On creativity in RPGs

An RPG session is an event usually involving the unleashing of creativity by all the participants. Although this is a statement many players would agree with, it is not trivial to define its exact content: what sort of activity are we referring to when we talk of creativity?

Creativity as a form of expression. I will tentatively suggest that creativity should be interpreted as a form of free and aware expression of an individual. Free identifies here an action produced by a subjective will; it does not require some form of unattainable absolute freedom detatched from any conditioning. A RPG player is still influenced by genre conventions, rule sets, and inputs from other friends; an awareness of all these conditions, allows her to recognize her space of expression and produce a creative act.

It follows that non-creative acts are pre-defined answers, outcomes taken (deterministically or probabilistically) from a table or from a book, ideas wholly plagiarized from somewhere else. Although some of these acts may still be imbued with creativity, the trivial and passive reproduction entailed by such acts normally implies an absence of creativity.

Notice that this tentative description of a creative act is rather vague. It is not the aim here, though, to give an exact characterization of creativity, which entail a subjective aspect: as said, rolling an event from a random table may normally lack creativity, but it could easily be infused with creativity. Importantly, we do not want a definition justifying the passing of judgements, the categorization of acts into creative and non-creative. We want a definition that stimulates reflection, self-analysis, and, in the end, through appreciation of creativity, a deeper enjoyment of the game.

Creativity and innovativity. An important distinction I would like to draw is the separation between creativity and innovativity. I hold that creativity does not imply necessarily novelty.

Novelty tends to be promoted as a positive good and an essential part of creativity. I think this is, however, a distortion of our society that intrinsically values progress in the form of continuous innovation. For a long time, though, creativity in art has eschewed innovation.

Innovation is a possibility of creativity, one of the ways in which creativity may express itself. A possibility that certain groups of friends may find stimulating and worth pursuing in itself, but others may be less concerned with.

Creativity may find expression in other ways, for instance, by treading along a well-beaten path in a personal way. Re-living with immersion and participation an old story is a common experience, whether we re-watch a movie whose dialogues we know by heart or re-open a book whose spine is breaking from too much use. Here, the space of creativity is not the external space of novel and unexpected changes and turns, but the internal space of personal thoughts and feelings that may be new or old.

Immeasurability of creativity. Another important feature of creativity is its immeasurability, both in terms of quality and of quantity.

Qualitatively, it makes no sense to rank creativity. It can not be said that the creative contribution of a player is intrinsically better than some other player's. Each individual participates voluntarily with their particular contribution.

Nor does it make sense to quantify the magnitude of a contribution with respect to its larger impact on the story. The contribution of a player may open new directions in the story or lead to sudden turns in an overarching plot; the contribution of another may craft small details, from a carving on the back door of a tavern to the name of the pet of an old friend. All creative acts, independently from their scale, have their intrinsic value.

Place of creativity. Nevertheless, it is a common experience that there exist a creative asymmetry among the people sitting at the table. It is almost axiomatic that in old-school RPG the largest share of creative initiative lies with the GM: she is the one setting up the world (in general) and an adventure (in the specific).

How much creative initiative should be taken over by the GM and how much relinquished to the players? The authority of the GM risks the players to undertake roles that are purely reactive or, worse, spectative. Although within limits, players should always be allowed a degree of demiurgic power: from the possibility of crafting their own background to setting up an aspect of the shared world.

Interactive creation. Yet one of the loci in which creativity can find an outlet, and which distinguishes RPGs from other forms of expression, is the possibility of a choral and interactive creativity.

A powerful source of creativity that often can trascend individual contributions is in the interaction between the GM and the players. In this dialogue events can take unforeseen turns, lead to unexpected developments, bring to the fore possibilities that had never been considered explicitly by anyone.

A good dialogue is more than the sum of its parts. It takes advantage of exchanges and feedbacks. It is productive exactly because it can take us to places and consequences that we did not contemplate at first. It is chaotic in the sense it leads to consequences that we could not predict.

These are only some fascinating aspects of creativity in role-play gaming. It is the hope of the writer that these considerations could bring a better and deeper enjoyment of the game; creativity however should not be idolized, instrumentalized, or artificially pursued. This would just kill the game.