It's remarkable what can be created from so little. It's all the more remarkable for the number of times I've told myself I cannot create something because I don't have time. In only two-and-a-half hours at the weekend, I helped create a world from scratch and played a one-off campaign in it. To be ultra clear: nothing was prepared beforehand. In fact, the only real rule in the game was you cannot prepare beforehand. Otherwise, in You Awaken in a Strange Place, a pen-and-paper RPG, everything is created on the spot.
You establish the entire game world and rules, collaboratively, at the beginning. Individually, the game-master asks you questions that will shape the world. One person thinks of a genre, one person thinks of a place, and one person thinks of an adjective about that place. We think up "a steamy steampunk library" - you can see how on-the-spot it is.
Then we individually make statements about the world, which become the rules and reality of it. The library is underwater, we say, trains can fly, and then, unexpectedly, the library is also alive. Then we briefly join the dots. Maybe the library is inside a leviathan. Maybe you need the trains to travel across the sea to find it. But how do you get in? Whirlpools! That's how you find it and how you jump in.
Then we make our characters. "Bertie, who are you?" That's how long you get to think. "Um, I'm a skeleton and I wear a skin cloak and pretend to be human. I'm very old but I have a bad memory so I carry a journal to remind me what to do. And I'm called Fiddles, um, Clanky." With me are a half-octopus engineer called Kruk, and a professor of metaphysics with a laser eye and a mechanical arm, called Rowan. There's no limit here but your imagination.
Then we think up the skills that not only determine who we are but how we will play with the world. For instance, I decide I'm great at skim-reading and I'm good at pretending, but I'm not so good at securing (I am pretending to be a security guard) and I'm terrible at remembering. Those verbs then become skills with appropriate modifiers for me, but they also become usable skills for everyone else in the game. And the 16 eventual skills we come up with (the game-master also makes four) are the only skills in the game we can use.
Finally, the GM takes five minutes to whip up a story before dropping us it, right in the middle of some action. And the game begins as it is always to begin, with the words, "You awaken in a strange place."
In roughly half-an-hour we're playing in a setting as vivid as any I've played in Dungeons & Dragons - maybe even more so, owing to our collaborative efforts in creating it. We've been forced to imagine it. And a library inside a leviathan, accessed via skimmer trains and whirlpools? That would be a memorable location in any game, pen-and-paper or otherwise. I can see it in Torment: Tides of Numenera, or a Pillars of Eternity game, or even something like Mass Effect.
And in the two hours that follow, we laugh as our characters use invented skills to progress towards our goals, asking things like, "Can I fashion a bandage out of my skin cloak?" Yes but they now have a slab of dead skin across their face, and you have an obvious hole in your body. Or, "Can I try kissing the metaphysicist as a thank you for rescuing me?" Yes but it won't go well (and it doesn't).
I'm not sure I could ever think of something like a living library on my own
We use simple dice rolls to determine outcomes, though mainly it's our imaginations in play, and eventually we reach our climactic battle in the fabled library. There's the book I need to get my body back! But our enemies are using it to perform a mysterious ritual. A battle ensues. I skim-read to find spells we can use. Rowan uses precision to fry our enemies with her laser-eye. Kruk grapples with his tentacles. We succeed and I interfere with the ritual and then I am sucked into a black hole and disappear. The game ends, mission complete.
All of that in two-and-a-half hours. Given the amount of time it takes to do anything in Dungeons & Dragons, achieving that much feels like a miracle. But it's the thrill of creation that pulls at me to play again. This idea that the next time we play, we'll conjure something as exciting again. Something almost too wild to be able to create alone, an idea that can only come from multiple heads - a bit like those collaborative figures you draw as kids in the classroom, folding the piece of paper and passing it on once you've drawn the appropriate body part. I'm not sure I could ever think of something like a living library on my own - and more importantly, I'm not sure I'd want to.