The Middle of the Story
In gaming circles — especially as a GM — you hear lots of talk about How to Start a New Game and the all important Endgame. The middle part of games seems consigned to a zone of “stuff’s probably working.” Heck, if you’re talking about any version of D&D there is a pretty consistent belief that the middle levels (say, 4-12) represent the sweet spot. Don’t get me wrong, advice on the beginning and ending of games is important and useful, but I’m not really a fan of beginnings or endings. I’m all about the middle.
There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.
–Schmendrick, The Last Unicorn
Maybe I’m the only one, I often wonder if I’m the crazy one, but I sometimes struggle to start reading a new story, or a new series, or watching a movie, because I’m not really interested in wading through all the set up. And I’m not saying, “cut to the chase.” I don’t want to be dropped into an action scene with no context. It’s just, I think there’s value in starting in the middle of the story. People have history. You’re playing a 19 year old adventurer just running out into the world? Well, you’re 19, you must have some story. Who was your first love? Who was your mentor? Who taught you to play the flute (you have 2 skill points in it on your sheet… someone taught you to play)? Who bought you your first flute (or carved it for you)? John Wick wrote an article I really liked about how he’d often ask players at his table, “Okay, great character sheet, so, what’s his mother’s name?” By the time I was 19 I’d been in love three times, discovered books that changed my life, been a boy scout, part of a church, part of a gaming club, heck – I’d been gaming for 11 years at that point, had three jobs… you get the idea. I had history. And one of those loves I mentioned? She kept coming in out of my life for long, long years after we were 19. But having a backstory is only one part of it. A backstory is just a backstory unless it has teeth.
Guy Gavriel Kay – by far my favorite author – is a master of this technique (and it’s part of what I love about his work). He always gives his characters an immediate story. Something is always “going on” but the characters are shaped by their pasts. Kay creates rich, mature characters whose decisions are informed by who they are and what they’ve been through and his gift as a writer is the way he can make you feel the weight of those past events on his characters without ever devolving into explanation or exposition. A few well-chosen words and a painful decision and you (the reader) understand. It’s a powerful thing when done well.
But this goes hand in hand with somthing else that’s important to making the middle work. I wrote before about organizations in games, and the value I feel they have, but I want to revisit the thought and refine it some. I see value in linking groups and organizations to the past. When you read about the Forgotten Realms, don’t you want to be a Harper? When you play 7th Sea, isn’t it compelling to join the Knights of the Rose & Cross? For me, at least part of the appeal (a big part) is the structure and history that these organizations provide to the world. Yeah, you can be a Jedi for the cool powers, but the sweep of history — thousands of years — surrounding the Jedi is so powerful, so compelling, that it always draws me in. I love their conflicts, their triumphs, their tragedies, and the possibility that I can play a character who is a part of that tradition – that history – is an important piece of what keeps me coming back for more.
This is also often what keeps political games from working as well as they should. If you are an outsider, why do you care what the “insiders” do? If you are beyond the mores and measures of a society, then those things only become a bother — but if you immerse your character in those “nuisances” you become weaker – and stronger. It’s the reason that as much as I dislike FATE style games I am drawn to Blood and Honor. I love the idea that you create your clan before you create your character — and that those choices really matter — not just during character creation but forever. Those choices resonate throughout the game/campaign. Your character is beholden to something greater…
Maybe an aside into something else will help this make sense. I’ve been watching Wimbledon this week — watching Roger Federer chase another title. Yes, there’s money involved, and prestige, but Wimbledon is a tradition, an institution. It means something to the players. And when Federer grows a little older his fine career will come to an end — and Wimbledon will go on. And in ten years we’ll be talking about another player – at Wimbledon – chasing a legacy. And they’ll still wear all white on the courts. Federer may be one of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen — but Tennis goes on.
I see campaigns and characters in the same way. I see them as part of a tapestry of the ages. They are heroes, they’ll struggle in their time and fight and hopefully know triumph — but they’re story is only one story. Heroes came before and heroes will rise after. It’s why I love Kay’s books, it’s why I love the Justice Society more than the Justice League, it’s why I love reading Exalted books. It’s a big part of the reason I’m so drawn to romantic fantasy as a genre. There is magic in the middle of the story — and artfully crafted you can bring that magic to your game table.