This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While ‘narrative design’ is not a term in common usage, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is game author, developer and designer Ken Rolston. As an early innovator in ‘pen-and-paper’ role-playing games he brings to video games a unique sensibility from 20+ years of experience in interactive narrative design.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Ken thank you for taking the time to interview with the NDE. You are currently Lead Designer on a computer role-playing game (CRPG) at the Toy Headquarters (THQ) studio Big Huge Games?
Ken Rolston: Yes.
You have created both ‘pen-and-paper’ RPGs and CRPGs how are these experiences different for you?
KR: ‘Pen-and-paper’ RPGs can be authored by a single person [though they aren’t so much anymore], and produced and distributed using mature technology… paper printing and publishing.
CRPGs are far from a mature medium. You make everything up, nearly from scratch, each time. CRPGs are also vast production challenges, involving many people, many disciplines, and huge budgets, and they represent far greater risks of time and capital. And they are far harder to test and iterate rapidly.
Finally, as Sandy Petersen says, the worst tabletop RPG session I ever played is far better than the best CRPG [computer role-playing game] I ever played… because of the dynamic relationship between the players and the GM [game master] in tabletop RPGs, and because of the more satisfying relationships among players and their avatars.
I’ve also had the pleasure of watching people play my paper games like PARANOIA, and it’s like watching productions of a play you’ve written… exceedingly gratifying.
CRPGs are just way-too-much work, take way-too-long to produce, and cost way-too-much-money to produce as a medium of personal self-expression. And they don’t evolve in the hands of your users as much as paper RPGs do.
But… I’ve recently been replaying OBLIVION, and it was pure delight. So perhaps the gratification for the labor is somewhat delayed… but profound.
Do you have a paper prototyping testing phase for your CRPG?
KR: We make real working prototypes as fast as possible to explore systems, interfaces, and graphic presentation. We often make small brute-force paper prototypes of system elements, more for communication than testing… using cards or markers or Lego’s.
You began designing RPGs in the 1980’s for West End Games, what was your first exposure to the genre?
KR: My first exposure to RPGs was a mimeographed copy of Tunnels and Trolls purchased in the early ’80’s in Manhattan. It was a much more freeform, rules-light, tongue-in-cheek presentation than D&D, whose systems strongly reflected its wargaming ancestry. I’ve always been more attracted by the role-playing and narrative than the wargaming roots of the genre.
You went on to design games for the most legendary games creators of all time, Tactical Studies Rules Inc (TSR) , Avalon Hill, Wizards of the West Coast, and even White Wolf. What was the most valuable game design lesson you learned while designing games for Avalon Hill?
KR: Actually, it was while at Avalon Hill that I worked with Greg Stafford, author of the classic paper-and-pencil world setting of Glorantha™. I learned many things from Greg, primarily about myth and world-building, but in particular he said, ‘Don’t try to do too much.’ I understand that to emphasize the key role of early narrow focus when starting an ambitious project.
On one hand, I ALWAYS try to do too much…the best vast narratives require such desperate over-reaching. But I’ve learned that you have to design 400% of the content… so you can throw out 350% of it before you start production. And when you start a project, you have a ten-point list of objectives… and you plan to do ONLY what’s on that ten-point list. Any new idea or asset that doesn’t contribute to that focus risks disaster.
Of course, I’m always breaking that rule and proposing new ideas, and encouraging others to break that rule. But when I do, I’m always terrified, conscious of the risk, and alert to my duty to avoid hurting the project and everyone involved by my merry displays of reckless improvisation.
That is refreshing to hear from a lead designer. Too many times I’ve seen quite the opposite, and it leaves a game production in limbo. I appreciate agile production methodologies, but adhering to a solid design direction is a much more wise and fiscal approach.
It’s my understanding the Greg Stafford’s Glorantha predated the TSR 1974 release of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Rather than being based off of miniature rules sets like Tactics II, it was drawn from mythological systems like that of Joseph Campbell. Can you explain what the differences are and how that influenced your early ideals for RPGs?
KR: A discussion of the differences between D&D gaming experiences and
Gloranthan gaming experiences greatly exceeds the scope of this interview, and of my scholarly expertise. But…D&D was a game system… not a narrative setting for gaming. In later years, narrative settings were developed for D&D, but none have ever achieved the narrative elegance and sophistication of Glorantha.
Greg’s Glorantha is a vast narrative setting… not a game system. Several excellent game systems have been designed for gameplay in the Glorantha setting… but it is the setting that has affected and influenced my paper-and-pencil and CRPG work.
How has the Glorantha™ setting influenced your work?
KR: Glorantha is my gold standard for role-playing game narrative settings. Glorantha attracted a community of brilliant and original professional and amateur narrative designers, and, through their contributions, the setting grew progressively richer, deep, and charming over the years. The myths and themes of Glorantha are what I found compelling, and the myths and themes of the Elder Scrolls setting are strongly influenced by the scope and ambition of Glorantha.
Have there been significant changes in the way you design an RPG since your early days of ‘pen-and-pencil’ RPGs?
KR: Fundamentally, no. I still devote about a quarter of a project to early research and spewing ideas, about 5/8 to composition and production, and about 1/8 to testing, editing, and revision.
And fundamentally, yes. CRPGs are, above all, a collaborative process. So most of my work is collaborating with others. Charming, manipulating, bedeviling others. It takes a lot of energy and persistence, understanding and appreciation of the creative personality, and patience. In part, I’m just lucky to work with such brilliant people. But in part, I have to work very hard at it.
You have been a writer, or author, of game stories and a designer of game systems, which inherently labels you as a narrative designer, at least in my book. When you are creating these dramatic systems or CRPGs, what is the balance of story and play? How do these two elements knit together to create a better CRPG?
KR: CRPGs are designed with an extra helping of story. But they also have to be designed to accommodate users with strongly contrasting tastes in experiencing stories in games.
The games I make, and the games I like to play, can be played with a very strong focus on the linear narratives [i.e., progression through quests and quest sequences]… or the linear story can be ignored completely, and the player can go run around the landscape and smash and loot and slaughter and completely ignore the linear narratives… and still have lots of fun.
Of course, there is still quite a lot of story in the game where the player ignores the linear narrative. It’s implicit in the physical culture of the peoples he is exterminating, and in the ruined architectures he’s scrambling around in, and the roads, paths, and villages he’s dashing through. That’s the part of the RPG narrative I’m most interested in creating; the sense of place, the themes, the settings, the conviction that the world has meaning for the creatures and people inhabiting it.
Personally, I hate being told a story in a game. Books, movies, songs, and plays are far more effective and affective narrative vehicles, and easier, cheaper, and more reliable to produce; and in greater abundance of theme and premise. Game stories are pretty much the bottom of the barrel, culturally speaking.
I love being subliminally aware of rich stories in the air, in the paths I travel, in the ruins I pass, implicit in the dialog I hear, in the quests I am NOT officiously assigned by some tiresome quest-giver. I love the stories I tell about myself when I decide NOT to steal that fork off the table… whether the game cares or not… because I think it is ‘wrong’ to steal that nice lady’s fork… though I’ll turn and strip everything I can carry from the house of someone I find annoying. These are examples of story experience that games are particularly good at presenting.
I know what you mean; deep play is about contextual choice. It seems that the user-stories
imbued by embedded narrative are of vital importance for an increased sense of agency within a player… despite the limits such stories impose on the narrative ambitions of the game’s designer. You mention hearing dialog, but increasingly in CRPGs interactive dialog is seemingly of vital importance to user-experience. Can you explain what role interactive dialog plays in your CRPG designs.
KR: Interactive dialog is a necessary evil in CRPGs. There is no aspect of the narrative more poorly modeled as a dramatic experience or as an intellectual puzzle-solving process in computer gaming than interactive dialog in CRPGs. It is the weak link.
In my personal game designs — I speak for myself, and not for the wise, earnest, and skilled designers who design, write, and produce most of the quests on my games – all my dialog writing is a desperate struggle to avoid the tiresome dialog conventions I encounter in all the other games I play. My favorite quests, like my ‘Mazoga the Orc’ or Kurt Kuhlman’s delightful ‘Paranoia’ in OBLIVION, depend on some unconventional or perverse reversal of the established conventions of CRPG interactive dialog.
‘Paranoia’, for example, recklessly exploits the ‘unreliable narrator’… a delicious convention of literary and cinematic narrative. In CRPG interactive dialog, we cannot present the user with an unreliable narrator… because the interface and interaction is not subtle enough to make gaming that ambiguity fair or fun. But Kurt’s ‘Paranoia’ quest breaks the rule… if you treat your quest-giver as a reliable narrator; you are betrayed into a gross and unjust murder of innocents. It’s lots of fun… once, and in a minor side-quest, and for laughs… but it would drive most users crazy if they encountered it in a main quest sequence without a distracting and obtrusive layer of foreshadowing and narrative handling.
The dominating rule for interactive dialog in my games is ‘least harm’, and ‘only necessary exposition’. I cheerfully invite designers to experiment with more complicated exercises in entertaining speeches, narrative choices, and dialog puzzles… but I also cheerfully invite ruthless editing, unless the dialog and gameplay sparkles with uncharacteristic charm, freshness, and originality.
The Narrative Designer role is widely embraced by BHG, how does this new role help you design a better RPG?
KR: Actually, I can’t make an RPG without narrative designers. I am stunned when I hear panels and roundtables at GDC still talking about hiring ‘professional writers’ for their games like it was shrewd and recent wisdom. ‘Narrative designers’ are ‘professional game writers’. We have to be idiots if it doesn’t occur to us to use professional game writers to create game narratives.All the designers at Bethesda Softworks were capable… and at least occasionally brilliant… narrative designers.
I have no idea how you could make a CRPG without a stable of good narrative designers… at least one or two very strong master-veterans, also skilled editors and re-writers, and a hearty squad of steady, intelligent journeymen and reckless, eager, and durable rookies.
You seem to use the term ‘narrative designer’ rather freely; can you please explain how you define narrative design?
KR: I am not conscious of ever lacking the term ‘narrative designer’. I’ve always used it to contrast the role of system designers and narratives designers. Systems designers design the systems. Narrative designers design the narrative. It’s a very common sense use of language for me, and with the designers I work with, and I’m a little surprised to find it needing definition.
At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for a formal definition. I am conscious of a generous overlap in systems and narrative skills in most of my peers. Perhaps I am distinctive in having relatively weak systems design skills. I compensate for my modest systems chops with a broad and active scholarship and interest in games systems. Even if I’m not qualified for original composition in systems, I’m agile and conversant in their methods and paradigms.
When did you first begin using the term ‘narrative design’?
KR: I’m not conscious of beginning to use the term. I think I’ve always used the term, even back as far as my early work with TSR and Chaosium. Perhaps because I am very conscious of my limitations as a systems designer that I have always characterized myself specifically as a narrative designer.
What is one of your favorite examples of storytelling in games? Why?
KR: In an ancient game, “Quantum Gate”, you are a young recruit in the military, and your commanding officer calls you into his office and asks you to snitch on the questionable loyalties of your roommate. Your roommate, in fact, is an unpleasant jackass who has verbally abused you, and who certainly has more-than-questionable loyalties. But you also have questions about the authoritarian and arbitrary culture you live in, and in particular the commanding officer who has called you in and asked you to rat on a roommate.
So you feel really conflicted. You don’t like the roommate, but you don’t playing the tainted role of informer, either. At a deeper level, it occurred to me that the commanding officer might already know that my roommate was unreliable… that he might, in fact, have bugged my room, and he might be interrogating ME to find out if I was reliable. So there was this delicious nested puzzle: what was the right thing for Ken Rolston to do? Ken Rolston, who didn’t like being an informer.
What was the right thing for my avatar to do? How much did he dislike his roommate? What kind of person was my avatar? This was my first chance to decide who he was… and I wanted to make a good, colorful, consistent role-playing decision upon which I could base the rest of my avatar’s future game decisions within that role. And what was the smart GAME thing to do? Had I sussed out the designer’s cunning plan? Had I detected subterfuge in the poker face of my interrogator? Or was it just the conventional wooden performance of computer game video drama? And if the commanding officer was playing me, what was my best strategy, rat out my roommate, or, assume the role of stiff-necked prig, refusing to snitch on principle? And had this incident suddenly shifted my sympathies toward the roommate I had conceived such a dislike for? The deliciousness of this game story was my analysis of the situation, and the internal moral, tactical, strategic, and personal brooding over how I might play it, and how each choice might work out for me.
I have completely forgotten what I actually did, or how it played out in the game. All I recall vividly is the complexity and charm of the successive onionskins of the dilemmas. I’ve never encountered anything even vaguely as compelling in a game since then.
Very interesting; in your response you mentioned “performance of computer game video drama”, and this lends itself to segueing to what you find the most compelling part of CRPGs, interactive drama. To quote you “I had once dreamed that role-playing games would transform culture. I expected role-playing games to take their place alongside literature, drama, and cinema.” Is this dream dead? Why?
KR: I once thought ‘paper-and-pencil’ RPGs would earn a place on library and university shelves with literature, drama, and cinema. I was wrong. Paper-and-pencil RPGs were only briefly a popular mass media pastime, and they have slipped back into the obscurity of a cult diversion.
Maybe digital RPGs will some day earn a place on library and university shelves with literature, drama, and cinema. I doubt it. I think digital RPGs are also a popular mass media pastime. I don’t think they will slip back into obscurity like paper-and-pencil RPGs, because they are a less demanding activity than tabletop RPGs, and their fun is less paper-and-pencil RPGs are. But, in their current form, I think digital RPGs will remain popular pastimes rather than forms of artistic expression. They are too expensive and challenging to make, so they aren’t produced in sufficient volume or variety to encourage experimentation or personal expression with them. I think they take too much time and work to play to attract active and energetic niche audiences of critical and challenging users.
I’m not making an invidious comparison between CRPGs, on one hand, and literature, drama, and cinema, on the other. There is nothing inherently shabby or undignified about popular pastimes. But I wear a beret to conceal my baldness, NOT because I feel entitled to wear a beret because I am a sensitive game artist.
Despite the ebb and flow in the interests of pop culture, what you seem to be saying is that games are capable of higher forms of drama, one akin to classic storytelling forms?
KR: I’m suspicious of the connotations of ‘higher’ in this context.
I simply mean akin to classic storytelling forms, and the catharsis experienced therein.
KR: I am persuaded that games are capable of uniquely interesting, even illuminating, dramatic effects that are particular to the medium. I think games can do worthwhile, perhaps precious, things that literature, drama, and cinema cannot do. But I do not have a long personal list of noteworthy works in gaming to press upon my friends and colleagues, much less skeptical or derisive critics. Such noteworthy works may exist, and cases for them as art may be justified. But I am not personally much interested in identifying such works, or in making cases for them.
Understandably, it’s more of an academic pursuit. With that in mind, what relation do you see between Shakespeare’s poem “All the world’s a stage” and the creation of dramatic immersive RPGs?
KR: I think paper-and-pencil RPGS, and more significantly, Live Action nRole-playing Games (LARPs), exhibit a far greater self-consciousness in their creators and players of the roles we play on life’s stage, and what we say about ourselves with, how we play those roles, how we present ourselves to the world, and how those presented roles relate to any more profound notions of identity that exist beneath those portrayed roles. CRPGs are peculiarly weak examples of role-playing, compared to their paper-and-pencil and live-action counterparts. [And that bit of Shakespeare is more a dreary reflection on man’s mortality than a musing on how we personally play roles on life’s stage.]
The dramatic weakness of CRPGs as role-playing experiences is that they have no audience… therefore there is no mirror or response to the player’s role-playing. Games like Fable have rudimentary feedback systems to monitor the player’s role-playing and send back responses…they’re kind of fun, but pretty crude.
I think that, in theory, a CRPG treatment might do an interesting job of exploring and exteriorizing complex, obscure Shakespearean roles like Hamlet, a character divided within himself and against himself. But without providing decision points for the player within the narrative, and vivid and dramatically satisfying contrasts in outcomes resulting from those decision points, I don’t see how it could be ‘fun’ in a game sense. Nor do I imagine creating such a treatment to a level of polish to compare with AAA games will be easy and inexpensive enough in the near future to encourage such experiments. BUT… using the TESIV editor and assets, a rough prototype of some scenes from Hamlet might be assembled. I leave that as an exercise for the apt pupil.
Do you feel that CRPGs are in any way an evolution of ‘pen-and-pencil’ RPGs, in a Darwinian sense? Or are they two species of the game genus role-playing now thriving, in their own way, side by side; for instance, as the genus theater is to, stage-play and screenplay?
KR: Wow. That is DEFINITELY above my pay grade. I think ‘paper-and-pencil’ RPGs, LARPS, and CRPGs are all significantly descendant lineages from the original D&D models, but I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the ranges and elements of those divergences and audiences. Perhaps there’s another project for my ‘declining years’.
With all this in mind, and it’s clearly a vast amount of creative theory, what do you envision as the ideal future for CRPGs?
KR: Wait! Don’t assume from my rising to the Shakespeare bait that I contain a roiling ferment of CRPG aesthetic aspiration. I have no vision for an ideal future of CRPGs, any more than I have a vision of the ideal future of the novel, the film, or the theater. I do have a few personal crackpot notions for evolutionary and cross-genre CRPG premises. But they would be lots of work, and risky, and I am content to keep those notions locked indefinitely in my deep, dark cupboards. In general, I just want to make better, more fun, less sucky CRPGs.
I want to make small, iterative improvements in quality. I want to remove as many of the tired, clattering conventions of hardcore CRPGs as possible to streamline the experience back towards the lighter pace and charm of my early experiences of CRPGs… like Baldur’s Gate.
I want better dialog writing, recording, and performance. I want more, smarter, experienced, perversely clever narrative designers slaving away on game settings, themes, plots, and characters. I want a better collaboration between narrative and visual storytelling. I want a lighter touch in the presentation of quests, so the player feels more like a quest was his OWN idea, rather than a task assigned by a quest giver. Just more of the Same Old Crap™, but better, with more time, and with more ruthless review and testing so we can throw away most of the early draft content and polish the rest.
A common complaint about single-player CRPGs is the time involved completing a full character arc, or campaign, sometimes it requires 60 hours or more of gameplay. Do you think something that might assist in the effort of bettering the “Same Old Crap™” is scoping CRPG products to be shorter play experiences?
KR: Sure. A story should only be as long as it has to be… no longer and no shorter. Because the initial joys of ‘paper-and-pencil’ RPGs were their never-ending sagas… the continuing night after-night sessions of heroic epics… users may have come to expect epic adventures as a convention of a CRPG product.
But many players avoid the main quest in MORROWIND and OBLIVION, choosing instead to wander off on freeform, side quest, or faction quest adventuring. I think those players are self-selecting for shorter, more episodic narratives. So vast narratives like the CRPGs I design can serve both audiences… a main quest for the epic heroic fans, and boatloads of other narrative content for fans who prefer the episodic economy and pacing experienced in a TV series or comic series.
Ken, thank you very much for your time and thorough responses to my queries. I hope to do it again sometime soon.
Ken has shared some great thoughts here; in his words one can tell beyond his work, he spends a serious amount of time in contemplation of interactivity, game design, and drama. I know I have learned, and I hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Explorer™ I’m Stephen E. Dinehart. Remember, it’s only through play that great stories happen!