Masters of Narrative Design™ 6: Ken Rolston – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Masters of Narrative Design™ 6: Ken Rolston

Ken Rolston in Elder Scrolls OblivionThis 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. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of knowledge and wisdom.

Stephen Erin 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?

Cover of Ken Ralston's ParanoiaKen Rolston: Yes.

SED: 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.

The Elder Scrolls Oblivion Box ArtI’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.

SED: 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.

SED: You began designing RPGs in the 1980’s for West End Games, what was your first exposure to the genre?

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.
Ken's Shadows on the BorderlandSED:
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?

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.SED:
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.

Cover of a book in Greg Staffords Glorantha seriesIt’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?

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.

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.

SED: How has the Glorantha™ setting influenced your work?

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.

SED: Have there been significant changes in the way you design an RPG since your early days of ‘pen-and-pencil’ RPGs?

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.

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.

SED: 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.

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.

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.

SED: 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

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

‘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.

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.

Big Huge Games Old LogoSED: The Narrative Designer role is widely embraced by BHG, how does this new role help you design a better RPG?

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.

SED: You seem to use the term ‘narrative designer’ rather freely; can you please explain how you define narrative design?

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.

SED: When did you first begin using the term ‘narrative design’?

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.

SED: What is one of your favorite examples of storytelling in games? Why?

Quantum Gate Box ArtKR:
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.

Oblivion Screen Shot SED:
Very interesting; in your response you mentioned “performance of
computer game video drama”, and this lends itself to segueing to what I
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?

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.

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
dependent on the energies and charms of their users than
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.

SED: Ditto. 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.

SED: I simply mean akin to classic storytelling forms, and the catharsis experienced therein.

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.

Ken Rolston appearing as Socucius Ergalla in OblivionSED: 
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?

I think paper-and-pencil RPGS, and more significantly, Live Action
Role-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.]

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?

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’.

SED: 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?

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.

SED: Amen.

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.

SED: Rock.

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.

SED: 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 necessary 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.

SED: Ken, thank you very much for your time and thorough responses to my queries. I hope to do it again sometime soon.

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 Exploratorium™ I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart.

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on September 9, 2008 7:12 PM.

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 1: Haris Orkin was the previous entry in this blog.

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 2: Tom Abernathy is the next entry in this blog.

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Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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