(This is the forty-fourth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
Last week we talked about the ephemerality of game narratives and what you would have to do in order to record one fully — or rather, to approximate a full recording, since I think the best one could actually do is to approach “full recording” asymptotically. But without a really good reason and probably a lot of funding, nobody is going to go to those extreme lengths to produce such a document. For 99.99999999999999999% of us, any record is going to be much more casual in nature.
From the very first campaign I ever ran, I had a game website. Originally the main purpose of this was to post house rules: pretty much every campaign I’d ever been in had at least a few places where the GM’s rules or interpretation thereof differed from what was in the book, and it was a pain when people didn’t remember or disagreed on how that went. I wanted to avoid arguments — or the risk of me forgetting — so I wanted to write up my house rules where everybody could see and consult them. Of course it didn’t stay just a mechanical document for long; in fact, we hadn’t even started yet when I decided to use the site for other kinds of documentation. This game was Memento, the Changeling campaign that flashed the PCs back through previous incarnations, so I made a page for NPCs, organized by historical period, because I wanted the players to have a chance to notice that some of those NPCs were the same people also in different incarnations. I also made a page for the setting; my LARP PC, in a fugue state, had burned down the house she and some other PCs lived in, and only when the GM narrated the aftermath did I find out there were some NPC creatures that lived there, too. Basically, since a game creates a shared mental construct, I used the website to make sure the salient points of that construct were publicly available to everybody.
But the problem with a game website is that you have to maintain it. I didn’t mind doing that for things like NPCs, but writing up a game summary every week got kind of burdensome. And lo, then came into my life that magic, enchanting word:
Wikis are a godsend for gamers. (And for writers, but that isn’t the focus of this post.) They have many virtues, and I’ll get to the others in a second, but can we first talk about the fact that anybody can edit them? Which means that maintaining the game’s documentation doesn’t have to solely be the purview of the GM, or whichever player showed initiative about setting up the site. In my current campaign my players trade off the work of writing a summary and creating links or stubs for the NPCs who first appeared in that session; then I fill out the NPC pages and make entries for other things like locations or important artifacts. It’s a shared effort, and because if that, it’s vastly more detailed than it would have been had I shouldered the entire burden myself.
Of course you can do the same thing with a game website, provided you give everybody the login information. But a wiki offers other benefits, like searchability, or the ability to roll back a change if somebody unfamiliar with the code screws something up. Or — and this is the one that brings delight to my heart — the indexing and cross-linking. Be still, my heart. Put a category on a page, and the wiki will auto-populate an index for you, so that in my current campaign I can with trivial ease pull up a list of all Lion Clan NPCs, or all Jade Magistrates, or everyone located in Hantei-kyo. If you have somebody who knows their way around a wiki, you can create a template; every time I add an NPC, all I have to do is fill out the blanks in the template, and it gives me a sidebar with the pertinent details (clan, family, vassal family if any, school, alternate path if any, advanced school if any, social position, location, Honor/Glory/Status), and automatically adds those to the page as categories. Compared with the hand-coded HTML documents of my past, it’s a thing of sheer wonder.
You can even use a wiki as a game development tool, before the campaign begins. I know GMs who have asked players to come up with two NPCs apiece, creating a wiki page for each of them; then, once those are in place, everybody comes up with a third NPC, who must be connected to at least one person already in the wiki. Or you go through multiple rounds of wiki additions, with every new page having to contain at least one link to an existing page (except in the first round) and one link to a page not yet created. This gives all the players a chance to collaborate on creating the social or physical world of their story, and encourages them to develop lines of connection rather than making up isolated ideas. I am almost certainly going to use this in my next campaign, as I love the idea.
A privately hosted wiki does require you to have a player with a certain amount of technical know-how, but there are services like Obsidian Portal that offer you a way to do it more easily. But I will say that if you’re going to do this, I highly recommend having your wiki in place at the start, or as close to the start as you can manage. The more information you have to fill in after the fact, the bigger of a pain it becomes, and the less robust your wiki is likely to be.
And when the campaign is done, the wiki stands as a kind of narrative artifact. It isn’t the same thing as a full record of the game sessions themselves, but it does preserve some aspects of the story, especially if you include game summaries in your wiki. It’s nice to have something like that you can look back at.
As for other relics of games gone by . . . tune in next week!