Why does it matter ?
As you can tell from the Game Stats sections near the end of most profiles, writeups.org is chiefly done by tabletop role-playing games (RPG) enthusiasts.
This RPG aspect means we don’t work like most comic book character profiles sites.
For instance, we have a strong focus on characterization. Role-players shall role-play, so they need enough information about the character’s personality, motivation, peculiarities, habits, etc.
The goal is to be able to get into the character’s shoes. To maintain a character “voice” that aligns with the source material.
This is of interest for anybody telling their own story. From fan fiction to work-for-hire professionals interested in reviewing points of view about a character they intend to use.
Tabletop RPGs are also toolboxes to represent stories in abstract terms. Whenever action occurs, we can interpret it in probabilistic terms.
This is much like a trained musician hearing music, and being able to write it down as sheet music and comment on musical composition patterns. Or like Neo seeing the code in The Matrix, for an exaggerated example.
This brings a unique level of detail to our descriptions of capabilities. That ranges from the firepower of weapons to the power of persuasion of a character. We can, and do, quantify all of that.
How stuff works (and why)
As role-players, we assume that readers use the profiles to tell their own stories (for instance in RPGs). Which means that they need to have a good understanding of how the material under discussion works.
To tell your own stories you’ll need to understand how such-and-such spaceship flies, how such-and-such character’s telepathic powers work, possible explanations about such-and-such character’s biographical discrepancies or out-of-character behaviour… you need all sorts of material at your fingertips to avoid dropping the ball.
Writeups.org aims to provide this level of understanding.
From these three basic aspects derive various assets, such as :
- Referring to matters of relevance to the story. Historical context, technical concepts, medical explanations, geographical pointers… Again, what a story teller will need to master the material. Nowadays we don’t just refer, we add selected hyperlinks.
- Being able to spot when a character’s capabilities do not work like they previously did, even if it’s subtle. This can for instance lead to deeper descriptions of how these capabilities seem to work (“if she didn’t use her power this time, there must be a reason…”), or to a fine tracking of character growth (“by 1967, her technical skills clearly have improved”).
- History sections that aren’t so much “this happened, and this happened, and then…” but focus on what was the character’s strategy, motivation, experiences…
Turning stories into space
Back during the last century, geek subcultures did something unusual – turning clearly fictional work into something to be explored. A lot of it was down to the 1960s Tolkien revival in the US. Tolkien’s lifelong work had produced so much material that it could be studied at length, analysed, discussed to gain a better understanding of Middle Earth.
Other settings, such as Howard’s Conan stories, Asimov’s Foundation or Star Trek, could be explored in a similar way. It wasn’t hermeneutics – it was more akin to the geography (and anthropology, and history…) of imaginary worlds.
Though of course such pursuits were abundantly derided, they led to further development. One was changes in genre fiction, resulting in a greater focus on creating the world, as well as the story and characters. This resulted, among others, in the “map fantasy” literary subgenre. A song of ice and fire might now be considered the subgenre’s exemplar work.
Another was role-playing games.
And lo, Tolkien begat Arneson/Gygax
The modern version of tabletop RPGs appears during the late 1960s with Dave Arneson, and gets formalised in 1972+ as Arneson works with Gary Gygax. RPGs go one step beyond studying imaginary worlds. They are a means to simulate living there, to be immersed in such realities. It’s a “technology” of sorts, albeit one based on storytelling and improv theatre rather than Virtual Reality.
This marks an important step in turning stories into spaces. In fact imaginary spaces can be presented without a story, as with Arneson’s Blackmoor or Gygax’s Greyhawk. Shared fictional constructs had long existed (say, the DC Universe that appears with the Justice Society). But something like Blackmoor is “open source” fiction, that anybody can explore and create.
This of course remained marginal. Related practices such as fan fiction gained steam later (as technology made sharing easier – historically they appear roughly when RPGs do). But they ran into similar derision issues, especially since most fanfic writers were women.
Return of the revenge of the geeks
However, technology and marketing would end up popularising this notion of fictional worlds to be explored. By the 2010s, it had become a semi-mainstream approach, giving rise to “super fans”. Ways have appeared to be engaged with the workings and details of an imaginary world, but with a lower level of effort than with RPGs (or fanfics).
Technology is primarily at work through video games. “Open worlds”, “immersive sims” and other buzzwords, realised through games such as Skyrim, are the current steps in a path that begun with tabletop RPGs, then with the likes of Ultima and Wizardry.
Marketing played a role as the notion of a shared continuity became an asset. Shared continuities have existed for decades – super-hero comic book, soap operas (especially those with spin-off series and long runs), multi-author genre series of cheap novels, etc.. But these were seen as an obstacle as much as an asset, due to the level of effort and engagement they required.
And thus, the notion of “fiction as an explorable space” left the margins to become near-mainstream. Which makes resources like writeups.org easier to understand by readers. The full arsenal of tools (the RPG mechanics) isn’t more accessible than before, but why it’s here is easier to grok .
As of this writing (late 2017), it would seem that the tabletop RPG market is resuming its growth. This is good, and we hope that this here little site contributes to this. As more people see stories as explorable and gamable space, they can get a sense of what tools and concepts were developed back when that was a more marginal pursuit.
And, hopefully, develop their own.