The City of IF Story

The City of IF is a web site dedicated to the art of interactive storytelling, in which author and audience create a story together. The site was created by Mark Keavney, PhD, a web designer, writer, and longtime roleplaying game player. Below is a six-part history of the City of IF, which includes some general thoughts on myth, roleplaying, and interactive storytelling, and a vision for the future.

To contact the City of IF, email

1. Myth and Roleplaying Games: Seven Treasures and Five Dragons
2. Lost in the Wilderness: The Many Paths of Interactive Storytelling
3. Storygaming: On This Land I Will Build a City
4. The City of IF: Past and Present
5. The City of the Future
6. You


Myth and Roleplaying Games: Seven Treasures and Five Dragons

Myth occupies a deep and abiding place in the human psyche. It has existed since we first became human and has been present in every culture in our history. Joseph Campbell, the leading scholar of mythology, argued that myth was the basis of all religion, philosophy, and art.

The importance of myth in human culture has been mirrored in my own experience. As a child, I was fascinated by stories of greek mythology and by fantasies such as C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Middle Earth. Those stories sparked my imagination and quickened my heart in a way that stories of "real life" did not.

At the age of ten I discovered a game called Dungeons and Dragons, the first tabletop roleplaying game. (For those unfamiliar with roleplaying games: in these games the players take on the roles of mythical characters, with one player acting as a "game master." The game master creates the world where the game is played, the players choose what their characters do there, and the end result is a story that neither game master nor players plan out ahead of time.) Compared with most roleplaying games today, Dungeons and Dragons was an awkward game, with arcane rules that got in the way of the roleplaying and storytelling aspects. But at the time it amazed me. It allowed me to do what nothing else had: to not just receive myths, but to actually create them.

I quickly learned the game and taught my friends, and for the next twenty-three years, roleplaying was one of my passions. I played dozens of different systems, attended GenCon - the largest roleplaying game convention - three times, ran three live roleplaying games out of my home, wrote several freelance articles for gaming magazines and one game supplement, and ran five different multiyear roleplaying campaigns.

During this time, the roleplaying game industry grew up, and the games grew up with it. When I first started playing in the 1970s, roleplaying was an obscure pastime mostly confined to college campuses, and the games themselves were hack-and-slash "dungeon crawls" based on monster-killing and treasure-hunting. But as the games won a wider audience they matured, becoming more dramatic and even literary, with the emphasis shifting to roleplaying and storytelling. Games like White Wolf's Ars Magica and World of Darkness series created worlds drawn in intricate detail and steeped in serious, adult themes. My own games grew along with the industry; my last campaign, for example, was an epic quest for spiritual truth that explored themes of self-discovery, the origin of religion, and the nature of death. For me and for many roleplayers, this was art.

The Seven Treasures

At one point during this time, someone (OK, it was my wife) asked me why I liked roleplaying so much, and why I chose to do that rather than, say, read or write fantasy novels. I thought about it and came up with seven things that roleplaying has that I love - seven treasures I call them. None of these are unique to roleplaying, but what is unique about roleplaying is how all of these blend together, how a single game moves like a dance between all of these aspects while still remaining a coherent whole.

  • Gathering of Friends: No roleplaying game I have been to has been strictly about the game. In tabletop roleplaying, the players gather at someone's home, eat and drink together, talk about their lives and share each other's company before and after the game. Even during the game, there's lots of the joking, back-and-forth, and friendly banter that you'd see at any gathering of friends.
  • Strategic Problem-solving: In these games, players use their abilities in creative ways to overcome obstacles and defeat monsters. The skills exercised are similar to the skills of playing a board game or computer strategy game, and the fun is similar too.
  • Teamwork: More than just the pleasure of sharing others' company, there's a special bond that happens when players work together toward a common goal. There's nothing quite like slaying a dragon together to build a friendship.
  • Creativity: Like writing a book or a movie, running a roleplaying game involves creating an imaginary world. In roleplaying, the creative challenge is even greater because the world must be large and sturdy enough to survive a crowd of curious players tramping through it and pushing on its logic in unexpected ways.
  • Roleplaying: One of the core features of roleplaying games is that each player takes on the role of someone else. This lets the players explore a different side of themselves in a safe environment. A shy person might play a heroic fighter, for example, or an upright churchgoer might play a shifty rogue.
  • Spontaneity: In most roleplaying games, the game master has a pretty good idea of what's going to happen. But sometimes the players do something unexpected, and the story takes off from there. As a game master you can feel this moment - when you suddenly realize that neither you nor the players have any idea where this is going to lead, and yet you plunge into the darkness together. It is an invigorating moment.
  • Mythic Storytelling: The last and greatest treasure of roleplaying is the one that I found first in fantasy stories. At their best, these games create personal myths that have relevance for our lives. G.K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales are important not because they teach us that dragons are real, but because they teach us that dragons can be beaten." The same is true of roleplaying games.

Now, if you're a roleplaying gamer, I expect that you'll have nodded in recognition of at least some of the items in this list. But if you're one of the vast majority of humanity that's not especially interested in these games, then - assuming you're still reading this at all - you may be shaking your head or scrunching up your face, doubting whether these things are really as advertised. If roleplaying games really have all that, you might ask, why aren't they a bigger deal?

And that was the riddle I was left with after making this list. All of these seven treasures are things found in other activities, things that other people can understand and appreciate. If roleplaying combines so many features that have broad appeal, why doesn't it have a greater following?

Answering that question made me realize the limits of my favorite pastime, until eventually I grew so frustrated with it that I stopped altogether. I haven't played a roleplaying game in five years, and I don't expect to ever again.

The Five Dragons

What was it about roleplaying that frustrated me so much that I had to give it up? There is no single answer. But as I reflected, I realized that roleplaying has five problems which limit its appeal. Let's call them the five dragons. Here they are, presented in ascending order of pain:

  • Location: Tabletop roleplaying, unlike online role play games, requires that all the players be in the same room. This may seem like a minor point, but it means that certain life events, such as moving to (or from) college, will most likely kill the game.
  • Price of Entry: Unlike most other forms of entertainment, roleplaying requires a long setup. Depending on the game, it can take literally hours of reading through rulebooks and distributing points for character creation before anything actually happens. Many newcomers who might have enjoyed these games never make it through that.
  • Game Length: These games are l-o-n-g. Sessions are several hours at least, and games can span many sessions, going on for months or years. In fact, they often don't finish at all. This can make the games intimidating to join and make it more likely that people will drop out along the way. It also robs roleplaying of the kind of completeness that other forms of entertainment have: there are rarely full story arcs in roleplaying games in the same way that there are in books, movies, or even video games.
  • Dependency on Players: In any regular activity, people come and go. The people at this week's church group or movie night or book club may not be exactly the same group that shows up next time. This is not a problem for most activities. But in roleplaying, because the games span multiple sessions and because each player has their own unique character, this natural coming and going can severely strain the game. What happens if a player isn't there when their character has to lead the final battle against the evil king? Or what do you do if a player shows up late, and their character was left behind at the inn? What if a player goes on vacation in the middle of the group's trek through the wilderness? There are ways of handling all these situations, but none work very well; often the story is forced into contortions to adjust to the constraints of the players' lives, and the game suffers.
  • Limited Number of Players: This is the last and most fearsome dragon. These games can only be played with at most around eight to ten players; if the group gets larger than that, it gets impossible both to handle each player's actions and to devise a story in which everyone plays an important part. Why is this such a serious limitation? Because to me, the game session itself, rather than the book of rules, is the primary art of roleplaying games. So this means that the art cannot be shared with more than a few people. There's no way for the best art to be recognized and rewarded, no way for a newcomer to see the works of the masters, no way for roleplaying gamers to learn from and be inspired by each other. Without the kind of communal sharing and recognition of work that is present in any art form, most people will never know what roleplaying can be.

One way to understand the effect of these five dragons is to imagine if some other art form was hobbled by the same constraints. Suppose that the novel was just being introduced to the world, and that most people's experience of reading novels was like this:

You can only read a novel at a particular place and time. Most run about 2000 pages and the first 200 are instructions on how to read. Often the novels don't end. If you miss a session you can't read the chapter later, you have to depend on what your friends tell you about it. There are no professional novelists; you can only read novels that are written by your friends or by other people in your neighborhood.

This is the state of tabletop roleplaying games today.

But this doesn't explain why I quit. After all, lots of people are able to successfully navigate the five dragons and enjoy the fruits of roleplaying. All across the world, small groups of close friends who live near each other and have the necessary time, energy, and dedication, are happily roleplaying. Most are unconcerned about the popularity of their pastime or its future as an art form; playing the game is enough for them.

But in the end it wasn't enough for me, because I believed that the things I loved about roleplaying could be appreciated by many more people. I didn't want to get past the five dragons; I wanted to slay them, and bring the treasures that I knew to the wider world.

And when I realized that, it was the end of twenty-three years of playing roleplaying games, and the beginning of something greater.

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