Words fascinate me. I’ve always enjoyed language, both reading and writing, even from a young age. The English language, in particular, contains nuances that seem endlessly fractal at times. One of my personal pleasures is finding the exact perfect word to describe an object or express an idea.
You might be wondering where I’m going with this and how it relates to role-playing games. Well, there’s a special thing I love about story games and for the longest time I’ve been looking for the right term to describe it. It’s frustrating, really. When you say, “There has to be a word for this thing!” but you just can’t put your finger on it. If you’re like me, you start crawling through a thesaurus or dictionary – or worse, making up new words in an effort to distill an entire concept in just a few syllables.
Well, I think I found my word the other day.
The Concept: Story Game Magic
First off, let’s talk about this magical story game juice that’s been bothering me. It’s when a game incorporates mechanics that allows players to build on top of another player’s contributions. It could be about their character, the setting, the plot, or even the themes of the game. At the end of the game, you might be able to look back and say, “I made that part, right there” but no one can claim the entire result. Instead, the final product only exists because everyone participated.
Need some examples? In Microscope, when you create a Event another player can place a Scene in that Event that helps define it better. They can’t contradict what you’ve said about the Event any more than you can tell them that the Scene doesn’t fit with your idea. Another example: in Eden, you make your character, determine what your favorite animal is, and say what skill you learned from them. Later, another player gets to tell you a story about how you learned that skill from the animal. Maybe you had an idea already but what they say is what happens, even if it’s different from what you had in mind. The entire game of Downfall is built on this principle – everything from the setting to the traditions to the very characters themselves are a combined product.
Words That Aren’t ‘The Word’
So, there are a few words I was kicking around that aren’t it. They’re close… but close isn’t good enough for me. For one, it’s not ‘cooperation’. Well, it kind of is, but it’s also not at the same time. You see, cooperation is too broad. It feels like we need a word that is more specific since just saying cooperation doesn’t deliver the full connotation. We’re working together on something but we’re doing it in a specific way.
It’s not ‘collaboration’, either. Collaboration is ‘the action of working with someone to produce or create something’. Again, that describes what we do in story games but not really how we do it. To me, collaboration would be everyone coming to an agreement together about the game. Instead, the stuff I love about story games would be better described as ‘independent collaboration’ – like building a Lego castle one piece at a time without consulting each other’s blueprints.
I almost wanted to put the two words together, but ‘collaperation’ and ‘coopboration’ both sound terrible. Plus, why invent new words if there’s one out there already that we just need to discover?
I found the word for the concept I’m trying to express in the back pages of A Penny For My Thoughts. …Yes, I actually do read the pages after the rules. Don’t judge. That’s where the authors put the most important stuff, like how to get the most out of the game, their inspirations, and their thoughts about the process. Knowing where a game comes from helps you truly understand it.
Anyways, the word: Endowment.
Endowment is a term most often used in improv (as in improvisational theatre). The term means establishing a fact about another actor’s character that hasn’t been stated already. Typically these new facts are viewed as ‘gifts’ from one actor to another. Because improv relies heavily on the “Yes, and…” philosophy, when given an endowment the recipient should take the idea and run with it.
When you think about it, that’s what we do in story games – except our endowment process goes beyond in-scene interactions. More often than not, the initial setup uses endowment to generate pre-established relationships between characters. Sometimes, like in Eden, the setting is a shared creation built with the independent input from each player. Downfall is particularly special because the rotating, shared cast means that even our understanding of the characters and their actions is created through a form of endowment.
It turns out that there are a lot of similarities between story games and improv acting. I’m sure one could make an argument for story games being a highly structured form of improv. I may even make that argument myself one of these days. After all, the two rely on participating in a shared fictional space created by incorporation the contributions of each participant. For now, though, I am just glad that I’ve got a new word to use when expressing my passion about story games.