Let the beats fall where they may…

I have been struggling to write a certain post since I started this blog. This is a run at it, but probably won’t be it. Bits and pieces of the theme have crept out here and there in other posts, but simply what I want to write about is this:

There is much more to a good story than getting your tropes in a row and hitting the right beats.

What is born of books, but is not a book?

Stories are not books. Stories are not cinema. Stories are not the media in which they are contained, nor should they be constrained to act like they are should those media be absent. While it is true that constraints serve to enhance and entice an artist toward greater creativity in presentation, it is also true that attempts to mimic the style of the masters gives us a lot of paint-by-numbers Last Suppers. If all such suppers led to mastery I would want to keep my mouth shut on this one, but as we all know, they just lead to less room on the rec room wall.

John Keating: Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”

There is more to running a game than recognizing and emphasizing the right beats. In our pursuit of greater skill behind the screen it bears repeating that we do not need, and are not compelled, to tell stories from there. Instead, we can lead the players and can be led in turn by them to discover stories. Some of these stories will be good. Some may be more than we thought they’d be. Many will be less. Some will be legendary. Many will pave the way for legends to happen. Strong or weak, each is a part of us.

Better art through limits

As a younger man and DOS user I used to love the art of naming files in 8 characters or less. So much did I love this mental exercise that I still miss it now. That longing is not going to set me off renaming my files, however. It makes more sense to name my files in such a way that anyone can understand their contents and find them easily without getting into esoteric interpretation and divination. Maybe I will get back to it when I am accepted into the spy school for aging martial artist gamers.

Emulating a presentation style has grown into more and more of a defacto standard over the last 20 years or so. We started out going for genre, but have wound up going for layout and run-times. Instead of hearing people chatter on about the depth, breadth, or detail of events in their campaigns, I seem to be hearing people talking about ‘crafting stories,’ and ‘bringing the awesome.’

Is that what we do?

It isn’t what we used to do.

Forrester: No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!

Somewhere along the way, perhaps through hugely popular games such as those churned out by White Wolf, the concept of how to present and organize our sessions has shifted from effective time management to building encounters episodically. I do it myself.  I didn’t, but now I do. Given free rein, I plan for three to four stories per campaign, with each story expected to last a month. These stories are expected to run in four 4 to 6-hour sessions. Why?

Considering that I run sandbox style campaigns and do not force players to conform to a planned story arc, what exactly is the point of that other than art or arrogance? Isn’t it more about my being able to predict and influence the flow of information in the game so that it all comes to a conclusion in a neat parcel of time than it is about the needs of the story to fit into a predictable length?

There are places and times for such skill obviously. They need not, however, be how we play all the time.

The Grey Race

We are connected to each other whether we like it or not. Stories, myths, legends, heroes, and villains around the world bear commonalities it would be foolish to ignore. These things are a part of our nature, but it is important to remember that so are the differences. From my perspective, it is the differences which need to be given attention and allowed to explain themselves. The similarities have all the support they need. Why focus so much on making stories conform to the great archetypes when it is the surprise ending and the insightful revelation which gives us the strength and hope to survive each summer’s dosage of predictable ‘hits’ and vapid ‘bestsellers’?

Charlie: I could tell you some stories…
Barton: Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and…  So naturally their work suffers and regresses into empty formalism and… well I’m spouting off again, but to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phony as a three-dollar bill!
Charlie: Well I guess that’s a tragedy right there!

By working so hard to emulate the traditional tried and true beats and forms that professionals are paid to produce for the masses, we run the risk of obscuring or even trampling the natural beats, twists, and themes which will always be there. We do not learn sensitivity in creation and interaction by forcing our will on our shared creation. We learn this sensitivity by observing and listening.

Audrey Taylor: Barton, empathy requires understanding.
Barton: What? What don’t I understand?

That is not dead which can eternal lie

As anyone who follows or even casually stumbles across the blog can easily note, one of my major themes is that gaming is a skill we should endeavor to refine over our lives. As such, it perhaps seems odd to come out in favor of not embracing the artistic presentation of gaming content at the table. Well, I am not in favor of that, so rest easy. What I am in favor of is dumping the baggage of trying to conform to accepted modes of story delivery and trust that as a group we can discover good stories together. The real skill in my eyes is developing sensitivity to the characters which the players are bringing to life in your campaign.  It is not in weaving the threads of each player and each event into a recognizable form and pattern with all the twists, perils, and massive shrieking climaxes of a blockbuster, but of seeing those threads for what they are and following them where they actually go. Your job is not to work with the players in committee to decide what Act 3 needs in order to end ‘properly.’ Your job is to help your players make sense of the ever-changing, slowly developing story of their characters lives, deaths, and everything in between. They make it all happen. You make it all real. Like life, when you look back on it, you see what the story has been so far. What the high points were, and the low points. It doesn’t conform to set and timed peaks and valleys or come with convenient relationship ties and complications so that you can find it more easily in a trope collection to know you did it right.

There are no chapter breaks. It’s not a trilogy. It’s not an adaptation. It is what it is; a momentary window on another world that shares the souls of those who visit it, and dances to the music they hear only on the inside. When stripped of spontaneity, sheared into chunks of classic progression, and contrived into ego-stroking endings that which is purely ours is made into a pale shadow of someone else’s story. To what end? Such manipulation is just one skill among many, and frankly what real, lasting purpose does it serve around our tables?

The game is there for us, ready to go whenever we return to it. We might play it with our best friends every day for hours and hours over years and years, or we might play it once every two weeks in a coffee shop for a few months with virtual strangers. It ends when we say it does, and it resumes when we say it does. There is no file size limit. There is no page count. There is no run-time. There is just the next thing~

*Quotations pressed into service herein come from Dead Poets Society, Finding Forrester, and Barton Fink. As films, these tales were forced to conform to all the things we gamers can cast aside as an act of embracing the sentiments the quotes I have drawn proclaim. 

4 Responses to “Let the beats fall where they may…”
  1. anarkeith says:

    Cooperative storytelling is not everyone’s cup of tea (though it is mine.) I’m with you on your aspirations, but I have a lot of players at my table who are there for very different reasons. Some like the mechanics of gaming, some the company of friends, others need attention.

    As a GM I try to take these varied needs into consideration. It influences our choice of rules, frequency of play, and how intense the sessions are.

    Sometimes it’s art. Mostly it hearkens back to our youth, engaged in cooperative play in backyards or basements. Are we having fun yet?

    • Runeslinger says:

      One nice thing about cooperative storytelling is that any input from players is useful, even if it comes from a player who distances themselves from their character and avoids more immersive gameplay. The skill of accomodating the different degrees of investment and interest at the table is a very important one for a good GM, I think.

      This post was more about allowing the story to appear without forcing it or foisting it on the players, but in the case of a player who prefers to sit back and receive the story, I see your point. If someone absolutely is unable or unwilling to be proactive, or draw their own conclusions about what they have learned or done in the game, then… yeah – eventually you will have to meet them at whatever common ground you can find, or stop playing with them.

      • anarkeith says:

        I think we share an appreciation for stories that develop naturally, in the run of play. It’s one of the reasons I like soccer. The game tends to evolve and action builds as the players contribute.

        That’s the most rewarding bit for me as a GM, when my players bring something cool to the table and we all get to play with it!

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