It's Your Game

It's Your Game
Player-Prompted Paranoia

Allen Varney | 2 Aug 2005 12:05
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Likewise, as talented contributors have added to PARANOIA, the setting has evolved in new directions. Known in the '80s primarily for slapstick parody, it now embraces darkly satiric suspense a la Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Stanislaw Lem's 1973 novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Troubleshooters, formerly low-ranking disposable nobodies, can now rise and fall in The Computer's esteem over lengthy careers - well, lengthy compared to the old days, when lifespans were measured in hours if not minutes. At high social ranks, characters face anxieties entirely new to RPGs, existential dilemmas that would make even Rick tremble.

Whether in comics, books, TV series, movies, and games, pop culture offers endless Jonesian examples of collaborators successively shaping a property - the property's personality and tone unpredictable, emergent phenomena of the collaboration. In iterations over time by hired creators, these properties grow feature-rich. But this development was always, so to speak, closed-source. You personally, an audience member, cannot influence the development of Rick Jones, nor James Bond, nor Han Solo. Post fan fiction about them on your site and you get a lawyer's nastygram, as surely as if you hacked Microsoft Word.

The PARANOIA example shows how to open up creative collaboration, to make the process thoroughly public.

The One-Word Takeaway: "Synergize"
You can adapt this approach to develop characters and background for any roleplaying game, either computer or paper. It would probably work for fiction and screenplays, too, though I suspect you'd want to keep the group small. Aim for these priorities:

1. Excited interest
Promote your idea. Convey why it's cool, why people should mess with it, and how they can improve it. If you can't get a dozen people excited about your creative property, it's probably not worth pursuing anyway.

2. Fast, frequent communication
After you build energy, synchronize effort. Use mailing lists, instant messaging, forums, blogs, and shared netspaces of all kinds. Use a Wiki! A collection of editable Web pages is probably your best resource. Note, though, Wikis select for deeply involved contributors. It takes so much time to stay current, lightly involved onlookers may soon drop out.

3. A gatekeeper
Everyone involved will have a different take on the material. Either set direction and vet all contributions yourself, or appoint *one* person to do so - preferably a good listener.

4. Honesty
Ensure everyone understands up front the rights they're assigning you, and their compensation (if any). Be candid about why you want things done one way and not another. Tell everyone basically everything, short of betraying confidences or making someone in the group look bad. Brace yourself for corresponding honesty in return. I'm already hunkering down, awaiting the criticism I'll get for muddling that Rick Jones metaphor.

5. Love, not money
Though it sounds weird, it would be harder to make this PARANOIA thing work if actual money were on the line. I get a flat (extremely low) word rate for editing and packaging the line, and pay the contributors out of that minimal fee under a work-for-hire contract that assigns all rights to the game's owners. Hour for hour, I earn less than an entry-level Starbucks barista. This is pretty much standard for the penurious roleplaying industry. And that's fine. I knew the pay when I took the job. (See point #4.) If the designers thought they could make serious money, the maneuvering and politics would be awful.

It's a labor of love for all concerned, like a lot of open-source software. The experience itself has been the reward, and I hope it works out that way for you too.

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