“There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what anyone of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so.”
-H. G. Wells in the 1911 introduction to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
I started making my own collaborative storytelling game after a student showed me Dungeons & Dragons, and I thought, one, what an interesting way to build a story together, and, two, why is the rulebook so thick? I wanted a simpler system in which people could sit down at a table, make up characters, and set off into another world. I made one, and now I’ve played stories that never go where I expect them to. There’s the luck of the dice, and more importantly, there’re the choices of other players.
Put a pin in that. We’ll be back, but first we have to visit a professor at Amherst. If you gave him a few garbled sentences, he’d give you back a keen look, a minute of silence, and then, “There are three really interesting things you might be saying.” He’d lay them out for you: three points of view you might have been moving towards. He’d give you their strengths, their weaknesses. He was probably one of the most learned people I’ve ever met. At the same time, he didn’t write much anymore. I asked one of his thesis advisees about that. She said, “Sometimes I think his critical ability washed over his creativity.”
In reading–in writing–it’s become easier and easier for me to let the task of building get washed over by the concerns of my building-code inspectors. I don’t want my inspectors to put my builders out of work.
Back to the table. Back to a group of people, their characters, decisions, and dice. If I look at the story my current group has built together, there are narrative choices I don’t really like. There are characters and scenes I would have done differently. That doesn’t really matter. We come together, we wonder and listen and argue, and I’m having a wonderful time mucking about. I’m learning a lot. I’m sharing.
Maybe the code-inspectors should come back tomorrow. If the story we’ve told is empty or blind or egocentric, they should point that out, and we’ll try to do better. But until then, I don’t want to let the goodness or badness of a story make me lose the is-ness. I want to trust a story long enough to taste it. After that there are decisions. Before that–well, before that H. G. Wells has a mug of something. He offers it to us. He smiles.
‘This is a leap of courage and imagination,’ he says. ‘Have a sip.’