Creative Vectors

August 10, 2008


One key difference between passive media and roleplaying games in presentation is it’s role to it’s consumers. Passive media sells you on the idea that the experience will be entertaining (hopefully to the widest audience possible). Roleplaying games sell you on inspiring you to be creative- to be able to create the kinds of experiences you want.

That is, in a movie trailer, “It was a time of war…” gives you an idea of what kind of story you’re going to receive, while in a roleplaying game, it gives you an idea of what kinds (plural!) of stories you can create.  How well that idea inspires the group not only directs play, but basically is what makes it fun.  It’s a creative vector- it gives you an idea, a direction, and momentum towards types of stories for play.

Creative Vectors

A while back, I came up with the “One sentence character concept”, which basically followed this format: A (descriptive) (role) is trying to (do something). A forlorn detective is trying to run away from his past. A heartbroken ninja is trying to overthrow the Empire. An untested new superhero is trying to know her friends from her enemies.  Basically, each character concept is a creative vector for play.

I’ve seen folks try to expand on it, sometimes with good results, sometimes missing the point altogether (“A clown acrobat zombie pirate wants to eat brains”). The bit of magic that you need to pay attention to is that the (descriptive) either tells us about the character itself or their current state, and the (do something) provides us with either a conflict or suggestion for types of conflicts, and between those two, something meaningful.

Some of you may see that this is pretty much what Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age does with it’s Oracles. A bunch of creative vectors you put together to serve as inspiration for play. It is the point of the Kicker in Sorcerer, and hopefully what any given Flag mechanic in a game is supposed to do.  Traditional rpgs usually toss a big setting at your way, and between the conflicts in the setting and the color description and artwork, you’re supposed to draw out your own vectors.  Depending on the unity of vision, this sometimes works great, sometimes not so well.


I’ve also found one of the key components to a good system is how well it supports the group in self-generating creative vectors through play itself. Lots of games have loaded up on good ideas in preparing (200 pages of setting! Mages vs. the Technocracy! Flags! etc.) and fell flat in the play- because the vectors need to keep momentum to be fun.

A suggestion often made in traditional rpgs is “keep the story moving”… which tells you something- that the story can stop. That the question of “What happens next?” not only sits unanswered, but no one has an idea of how to answer it (or, at least the power to do so).

One of the biggest reasons for GM burnout is if you’re the only person generating creative vectors, and keeping the momentum up during play, AND trying to read the group’s reactions to keep creating new ones, yeah, that’s exhausting.  Traditional roleplaying often judges the quality of a player or a GM based on how well they can add vectors and/or momentum within the constraints of play.  Without systemic support, and possibly having the group working at odds (intentional or unintentional), it can be a lot of work.

Pretty much the biggest rpg design innovations in recent years have all been about making it easier to  work with creative vectors.  Narration trading allows players to introduce them or change the direction of the story, Flags allow people to get on the same page quickly and easily, pacing mechanics add momentum and limit directions the story can go, relationship mechanics or scene mechanics work to bring in elements or constrain them from going willy-nilly.  Etc.


A few years back, on the Forge Forums, I tried, and failed to articulate this idea as “Ball Theory”(as in, passing the ball back and forth), but this makes more sense to me in putting it to words- it’s about mechanics, ideas and play that suggest types of stories or play, giving it both direction and momentum – a vector.

Again, it all comes back to the basic three: what we do at the table, how we treat each other, and what we imagine.  Vectors are the root concept of “what we imagine”, or perhaps better, “how we imagine”, I’ve been trying to nail down for years now, and finally I get it.

Now let’s see where it takes me.


  1. Hey Chris. I found myself in article. I’m long time gm-burnout-diagnosis-man and now i try to figure it out how to get out from this. Colaborative play definitely helps but thats not all what i want from this (burnout) experience.
    I love rpgs but recently i often ask myself “how could it be that most boardgames are (creatively) fun to me to play, but rpgs does not”, “how could it be that boardgames steer me to make things moving but rpgs does not”. I think that creative vectors and it s usage in gameplay is part of answer to this, because most of rpgs tend to say very vaguely what i’m suppose to do in game (to be succesfuly creative experience)

    Wish you luck with future development in this area.
    Cheers ,-)


  2. Hey John,

    Two things.

    One is that boardgames completely support what happens through system. Only recently (the last 7 years or so) have any rpgs really started doing this, as the traditional method is “what happens in play is handled by the GM”…

    Second, boardgames have very little set-up time, and the set-up isn’t left to one person, AND you don’t have to commit to playing every week, months on end. The closest analogy would be to have to build a new board every week for you friends to play…

    Boardgames don’t really give you creative vectors- the point of the boardgame is 100% encompassed in the system (except, maybe, some negotiation games), but rpgs the point is for the group to create the imaginary events.

    Because you technically “can do anything” in rpgs, you need direction and guidance to give it momentum and get everyone on the same page, and to help everyone create -together-, mostly by taking the vectors given, and adding new ones as ways to signal each other which way you’d like the story to go.

  3. Chris, all I have to say about this is “Yes!! Well said!”

  4. This is stellar, Chris. Well put, clear and immediately useful. I’m still wrapping my brain around it.

    Thanks for a great article!

  5. Hi Martin,

    This is more a theory/design post, but, as I take time to really think about it, I’ll be able to better put together how that works in terms of play tools- as a GM, as players, as a group.

    It basically ties together the flow and purpose of a lot of mechanics and techniques.

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