"There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt."
— Audre Lorde
One of the things that fascinates me most about building and playing RPGs is the aspect of myth. We talk quite a lot, justifiably so I believe, about Storytelling — that a game is telling a story, and one that grows organically as the characters react to things rather than follow a script. We've said before that this is a very basic human activity we indulge in. Yes, it started as soon as language started, and it influences so much of our lives. We ask flickering screens to tell us stories, and we share those stories in very abbreviated form the next day. History is a collection of stories that carries an insane amount of learning with it. Religion is stories, powerfull ones. So, for that matter, is science — the learning part, the moment of revelation, the explanation of what happened and how you saw a rule of the universe spin into crystalline clarity. We want to tell one another stories, and we want to hear good ones. Even if you've maybe heard part of the story before, in another form.
Now, the thing is that truly original stories are probably non-existent. Go reductive enough, and you can break down all stories into just a few categories. The most reductive (though probably least useful) is "Man vs. Man" and "Man vs. Nature." Another oft-cited grouping is "Boy Meets Girl," "The Little Tailor," and "A Man Learns a Lesson." Everything else is just tweaks on those story concepts: Boy Meets Girl, There Are Complications, It Ends Poorly. But it's those tweaks to the story concept that make it that particular story: two houses divided in fair Verona, the death of a beloved friend and a revenge exacted in blood, exile, poison, a tragic misunderstanding, and the somewhat ironic ending that both houses will now be unified without it doing their star-crossed scions any good. So while it isn't an original story, it is a fantasic one, one that inspires other people to take their own tweaks on that more elaborate story as a base. Like changing everything to the only street gangs in the world that do choreographed dance-offs and musical numbers before they knife each other in the streets. Or something.
Which brings us to what we do. And what we do is muck around with some of the oldest and most resonant stories we have, the ones that by their nature engender millions of offspring: myth.
The core of the World of Darkness (and Exalted and Scion but this column is technically about the WoD, so bug John for his take on this) is the concept that certain myths are true… to some extent. Yes, there are vampires and people that turn into animals and other people who can cast curses and blessings and the ghosts and spirits of the dead or of animals, all kinds of things. And all of these things are somewhat different than they might appear in any given mythological work. The World of Darkness is rooted in the familiar core of those myths, but what makes it the World of Darkness is also where we tweak the stories. The biggest tweak is the most obvious, the selling point: "The monsters are the protagonists." (Or perhaps more techincally, "Some of the monsters are the protagonists. Others are things that frighten even monsters." ) What makes things ours, from that point on, is the variety and detail of tweaks.
This is, truth be told, where I love my job. I love myth. I enjoy old stories. And like many other people, I like fooling around with them. Not in a deconstructionist way, but in a devoted tinkerer sort of way. It's like playing Monster Garage with actual monsters. Now, the thing is some myths can get kind of... unrecognizable if you cut out the heart. You don't want to go too far. Or rather, since "too far" is an entirely subjective metric, you have to be aware of the risks. For some, the Uratha (and the Garou before them) go "too far" from ordinary werewolf myth — but on the other hand, let's face it, they become eminently playable. They're a refinement of several aspects of werewolf myth, from European fear of the wolf to psychological "beast mind" musings to tribal animistic myths about animal-shifters. By not focusing on any one to the exclusion of others, you get more options. The same's true of Vampire, of all our things.
But as I said, it's subjective. We all have our favorite myths, and sometimes we want to treat them fairly literally, and sometimes we want to make them more gameable. You can probably tell a lot about an individual developer's personality by what they cram into a book. The original Followers of Set derived more from Robert E. Howard than actual Sutekh/Seth/Set myths. Werewolf: The Forsaken drew more heavily on the bite as an aspect of werewolf myth. At the same time, though, it retained the idea of being born a werewolf and having a First Change rather than the bite as actual transmission — in no small part because that was something that distinguished our werewolves, not just from most myths, but also from our other games. After all, a werewolf-as-transmitted-by-bite game could wind up being more like Vampire than was necessary, particularly if you could do bestial pseudo-lupine vampires in Vampire. And you can — because that's another great mythical archetype that we wanted to make gameable.
If anything, sometimes it's a bit tricky to actually break apart or reforge one of your favorite myths. Sure, it's easy to retell one you don't like. I'm guilty of that, having once redone the story of Scheherazade to reflect my own personal bias on the tale. (Short version: The ruler who marries a young woman every day and puts her to death after her wedding night deserves a happy ending no more than Bluebeard does.) But if you really like a myth, sometimes you just have to change something even though you like it as is. I've often said that I don't want to see WoD critters or characters that are 100% accurate to their sources. Why? Because then they don't belong in the WoD. They aren't an example of how things are different from our world, they're just walking Wikipedia entries that you can talk to. You need those changes, because then the work becomes… well, if not "more original," which is a fairly worthless metric, more ours.
And I don't mean ours just in the sense of "all intellectual properties are property of White Wolf, etc." I mean ours, as in yours and mine. Because in the act of telling a story, you make it your own. Every time. Just as a mother reading "Cinderella" to her children might distinctly make it her version by giving the evil stepsisters distinctly squeaky voices, every player and Storyteller (though we are all storytellers together) takes the story and elaborates on it further. The Mekhet gain a new spin in a chronicle with each new scene. An SAS goes from outline to story when the characters make it their own. Each new character, each new bloodline or fetish or kith or whatever rewrites a myth and makes it more relevant to the people telling the story anew. All the power of the myth, imbued with the potency of personal connection.
That's what's important. Somewhere in between being "original" and being "faithful," something becomes "relevant." And that's when stories start to mean something. As a developer, it's probably one of the best processes that goes on during the job. And if we, in some small way, help our customers to take those beautiful old stories and make them even more personally poignant and relevant to themselves and to their friends — well, then it's worth far more than just the fun we had doing it in the first place.