Dev Notes 15 - The Importance of Fiction

Our Kickstarter for Steamscapes: Asia has been up for a week now, and we are continuing to make good progress on that front. But I wanted to take a moment with my Developer Notes to highlight a feature of this campaign you might not notice unless you're the sort who skips around a Kickstarter page or reads everything very thoroughly. For Steamscapes: Asia, we have already hired not just one but three people to write short stories for the book - Will Hindmarch, Kevin Andrew Murphy, and William F Wu. We consider good fiction writers as essential for our products as good artists are. Allow me to explain why.

Actually I lied. My friends are exactly right.

Fiction seems to be somewhat disrespected in RPG books these days. Many games ignore it entirely, and even the ones that include it don't highlight it or advertise it. Or maybe the fiction is presented in tiny snippets of flavorful scenes rather than actually telling a story. Sure, that can sound exciting, but a scene without a story ends up feeling hollow. And when that is the case, can you blame players for considering fiction to be a waste of space? Unfortunately, both tabletop and computer games have taken to using such snippets as the previews to their world. And that's fine if you can then buy the book or game and read the story that includes that fragment, but too often the fragment is all that there is.

There is also the growing tendency in the modern roleplaying community to think of roleplaying fiction as restrictive, or at least prescriptive. Players and GMs may feel that they want to discover their own stories, not replay some moment that's already in the book. For such players, following characters or places or events that are provided in a short story may seem like a suppression of their own creative instincts and abilities. The existence of so many games with mechanics and even requirements for player-generated settings and plots suggests that there are many roleplayers who feel they are perfectly capable of creating their own stories.

But the irony here is that the RPG industry right now includes a wealth of popular games based on existing stories: Firefly, Leverage, Mistborn, Dresden Files, The One Ring, and so on. And what's more is that almost every GM and every player taps into stories that they have seen, heard, or read whenever they play. You can't avoid it. And even if we could, we wouldn't want to, because we love those stories. (As an example - whenever I am running Rivalry Chapter 1 for a party that includes an Aviator, the group inevitably decides to anchor the airship to the top of the moving train so they can steal the crate. The players don't resent that that's straight out of Firely - that ends up being part of the appeal.)

And if you think Wash is a great pilot, imagine trying to do this with a big bag of hydrogen strapped on top.

Fiction inspires us. Rather than holding us back, it drives us - sometimes to imitate but often to explore. Creativity does not come from nothing. It comes from the whole of our experience, so the more experience we take in the more new ideas we can offer back.

This becomes particularly important with a sandbox-style setting like Steamscapes. In developing our alternate history, we have to establish not only what the world looks like in a statistical and political sense, but also how it feels to the people living in it. This is why "Songs Without Words" - the short story by Steven Townshend that opens Steamscapes: North America - is so important. It establishes the emotional reality of how automatons interact with the world. We can say that in the background, we can write mechanics that reinforce it, but that story is how we help you feel it. Your characters never have to go anywhere mentioned in the story or talk to any of those people, but your play will still be richer because of that fiction. Because you will understand the world more deeply than you ever could if you just read a sentence or two of background.

It is in this spirit that we are thrilled to have Will, Kevin, and William aboard for our next major world book, and we hope that you are as excited as we are to see how they use stories to bring our players even more into the world of Steamscapes.

-Fairman Rogers