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Interview with RPG Solitaire Challenge Winner Jamie Fristrom

Jamie Fristrom, technical director of Torpex Games, is an incredibly talented guy. Not only do his video game design credits include the Spider-Man and Tony Hawk titles, but he is also an enthusiastic tabletop game designer and the "Overall Favorite" award winner of the RPG Solitaire Challenge for his game Storyleaves! Here's what the judges of that competition had to say about his entry:

A solitaire role playing game is an elusive thing. A game that lets someone create a story on their own, while retaining the tug and pull of a game with a game master or other players. Storyleaves gives a player the tools to sit down and craft a tale that though it springs from their creativity is surprising and takes on a life of its own. World, character and story are built out of elements decided on by the player at the beginning, and then the tale takes form through turns for the Protagonist and Antagonist in turn. The story leaves, cards with custom story elements created at the start of play, giving unexpected form to the twist and turns, decisions and actions of the characters. Jamie wrote it as a tool to break writer's block, but it has become a thing of its own. Something that anyone can use to while away a few hours and discover new worlds. I understand this game is already being refined, and I look forward to seeing what Jamie does with it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend this game as my favorite of the RPG Solitaire Challenge entries.

High praise, and well-deserved!

Jamie graciously gave up some of busy day to answer a few questions from Solo Nexus.

Solo Nexus: You've written that solo RPGing is akin to daydreaming, and scientists may agree. Psychologist Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara, stated in this February's Scientific American Mind that "people who regularly catch themselves [daydreaming] seem to be the most creative." Could the solo RPG experience be a valuable method for "catching" one's creativity?
Jamie Fristrom: Solo and multiplayer - whenever I'm playing a story-oriented RPG I find myself thinking, "Wow, this is really good, I'd pay to read this book, I've got to share this." Later, when the afterglow has worn off and maybe I've written up the actual play, I'll look back on it and wonder why I liked it so much, but having that feeling while playing is great - and I don't really get that feeling from traditional or computer RPG's, where you're running through a module or whatever. There, it's clearly someone else's creativity, not yours.

SN: You're a technical professional who helps to create the frenetic, rapid-fire experiences of video game play, but you're also the guy who just won a design contest for a game that is slow, thoughtful, and even delicate. Though these two types of games appear to be radically different, from your unique vantage point what similarities, if any, do you believe exist between the experiences of playing video games and pen-and-paper story games?
JF: Computers really suck at storytelling, but people keep attacking storytelling in video games from different angles. Mass Effect lets you customize certain parts of your character, and responds to choices you make, and that's really cool - but how much cooler would it be if you could say, "Actually, this dude who's been giving me these missions? I'm going to blow him off and start a house for wayward psychics on this other planet here. And those aliens seem kind of cliche, let's take them out altogether, and make these other aliens more like this, and, oh, I don't want this sleek spaceship, I want kind of a junky one ..." And then you have Spore, which lets you do this heavy customization, create your aliens and your spaceships and your homes for wayward psychics (sort of), but then there's little to no antagonism, no sense of climax, no sense of meaning, none of those descriptive details that makes a narrative seem real. And then you have Sleep is Death, which keeps the storytelling in the hands of a human, but the interface is so clunky and slow that it takes an hour to tell a short story. If we could just bring all this stuff together in one package ...

SN: You've stated that Storyleaves was originally intended for use by you as a tool for solving the problem of writer's block. How was it meant to accomplish that?
JF: I used to write fiction - I even self-published a novel several years back - and then I've written hardly anything since. I've started a few things, gotten maybe a chapter in, and given up. When I discovered story games last year I realized (or maybe I should say re-discovered because I had played Universalis a bunch) - "Hey, I can sit down and play In a Wicked Age, we're starting with four sentences and before the night's over we've created this whole awesome story. Why can't I do that when I'm working on a novel?" So I tried taking the mechanics from these games to help my fiction writing. For what it's worth, that draft is HERE. It steals some ideas from the Mythic GM Emulator, and I do think it's a useful tool for getting over writer's block, but I wouldn't call it fun.

SN: A core concept for playing Storyleaves involves the initial establishment of a Protagonist's relationship with a Beloved. As both a design and a narrative decision, why is this relationship so important?
JF: It's not just the Beloved, it's the triangle of Protagonist-Beloved-Antagonist. Having just a antagonist-protagonist relationship, a black-spy vs. white-spy thing, is kind of dull. There's a reason the love triangle is such a common fictional trope, and D. Vincent Baker has triangles in Apocalypse World, and Matthijs Holter's Archipelago creates triangles with its indirect relationships, and Ron Edwards' S/lay w/ Me (probably the most direct influence, there) did it with the Hero-Lover-Monster. I'm not sure why it's important ... maybe because when a protagonist does something for themselves, they're selfish, but if they're doing something for someone else, they're a hero?

SN: Right now, the Antagonist in Storyleaves is a character. Do you see that designation as necessary, or could the Antagonist ever be something more abstract, like a social system or a disease or an unfulfilled goal?
JF: I'm stealing from Joshua A. C. Newman's Shock: Social Science Fiction, there, which has you create an antagonist but sometimes they end up just being supporting characters in the background. The antagonism in the game doesn't come from the antagonist - it comes from the deck. It's up to you whether you narrate the antagonist as the source of your woe or its the slings and arrows of capricious fortune. Sometimes when I play the antagonist is a major Hollywood villain type, other times they're just this person who happen to get the protagonist into trouble.

SN: As the designer and a player, what gives you the most satisfaction when playing a game of Storyleaves?
JF: When I have some cards that are nonobvious, but manage to figure out something cool to do with them. "I want to win the conflict, but how am I going to narrate 'Harsh Whisper' into the story and have it make sense?" That 'aha' moment is really nice - especially when it leads into the next card. "I know - she'll die in childbirth (using the death card) and then her ghost will have a harsh whisper..."

SN: What's next for the development of Storyleaves?
JF: Storyleaves is a close cousin of a multi-player story card game I'm working on, where you don't have to make the whole darn deck yourself. (Although that's a pretty fun activity in its own.) So we'll be able to play Storyleaves with the deck(s) from that, or play that using decks we made for Storyleaves. And I've been working on the game-game-type-game part of Storyleaves, trying to tune it so it gives a more consistent result with each play, and where your choices are more evenly balanced. That's in beta right now, and what I've got so far is actually worse than the original, so I'd recommend playing the alpha version until I can find the time to do the beta version right, HERE.

Thanks Jamie, and we'll be keeping up with you at your blog, too!

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