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Ars Arcana Blog: Forking Paths in RPGs


Forking Paths in RPGs
Ars Arcana 2.3
Travis Joseph Rodgers

Roleplaying Games offer the possibility of solitude and solidarity. This might sound paradoxical. On one hand, however, RPGs afford something sometimes pejoratively called escapism. In an RPG, the players get away from things, or at least screen off things for a time being. The etymology of solitude is instructive: in its most extreme form, an RPG offers an escape for one. At the same time, RPGs offer solidarity: a shared, kindred experience. One of the ways this was accomplished in the past was by a sort of transgressive move: the adventure books and games in which individuals separately explored a foreign world then traded the books and experienced the world the other individual had experienced, though with some individual differences. I’ll call these Forking Paths, for the Borges story (strong recommend), and I’ll explain what they are and what value they still possess.

Forking Paths
In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the structure of the multiverse is explored. The idea lent its name to a philosophy blog focusing on the discussion of human free will. The general idea is that our choices affect the world around us, opening some doors and closing others. Outside Borges (and perhaps including Borges), the most common example was the Choose Your Own Adventure books that my classmates and I adored back in the 80s. There were others, however, that took a step beyond merely allowing one to take an isolated adventure.
There was the Lone Wolf series of books, that allowed characters to continue on, saving up equipment as they progressed through the books. There was A Spy in Isengard that allowed characters to explore Tolkien’s Middle Earth, using a simple resolution mechanic. There were probably more in this vein, but I had moved on to college and grad school and, well, other things.

On the Merits of Forking Paths
Dungeon Chatter is going to be using a kind of Forking Paths for character creation. Traveller RPG has done this, and probably other systems have as well. So, it’s not unique; it’s just good practice. On one hand, if character creation is something that can be done solo, then a Forking Paths approach is good fun. It captures the nostalgia for a lot of us, and it transforms a process of reading and digesting rules into an interactive storytelling. On the other hand, Forking Paths can be a soft introduction to gaming and game mechanics for people who haven’t engaged in RPGs previously.
Judicious use of Forking Paths can essentially lead all players separately through a session zero. They could emerge with a character, fully created, a bit of background on their character, and a sense of where their characters are headed. They could experiment with different character concepts, backgrounds, builds, and the like, without having the pressure of time and eyes on them. The fact that these things are done separately was never a problem in the past for those of us who played them, and the coming together to discuss afterwards was always a joy.

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