When I was in high school, I ran my first D&D game. I hadn’t been gaming very long, and I had a ton of fairy tale tropes that were stronger influences than the D&D cannon. My game did not really fit the D&D archetypes, and while I did a great job rolling with the way the players took my material (because, hey, they were upperclassmen and veteran gamers and it was my first DMing experience), I learned a lot about the difference between writing—and writing for gamers. The core of the difference is that when you’re writing a work that stands alone, you know where the story goes and where it’s going to end. When you’re writing for gamers? Well, be prepared for everything.
As a game master, one of the nicest tools in the arsenal is the ability to go off script. So, your tabletop Shotguns and Sorcery gamers have decided that they don’t want to do the mission given to them by the Dragon Emperor, and instead want to spend the day shopping in Gnometown? You roll with it. That may mean arresting them and getting them back to the hook (because when is saying no to the Dragon Emperor a good idea?), but you humor them. It may mean changing the adventure to be about evading the Imperial Dragon’s Guard, and taking the bones of the adventure you designed and changing all the flavor so that when they get chased out of Dragon City, the zombies you prepped are there for a different reason than the quest they were supposed to go on in the first place.
But what if you’re writing an adventure, or interactive fiction, for players you’ve never met? If you’ve played with gamers who like to go off script, you know how challenging it can be to anticipate their options. But that’s exactly what adventure writers and interactive novel writers are asked to do. I’ve written my fair share of tabletop adventures and I’m now three apps into writing multiple choice novels, and I still don’t know the best solution to this conundrum. But I know the first thing that I have to do when I start writing is realize: I’m not the only writer.
Is that a surprise? If you’re a gamer: congratulations! I’m not writing my story when I’m writing a game. I’m trying to write one for you to make your own. And that’s the real key. Any game story I write, the player should feel like the star. As the player, you should be able to make choices that suit the backstory you’ve created, beyond the text I’ve written. You should be able to tailor your character to reflect the culture and romantic inclinations you think suit them best. You shouldn’t be held back by my imagination.
Am I always going to have all the options everyone would like? In a word: no. My playtesters will tell you, though, that if they present an idea I haven’t thought of, I’ll work it in if I can. And—to some degree—if it suits the framework of the story as I’ve envisioned it. Because that’s your job as a gamer too: you’re the star, but we’re working on the story together. I hope you’ll see some of me in the world I give to you.
If you’re a game designer or an adventure writer yourself, this can be one of the most mind-wracking, brain-twisting challenges you’ll ever have—and you’ll come out on the other side better for it, because your imagination has to expand beyond a single point of view to encompass the potential points of view of thousands of players. And when you walk away, you can guess that as memorable as your NPCs are, as great as the details are in your world, the character the players will remember the best are the ones they created. And that’s exactly as it should be.