Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Creativity of Constraint

Regular readers will know that China Mieville is kind of an obsession round these parts. It's not deliberate; the guy just insists on saying provocative things that he knows I'll want to comment on. At the gym just now I was listening to his interview on The City and The City, in which he talks at some length about how genre constraints and rules are not in fact barriers to creativity but, on the contrary, spur it. Working around strict tropes and genre expectations forces, in some respects, ever greater leaps of imagination in the drive for something new. (Of course, being a total pseud, like me, he mostly ended up talking about the Oulipo school.)

This is something I can identify with, as it's true of all the RPGs I really enjoy. Being constrained by either expectation (e.g., it's D&D so there will be a dungeon) or starting point (e.g., it's D&D so you can be a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, a dwarf, or an elf) forces both players and DMs to continually re-invent, rejig, and genuflect their games and characters in ways in which a blank slate somehow could not. (At least in theory. There are of course plenty of players who end up being Bob the Fighter in every game.) If you're playing D&D and you know therefore there are to be dungeons, you put in the extra effort to make those dungeons unique and interesting so they don't come across as old. If you're playing D&D so you know you're going to end up being the cleric, you invent some weird and wonderful new deity, religion and trappings to keep things fresh.

RPGs accomplish creativity through constraint in three different ways:
  • The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Model. This uses hardcore randomness in character generation to force players into boxes they weren't expecting to be put inside. They then have to shape their character on unsure and unexpected footing.
  • The BECMI D&D Model. This allows some choice of role, but the roles are highly rigid archetypes that allow for little variation. This forces players to come up with cosmetic and character-based variety; if you have to be an elf you're going to play an elf who is scared of water, whose culture is modelled on Turkish horse nomads.
  • The Pendragon Model. This is the ultimate in constraint: in its purest form Pendragon insists that the players will all without exception take on the role of squires about to be knighted and taken into the service of King Uther (or King Arthur). Players therefore come up with highly creative means of distinguishing themselves from each other in looks, personality, abilities and history.
Generic games like GURPS, the HERO system, Savage Worlds and so forth therefore leave me somewhat cold. The vast blank canvasses they provide often intimidate and confuse. Better to restrict, better to constrain, better to make lack of options the spark.

8 comments:

  1. GURPS and Hero (and their like) have a common problem of lack of creative compass. However, the GM should be there to provide that direction which will guide the players through the character creation process. It's not a fault of the game system when a player gets lost and confused in the character creation process. Rather, it's a fault in the GM when he or she does not properly setup the environment/scenario/world/style properly for the players. I've seen many a GURPS player get frustrated when their character turns out to be totally ineffective at everything they try because their character was not built in the same mind-set as the GM was in when he envisioned the campaign.

    I guess what I'm saying is that for the open systems, the GM needs to a guide through character creation along with being the guide through the campaign world and events as well. The campaign does not start when the characters are finished and ready to play; it starts when the players show up at the table to create characters.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with you and China on the idea of constraints. I noticed that years ago, that having a wide-open options is like having no options. I like the 3d6 in order character generation (#2) forcing you to rationalize your rolls into characters. When we played B/X online last year, I made five interesting different characters from one set of rolls (well 4 were good, 1 was meh). I'd link to it but Pat Armstrong pulled everything off the blog.

    ReplyDelete
  3. While I agree with your attitude ("less is more"), I wouldn't call it "constraint" so much as "restraint"...and more than that "focus."

    The GURPS and HERO games lack focus in an of themselves (they possess only what is instilled by the players).

    ReplyDelete
  4. what jb said... 100%

    personally i love having a somewhat "strict" setting i can fit my character into.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I agree with this. However, I think random character generation can leave people cold at the sight of the final product, and most people's imagination is fired within the constraint they choose.

    I also think that generic systems work well for creativity when a group wants to run a campaign that doesn't fit some of the more restricted games on offer. However, in the majority of cases a groups vision of a campaign is nothing more elaborate than an impulse like "let's play warhammer!"

    (Which I'm doing at the moment actually, using version 3, and it's great!)

    ReplyDelete
  6. that Sir S is faustusnotes, btw, but wordpress is throwing up errors on your blog!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi,

    You've a really good blog. To turn into a prosperous person the standard issue would be to have positive thinking. Get pleasure from Sky Rocketing Success with Turbo charged Positive Affirmations... Develop Positive Thinking So You can Eliminate Tension From your Life, Improve Your Self-Confidence and Program Your self For Lifetime Achievement!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi,

    You've a really good blog. To turn into a prosperous person the standard issue would be to have positive thinking. Get pleasure from Sky Rocketing Success with Turbo charged Positive Affirmations... Develop Positive Thinking So You can Eliminate Tension From your Life, Improve Your Self-Confidence and Program Your self For Lifetime Achievement!

    ReplyDelete