The Written World is a computer-mediated interactive storytelling game (additional details available here). The authors describe it as an interactive fiction MMO, but it’s also not completely unlike a library of Fiasco-style playsets.
The game provides assets — characters, character goals, possible events — embodying a story concept, but each actual experience is a two-player exchange between a Narrator player and a Hero player, a bit reminiscent of Sleep Is Death. The players participate primarily through writing, by creating descriptions of what happens next. If either of them doesn’t like what’s been done by the other, they can spend some Force to override the decision; Force is in turn earned by writing particularly compelling content. The aim of the exercise is not essentially competitive, but mediated cooperation aimed at producing an interesting story.
The Written World chief Simon Fox was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about how the mechanics work.
ES: What mechanics exist to help the narrator provide a well-paced experience? How do you avoid someone simply rambling?
SF: We’ve drawn on a wealth of different bits of narrative theory to guide a player through creating a story which is coherent and satisfying, without pushing them. Narrative geeks will recognise names like Joseph Campbell and Christopher Booker – there’s a lot of thinking already done about common shapes for stories. We ask narrators what sort of conflicts they want to represent in their stories – Is it about Love or Vengeance? Is there a Killing, or a Quest? Stories with these types of conflict tend to contain specific sets of character types – and to flow in a certain direction. We walk with you from the point of choosing drama types right through to the creation of individual encounters – the narrative beats that take place within your story. We tested this story building system in a fairly complete state recently, and found it to work really well – people were creating well rounded stories within 15 minutes.
ES: What happens when a player tries to accomplish something and is blocked by the other player using Force? How do you avoid this stopping the game in its tracks?
SF: Force is our system for resolving conflicts in the flow of a narrative – it’s been designed and tested to keep a story flowing rather than be an obstacle. A lot of story gaming systems out there focus on heavy rules of the mechanics of players hitting each other, instead we let players use force to attempt to change the last thing that happened, or the thing that is about to happen. Whoever wins the Force encounter gains an extra chance to write – it gives you a bit more power in the story but it also means it is your responsibility to keep things moving along.
ES: How do characters evolve in this system? If I have a Hero I’m fond of, how much am I likely to be able to direct the growth of that character? Is there a way for me to create or record the arc of that Hero’s experiences?
SF: Your Hero’s experiences and adventures will all be recorded as stories – eventually any hero will have a strong fiction about them, actions they have taken, decisions they have made – it’s a strong way of building character. One of the really interesting things about the world we are building is the way characters grow. You can never be totally sure about the next thing you are going to experience as a character player, each story you head into could go just about anywhere, and it’s that constant novelty – the delight of discovery – which we want to give to our players.
In terms of shaping the growth of your Hero – well you will earn new traits along the way, and it’ll be up to you to decide what those are. Your characters traits will give you a little bit of an edge in force encounters which concern them – so a character who can run really fast can use that to get a bit more force to change something which happens during a chase, for example.
ES: You talk about this being a shared world — how, and how much, is that enforced? Is it only the Hero characters who persist between one story and the next, or are there other entities that might be revisited in several stories?
SF: Hero’s get to visit as many stories as their players want to, but everything that Narrators create is persistent as well – Locations, Characters and even encounters in your stories are thrown open to the community to be re-used and remixed – unless you really don’t want them to be. I’m really excited about a world where the Celtic ghost I made for one story might show up somewhere else entirely, and continue his life – we have a system in the game called Fame – it measures how many stories your creations show up in. A really popular character or place you’ve made might become famous in the world. It’s part of creating that experience of a living world – we all have that shared experience of finishing a great book and thinking ‘I don’t want this to end’ now you can really jump into the fiction you love.
ES: Who’s your audience for this project?
SF: Well I’m a huge geek, and a gamer, but I love to read and to write. What we’re making should appeal to the kind of people who would ordinarily make these sorts of narratives with a few D20 and some miniatures just as much as to people who just want to express themselves, and maybe find a more compelling or social way to do it that sitting down with a laptop and staring at a blank screen. If you love fiction there’s a good chance this is going to be a cool experience for you.
Simon’s project is live on Kickstarter now.