may be possible to create a role-playing game
that uses no mechanics, but it is impossible to create one that uses no
rules. Even if unspoken and unthought, some set of rules will always
govern the way that the interaction takes place, and the way that the
role-playing environment is created.
The central purpose of mechanics in RPGs has always been to
define characters and govern how those characters interact with the
environment around them. Characters are central to the heart of
all role-playing activity, since they are the interface between player

one 71

and environment, although it is only recently that real characteriza-

tion has begun to play a part in games mechanics. Characters cre-
ated within the confines of a game’s rules can survive being two-di-
mensional or even one-dimensional, because they will function as a
template, a blank sheet for the player to project a personality onto:
whether their own, or a fictional persona. Most RPG characters rare-
ly get beyond two dimensions: they have no home life, no family or
friends, no time off from the exciting, hectic, continuous stream of
adventures conjured up for them by the referee, and most important-
ly they have no real personality of their own.
This isn’t normally a problem: the genres and storylines of most
RPGs correspond closely to hack fiction or B-movies, in which char-
acters rarely develop more than two dimensions to their personality.
What will always be a problem is if a RPG character is unbelievable, or
gives the player no hooks to what they are really like.
Most role-playing gamers start off regarding their character as an-
other person who they happen to be controlling: they do not initially
try to get inside their heads. As they become more experienced (or
possibly as games have become more sophisticated), players start to
interface with their characters, putting themselves in their shoes, see-
ing through their eyes and thinking their thoughts: genuinely play-
ing the role. Once a role-player has reached this stage, going back
and regarding a character at arm’s length becomes very hard. There-
fore, when an experienced role-player is presented with a role-play-
ing character who seems improbable, or who lacks any discernible
personality to latch on to, they find that character very hard to role-
play with any level of depth, feeling or attachment. Presenting a cred-
ible, accessible, understandable character is the first hurdle that any
successful RPG system must leap. The second hurdle is to present a
believable and coherent setting, made up of a combination of back-
ground and mechanics, within which the game action can take place.
If a RPG falls at either of those jumps, the kindest thing to do is shoot
it. If it falls at both, pet food may be the only solution.

The purpose of rules

This is the point at which the argument about realism versus playabil-
ity reasserts itself: should a game designer aim for a detailed back-
ground in which every eventuality is covered by the rules, or fudge it?
The bottom line is, of course, that all games fudge it in some re-
spect: no game system can ever provide a complete simulation of a
reality. To do that, a designer would have to either create a rule for
every possible happening, complete with modifiers, which would re-

72 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

quire a vastly complex game system in a vast rulebook5, or come up

with a universal mechanic designed to deal with every eventuality in
the same way. The trouble with that is universal mechanics are by
their nature not realistic; they’re generalizations.
Trying to solve this realism/playability problem by viewing it as a
two-dimensional sliding scale ignores the way that most role-players
actually use a game system’s rules to create their game environments.
Actual realism is not important to most role-playing gamers, but the
sensation of realism is. They have to be able to believe absolutely in
the world that their imaginary characters inhabit: it must seem to
have consistency and its own internal logic even if, in terms of the
game rules, it does not. The sensation of realism and simulation ex-
ists almost entirely in the mind of the players, not in the rulebook.
Background and mechanics must provide all the elements and lay
the foundations for a complete role-playing environment, but they
cannot actually create the environment without the imagination of
the players and referee, and their tacit agreement to suspend their
disbelief and enter the consensual fiction of the role-playing environ-
ment. Once the environment is created and the game is in progress,
the purpose of the rules is to take over and administer the action
whenever the act of role-play cannot cope, but rules do not and can-
not govern every single aspect of the game. The fundamental rule
of all RPGs is common sense: if the background indicates that some-
thing is possible then characters can probably find a way of doing it;
if it isn’t mentioned then they probably can’t.
Once this principle is understood, and the players and referee
can trust each other not to abuse it by trying to get away with ac-
tions that the rules don’t specifically cover—by working within the
setting rather than around it—then an all-encompassing system of
mechanical rules becomes unnecessary. At the same time, it is impor-
tant to preserve the illusion of a rules system and background which
will behave like a rational, consistent, impartial universe, and which
can cope with any eventuality that the players can throw at it. This is
not a new idea: it dates back to the 1970s. Ed Simbalist observed that:
As we designed and tested Chivalry & Sorcery, it became clear that
the illusion of reality had to be maintained to bring out the finest in
creative impulses from both the players and the Game Master. Thus
we aimed at creating the feeling of being in a world.... Indeed, the
biggest illusion we succeeded in creating with the rules is the belief
of many commentators and players that Chivalry & Sorcery is
realistic!... Chivalry & Sorcery systems may appear to simulate reality,
but the realism itself is purely in the minds of the players!... Everyday,

one 73

mundane considerations take care of themselves that way, with reduced

reminders that ‘such-and-such’ situation ‘wouldn’t really happen that
way’ to interfere with the fantasy that the players and Game Masters
are trying to create.6
Admittedly Chivalry & Sorcery may not be the best example of a game
with a reduced set of rules, but the point that Simbalist makes is still
relevant and useful. Games do not need huge sets of rules; in fact a
game based on narrative should need very few rules indeed if the en-
vironment encourages the players to create an interesting story, rath-
er than campaigning for personal success and power. Among nar-
rative gamers there is a general perception that less rules make for
a better, more fulfilling game, and it’s worth going off on what may
seem like a tangent to explain why this is actually the case.

Games and frames

In Shared Fantasy, Gary Allen Fine makes extensive reference to Erving
Goffman’s theories of frames of experience and frame analysis7, and
develops his own theories of role-playing around them8. I won’t quote
him on the subject because he does go on about it, but if I can attempt
a synopsis: a frame is a particular way of observing events, like a mind-
set or a state of mind, but not attached to any particular emotion or
mood. An individual will switch between frames depending on their
situation. If this seems hard to grasp, think of whether you would re-
spond the same way to a question if it was asked by your parents, your
friends or in a job interview. Each one is a different social situation,
calling for a different frame of experience to be brought into play.
Frame analysis is a way of analyzing the multiple subtle roles that
we play in everyday life, whether consciously or unconsciously, and
Goffman’s work is interesting in that he uses game examples to show
the foundations of experience. His work predates and predicts the
advent of role-playing games, and he makes some useful if slightly
vague comments about the nature of games and gameplay, for exam-
ple: ‘Fanciful words can speak about make-believe places, but these
words can only be spoke in the real world.’9
Fine’s application of Goffman’s theories to role-playing games de-
scribes three primary frames of experience that come into use in eve-
ry game session. Other frames of experience will also be created and
used in those situations, but they tend to be transitory and vary from
person to person. At this point I will relent and quote from his de-
scriptions of the three frames:
First, gaming, like all activity, is grounded in the ‘primary framework’,
the commonsense understandings that people have of the real world...

74 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

It is a framework that does not depend on other frameworks but on

the ultimate reality of events.
Second, players must deal with the game context; they are players
whose actions are governed by a complex set of rules and constraints.
They manipulate their characters, having knowledge of the structure
of the game... Players do not operate in light of their primary
frameworks—in terms of what is physically possible—but in light of
the conventions of the game.
Finally, this gaming world is keyed in that players not only
manipulate characters; they are characters. The character identity is
separate from the player identity. In this, fantasy gaming is distinct from
other gaming... Sir Ralph the Rash, the doughty knight, lacks some
information that his player has (for example, about characteristics of
other characters, or spheres of game knowledge outside his ken such
as clerical miracles) and has some information that his player lacks
(about the area where he was raised, which the referee must supply
when necessary).10
One point in the above seems unarguable: ‘Sir Ralph the Rash’ is a
really awful name for a player character. Putting that aside, Fine’s
definitions seem clear enough. In a role-playing game situation, the
participants will be aware of the purely social aspects of the situa-
tion (since they are likely to be with their friends, and probably beer
and pizza as well); of themselves as participants in a game; and of
their game identities as the player characters; and they will move be-
tween these three frame levels during the event. They may enter oth-
er frames as well, but these aren’t relevant here.
These three levels also exist in most non-game role-playing activ-
ity: the absence of rules does not mean that the second frame of ex-
perience, that of player, disappears. Nevertheless it is greatly reduced,
usually to an unfocused feeling of self-consciousness and nervousness
that is quickly lost as the participants become accustomed to their
roles. There are situations in role-playing activities where it is neces-
sary that the participants be aware that they are taking part in a role-
playing activity11 but generally, particularly when talking about games,
it is desirable that those taking part should be able to ignore this fact.
The addition of a rules structure, especially an overt one that draws
attention to itself through an overemphasis on detail and realism, will
constantly remind role-players that they are ‘players’ taking part in a
fiction—deeply ironic, since most such rules systems are trying to cre-
ate an engrossing and believable background, not sabotage it.
Obviously, therefore, role-playing environments should be self-
contained: they should not remind the participants that they are ac-
tually creating, controlling and monitoring the environment, rather
one 75

than just participating within it. Some role-playing gamers might

disagree with this, but they would tend to be the ones who are less
concerned with the storytelling, narrative, character-acting elements
of role-play and more interested in the problem-solving, cathartic el-
ements12; role-players, in other words, who are already caught up in
Fine’s second frame and prefer to remain as players rather than sac-
rifice that self-image in favour of a different personality: their char-
Certain readers will already be nodding wisely. ‘Ah,’ they will be
saying. ‘Ah yes, of course. Rules and mechanics are the second frame,
the role-playing environment itself is the desirable third frame. Scrap
rules and mechanics and we can all go down the pub. Get on with
it, Wallis.’ Unfortunately this is not how it works. Rules in the form
of mechanics do make up the majority of the second frame in most
game systems, but rules and background are, as described in the
‘Why RPGs need rules’ section above, linked to the degree that they
are often the same thing.
A successful role-playing environment does not exist only in the
third frame, the frame in which the ‘character’ overwhelms the ‘play-
er’ and the ‘person’; it is the combination, the sum of the second and
third frames. A role-playing participant may be able to forget that
they are playing a game, but they must retain their knowledge of the
nature and structure of the game, or it will cease to work. However,
if this amount of knowledge becomes too explicit, it will draw atten-
tion away from the role-play with rules questions and the resolution
of game mechanics.
The way to enrich the game environment as much as possible is
not to remove the second frame to break down the barriers between
the second and third frames; between the ‘player’ and the ‘character’.
This can be done in two basic ways: making the rules and mechan-
ics as transparent as possible, and by making the rest of the environ-
ment, primarily the background and the characterization, as rich and
interesting as possible. This does not simply mean that rules should
be stripped down and made as simple as possible, to be replaced by
more and more text describing how the background world works and
giving player characters more interesting things to do in it; but it does
lead to two important concepts: background/mechanics compatibil-
ity, and rules atrophy.

Breaking down barriers

No matter how much certain people may hate the concept of simula-
tion in role-playing games, all good game systems do contain an ele-

76 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

ment of it. Not all games are trying to simulate a realistic background,
but they are all trying to create a complete environment. To do that,
the background and the rules must work together to lay the founda-
tions for the environment, and that means ironing out any potential
conflict between the two at the design stage13.
In the final issue of Imazine, Paul Mason described the way that a
good games system will blend background and rules to create a joint
effect, in terms of the process of designing a new game.
How do you go about preparing a game design? One way is to begin
by writing impressionistic notes on the type of game you want. For
example: ‘Dharanye twirled his rapier with a flourish and somersaulted
over the ponderous bulk of the Yygarr to strike its controlling
Itsiccikin’... In the course of this you’ll find yourself automatically
making the decisions necessary to game design...
While the details of the background are emerging from your
initial notes, the requirements of the game system should also become
apparent. Any game system is an attempt at simulation. The important
distinction is in what it attempts to simulate. Some games pretend
to simulate ‘reality’ unadulterated by any dramatic interpretation,
and these are usually described as ‘realistic’. This just means that
the designer has not admitted his or her assumptions about the
background. Some games simulate the game designer’s personal
vision of how reality ought to work more often than they reflect the
world. I believe game designers should admit that their creations are
subjective and make use of this rather than claiming objectivity.
The nature of the artificial reality simulated by the same will dictate
certain characteristics of the system. If it is a ‘heroic’ background then
the game system must allow characters to do ‘heroic’ things... If it is a
gritty, hard-edged background then the rules should describe events
in gritty, hard-edged terms.’14
And, by extension, it should allow characters to do gritty, hard-edged
things. Perhaps it should also actively prevent them from doing ‘he-
roic’ things, if such actions are out of keeping with the genre. If, in
Mason’s example, Dharanye is going to be able to ‘twirl his rapier
with a flourish and somersault over the ponderous bulk of the Yygarr
to strike its controlling Itsiccikin’ without breaking a sweat, then the
game mechanics must let him have the right skills, the ability to use
them all at once, and a reason for being the sort of guy who’d want
to do that sort of thing; and should accomplish those three without
breaking a sweat either.
This brings in the concept of characterization, and where it fits
within the game background. Game characters must not only be
interesting to play, they must also fit within the game background.

one 77

They must have a role: something to do. Characters themselves will

be described in the section of the game system that I described as the
‘character rules’, but their position within the game is defined by the
crossover between the character rules and the background rules: the
overlap of the two is the amount of room that player characters will
have to manoeuvre within the game environment.
It’s obviously important to make sure that player characters have
as much room to move and grow as possible. On a more fundamen-
tal level, it’s important that the character rules and background rules
are basically compatible in the first place. The mechanics for defin-
ing and controlling characters should be compatible with the me-
chanics that control the rest of the game world, and the way that
player characters are described in the character rules should fit in
with the way that non-player characters in the rest of the game-world
are described. Incompatible mechanics leads to a feeling of being
out of place and headaches for a referee who has too many rules to
remember; incompatible backgrounds leads to no idea of how the
characters actually fit in to the game world, or what they are meant
to be doing there.
Some role-playing games do this deliberately, making a feature
from dislocation and alienation, but not knowing what the hell is go-
ing on gets old fast. Every RPG needs a ‘central conflict’ at its core,
some reason for player characters to become involved with the game
environment; a motivation. It is interesting that it tends to be game
systems which provide this general motivation for player characters
and not the character generation systems themselves, but this is be-
cause most of today’s RPGs demand that the game action be referee-
led, not player-led (Amber is the only exception that comes to mind).
In such game environments, a player character with their own moti-
vations and goals to achieve might refuse to go along with a referee’s
carefully prepared plot, in favour of following their own agenda.
The same person who first explained the concept of a game’s cen-
tral conflict to me also introduced me to the notion of rules atro-
phy15: the idea that as a player becomes more familiar with a set
of game mechanics, those mechanics should become more intuitive
and more automatic; in other words they cease to be a set of rules
and begin to become part of the game background. This is an at-
tractive prospect for anyone trying to remove the obstacles between
the participant and the role. Obviously a simple set of rules and me-
chanics will be easier to grasp than a complex one, and rules which
fit closely with either the participant’s experience of life or with the
game background and environment will be assimilated faster than

78 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

something which is counterintuitive, not part of real or fictional life.

Viewed this way, it seems strange that various staples of role-playing
games—charts, tables, dice and even numbers—have lasted this long.
All pull the players away from their characters, out of the role-playing
environment and back into the second frame; they are not naturally
part of a story-telling experience.
If we are going to postulate an ideal game system, then, it would
be one that used a system of rules and mechanics so transparent that
it did not draw attention to itself or detract from the story-telling
experience in any way. In fact, it would be a rules system which was
designed to fit so closely with the background that the two would
scarcely be distinguishable from each other; the rules which con-
trolled the gameplay could be seen as simply describing the way the
background world functioned. In addition, the game would not use
dice, tables, charts, numbers or anything which drew attention to
the fact that it was actually a game. At this point some of you are no
doubt falling off your seats with laughter, and others are scratching
your heads and wondering if such a thing is actually possible. As for
me, I’m going to give one of those enigmatic smiles that I do rather
well, murmur the word ‘Bugtown’ and move swiftly onto the next

Character rules and regulation

All this emphasis on background and mechanics has been overlook-
ing the most central part of every role-playing experience: the char-
acters and the way that they are created and played. Everything else
in the game environment is there for their benefit.
All role-playing environments are tailored around a particular
character, or a particular type of character. This is particularly no-
ticeable in RPGs, where every game system bar a handful16 dictates
the sort of character that the players are allowed to create, whether
through a system of restricted character classes, archetypes or profes-
sions (D&D, Star Wars, Cyberpunk), or through a limited list of skills
and traits that players can choose from (GURPS, Pendragon) or by
the nature of the game background itself (Amber, Vampire, Ghost-
busters). This leads, obviously, to a good meshing between character
and background, and usually to a clean join between character rules
and background rules. However, systems for creating characters often
leave something to be desired.
As mentioned above, it’s very important that the player is able to
believe in their character, and the other players’ characters. To do
this, they should be able to create the characters that they want to

one 79

play on their own terms, not the terms of the game system. The days
of characters being generated by dice rolling are largely behind us;
today most RPGs demand that players follow a step-by-step process
through character creation, either having created a character con-
cept before they start, or coming up with one as they work through
the stages. This means that players either have to fit the character
they want to play within the limits of the system, or let the system
create the character for them.
Both of these approaches are undesirable: they create the charac-
ter from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. RPG charac-
ters are currently defined by what they can do, not by who they are.
We know the limits of their physical and mental abilities, their areas
of expertise and exactly how many stab-wounds to the stomach they
can take. Sometimes we know a little of their personal history and
experiences through programmed life-charts, which help to give the
character a sense of being grounded within the game-world; but very
rarely does the game give the player a concrete sense of their char-
acter as a pre-existing personality. Instead they are presented in the
same way as they were by the early role-playing games: as proxies,
empty shells for the player to enter and possess.
The result of this is that most characters in role-playing games
are two-dimensional, and players often have a hard time getting ‘un-
der their skin’, preferring to remain outside the character’s mind
and push them around like some kind of Barbie doll with scar tissue.
Since part of the enjoyment and purpose of narrative role-playing
is not just to put oneself in the position of a person in an alien envi-
ronment but to actually examine the world through another being’s
mind-set, this is a pity. It also hampers the possibilities for plotlines:
if a character has no real personality or personal history, how can
they have a personal stake in the outcome of a mission?
Granted, it’s much easier to define a character objectively, in
terms of what they can do, but this just shows that most RPG systems
have taken the easy way out. To play a character subjectively requires
a reasonably detailed knowledge of who they are and why they’re
that way, and that is one thing that conventional RPG rules have
consistently failed to provide for characters. In this respect they are
several decades behind the other uses of role-playing. Something
often overlooked is that it’s actually harder to role-play a character
based on abilities than it is to play a character based on a personality.
Moods and emotions are universal human experiences and anyone
can mimic them or act them out, but it is far harder for a player to
understand what it must be like to be, for example, more intelligent

80 intervaction
Realism vs Playability by James Wallis

or less attractive than they are, and any attempt to role-play these
different characteristics tends to be two-dimensional at best. Playing
a character with superior abilities to one’s own is one of the escapist
aspects that draws players to role-playing games, so removing it al-
together is probably a bad idea, but clearly some rethinking needs to
be done about the way role-playing systems define characters.
As mentioned above, at present most role-playing characters
defined by game systems tend to be two-dimensional, lacking per-
sonality and direction. The only personal growth they tend to do
is around the biceps. Their closest analogy in fiction are charac-
ters from low-grade ‘pulp’ fiction in which action and adventure are
more important than believable characterization; where characters
tend to be little more than stereotypes or archetypes.
Earlier on, I suggested that the existence of two-dimensional
characters was all right at present because most RPGs are currently
based on backgrounds in which two-dimensional characters are the
norm. Ultimately it is not the state of the backgrounds or the role-
playing game environment which will change that status quo, it is
the way that player characters are created and played. Two-dimen-
sional characters can happily exist against the most complex back-
grounds, but more complex characters will demand a more coher-
ent, cohesive environment (not necessarily background) to support
them and their actions and interactions. If we can begin to come up
with character generation systems which can create personalities as
rounded, as interesting and as motivated as those found in more
upmarket works of fiction—plays being a particularly good exam-
ple—then perhaps the state of role-playing game design can be bro-
ken out of its current deadlocked embrace with the worst excesses of
genre fiction.

If there are any conclusions to be drawn from this article, they are
downbeat ones. I have dwelled mostly on the state of commercial
RPG design, which is still hanging on to its roots in wargames, un-
able to make a clean break into its own design field. Home-brewed
and shareware systems are becoming more available, especially as
desktop publishing and electronic means of distributing such games
become more accessible, but these games tend to slavishly follow de-
signs already on the market, and seem to have even less of a coher-
ent design philosophy than the commercial game systems created by
committees working to a deadline.

one 81

Great, even classic RPG environments are being created today.

Their foundations are not in a combination of background and rules,
but in the efforts of individual groups of referees and players who
understand story-telling and each other well enough to sidestep the
traps laid for them in commercially produced game systems, and who
either ignore the parts of systems that they find intrusive or obtrusive,
redesign them, or design their own. Such systems rarely work when
transferred to other groups, but a lot can be learned from watching
such a well matched group at play.
Any change will come slowly, but it will come. Role-playing game
designers tend to recognize a good idea when they see it and, since
game mechanics cannot be copyrighted, pilfering of other people’s
concepts is widespread. Unfortunately the vast majority of role-play-
ers are still willing to accept the idea that a new type of critical hit sys-
tem is a great leap forward in game design and there is a feeling that
the industry is continuing to cater for that market, rather than trying
to push game design into a new forum which might make the act of
role-playing less arcane and more accessible to new players, who have
previously been put off by reams of numbers, tables, charts and jar-
Role-playing is the simplest game in the world. To make it more
accessible, to let it develop to new levels, to create richer backgrounds,
better characters, more involving stories, a more complete environ-
ment for our imaginings, all we have to do is remember that fact.

James Wallis is the publisher of Inter*action, and has been writing and pub-
lishing about role-playing since 1982. He served his apprenticeship writing
game supplements for Palladium Books, is a co-designer of the story-telling
card game Once Upon A Time and is currently designing the Bugtown
role-playing game for Wizards Of The Coast. He has also written solo game-
books, and earns a living writing fiction for children and teenagers.

Lewis Pulsipher, ‘D&D Campaigns’, from White Dwarf 1, 16-17,
June/July 1977. See also Chris Crawford, 1994, ‘Objects Versus Peo-
ple’, from Interactive Entertainment Design vol. 7 no. 4, 13
Yes, ‘environment’ is a rotten word for it. A better phrase would be
‘game experience’, but unfortunately ‘experience’ is already part of
the RPG world’s vocabulary, and means something quite different to

82 intervaction
Do The Right Thing by Allen Varney

what I’m talking about here. ‘Environment’ will have to do.

Gary Alan Fine, Shared Fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds, 53.
University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Ed Simbalist, ‘Fantasy Role-Playing’, from Different Worlds 1, 22-24,
1979. The italics on ‘experience’ are his, and I think we can safely as-
sume that he was not talking about experience points. See footnote 2.
Mentioning absolutely no game systems or game publishers with
TLAs for names, of course.
Simbalist, op. cit., 23
Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1974, cited in Fine, op. cit.
Fine, op. cit., 181-204
Goffman, op. cit., 249
Fine, op. cit., 186
Cognitive role-play: see ‘Uses of role-playing within psychology and
psychotherapy’ in the Overview section of this issue.
See footnote 1
As a side note, the best way to do this quickly is to write all the neat-
o keen rules mechanics you’ve ever thought of on a piece of paper,
and burn it. Forget them. The best power drill in the world is no use if
you’re trying to bake a chocolate cake.
Paul Mason, ‘Do It Yourself ’, in Imazine 20, 8-9, 1988
Erick Wujcik, in personal correspondence 1991-1993. Many debts
of thanks are due to him.
The most noticeable being Over The Edge by Jonathan Tweet, pub-
lished by Atlas Games.

one 83
The Committee for the Advancement of Role-playing Games

By Paul Cardwell, Jr

During the 1980s in North America attacks on role-playing games

were standard in the mass media. While the accounts documenting
alleged incidents of game-related tragedies peaked in 1985, they
have never really stopped. They have currently declined, primarily
because media attention is focused on computer games, movies and
television, rather than from any realization of the facts on the part of
newspapers, magazines and television networks.
Originally it was assumed that the attacks were merely a distor-
tion of a situation in which the games could be a destructive influence
for some people under some circumstances. Thus, the early work
of CAR-PGa (the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing
Games, founded in 1987 by William A. Flatt and Pierre Savoie) was
an attempt to identify these factors with the goal that, once identified,
they could be eliminated and the activity would be completely safe.
This work started, logically enough, with a search for relevant lit-
erature. As the network grew, various members provided their own
expertise and CAR-PGa became a clearing-house for research of this
nature. Not only were the standard peer-reviewed journals examined,
but because of one of the newer member’s access, they accumulated a
full text of all the U.S. appellate court decisions involving the games,
plus the one Canadian case to be appealed.
In 1990, it had become obvious that they were not dealing with
the media taking an isolated phenomenon and distorting it so it ap-
peared to be the norm, but rather a mass delusion with no basis in
fact whatsoever. Absolutely none of the six peer-reviewed studies
dealing with this topic had found any basis for it; nor did the other
four which dealt with other aspects of role-playing games. All the ap-
pellate court decisions in which the issue was raised (generally as a
‘mitigating circumstance’ in a crime) have rejected the contention as
groundless. Naturally, this monitoring of the documentary evidence
is an ongoing procedure.

84 intervaction
CAR-PGa by Paul Cardwell, Jr

Since most of the attacks on role-playing games have occurred in

the mass media, efforts are also continuing to find examples of this
and creating a body of material which so far has been able to refute
all these claims. This includes several filing-cabinet drawers of news-
paper and magazine clippings from all over the world (not all are
anti-game, and for that matter, not all deal only with game forms of
role-playing). There is also a project to document the media slant
against RPGs, but it has had to be suspended since the member who
had access to the Nexis database of major newspapers and magazines
left his job to pursue graduate education and thus lost his ability to
tap into this resource. At that time (mid-1993) a study of just the As-
sociated Press and United Press International wire services showed
111 stories had been published about RPGs. Only three, all from the
much smaller UPI, had a majority of pro-game paragraphs, while 79
were mostly anti-game. The rest were mostly neutral or considered
more than one angle.
CAR-PGa is beginning a collection of documents outside of the
printed media and so far have audio tapes of two relevant radio pro-
grammes (one is Canadian and one U.S.) and have written transcrip-
tions of both, the Canadian one from the CBC network, the U.S. one
being their own effort. So far they have no video tapes of television
The organization is attempting to compile a collection of material
used to encourage police towards an anti-RPG stance. These courses
are extremely popular, much in the way the tabloid newspapers are.
However, they are increasingly banned by U.S. states as an unconsti-
tutional use of tax money to proselytize for a specific religious view-
point. As a result, these documents are becoming harder to obtain
even though these courses are still offered, despite being illegal. Oth-
er states, including the most populous one, California, still permit
them. CAR-PGa hopes, in time, to spread the ban to all jurisdictions
and to create a counter-manual so that the targeted officers can at
least learn that there is another side to the subject.
The work of CAR-PGa has expanded to include other aspects of
role-playing games. Naturally, there has been an effort to expand the
membership, not to get large numbers of members but to get a bet-
ter geographical coverage. This has not been totally successful as so
far it only has members in 22 of the 50 U.S. states, two of the ten
Canadian provinces, and four countries (USA, Canada, Brazil and
Finland) in total. In the past, they have had one member in each of
three other important role-playing countries: Britain, Australia, and
New Zealand; and need to recruit replacements. CAR-PGa also needs

one 85

coverage in the rest of Scandinavia, the former Soviet Union nations

and western Europe, as well as more thorough coverage of those na-
tions in which it is doing some work. It has poor coverage in Latin
America and has never had members in Africa or Asia. CAR-PGa has
a survey project ongoing with the goal of making role-playing games
an accepted part of Contemporary Culture Studies at universities and
colleges along with such items of popular cultures as film, television,
comic books and popular novels.
In addition, CAR-PGa is trying to increase female participation in
RPGs. Current U.S. figures put the ration of male to female gamers at
around 5:1 and the ratio within CAR-PGa’s members is only margin-
ally higher. On the other hand, the editor of the primary female-ori-
entated game magazine, Pallas Podium, Clarissa Fowler, is a member
of CAR-PGa.
The uses of role-playing other than as a recreational activity are
also studied by CAR-PGa. A member, David Millians, is working
through GAMA to develop role-playing techniques for use in pub-
lic (state) school curricula. Millians has used role-playing in his own
classes in Atlanta for some time now. In addition, several members
are working on researching commercial role-playing games as a treat-
ment for clinical depression. Although there is very little in the peer-
reviewed literature at this point, some data has been found and some
anecdotal evidence has been collected.
CAR-PGa has contact with several groups involved in related ar-
eas of interest, as well as some related no more directly than that both
they and RPGs are being attacked by the same people and organiza-
tions. As a result of these contacts, leads and concrete information
have been obtained (and given), to the benefit of both groups.
Finally, since the hoarding of information does no one any good,
CAR-PGa is involved in a programme of producing a wide body of
information in the form of booklets, bibliographies and other such
small publications which are available to any interested party. This
publishing operation provides the major source of income on which
the network operates. The monthly newsletter is both optional and
kept close to the financial break-even point. The literature is avail-
able for a first class stamp (or IRC) and fifteen cents per page, which
is only slightly over production costs. Barter may substitute for inter-
national currency exchange.
Projects originate with the members. If a member wants to study
some particular aspect of role-playing games, they simply write up a
description and it is published in the newsletter. Anyone else interest-
ed gets in touch with the member. Sometimes no one responds and

86 intervaction
CAR-PGa by Paul Cardwell, Jr

the proposer goes solo or abandons the project. Other times it ends
up as a formal study and a published paper. Generally, it continues
until the subject or the researchers are exhausted and only the inter-
im material remains.
One project, with the working title The Gamer’s Survival Kit, kept
expanding in scope until it would have been a full-scale book. It was
cut up into a number of smaller booklets for lower cost, ease of revi-
sion and faster publication. Several have already been published and
more are in production. A few were abandoned because other pub-
lications covered the subject already, sometimes with CAR-PGa’s as-
sistance. CAR-PGa does not get its collective feelings hurt easily. The
research was done and disseminated to the world. Sometimes CAR-
PGa or some of its members got credit, sometimes not, but the work
was done and that is considered the important thing.
CAR-PGa is totally non-profit-making. No one gets paid for any-
thing. It takes no official position, but serve as a clearing-house for
information coming in and a distribution system for information go-
ing out. All statements are bylined and are the responsibility of the
person making them. In this CAR-PGa also serves as a peer-review
system on the work of its members.
Membership is dues-free, but work is expected from members.
This can include a number of things: the writing of a letter to the
editor of a local newspaper; a peer-reviewed paper for a scholarly
publication; keeping watch on the media for any story that may affect
gamers; collecting material from anti-game organizations; appearing
on local TV or radio; finding CAR-PGa a grant; recruiting more ac-
tive members; conducting a convention seminar; and so on. Beyond
that, the only membership requirement is that members keep the
Chair informed of what they are doing, sending in copies of material
produced or found so it can be made available to the rest of the group
and the general public, and keep the membership form data updated
when it changes.
While the monthly newsletter is optional, it is CAR-PGa’s main
system for the exchange of information. All literature that comes in
is listed in it. This way, members needing any of these references can
either look them up on their own at their local library, or order copies
from CAR-PGa. Game-related issues are discussed. The subscription
is $7.50 per year in U.S and Canada, $12.00 elsewhere.

one 87

For further information, send two IRCs with your name and address to CAR-
PGa, 1127 Cedar, Bonham, TX 75418, USA. The information pack will in-
clude the application form, the academic and women’s surveys, the Literature
List and the current issue of the Newsletter.

Paul Cardwell, Jr. is chair of CAR-PGa

88 intervaction

What would you see if you looked

at interactive narratives from the
outside? What would an academic,
a literary critic, a psychologist or a
philosopher have to say about them?
Is it possible to treat role-playing
games as an art-form, and if so, what
would there be to say about them?
These forms have been in existance
for over twenty years; they deserve
some serious analysis and criticism.
one 89
The Hidden Art
Slouching towards a critical framework for RPGs

by Robin D. Laws

Role-playing games have existed for many years as an artform with-

out a body of criticism. Reviews of RPGs have been common for near-
ly as long as the games themselves. Criticism, however, remains an
unploughed field. This means that we probably ought to look at the
basics of criticism as applied to other art forms before we go charging
off to rev up the metaphorical tractor.
To start with, there’s the above distinction between reviewing and
criticism. Both are valid and necessary forms of arts journalism, first
of all. The distinction is in the ultimate purpose of each. A review is
essentially a consumer report, aimed at (in this case) the potential
buyer of the game or supplement. The item’s technical merit—pro-
duction values, prose style, quality of the illustrations—and its utility
to the gamer are foregrounded. The crucial question of any review is,
‘Is this worth the money?’ If the review is clearly written, and is writ-
ten thoughtfully after a careful examination of the product—ideally,
the reviewer actually plays the thing—it performs a valuable service
to the people considering a purchase. If the review is entertainingly
written, it may appeal also to readers who have no interest in buying
the item in question. Some reviews may tip the balance in favour of
entertainment value, employing, for example, an amusing slash and
burn style that glosses over the basics. Thankfully, this is so far not as
common in the gaming field as in, say, pop music reviewing.
Criticism takes a longer view, more interested in a piece’s role in
the development of the artform than in its immediate value to the
consumer. The critic attempts to assess the ultimate worth of the work
rather than its immediate worth. Despite the lofty aims of critics, they
can be by no means assumed to be any more qualified to provide use-
ful analyses than reviewers. In many well established and pedigreed
fields, the reviewer is more likely to write clearly than the academic
critic. Let’s hope that, as we start to approach the criticism of interac-
tive narrative games, we avoid the tendency of academic criticism to

90 intervaction
The Hidden Art by Robin D. Laws

produce impenetrable brambles of jargon-laden prose designed to

obscure the muddleheadedness of many of the thoughts it is alleged-
ly expressing. Taking the long view doesn’t mean tossing clarity and
common sense off the balcony.
It does mean taking a systematic approach and asking a few more
questions than are expected of the reviewer. As far as questions are
concerned, Goethe’s three questions to the critic provide a solid
foundation for any piece of criticism, including gaming criticism.The
questions are:
1. What is the artist trying to do?
2. How well is it done?
3. Was it worth doing?
The beauty of this structure is that it forces critics to approach the
work on its own terms before bringing their own value judgements or
ideological agendas into the arena. Not that there’s anything wrong
with either subjective values or specific agendas. They give criticism
its drive and bite as they clash with opposing expressions from other
critics. Despite this, the work and the intention of the artist should re-
main central in criticism. Otherwise, the piece becomes a polemic or
manifesto—and although these have their place as well, they should
not be confused with analysis.
Beyond Goethe’s Big Three Questions, would-be gaming critics
have a number of models from other fields of criticism available for
adoption. Since interactive gaming centres around the creation of a
narrative, it makes sense to look to the bodies of criticism that have
developed in reaction to other narrative forms. Critical models from
literature, drama, and cinema can all be applied here.
For example, let’s look at the various critical approaches to film
that have arisen in its roughly one century of existence. A number of
methods of analysis have sprung up over the years. Some have fallen
into disuse, others have become hot new topics for debate, and a few
have become standard approaches that have continued to be impor-
tant decades after their inception.
Early film criticism drew its critical criteria from other fields—spe-
cifically, from literary criticism. Films were compared to literature,
and, at least at first, found severely wanting. Because they were a pop-
ular art form unapologetically tailored to the interests of the masses,
serious critics treated them merely as a blot on the aesthetic land-
scape. Those films that were deemed acceptable were those that were
most like literature. The search for serious films became a search for
Great Themes, like those embodied in great literature. When sound

one 91

films came in, the job of the literary film critic became easier. Now
there was dialogue to analyse, much like the dialogue from literature
and drama.
I think a parallel can be found between this stage of film criticism
and current attitudes towards RPGs. On one hand, we have the argu-
ment as to whether they are an art form at all, even though writing a
game product or moderating a game session clearly involve the same
sorts of decisions about plot, characterization, pacing, atmosphere,
imagery and so on that creators in other narrative artforms use in
their work. Interestingly, those denying the seemingly obvious fact
that RPGs more closely resemble story-telling or theatre than they
do chess or bridge are most often the practitioners of the form: gam-
ers themselves. Perhaps the reasons for this are primarily sociologi-
cal; gamers are disproportionately composed of people educated in
math-, science-, and engineering-related fields. Many of these folks
have traditionally been suspicious of pretensions associated with the
humanities, and aren’t comfortable thinking of themselves as artists.
It is possible that we shouldn’t spoil things by convincing them that
they are. To get back to the film analogy, most of the great directors of
the Hollywood studio era—still the most fertile single period and mi-
lieu in film history—were deeply reluctant to accept the label of artist,
preferring instead the self-image of the hard-working craftsman.
Those currently working in the RPG field who wish to consider
themselves artists, and RPGs an artform, can be seen as similar to ear-
ly, literary-oriented film critics. They consider a successful or ‘artistic’
game session to be one that most closely imitates novelistic or cine-
matic structure. I submit that if RPG criticism becomes an active and
growing field, that it will likely identify unique criteria that mark high
achievement in gaming. Like the glossy, over-serious Hollywood liter-
ary adaptations that once won praise from critics, games that win ac-
claim today for their adherence to criteria from other narrative forms
may eventually come to be regarded as dated and naive.
However, we have no choice but to go through a period of na-
ivety and searching if we are to arrive at that point. It took years for
a visually oriented approach to film to develop, one that attempted
to discover a new vocabulary to describe the visual grammar of film.
The artistic decision behind the making of a film was not confined to
the writing of its dialogue, but also included editing, set design, shot
composition, camera movement, and many other elements that had
previously been considered only subliminally. At the forefront of this
movement were French critics, who had an advantage of distance.
Most often working with unsubtitled prints of the films from the Hol-

92 intervaction
The Hidden Art by Robin D. Laws

lywood studio period, their indifference to the dialogue led them to

concentrate more fully on the uniquely filmic elements at play in the
films’ construction.
One area of criticism that would-be RPG critics should similarly
be looking hard at is the grammar of a gaming session. Films tell
their stories through a variety of technical means, as do plays and
prose stories. One fruitful avenue of exploration would be the issue
of game mechanics, and how they hamper or hinder the narrative
building process. Does a critical hit table or a skill resolution roll ful-
fil the same sort of purpose as a camera angle? A hard cut between
scenes? A fade-out? Is there a useful distinction to be drawn between a
scene that uses rules resolution and a scene that does not, as film crit-
ics distinguish between montage (effects produced through the use
of the camera, editing consoles and so on) and mise en scene (effects
produced in real time and space before the camera)?
Another famous development in film criticism fostered by the
French critics of the 1950s was the development of the auteur the-
ory, which placed the director at the centre of the analysis of cine-
ma. Certain directors of classic Hollywood were singled out as having
produced distinguished bodies of work. Looking at all of their films
enriched each of them, as certain running themes and approaches
became apparent. Many, if not all, of these directors worked in the
field of the popular genre film, which had heretofore been consid-
ered to lack sufficient seriousness to be worthy of consideration: Al-
fred Hitchcock in suspense, John Ford in the western, Howard Hawks
in virtually every pop genre. Auteurist critics found high art in these
films, which used the rigid and well loved structures of their genres to
explore themes just as important as those tackled by self-consciously
literary films. More importantly, they did so with a surpassing subtle-
ty, without sacrificing the pleasure principle of great entertainment.
Hitchcock wove complex parables of voyeurism and paranoia. Ford
ritualized a notion of community and honour. Hawks played ener-
getic havoc with gender construction.
Certain lessons of the auteurist movement are indispensable for
our attempts to construct a framework for RPG criticism. To my
knowledge, there are no RPGs that correspond to the glossy ‘A’ pro-
ductions that were overthrown by the genre-driven auteur theory.
All RPGs draw heavily on popular genres—various sub-categories of
fantasy, science fiction, comic book-inspired superheroes, horror, the
mystery, the spoof, and so on. If there is proof anywhere that pop
genres can be dragooned into the service of great art, it is in the work
of so-called ‘auteur’ directors such as those cited above. High art con-

one 93

tained in a genre package often functions more on the allegorical or

symbolic level than in the realist mode often favoured by critics of
more self-conscious art structures. This is not to say that all or even
most genre material exceeds the level of enthusiastic nonsense. One
of the main points we can draw from the auteur approach in film
criticism is merely that works in a genre mould can have legitimacy as
important work.
Beyond this lies the question of whether we wish to study the work
of particular game authors for common threads, and single out cer-
tain of them for a pantheon of achievement based on our discoveries.
The answer to this question surely will depend on a careful examina-
tion of the work itself.
To return once more to our film criticism model, we can find vari-
ous new modes of criticism that grew from the auteurist notion that
pop culture was worthy of serious analysis. These new modes reduced
their emphasis on evaluation—deciding which works were better
than others—and searched instead for social or political insight re-
flected in pop construction.
Marxist critics searched genre films for hidden critiques of the
very capitalist system that gave rise to their production. While films
that most strenuously damn the western economic structure, either
openly or in code, are considered to be better than other films ac-
cording to these criteria, even the study of films which are not inten-
tionally critical of capitalism can be useful. The main objective is not
to create a hierarchy of films and directors according to their aesthet-
ic value, but to use the study of film as a means to arriving at the best
way of subverting or changing the existing social order.
Psychological critics searched films to see how their characters
and structures could be categorized according to a preferred mode of
psychoanalysis. Freud has always been the sexiest and most popular
guru for psychologically oriented film critics. For our purposes, given
the degree to which fantasy and mythic imagery permeates popular
RPGs, I’d suggest instead that a Jungian approach to gaming might
be extremely fruitful.
Marxist and Freudian criticism have often dovetailed into one an-
other, paralleling a feminist critique of traditional family construc-
tion with a similar attack on hierarchical economic structures. This
approach (which no doubt would have old Sigmund spinning in his
grave at the discovery that he’d been posthumously appointed patron
saint of feminists and Marxists) loosely identifies an enemy, labels it
‘patriarchy’, values films that somehow fight that enemy, and attack
those that reinforce it. In this framework, the fact that a work is from

94 intervaction
The Hidden Art by Robin D. Laws

a pop genre may be in its favour. The allegorical mode of genre, with
its broad characterization and its constant reiteration of the same nar-
rative structures, lends itself to this sort of symbolic interpretation.
It would be interesting to see a Marxist critique of Advanced Dun-
geons & Dragons, for example. An enterprising critic could have a field
day with the way its experience point system primarily rewards killing
enemies and stealing their gold. Its hierarchical character develop-
ment system, with characters going up ‘levels’ and thereby becoming
more effective at killing enemies and stealing their gold, would be fur-
ther grist for the academic Marxist’s mill. Although I’m certain that
the furthest thing from the minds of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
when they developed Dungeons & Dragons was to create a training kit
for the budding robber baron, a politicized critic might argue that the
game is significant not for any aesthetic reasons, but because its suc-
cess in the marketplace makes it a barometer of social and political at-
titudes, even those held at a subconscious level. The same critic would
also find a lovely Brechtian resonance in Ray Winninger’s overtly sub-
versive Underground RPG.
Finally, wrapping up our woefully simplified survey of the history
of film criticism, we come to semiotics, the study of pop culture for its
constituent images. Semiotics takes Marxist criticism to a new level of
Byzantine complexity, reading pop culture’s use of imagery as a new
language in need of decoding. In my own personal opinion, semiot-
ics seems to be a procedure for taking images we all understand on a
visceral level and then rendering them incomprehensible. However,
while undertaking an introductory overview of this sort, I’d be remiss
in not pointing out that the RPG field is an untouched smorgasbord
for the semiotician hungry for more signs and tropes to freeze-dry
and pin to the butterfly board.
These modes of criticism should provide enough entry points
from which potential RPG critics can start their examination of gam-
ing. If the form is indeed a unique one, it will soon force those critics
to diverge from these borrowed criteria and hammer out new ones
suited specifically for it.
However, before doing so, an interesting obstacle remains to be
surmounted. Interactive gaming is in its very essence highly resistant
to critical analysis. This is because the gaming experience itself is not
set up to be observed by outsiders. Unlike the other traditional narra-
tive forms we have been drawing analogies to, gaming does not draw
a line between artist and audience. In a gaming session, all partici-
pants are creators. They are not passively watching a predetermined
work of art unfold before them. They are collaborating together to

one 95

create a work that exists only for a moment, without the eyes of non-
participants upon them. (It is true that a rare few RPG events at con-
ventions permit or even encourage spectators, but this is the excep-
tion to the rule.) RPGs are not set up so that other people may watch.
Most sessions occur in peoples’ living rooms, or at gaming clubs, or
in classrooms, far from the analytical eye of the critic. If critics do take
the unusual step of arranging to watch a session, they will change its
very nature. The participants are likely to either change their session
to add some entertainment for the passive viewer, or be cowed by the
unaccustomed attention. Criticism of the actual RPG experience is
the Schrödinger’s Cat of art criticism. Lift the lid to look at the cat,
and you may well destroy it.
What is available for study are second-hand sources. Participants
may make written records of sessions played; these are known among
fans as ‘write-ups’. If published at all, they’re likely to be found in
Amateur Press Associations (APAs) like Alarums and Excursions or The
Wild Hunt. Write-ups are about as representative of the original gam-
ing experience as the press kit for a film is of the film itself. They may
be entertaining in themselves, or even artful. But they have certainly
been arranged in a new way for the benefit of outsiders, and are by
no means a reliable portrayal of the nature of events that transpired
during the game session.
Reviews in the gaming field are most often of new games and
supplements and adventures published for them. But these too are
second or third-hand sources, not the actual art-making experience
themselves. They are a mere part of a collaboration, written by au-
thors who do not know who their collaborators will be, and are un-
likely ever to meet them or communicate with them directly.
To return to the ‘game mechanics as cameras and lighting equip-
ment’ analogy, studying a game book to evaluate the RPG experi-
ence as art is rather like using a technical manual of cinematography
to write about Rashomon instead of actually watching Rashomon itself.
Rules mechanics are the virtual equipment for the story creation pro-
cess, but are not the process itself. Sourcebooks, which provide addi-
tional information on the fictional settings in which game narratives
are to be set, aren’t the experience either, though those of us who
write them for a living endeavour to make them readable and enter-
taining in their own right. They are perhaps analogous to the notes
made by an author of speculative fiction before sitting down to write
a novel set in an imaginary world; they are not the novel itself.
It is interesting that even the writer’s guidelines for this very pub-
lication propose that game books will be reviewed, and that supple-

96 intervaction
The Hidden Art by Robin D. Laws

ments and adventures will not. For it is adventures—pre-planned

story outlines for GMs to adapt to their own use—that most closely
approximate the actual narrative spun during actual gaming. They
still aren’t the experience itself, but they are the closest documents
available. The analogy here would be to reading the screenplay of
Rashomon instead of watching Rashomon.
So perhaps this entire survey of possible critical approaches is pre-
mature. The interactive art of RPGs is an elusive one, hidden from
the observing eye of the critic. Perhaps before we figure out which cri-
teria to apply to it, we should attempt to figure out how to observe it
at all.

Robin D. Laws works as a freelance writer in the role-playing industry. Among

other projects, he contributed additional material to Atlas Games’ Over The
Edge. His Weather the Cuckoo Likes is his most recent supplement for
that game. Upcoming releases include supplements for FASA’s Earthdawn,
Daedalus Games’ Nexus, and Talislanta, published by Wizards of the Coast.

one 97
Interactive Fiction
and Computers
by Phil Goetz

A definition, as always, is hard to come by. All fiction is interactive, in

that each reader brings a different perspective to the story. Interac-
tive fiction (IF) is fiction where the experiences of different readers
are objectively, measurably different. Usually the reader can influence
the outcome of the story. The degree of interactivity in IF ranges from
movies where the audience votes on one of two endings to live role-
playing games where the participants are given characters to play and
placed in a situation of conflict, and each try to steer the outcome
to their advantage. I’m going to focus on forms of IF which are en-
hanced or made possible by computers.

Hypertext fiction
Hypertext is text with links. Links take you from one text to another.
Sometimes there is a default linear path which the reader can follow
through the narrative, and the links are optional.
For instance, say you were reading the hypertext version of Hamlet
on an Apple Macintosh. After reading Act II, you might be prompt-
ed, ‘Should Hamlet (A) kill his uncle, (B) leave the country, or (C)
mope about life and death?’ You type ‘A’, and read a considerably
shortened version of Hamlet. (This exhibits one problem with interac-
tive fiction—sometimes the action which builds up to a more dramat-
ic climax is not the action which a goal-oriented reader would take.)
It is possible to do this on paper by letting the reader decide at
each crisis what the protagonist would do next, and telling them
a page to turn to depending on her decision. This is like the pro-
grammed learning textbooks from the 1960s, e.g. Schagrin, 1968.
Now there are many juvenile novels written this way (Brust, 1987).
98 intervaction
Interactive Fiction and Computers by Phil Goetz

Jorge Luis Borges described such a book (though he did not write
one) in ‘El jardin de senderos que se bifurca’ (‘The garden of forking
paths’) in 1941 (Fishburn, 1990):
In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at
the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pen, he
chooses—simultaneously—all of them...
Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang
makes up his mind to kill him. Naturally there are various possible
outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang,
both can be saved, both can die and so on and so on. In Ts’ui Pen’s
work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of
departure for other bifurcations. Sometimes the pathways of this
labyrinth converge. For example, you come to this house; but in
some possible pasts you are my enemy; in others my friend. (Borges,

In the same year, Borges described a backwards hypertext fiction, the

likes of which has never been written, in ‘An examination of the work
of Herbert Quain’ (Borges, 1944). Herbert Quain’s supposed book
April March was a backwards-branching hypertext. The first chapter
described the events of an evening. The next three chapters describe
three alternate preceding evenings. The next nine chapters describe
nine alternate evenings before those in the second through fourth
chapters, with three possible preludes to each of those three chapters.
There never was any such book; Borges often pretended to review an
imaginary book in order to explain the principles he had in mind for
a book without actually writing it.
Julio Cortazar wrote the novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) in 1963,
which is a simple non-interactive type of hypertext. He provides two
ways of reading it: with or without a set of optional chapters between
the required chapters (Cortazar, 1966). To my knowledge, the only
interactive fiction written on paper before it had been demonstrat-
ed on a computer was ‘Norman vs America’, a 20-frame cartoon by
Charles Platt based on an idea by John Sladek, published in an un-
derground comic in 1971 (Platt, 1971).
Interactive drama had been experimented with; two early ex-
amples were the first British science-fiction TV show Stranger from
Space (1951), and a movie shown in the Czechoslovak pavilion at
Expo 67 in Montreal. The next week’s instalment of the TV show
was based on suggestions in viewer mail (Ford, 1993). Viewers of the
Czechoslovakian movie voted on the spot to choose between possible,
previously filmed continuations (Elmer-De Witt, 1983).

one 99

A computer is useful for hypertext fiction because a reader wants

to move through the story without filling his book with bookmarks of
points to return to and without constantly searching for the next part
of text.
Another type of link does not alter the course of the plot, but is
a digression. When you read, ‘When he himselfe might his Quietus
make With a bare Bodkin’, you might click on the word ‘Bodkin’, and
see a window come up that says, ‘Bodkin: A short pointed weapon;
a dagger, poniard, stiletto, lancet.’ A hypertext annotation of James
Joyce’s Ulysses is being assembled at the State University of New York
at Buffalo, which should make that book more readable.
The most straightforward type of hypertext novel would be a plot
tree through which the reader chooses one path which takes them
along a traditional narrative, or a non-branching narrative from
which they may take minor digressions.
The people who write hypertext fiction using computers today
generally want to be very cutting-edge, and to use this new medium
to communicate a fundamentally new reading experience. The com-
puter hypertext stories that have been written, such as ‘Afternoon’, try
to replace the straightforward following of a narrative with a stochas-
tic sampling of the story that leads you through a maze of links un-
til you (hopefully) finally have a feel for the entire set of interrelated
people and events that populate this piece of fiction1 (Coover, 1993).
Glen Hartley has proposed that the ‘ultimate participatory novel’
may resemble the ‘Tralfamadorian novel’ in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugh-
terhouse Five:
Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a
situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not
one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between
all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully,
so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that
is beautiful and surprising and deep. (Kurt Vonnegut, cited in
Hartley, 1985)
My reaction to these types of works is that interactivity is actually
very low. They are more like the computer game Portal by Activision
than like IF: rather than affecting the story, the readers merely search
through the hypertext until he understands what’s going on.
I believe that before trying to create entirely new means of com-
municating fiction, we should extend traditional narratives with hy-
pertext, especially since that is the only practical way to interest most
people in hypertext.

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Computer adventures
Suppose that, instead of giving the reader two or three choices at eve-
ry branch point, you give them hundreds. And suppose that branch
points came not every page, but every sentence. The resulting hyper-
text would be too large to list in a tree fashion. Instead, the effects of
each choice must be computable. This means that the fictional world
must have a representation which can be altered in detail and in ways
not foreseen by the author. Furthermore, the list of possible choices
is too large to present as a menu; it must be presented implicitly; for
instance, by allowing choices to be specified using a subset of English.
The resulting hypertext is an adventure.
You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.
Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and
down a gully.
That is the first line that greets you upon running Adventure, which
was finished in early 1977 by Willie Crowther and Don Woods. The
first version, in 1975, was simply a map of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky,
which let the player walk from room to room. Commands were add-
ed to pick up, carry, and use items in various ways. The player’s goal
was to find treasure. Various problems presented themselves, ranging
from the obvious (a fierce green dragon bars the way) to the subtle (a
gold nugget is too heavy to carry up the stairs to the treasure room).
Objects or information that could be used to overcome these obsta-
cles were also waiting to be found. Each treasure gained or problem
solved added to the player’s score.
Since Adventure was written in FORTRAN, which everyone had, it
spread rapidly over the Arpanet. It may have set the entire computer
industry back two weeks: when it reached a site, work was suspended
until everyone had solved it (Anderson & Galley, 1985).
The way this world was constructed has remained the same in all
adventures: the world consists of things contained in other things.
For instance, at the start, you are contained in a location described
in the above quote. If you enter the building, you will find a lantern
in the building. Pick it up, and it is in you. The world is discrete, not
allowing you to be ‘in transit’ between locations, nor (generally) for
an item to be in two locations at the same time, even if it should be
(e.g. a rope). Each command you issue takes one unit of time; events
between moves occur all at once rather than continuously. Your com-
mands are issued by typing a sentence (in Adventure’s case, a verb and
a noun) at the start of each turn.

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You are at one end of a vast hall stretching forward out of sight to the
west. There are openings to either side. Nearby, a wide stone staircase
leads downward. The hall is filled with wisps of white mist swaying to
and fro almost as if alive. A cold wind blows up the staircase. There is
a passage at the top of a dome behind you.
You are in the hall of the mountain king, with passages off in all
A huge green fierce snake bars the way!
The little bird attacks the green snake, and in an astounding flurry
drives the snake away.
Unlike almost all traditional fiction, adventures use second-person
present. This is because they are immersive: the player projects their
self into the role of the protagonist with an immediacy not possible in
static fiction. Years later, Brian Moriarty designed Trinity so that the
player had to kill a lizard. In an interview, he said,
I was amazed to see how many people were actually bothered by the
scene with the lizard, because it was them doing it. It’s nice to know
that interactive fiction could do that, make you feel uncomfortable
about killing things. In no other media could I make you feel bad
about killing something. Because there is only one medium where
I can make you do it, and make you feel empathy for a thing that
doesn’t exist. It’s only with interactive fiction that you can explore
these emotions. (Rigby, 1991)
After playing Adventure, many people wanted to write their own. In
a few months Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave
Lebling of the Dynamic Modelling Group in the MIT Artificial In-
telligence Lab created Zork (Anderson & Galley, 1985), which was
famous for its sense of humour, its anticipation of actions the play-
er might try, the cleverness of its puzzles, and (eventually) the com-
plexity of its parser. Zork was the first adventure which could parse
complete imperative sentences, plus a few questions. Zork was also
the first adventure whose non-player characters had personality. The
Thief was a gentleman gone wrong, with good manners, a cynical
sense of humour and the willingness to slit your throat in a moment.
Zork, like the Apple Computer, got its name because no one came
up with another. ‘Zork’ was a nonsense word; the Dynamic Modelling
Group usually called its programs ‘zork’ until they were ready to in-
stall. Since Zork never was officially installed, it was never named (An-
derson & Galley, 1985).
Zork was written not in FORTRAN, but in MUDDLE, a LISP vari-
ant which was not very widespread. Zork gained fame because, al-

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though people couldn’t distribute it widely, anyone could log onto

the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab computers and run it. They ran
an MIT-grown OS called ITS (Incompatible Time-sharing System),
which had no security (Anderson & Galley, 1985). (In fact, ITS had a
command KILL SYSTEM which would do just that, so that it wouldn’t
pose a challenge to crackers (Levy, 1984).) The Implementors (as they
were known) later formed Infocom (below), which gained fame as the
best (some would say the only) publisher of interactive fiction.
But it wasn’t Infocom that first brought adventures to the mass-
es. Zork, like Adventure, originally ran only on mainframes, since it
took a megabyte of RAM (Anderson & Galley, 1985) (Adventure took
300K (Adams, 1980). In 1977, few believed that a personal computer
(which then had 16K RAM if you were lucky) had enough memory for
an adventure. A systems programmer named Scott Adams thought
they did. He worked so hard to prove this that his wife, feeling ne-
glected, once put his floppies full of source code in the oven (Adams,
1985). But after a year, he amazed the personal computer world with
an adventure interpreter which allowed adventures (though not near-
ly as large as Adventure or Zork) to run in 16K. They were distributed
on cassette tape because they didn’t leave enough RAM for a disk
operating system to load them in. Adams quickly wrote twelve text
adventures which became the standard literature. The simple verb-
noun parser he borrowed from Adventure is still often referred to as
an ‘Adams parser’, since he was the last major author to get away with
using it.
Scott Adams touched on all the genres. He published Tolkien-
esque, pirate, mystery, gothic horror, spy, science fiction and western
adventures. To this day, adventures generally remain genre vehicles.
In 1979, various people from the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group
formed Infocom. They cut Zork in half, squeezed the first half onto
one 140K floppy disk for personal computers, and called it Zork I.
They licensed it to Personal Software Inc. PSI sold about 10,000 cop-
ies, then gave up on Zork I since that was all they expected from a
game. Infocom regained the rights to market Zork I themselves, and
by 1986 had sold 250,000 copies (Anderson & Galley, 1985; Gerrard,
1987). Byte magazine said:
That the program is entertaining, eloquent, witty, and precisely
written is almost beside the point. Unlike the kingdoms of the
Adventures for machines with 16K bytes of memory and far from
the classic counter-earthiness of the Colossal Cave in the original
Adventure, Zork can be felt and touched—experienced, if you will—
through the care and attention to detail the authors have rendered...

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[A] most excellent and memorable work of computerized fiction.

(Liddil, 1981)
Infocom’s games kept getting better. They updated their game en-
gine to simulate the world more realistically, and to parse more sen-
tences. After Zork, their games always followed a central narrative in a
unified setting. They learned to avoid the cardinal sins of mentioning
something in a description but not understanding references to it; re-
quiring a specific sentence to accomplish something so that the game
degenerated to synonym guessing (‘Move curtain? Examine curtain?
Open curtains?’); presenting problems that were simply exercises in
combinatorial search; or selling buggy software.
In 1983 they released Deadline, a murder mystery which advanced
the state of the art in several ways. Characters in the story played
their parts out, moving throughout the mansion and its grounds on
their own business. But if you interfered with them, you could thwart
their plans. Simply following someone around could cause them to
do something more innocent than what they had in mind. Deadline
was also the first adventure to use the plot tree form of hypertext: it
had about 30 possible endings (Hartley, 1985).

Graphic adventures
Roberta Williams, co-founder of On-Line Systems (now Sierra Soft-
ware), was hooked on Adventure, and wrote her own adventure which
took place in a Victorian mansion with a killer on the loose. Her hus-
band and co-founder Ken told her she needed a new angle to sell it,
and she thought it would be great if a game had pictures as well as
The result, Mystery House, was released in 1980. It had a picture
for every location. Despite the fact that its pictures were monochrome
line-drawings with stick figures for people, it was an instant success
(Levy, 1984).
From then on, the trend was towards graphics adventures. Even
Scott Adams rereleased all his adventures with accompanying pic-
tures, and found he could charge twice as much as he did for the
text-only versions. Fans of text-only adventures complained about the
smaller scenarios, concentration on graphics to the exclusion of other
issues such as plot and ease of use, and the limitation of the imagina-
tion. But pictures sold programs. Infocom included some in Zork Zero
shortly before the company was dissolved in 1989.
Publishers used Infocom’s failure as proof that text adventures
were dead (Goetz, 1987). But Infocom’s failure was not because their
text adventures weren’t selling, but because their relational database

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Cornerstone, an expensive long-term development project, didn’t

sell (Forbes, 1993).
Now commercial software publishers deal only with graphic ad-
ventures, claiming they have more mass appeal (Goetz, 1987). But
the large group of amateurs who write and swap their own adventures
write only text adventures2.

Issues in Interactive Fiction:

Freedom vs drama
A fundamental problem with interactive fiction concerns open-ended
interactivity vs drama. A dramatic story is one crafted by a writer to be
so. Though there may be 30 possible endings to an interactive fiction,
that is still a finite number. The player does not have true freedom.
Yet if you let the player wander outside the storyline, the author can-
not provide a dramatic experience.
Jim Gasperini, author of both a text adventure (Star Trek: The Pro-
methean Prophecy) and a simulation (Hidden Agenda, a narrative simu-
lation of Central American politics), contrasts the closed-endedness
of an adventure to the open-endedness of a simulation. His com-
ments on adventures apply equally to IF if we substitute ‘plot has
been played out’ for ‘puzzles have been solved’:
Even in the best ‘interactive fiction’, once all the puzzles have been
solved the plot is revealed in all its naked linearity. A finished ‘closed-
ended’ work is like a punctured balloon, emptied of all ambiguity.
There is little reason for anyone to go through it again.
By contrast, an ‘open-ended’ work becomes more ambiguous, not
less, the more it is played. It is through repeated playings, comparing
different plots chosen through the same web of potential plots, that
the experience becomes most meaningful. This can be most clearly
seen in the genre known as ‘simulations’...
Each subsequent time the player enters the election campaign,
comparisons naturally arise between what happens this time and what
happened other times. This serves to deepen the player’s awareness of
the range of structural possibilities. (Gasperini, 1990)
How can we experience open-ended interactivity that isn’t boring?
If we set up the characters in the story and let them work out their
problems around the player, they are likely to find sudden and unsat-
isfying resolutions. (A con man comes to Dave’s town to trick old la-
dies out of their retirement funds. Dave threatens to expose him. The
con man shrugs his shoulders and moves on to the next town.) James
Meehan wrote a program called TALESPIN in 1976 that generated
simple stories based on rules about how characters interact. Some-
times they turned out like this:

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Betty was famished. Betty wanted to get some berries. Betty wanted
to get near the cranberries. Betty walked from her cave down a
pass through the valley across a meadow to the bush. Betty took the
cranberries. Betty ate the cranberries. The cranberries were gone.
Betty was not hungry. The end. (Meehan, 1980)

Stories rely on conflict. Conflict is implicit in a simulation of a battle,

a dogfight or an economic system (survival vs collapse). When the
conflict is resolved, the simulation is over. But a novel is constructed
by sustaining a major conflict, continually introducing new complica-
tions that prevent the protagonist from resolving the situation. The
gradual escalation of conflict we find dramatic is unnatural, a failure
on the parts of both protagonist and antagonist. It needs artifice to
maintain it. Furthermore, the consequences of the resolution must be
commensurate to the magnitude of the conflict. In real life, the war
may be lost for want of a nail, but in IF, the protagonist had better
have to work harder than to provide someone with a nail.
Brenda Laurel, in her 1986 dissertation, proposed the develop-
ment of a computational theory of drama, possibly based on Aristo-
tle’s theory of dramatic structure, which would be a sort of grammar
for drama (Laurel, 1986). This would allow a computer to construct a
dramatic turn of events whatever the participant does.
Writers often complain that ‘everything has been written before’,
meaning that there is a small number of basic plots. Georges Polti
claimed in 1921 that there are 36 dramatic situations (Polti, 1921),
and others have tried to find similar ‘basic plots’. Joseph Bates of
CMU, David Graves of Hewlett-Packard and Jurgen Appelo all ad-
vocate compiling a library of standard plot fragments and writing
a computer composer capable of combining them in sensible ways
(Bates, 1990; Graves, 1993; Appelo, 1993). This calls to mind Mo-
zart’s dice minuets, in which before performing you would roll dice to
choose which phrases to play when; or, on a more mundane level, Mr
Potato-Head. Which of these two the products of such an automated
playwright would more resemble remains to be seen.
An automated playwright would have an enumeration of plots,
match the current state of events and past history to one of them, and
be responsible for the other parts in the current plot besides the pro-
Good fiction takes creativity on the part of the author. No artificial
intelligence (AI) program in the next twenty years is likely to be able
to choose good descriptive details, or to provide humour, pathos or
provocative ideas. Writing is ‘AI-complete’ (Shapiro, 1992): we’d have

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Interactive Fiction and Computers by Phil Goetz

to solve all the problems of AI before writing a computer author. The

systems these people advocate don’t require full intelligence because
they will be hack writers, at best able to churn out westerns, space op-
era and romances. Mysteries and sitcoms will remain beyond them. As
for me, I will not abandon closed-ended, human-controlled fiction.

Interactive fiction does not equal adventures

Adventure was not really a story, since it suffered from a lack of a plot
(other than ‘gather treasure’) or motivation (magic wands, lanterns,
and gold nuggets were just lying around for the taking). The final
point needed for a perfect score of 350 was infamous for its arbitrari-
ness: you had to take a certain item among hundreds and drop it off
in a certain room among hundreds. Bruce Daniels, one of the authors
of Zork, had to disassemble the Adventure object code to discover the
solution (Anderson & Galley, 1985).
Infocom preferred to distinguish between adventures, such as
Zork, and interactive fiction, such as Deadline. In an adventure, play-
ers solve puzzles. Interactive fiction requires plot and characteriza-
tion (Hartley, 1985). We want to do in IF the things we do in tradi-
tional fiction: make readers care about the characters, create suspense
and concern, and a feeling of dramatic completion.
Serious researchers are squeamish about the term ‘player’ because
of its connotation of frivolity. Since reading fiction is entertainment,
and interactive entertainment is a game, the term ‘player’ is justified.
Please understand that this does not imply that all IF will be like ad-
venture games, played to win.

The path not taken

In role-playing games, there are two types of players. Some, who are
often found playing Dungeons & Dragons, are very goal-oriented; they
will do only that which increases the power of their character. They
play to win. Others devised their own games, such as Paranoia or Toon,
to emphasize the role-playing aspects. In Paranoia, you have six lives;
in Toon, an infinite number. This frees the player to take actions which
lead to their characters’ deaths if those actions are in character. To
these players, playing is winning.
The former class will never be able to appreciate many forms of
IF. The development of a satisfactory story depends on both the au-
thor and the player. If the player cannot take on another persona,
they cannot enter into the world the author has devised and can-
not explore the nature of that world. Hamlet would jump straight to
the final act, and Kafka’s The Trial would turn into 1984, because the

one 107

player would never take the actions, dictated by the character of the
protagonists, which make those stories what they are.
Unless players can find reasons to play other than to win, IF will
not escape the literary ghettos of genre fiction. Even some traditional
adventure-genre stories would lose their charm under the imposi-
tion of a different character; imagine The Hobbit with a self-confident
and aggressive Bilbo Baggins, or an interactive Father Brown mystery
played by a Humphrey Bogart fan.
In particular, truly tragic fiction might never work in IF. I’m not
referring to ‘tragedies’ such as Hamlet, which are merely sad. I’m re-
ferring to works such as 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Heart
of Darkness or Deliverance, in which it is dramatically necessary for the
main character to be psychically crushed. The IF player might feel
that giving them the freedom to choose how to act had been a cruel
One way to keep players from identifying too closely with the pro-
tagonist might be to have them interact with several characters. They
might change viewpoints, or might simply have a display panel with a
point-and-click interface controlling the emotional responses of each
character (level of anger, contentment, fear, urgency, etc.) and see
how the story unfolds. But this defeats the intimacy of IF.

Computer Science Problems:

Physical simulation
In linear fiction, the author creates a suspension of disbelief only with
great care. In interactive fiction, there are more opportunities to shat-
ter this illusion. The world and the characters in it must respond re-
alistically to the player, even in situations the author has not foreseen.
If the player drops a crystal vase, it should shatter, and they should
be able to cut a plastic wrapper with the shards. Open-ended stories
cannot begin to be developed unless the entire simulated world is
complex enough to run on its own without authorial control. Special
problems include liquids, fire and transparent items, and accessibility
to sight, sound and touch.
One problem is a result of time passing in discrete steps. If, in time
interval I, character X decides to leave the room and character Y de-
cides to shut the door, X may successfully leave the room (if he acts
first), or he may run into a shut door.
The different types of entities in the world (people, mountains,
candy bar wrappers) require different types of simulation. It may take
elaborate calculations to decide how a pile of leaves will blow in the
wind (Wejchert and Haumann, 1991); these aerodynamic computa-

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tions should not be applied to a falling safe. Saying one represen-

tation should handle all situations is like saying text, photographs,
movies, and music should all be stored with the same representation.
A context mechanism must be found for deciding when a particular
level of abstraction is appropriate—see, for example, Guha, 1993.
Methods for limiting computation will be important. For exam-
ple, areas outside the current deictic (narrative) centre might be given
less processor time, and be simulated at a cruder grain.

Simulated characters
Joseph Bates says we don’t need to create intelligent characters, just
ones that aren’t obviously stupid (Bates, 1991). He calls them shallow
but broad agents. They need some knowledge in many areas, to avoid
acting unbelievably, e.g. standing in the path of a steamroller. This
brings to mind reactive agents as popularized by Rodney Brooks’ sub-
sumption architecture (Brooks, 1985).
At the other extreme, we would like characters to reason about
‘symbolic’ statements. A word in English is a symbol for a concept;
hence reasoning about statements like those in English sentences is
called ‘symbolic reasoning.’ The rules that tell how the world works
are usually stated procedurally in IF. That is, if the program control-
ling the IF world wants to know whether a character can unlock a box,
it calls a subroutine which returns a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If instead you stated
the rules declaratively, e.g. ‘if a box is locked, it cannot be opened’,
then characters could apply standard AI symbolic planning tech-
niques to form plans on the fly, adjusting them when problems occur.
Then, if you asked Jack to fetch a pail of water, he could figure out
how to do it.
There are two difficulties. It’s difficult to come up with a represen-
tation powerful enough to say all the things you want to but simple
enough to apply these techniques. It’s also not known if the standard
techniques will work in a world as complex as an IF world, or if there
will be too many things for the computer to ‘think about’ in a reason-
able amount of time (Goetz, 1994).
SNePS, a Semantic Network Processing System (Shapiro and the
SNePS Research Group, 1994), has a component called SNeRE, the
SNePS Rational Engine (Kumar, 1993), which unites planning and
acting in one formalism. This lets it integrate reactive behaviour with
symbolic reasoning, since a reaction can be expressed as an action
taken whenever the agent finds itself in a certain type of situation.
This may be useful for creating broad and shallow (reactive) agents
with particular deep and narrow (symbolic) capabilities.

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Doug Lenat proposed the use of Cyc, a vast (‘encyclopedic’) da-

tabase of commonsense knowledge being developed by the Microe-
lectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (Lenat and Guha,
1990), to maintain simulated worlds because it has a lot of knowledge
about the physical behaviour of objects (Lenat and Guha, 1991). Cyc’s
social knowledge would also help characters reason. James Meehan’s
1976 dissertation, using his program TALESPIN, explored the type
of knowledge needed to simulate realistic interaction between char-
acters (Meehan, 1980). Joseph Bates of Carnegie Mellon hopes to
use Cyc in Oz, the CMU interactive fiction platform, to provide such
knowledge, as well as drawing on cognitive structures such as Soar
(Bates, 1990; Newell, 1990).
Why IF is interesting to AI
When you have an idea for a representation or technique and write
test cases, your imagination is restricted by the techniques you have
in mind. Plan-forming and natural-language-understanding systems
such as STRIPS (Fikes and Nilsson, 1971) and SHRDLU (Winograd,
1972) gave impressive performances only because they dealt with a
world consisting of nothing but a table with blocks on it. IF forces
you out of the blocks world. You have to bring things in for the story,
and you quickly find the weaknesses in your system. Players are much
more thorough testers than you can be.

Future Directions:
Virtual reality interactive fiction
Real-time 3D rendering is still beyond the capabilities of person-
al computers, as is thorough real-time 3D physical simulation. Sili-
con Graphics claims they will provide real-time rendering in late
1995 for around $5000 (as opposed to $100,000 today) (Simerman,
1993). Real-time polygon-based 3D is already available for personal
computers, and some systems, such as Autodesk’s Cyberspace Devel-
oper’s Kit, Sense8’s WorldToolKit, and Robert Grant’s Multiverse,
provide some aspects of physics simulation (friction, gravity, and
elasticity) in real-time (Autodesk, 1993; Brill, 1993; Grant, 1993).
Knowledge Revolution’s Working Model is a detailed real-time 2D
graphical simulation of physics on the Macintosh, taking into ac-
count velocity, mass, inertia, gravity, collisions, static and kinematic
friction, elasticity, electrical charge, and torsion, among other things
(Schaff, 1993).
As it becomes easier to render good 3D graphics on personal com-
puters and to simulate physics for a 3D world, graphical IF will ap-

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proach a detailed physical model of the world. We can imagine an

interface which is more like a Virtual Reality system than a text ad-
venture. You are looking at a 3D world on your computer screen, with
colours, shadows, reflections, surface reflectivity, and textures.
The command parser is used only for speaking with other char-
acters. Your physical interaction with this world is done entirely with
an arm. This arm has no joints. It sticks out straight in front of you.
You can pull it in or push it out, and control the speed at which this is
done. You can make it sticky or un-sticky. You can also rotate it (roll,
for you aerospacers).
If you want to pick up an object from the floor, you bend over until
the object is in the centre of the screen at the end of the arm. Then
you extend the arm, change it to sticky, and retract it. You can ‘drop’
items from the arm into your inventory, and pop them back onto the
arm from your inventory list. Say you want to throw a ball. You pick it
up as described, then rapidly extend the arm. At the end of the arm’s
movement, the ball flies off the arm.
With the head-mounted display and body motion sensors used
in W Incorporated’s 1992 game Dactyl Nightmare, we can envision
this system being fully immersive virtual reality. This type of IF may
be produced by Hollywood movie moguls. Real-life actors may have
their images copyrighted and licensed to be used to generate actors
in VR IF games. Despite all the interface changes, this type of IF
still has the same problems as all-text IF: offering the player freedom
while keeping them within the plot, or generating a plot on the fly;
creating believable characters; and escaping from genres. (VR IF will
probably run in continuous time, eliminating the discrete time-inter-
val problem.)
Textual IF will survive, just as text novels haven’t been entirely re-
placed by movies. It is a matter of time investment: A graphical pres-
entation takes longer to ‘play’, just as a two-hour movie can’t com-
municate as much as two hours of reading. It also takes much longer
to create. Individual authors simply don’t have the time to stop every
time they write a scene, and create every object in that scene as a 3D
object, as well as the background.
Some aspects of textual IF will change. Time may run continu-
ously, rather than always waiting for the player’s next move. A more
detailed physical model may lie behind the text (which can only com-
municate so much detail).

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Multi-reader interactive fiction

Many computer games have developed from single-player to multi-
player, such as Nettrek and Conquest (space war games), Maze (a tank-
war game), and many multi-player dungeons. But having multiple
readers in an IF is not as simple as introducing another person into
the same scenario. If the two people act independently, how can they
both experience a dramatic unfolding of events? How can they both
even understand what is happening in the world? In order for a read-
er to experience drama, what unfolds before them must be important
to future events. But if what unfolds before each reader is central to
the plot, then each sees only one-half of what they need to. If they find
each other and exchange information, the plot will not unfold but be
thrown on them in disordered chunks.
Writers using the third person limited point of view must be care-
ful to ensure that their central character has an appropriate view of
the story: no events should occur without explanation, but when sus-
pense is intended, the outcome should not be known in advance. Can
these restrictions be ignored safely, as they are in live-action role-play-
ing games? Perhaps the solution is that each participant experiences
a different drama: one may be the protagonist, and the other the an-
For adventures, the task is difficult, but different. Since the pri-
mary purpose in an adventure is puzzle-solving, players can interview
each other. It doesn’t matter in what order information is revealed.
Half of the fun might be divining which players are telling the truth
and which are lying. Some might pretend to be computer-controlled,
so as not to be feared as competitors. A different problem for adven-
tures is that in traditional puzzles, particular items are often neces-
sary. If there is only one key to the attic, and one player keeps it, what
can the rest do? Perhaps the scenario can be designed so that each
participant has a different set of tasks.
What if one player plays for hours on end, and the other only an
hour a day? Can a narrative be such that one can drop in and out of it
and still enjoy it? In a narrative with competing players, perhaps the
players can take turns, with large sections of narrative between each
turn—a play-by-mail (or email) format.

It is inevitable that future IF will have more real-world knowledge
and more realistic interfaces. It is not clear whether authors and play-
ers co-operating can communicate the same range of emotions and
thoughts to the players as in traditional fiction, whether a theory of

112 intervaction
Interactive Fiction and Computers by Phil Goetz

drama would enable the player to have an exploratory literary expe-

rience rather than a controlled one, or if IF will escape from genres.

Phil Goetz is a doctoral student of computer science at the University at Buffa-

lo, specializing in artificial intelligence. He has played and written role-play-
ing and adventure games for most of his life. His Internet address is goetz@

Based on a demonstration of ‘Afternoon’ by Michael Joyce at the
University of Buffalo in 1992
Based on the contents of the interactive fiction archive held on com-
puter at

Adams, Scott (1980). Pirate’s adventure. Byte Dec 1980, p. 192-212.
Anderson, Tim, and Galley, Stu (1985). The history of Zork. The New
Zork Times vol. 4 nos. 1-3.
Appelo, Jurgen (1993). Posts to
Autodesk (1993). Press release for Cyberspace Developer’s Kit.
Bates, Joseph (1990). Computational drama in Oz. In Working Notes
of the AAAI-90 Workshop on Interactive Fiction and Synthetic Realities, Bos-
ton, July 1990.
Bates, Joseph (1991). Broad agents. In SIGART Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 4,
Aug. 1991, p. 38-40.
Borges, Jorge Luis (1944). Ficciones. NY, NY: Grove Press, 1962.
Brill, Louis (1993). Kicking the tires of VR software. Computer Graphics
World Volume 16 No. 6, Jun 1993: 40-53.
Brooks, Rodney (1985). A robust layered control system for a mobile
robot. Technical Report 864, MIT AI Labs, MIT.
Brust, Steven (1987). Dzurlord. NY: Tom Doherty.
Coover, Robert (1993). Hyperfiction: Novels For The Computer. New
York Times Book Review, Aug 29 1993, p. 1.
Cortazar, Julio (1966). Hopscotch. New York: Pantheon Books. Trans-
lated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.
Elmer-De Witt, Philip (1983). Computers: Putting Fiction on a Flop-
py. TIME, Dec 5 1983, p. 76.
Fikes, R. E. and Nilsson, N.J. (1971). STRIPS: A new approach to the
application of theorem proving to artificial intelligence. Artificial In-
telligence 1 (2).

one 113

Fishburn, Evelyn, and Hughes, Psiche (1990). A Dictionary of Borges.

London: Duckworth and Co.
Forbes, Scott (1993). FAQ. Usenet,
Ford, Dave (1993). Personal communication.
Gasperini, Jim (1990). An art form for the interactive age. Art Com (an
online magazine), Dec 1990, Vol. 10 Number 10.
Gerrard, Mike (1987). Interview at the end of the universe. Atari ST
User, May 1987.
Goetz, Phil (1987). Personal correspondence with Activision, Broder-
bund, Datamost, Datasoft, Electronic Arts, Firebird, Origin, and oth-
er computer game publishers.
Goetz, Phil (1994). Notes on using SNePS for interactive fiction. Use-
net,, Feb. 1994.
Grant, Robert (1993). Article 7581 (SUNY distribution) of sci.virtual-
worlds, 24 Mar 1993.
Graves, David (1993). FAQ.
Guha, R. (1993). Contexts. Draft, MCC. Austin, TX.
Hartley, Glen (1985). Toward the ultimate participatory novel. EPB
vol. 3 no. 4, Jun 1985, p. 12-15.
Kumar, Deepak (1993). From Beliefs and Goals to Intentions and
Actions: An Amalgamated Model of Inference and Acting. Technical
report 94-04, Department of Computer Science, State University of
New York at Buffalo.
Laurel, Brenda (1986). Towards the design of a computer-based interactive
fantasy system. PhD dissertation, Ohio State University.
Lenat, D. B., and Guha, R. V. (1991). Ideas for applying Cyc. MCC
Technical Report No. ACT-CYC-407-91.
Lenat, D. B., and Guha, R. V. (1990). Building Large Knowledge-Based
Systems: Representation and inference in the Cyc project. Reading, Mass.:
Levy, Stephen (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. Gar-
den City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Liddil, Bob (1981). Zork, the great underground empire. BYTE Feb
1981, p. 262-264.
Meehan, James (1980). The Metanovel: Writing stories by computer. New
York and London: Garland Publishing.
Newell, Allen (1990). Unified Theories of Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.
Platt, Charles (1971). Norman vs. America. Reprinted in Breakthrough
Fictioneers, ed. Richard Kostelanetz, Berlin: Something Else Press,
1973, p. 85-90.

114 intervaction
Interactive Fiction and Computers by Phil Goetz

Polti, Georges (1921). The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Franklin,

Ohio: J.K. Reeve.
Rigby, Paul (1991). From here to Trinity... and back again. Adventure
Probe vol. 5 no. 5, May 1991, p. 15-19.
Schaff, Robert (1993). Physics for the rest of us. Computer Graphics
World, Sep 1993, p. 76-77.
Schagrin, Morton (1968). The Language of Logic. New York: Random
Shapiro, Stuart (1992). Artificial intelligence. In Encyclopedia of Arti-
ficial Intelligence, 2nd ed., editor-in-chief Stuart Shapiro. New York:
Wiley, p. 54-57.
Shapiro, Stuart, and the SNePS Research Group (1994). SNePS 2.1
User’s Manual. Dept. of Computer Science, State University of New
York at Buffalo. Last revised March 29 1994.
Simerman, Tony (1993). Evaluating the impact of the reality engine.
Computer Graphics World, Aug 1993, p. 17-19.
Wejchert, J., and Haumann, D. (1991). Animation aerodynamics.
Computer Graphics Jul 1991,  p.19.
Winograd, Terry (1972). Understanding Natural Language. New York:
Academic Press.

one 115
116 intervaction

Inter*action will review anything

which we consider is related to
role-playing or story-telling. Most
of these products will be games,
or games-related supplements.
However, it will not necessarily
review them as they would be
reviewed in the hobby press, looking
instead with a much more critical
eye, with a view to the future and
the development of the form.
one 117
S.L.A. INDUSTRIES sue a career in the World of Pro-
By Dave Allsop gress. Unlike many role-playing
Published by Nightfall Games game rulebooks, the art illus-
ISBN 0-9522176-0-0, 300pp, trates the text rather than simply
£17.99 filling space and being pretty.
Reviewed by James Wallis This is a beautifully, outstand-
ingly designed product; but its
SLA Industries is the first release looks are unfortunately let down
from Scotland-based Nightfall by lacklustre editing, which fails
Games, a company on the cut- to make dull patches of text spar-
ting edge of the British role- kle and leaves in basic grammat-
playing game industry, mostly ical and punctuation errors.
because at the moment they are The background is present-
the British role-playing game in- ed first. It does not refer to the
dustry. Set in a far future known game or game mechanics, which
as the World of Progress in which makes it very easy and enjoyable
capitalism has gone mad and al- to read, as well as giving a much
most anything is permissible so clearer picture of the game’s set-
long as it makes good television, ting than those systems which
the game’s feel is more cyber- serve up a sludge of rules and
punk than hard SF. If Twentieth- background, but it needs some
Century Fox had used William form of cross-referencing with
Gibson’s script for Alien 3, the re- the mechanics since the rule-
sulting movie would have had a book lacks even a rudimentary
lot of the same atmosphere and index. The background is also
violence as SLA Industries, but interspersed with a short story
probably less of the neat hard- in three sections and brief inter-
ware. views with notable figures from
The book divides neatly into the background.
two sections: the game back- The setting is Mort, stripped
ground and setting, and the and polluted capital planet of
game mechanics. It is presented the World of Progress, the gal-
superbly throughout, the text in axy-spanning industrial empire
a clean, crisp Palatino face, bro- controlled by the totalitarian
ken up with plenty of excellent company SLA Industries, itself
artwork and some of the forms run by the secretive and possibly
and paperwork needed to pur- immortal Mr Slayer. SLA makes

118 intervaction

and trades almost anything, pri- its society, SLA Industries makes
marily weaponry and anything its focus clear but the back-
else that can be used as a weap- ground comes together in the
on. Under the company’s con- reader’s mind somewhat like a
trol, Mort has degenerated into join-the-dots picture: lots of little
a quagmire of depravation, a particles of information, joined
civilization where outlaws, crimi- by an initially vague but slowly
nals, cannibals, rogue aliens and expanding net of interconnec-
serial killers run rampant, and tions.
where the mass of the unem- The slightly odd organiza-
ployed population are kept sub- tion continues into the game
dued by never-ending televised mechanics. SLA Industries puts
violence, usually of SLA opera- its game mechanics before its
tives hunting down the afore- description of character genera-
mentioned outlaws, criminals, tion, so at the point the reader
cannibals, rogue aliens and serial is learning about combat modi-
killers, plus civilians, rival com- fiers, they’re still not quite sure
panies, news crews and occasion- what their place in the World
ally each other. of Progress is meant to be. To
The background oozes with Nightfall Games’s great cred-
dark grey atmosphere. It goes it the designers have managed
into some depth about the his- to fit a very flexible dice-based
tory and growth of SLA Indus- game system built around a sim-
tries, information which is not of ple and intuitive skill mechanic
great relevance to the game itself into seventeen pages; but it says
but which does make the narra- a lot about the game that twelve
tive feel more coherent. The set- pages of that are taken up with
ting itself has inconsistencies: for the combat system, a complex
example, the World of Progress web of figures, modifiers and ta-
is supposed to be over nine hun- bles which reminds me more of
dred years old, yet most of the the boardgame Car Wars than of
mundane technology is present- any other RPG system. It’s very
day: telephones, fax machines, simulation-based, and entering
TV sets. If this is meant to be combat completely changes the
ironic, it doesn’t show. The back- pacing of the game narrative. It
ground provided of the World seems a pity to have devised a
of Progress is complete yet feels basic mechanic as elegant as SLA
somewhat disorganized and is a Industries’, only to burden it with
little hard to follow; by starting this. Vampire made the same mis-
with its history, then focusing on take and was heavily criticized
working for SLA Industries, and for it; and that combat system
only then describing Mort and only took up five pages.

one 119

Granted, SLA Industries is a and better-paid jobs, they will

game with a heavy emphasis on learn more and more unpleas-
violence and destruction, the ant details about the company
market for a product like that they are working for and an at-
will demand detailed rules for mosphere of creeping paranoia
combat and if a company has should enter the game, although
produced a game containing lots details of how player characters
of big guns and keen equipment, can subvert or rebel effectively
it seems a shame not to give the against their employers have ap-
punters something to do with parently been saved for a forth-
them all. Nevertheless, the com- coming supplement.
bat system feels out of kilter with Characters function on four
the rest of the mechanics, if not levels: they have a race or class
the background. Unfortunately (there are seven available, from
the system is not designed to be normal humans to aliens, psion-
modular: it would be very diffi- ics and bio-engineered crea-
cult to strip out some of the more tures) which determine the ba-
complex rules, leaving only a sic range of their abilities and
framework behind. It’s all or attributes; they have attributes
nothing, and I would be tempted which determine how good they
to ignore it completely, using the are; they have skills, dependent
basic mechanics for a fast and on their attributes, which deter-
dirty, wing-and-a-prayer system mine their specializations; and
of combat. they have advantages and disad-
Character generation is vantages, which flesh out their
somewhat better, despite its character as a personality. It’s
strange placing in the book. a structure that has its roots in
Characters must be the central D&D but has been considerably
focus of any role-playing game, updated and made more flexible
the filter through which the play- here, giving a wide range of pos-
ers explore, experience and in- sible characters.
teract with the virtual environ- Like GURPS, the charac-
ment of the game world, and ter generation system is point-
while SLA Industries allows its based, and it has the same prob-
players to generate a very wide lem as GURPS: that characters
range of characters, it is assumed are created from the outside in:
that they will be working for SLA starting with what they are and
Industries, generally starting at what they can do, then deciding
the bottom with the worst jobs how good they are at it, leaving
imaginable. As they steadily gain their appearance, personality
experience, prestige, higher se- and lifestyle until last. The SLA
curity clearances, and thus better system produces well rounded

120 intervaction

characters—one of my acid tests After the lack of game stats in

for a game’s character creation the background and the fast and
rules is whether or not I can cre- simple nature of the basic game
ate a reasonable facsimile of my- mechanic, this feels not only
self with it, and with SLA I can— out of context, it also reads like
but they feel slightly hollow, lack- a throwback to an earlier gen-
ing history, personality or moti- eration of role-playing games.
vations. There is little or no opportunity
On the other hand, this is not for players to improvise or come
a game that demands in-depth up with new uses for the Ebb: ei-
characterization or role-play, so ther they do what’s in the rule-
I may be being over-critical. As book or they don’t do anything.
observed elsewhere in this mag- This strips the Ebb of a lot of its
azine, there are two kinds of potential as a game device, and
RPGs: those designed to oper- also removes the sensation of it
ate as games, with elements of being a boundless force limited
simulation and problem-solving, only by the user’s imagination.
and those that function as frame- There’s a great deal of mate-
works for the creation of an in- rial in SLA Industries, but there
volving group narrative. SLA are also some interesting omis-
Industries is placed firmly in the sions. There is one page of ad-
former category by its mechan- venture seeds, but no actual ad-
ics and the sort of characters that ventures or advice on how to
one can create within it: both are write them. True, the style of
geared very much towards task the rulebook reeks of dark, sor-
resolution and doing stuff. did atmosphere, but transferring
Most of the rest of the rule- that into gameplay is not going
book deals with equipment for to be easy, especially for a nov-
SLA Industries operatives, rival ice referee. There is no advice to
companies, and the description the referee at all and only a few
of the Ebb, the power that can examples of play, most of which
be manipulated by two of the al- focus on game mechanics rather
ien races on Mort: the Ebon than game style. There are no
and the Brainwasters. This is a examples of pre-generated char-
power roughly half-way between acters, nor a completed charac-
psionics and magic, a bit like the ter sheet. As previously noted,
Force, only much, much grim- there is no index.
mer. It’s a wonderful concept, More curious are the odd
wild, strange and dark, which is holes in the game background.
nailed down to specific numeric Although Mort is just one plan-
values in forty pages of spell-list- et in a galaxy-wide empire, there
style descriptions. is no description of how to get

one 121

offworld, although there is a de- utes on Mort. The second one is:
scription of the way that space- if I showed a completed charac-
ships are powered, and there is a ter sheet to my mother, who has
‘space navigation’ skill. The only no interest in RPGs, how much
descriptions of other worlds are would she be able to work out
very brief, and I smell a supple- about that character? The an-
ment in the works to cover this swer here is very little: there are
rather obvious gap. The eco- far too many numbers and TLAs
nomic set-up is also interesting: (three-letter acronyms) involved.
if everybody works for one com- Thirdly, how much of the rules
pany, and buys everything from and background can I remember
that company, that company a week after reading the rule-
is not going to have much of a book? Much of the background
profit margin. is still clear and I can remember
I’ve been trying to work out the basic skill system, but all the
what SLA Industries’ potential other rules have blurred into the
market is. The presentation and morass of miscellaneous game
background are both very ma- mechanics that squelches untidi-
ture, not just in subject but in ly somewhere in the back of my
tone and outlook as well; yet skull.
the main aspect of gameplay as SLA Industries is not a game
presented in this book would for newcomers to role-playing. It
seem to revolve around big guns, does what it sets out to do and it
weird powers and killing people, does it well enough: it’s a perfect-
which most mature gamers have ly usable game despite its prob-
outgrown. While its game sys- lems, which can mostly be put
tem is perfectly competent and down to inexperience. There are
effective, it lacks a clear design no role-playing or story-telling
philosophy, which means that innovations here, but as a first
it doesn’t always mesh with the product from a new company it’s
background to provide a coher- an impressive debut. Many estab-
ent environment for the gaming lished games companies could
experience. learn a lot from this product,
I have three acid tests for a especially in terms of produc-
good, clear games system. The tion values. In two years, assum-
first one I’ve mentioned already: ing that they escape the curse of
can I generate me as a player British role-playing companies,
character? Yes, I can, although Nightfall Games will be a design
‘I’ would last about fifteen min- team to be reckoned with.

122 intervaction

Casalana City It’s a fairly bustling, cosmopoli-

Guidebook tan place: the book describes the
by Tom Rogan and city’s culture as being ‘rich and
Chris Lampard vibrant.’
Disenchanted Games, 100pp, I wanted to like this prod-
£11.50 uct: really I did. New, small-press
Reviewed by Andrew Rilstone role-playing companies deserve
to be encouraged and the central
The role-playing city guidebook idea behind Casalana is one that
has a pedigree almost as long as appeals to me. ‘Instead of feuds
the hobby itself: right back to between elves and dwarves, we
Judges Guild’s fondly remem- have feuds between people... in-
bered City State of the Invincible stead of heroes capable of de-
Overlord where you stole gold feating whole armies single-
pieces from 10th-level bakers handed we have ordinary peo-
and mixed with orcs on the city ple; instead of quests of world
streets. Casalana, the first pro- shattering importance, we have
duce from Disenchanted Games, everyday life’ (page 4). Maybe it
tries to get away from this ‘fan- says something a little depress-
tasy Disneyland’ tradition, and ing about our hobby that aban-
produce a world that is based doning standard fantasy tropes
on plausible history. The sup- can be thought of as a radical
plement isn’t tied to any particu- idea, but never mind: if Disen-
lar RPG and indeed contains no chanted manages to produce an
rules or game stats whatsoever. interesting game about ordinary
Casalana is a large (90,000 people’s lives then they’ll have
people) city, set in a pseudo- me as a committed reader for
historical world somewhat par- life. However, Casalana doesn’t.
allel with the late fifteenth cen-
tury. The authors seem to have Realism?
a renaissance Italian city state The introduction claims that
in mind: Casalana has the big- ‘The starting point for this cul-
gest university and library in the ture is medieval Europe In fact,
world, an enlightened attitude to this book is accurate for the lat-
religion and science, a preoccu- ter part of the fifteenth century’
pation with theatre and the arts, (page 4). Let’s take two or three
a preference for wine over beer, examples of this historical plau-
and a inclination towards public sibility, shall we?
baths as a social meeting place. Firstly, there is complete
The main source of tension in equality between the sexes, to
the city is the conflict between the extent that twenty per cent
a number of rival noble houses. of the army is female. How this

one 123
admirable state of affairs was printing press (600 a year!) that
achieved, no clue is given. Al- worry me: it’s the two hundred
though medicine is quite ad- and seventy thousand hand-writ-
vanced by the standards of the ten tomes: each representing
fifteenth century: we are still several man-years of work. (In
talking leeches and stuffing you 1388 the College of Sorbonne
with garlic to find out if you have had 1,722 books.) Who copies
a ruptured intestine. There is no the bally things, given that the
hint of the premature discovery church isn’t said to have a mo-
of the Pill or even of a brisk trade nastic wing?
in sheep-gut Johnnies. Nor do Finally, Casalana imports salt-
we hear anything about what af- ed herring from the far north, at
fect this state of equality has had least several hundred miles away.
on society. We know from the This despite the fact that the city
description of the public baths is built on an island with many
that these people share our ta- varieties of fish, including her-
boos about nakedness. So how ring, in the surrounding waters.
do men and women co-exist on
a ship or in a barracks? Frightening?
Secondly, even the poor- The publishers of Casalana as-
est people live in flats rented to sert that there is no real need for
them by the various noble hous- evil races, orcs, and dragons in a
es. All these flats have running fantasy world. Human greed and
water (or a pump if you’re on an jealousy can be quite frightening
upper floor) and indoor toilets enough. Except that they aren’t.
‘which are kept hygienic by hav- Not in Casalana, at any rate.
ing running water to clean them’. Casalana is the sort of place
(page 45) The last big plague you’d like to go for your holi-
was 260 years ago. That’s to say, days, full of people who are ‘in
if we treat Casalana as equivalent general, kind and friendly’ (page
to 1450 earth time, they sorted 15.) Wine houses are one of the
out their public health problem main places that these kind and
in 1190. friendly people to socialise, but
Next, the printing press has ‘few people drink to excess’
been around for 50 years (page (page 2). And they all love the
44). The city library ‘has about arts: so much so that a glass stat-
three hundred thousand books... ue, erected in a public place, has
only about ten per cent of the never once been vandalized.
collection is printing’ (page 59). This is the sort of authentic
Right. It’s not the thirty thou- medieval city that has a full-time
sand books published in the 50 police force, called the Wardens.
years since the invention of the The very enlightened legal sys-

124 intervaction
tem has no corporal punishment of 90,000 I reckon we’re talking
or mutilations, and only enforc- 20,000 kids: that’s twenty large
es the death penalty for murder, comprehensives in a city of four
rape and treason. If you are un- or five square miles. We also not
fortunate enough to go to pris- given any clues about who runs
on, you will be relieved to find all these schools. I don’t think it
that ‘conditions are good’, that can be the Church because Sep-
‘the ultimate sanction is solitary tism—a sort of polytheist Angli-
confinement’, that ‘food is ba- canism—doesn’t believe in sully-
sic but wholesome’, that you get ing its hands with temporal pow-
a regular bath and that special er. This means that it can retain
rooms are put aside for visiting. the respect and affection of the
There is also a university, said population, and the moral au-
to be the biggest in the world, thority to criticize those in pow-
complete with four faculties and er. Yeah. Right.
an on-site zoo. The description While we’re talking about
of the college with a friendly universal education, we might as
porter always ready to help the well mention that this is the sort
visitor, where ‘the staff and stu- of realistic, hard edged medie-
dent are polite and friendly and val city that has got ‘a full pub-
willingly lead a guided tour of lic medical service—treatment
the place’ (page 71) and where available to all citizens’ (page 26)
students sit in green leafy court- ‘jointly funded by the city and
yards with ponds and fountains the university’ (page 58). Scary
in the middle to discuss ‘lectures stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.
and theoretical points’ or their
social lives makes Shadowlands Entertaining?
look like a hard edged, cynical What would you do if a Japanese
portrait of campus life. friend asked you to explain Tra-
You might think that only falgar Square in a paragraph?
the rich got to enjoy this aca- Summarize the history of the
demic idyll: but no, not in sunny Napoleonic Wars? Tell him to
Casalana. Two of the noble hous- take his own birdseed if he wants
es have invented a system of (wait to feed the pigeons? Explain that
for it) student grants! And lots of its a traditional place for political
people will be taking advantage demonstrations, and where the
of them, too because Casalana Poll Tax riots started five years
has a system of universal prima- ago? Or describe the appearance
ry education up to age 10 (page of the lions and the columns?
15). We aren’t told who pays for It is this latter approach that
it, or where all the schools are we get in Casalana. Reading it,
on the map. Given a population I had the impression of a small

one 125
child, running around a room, can’t go and visit in the prison
trying to touch everything in it. without ‘a signed and stamped
Provided we have stated some certificate’. Not sealed, you un-
facts about as many important derstand: stamped. Why not just
places in the city as possible, go the whole hog and give them
then we have made the city into police cars?
a realistic place and one that will Jonathan Miller once said
be fun to role-play in. It ain’t that doing a modern version
necessarily so. of Shakespeare was like going
To make matters worse, this to Spain and living off fish and
barrage of factual information chips. We play fantasy games to
isn’t presented in a clear way. It experience a different world.
was only on a second reading of Casalana looks like a pseudo-
the book that I twigged that this historical world on the surface;
was meant to be a Mediterrane- but the disguise is paper thing.
an town, and only because of a We have world full of people in
list of the sort of fruit that they medieval dress, walking around
grow there. The first thing you a modern police force, modern
see when you come into town is university, even, God help us, a
an eighty-foot bronze statue of modern fruit market.
the goddess Kassala, knee-deep And there is no sense that
in the harbour: but the first we the authors have got a ‘big pic-
read of this is on page 71, buried ture’ of the city: no sense of it as
in the gazetteer. a coherent entity. The introduc-
tion mentions that Disenchanted
Medieval? Games set out with the intention
I could probably forgive all this of ‘producing a sourcebook’ and
if the city had some sort of medi- settled on the non-fantasy ap-
eval atmosphere. But it doesn’t. proach to avoid competing with a
Casalana is a modern city, full satiated market. The best fantasy
of modern assumptions. Anach- worlds are usually derive from a
ronisms fall thick and fast. The house-campaign (Tekumel, Glo-
Wardens, for example: they have rantha, Greyhawk, even Ars Mag-
an Office of Special Investiga- ica in its original form.) Casalana
tions and a Secret Investigations seems to have been conceived as
Branch. An NPC warden ‘was re- a ‘product’, and lacks that ‘lived
cruited into the Branch twelve in’ feel of a played campaign.
years ago. When raring to go af- If this is what the British role-
ter extensive training, she found playing small press thinks of as
herself sat at a desk for two years, a radical and original product,
processing information...‘ They then I think we are all in very
carry ‘night sticks’ (page 31). You bad trouble.

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The second issue of Inter*action will be published on Novem-

ber 30th 1994, based around the themes of education, train-
ing and SEX. How do young children use role-play in their
games? Teaching children and adults using interactive narra-
tives; teaching foreign language students using role-play. Inter-
active exercises in training systems. And SEX.
Writers who have already agreed to send articles for the sec-
ond issue are Greg Costikyan, designer of many noted war-
games and role-playing games, including the innovative cin-
ematic Star Wars role-playing system; Chris Crawford, comput-
er game designer and publisher of Interactive Entertainment De-
sign; and Phil Masters, designer of RPG supplements for I.C.E.
and Steve Jackson Games, who will analyse the vocabulary of
role-playing games. Plus SEX.
The Overviews section will include examinations of the state
of the art in virtual reality, multi-user dungeons (MUDs), his-
torical re-creation, education and training, and SEX. There
will be more reviews, more analysis and criticism, and the start
of an invigoratingly interesting letters page. And, of course,
some adverts. But not too many. They might get in the way of
the SEX.


Five-issue subscriptions for Inter*action are available at the fol-

lowing rates:

UK: Individual: £20 (retail price £25)

Institutional: £35
US/World: Individual: $40 (retail price $50)
Institutional: $70

Please send cheques (UK) or cash/money orders (overseas) to:

Inter*action, [address redacted], Great Britain.

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