Speaking in Tongues

This is a post about terms and their influence on comprehension. I suppose if I were to allow the deep pit of pessimism in me to hold sway over my perspective, I would just stop writing now because whatever I share here may ultimately be misunderstood by a significant percentage of people who read it – especially if I refuse to recognize that my preferred terms may be part of an ongoing problem. I am a practicing optimist, however, so I will continue.

Listening, despite what a fundamental element it is of our lives, is not as passive nor as automatically-assured a skill as we might like to believe. For success, it requires that the speaker and the listener be working together. This is even more true for writing, and the chances of high and pervasive success are far lower than you might believe. We have to do more than consider our audience when we write, we have to consider ourselves.

Context is practically everything. Except when it isn’t.

What sparked this post is the word story. Even among people who tend to use it with more precision than it warrants in standard conversation, this little word and its friends can start wars.

If I hold up a novel and say that I liked the story, we may disagree on my taste of novel, but we both get what I am talking about. If I hold up a sheaf of notes after an RPG session and say that I like the story, I might start a debate, an argument, earn disdain, or my choice of word might go unremarked. Here it’s not my choice of game that is only up for assessment, it is also the issue of whether or not there should be a ‘story.’ Some out there will bemoan my surrender of Agency and worry about my subjugation to the GM’s story. Some will not understand why those others are upset, and some among them will get upset at those others for making trouble, while still others will get upset on my behalf. Someone is bound to ask why we can’t all get along.

Neat. (Does the font convey my tone?)

If you participate in enough discussions of new-to-you topics, you come to crave simple ways to communicate those new ideas. We seek shorthand, labels, jargon, and expediency. We all do it in most aspects of our lives. Understandably, we don’t often recognize that the simple term we chose may also be a simple term chosen by others… for a different purpose. RPG itself is an example, with its gaming, video gaming, and military applications. Communication done effectively takes effort and responsiveness to feedback. Counter to our basic instincts, perhaps, when aware of someone really listening, we can swing quite far in the other direction to dress up our words in finery and pageantry – obscuring meaning while we are at it. While we are all capable of poesy if we put our minds to it, the simple truth is that given the choice it is more efficient and convenient to say, “Yes” than it is to say, “Acceptance rises within my breast like the first sun of a new age!” I sometimes wonder if the desire to speak or write well also leads to the obfuscating pseudo-clarities of wordplay more often than it leads to ‘just the facts.’

Big Stomping Models of GNS

When I first tripped over the three terms decided on by the Forge and used by some to help clarify the personal goals and agendas which seem to manifest in roleplaying groups, I thought they were very convenient and helpful. Not everyone agrees. There are those who get quite rabid in decrying that there are aspects of Game, Narrative, and Simulation in what we do. Part of that is resistance to labeling, I feel. Part is a lack of understanding. I don’t think the originators of the terms intended them to be used as labels for anything other than the agendas, but that result was inevitable and the backlash was predictable. Just as there were opponents to the idea and the very act of trying to formulate some form of basis for theory, there were those who leapt aboard – with or without awareness of where that train might head. Introducing the three basic flows of agenda led to the creation not only of named belief systems, but also of named categories of player. You can hear the capital letters when people speak the names.

Each successive usage of the term taken at a degree of separation from the original material increased the lack of clarity, and our usual human problems with communication took care of the rest. These terms are now in common use within the hobby, and it does not seem likely that they will be used with greater accuracy as time goes on. Should we just shrug our shoulders, wash our hands, and roll our eyes?

There comes a time when you are a part of a conversation, if there is discordance in how it is flowing, that you absolutely must check with the other participant(s) to see if they understand what is being talked about in the same way that you do. This is not about being right. It is about being in the same conversation. To not do so is to allow miscommunication to flourish and actively work against the comprehension which was the point of communicating in the first place. To not do so is to be a part of an ongoing problem. I suppose in a sense, it is a sin of omission.

I do not like to be a part of the problem, but as I review my backlog of posts here, on forums, and on YouTube, I can note frequent lapses of control over the terms used, and lapses in their clarity. Narrative, and Story are particular sore points. When I review the comments which follow my posts, and trace the spread of ideas to other speakers, I see clear signs of the spread of misunderstanding. Looking around, I also see signs of partisanship, self-labeling, and the assignment of loyalty to a term because of its sound, further muddying our already murky waters of ostensibly-shared understanding. It is not just ‘out there’ that this goes on. I have to look no further than this blog to see examples.

So that this post, my 666th on this blog, does not end up spending more time describing the problem instead of contributing to part of a solution, it is past time to get down to specific examples of how unexamined or unexplored variance in understanding of a term can lead to unrecognized miscommunication and an unnecessary lack of cohesion within the hobby.  Let’s take the word story as that example. Our exploration of it will not be exhaustive, just enough to make a small point.

Some Perspectives on Story

Imagine, if you will, that the word story is used by a speaker exclusively for RPGs in the same sense as a book’s. Imagine for them it means a complete sequence of events, a closed loop. Imagine that their conception of a story is of a completed flow of events with a clear beginning, middle, and end, featuring characters experiencing conflict in some way, and achieving a resolution of that conflict. Imagine that conception of story to be one which sees the story as complete. While people exposed to the story as readers, viewers, listeners, or participants in an RPG may not know what comes next, the conclusion and resolution of events has already been written. Experience of it is about discovering what has been determined by the author and giving it shape and color through out interpretation or defined participation. This is one perspective on the word story and it has a definite influence on RPG conversations which use the word when participants have differing perspectives.

Imagine another perspective for story. Imagine that the word story is used by a speaker exclusively for RPGs in the sense of an ongoing sequence of events, the outcome of which has yet to be determined. Imagine for them it is an open-ended process of conflict resolution and discovery that flows from a clear beginning and requires no ending. Lacking a definite ending, it also lacks the typical supporting structures which bring one about. There are no planned beats, nor other imposed literary structures to give it shape in advance, only in the moment. Experience of this perspective is of events connected by time, location, and character in a coherent sequence, much like our experience of our own lives, the future of which is neither predetermined nor limited in duration. It is the song we write as we sing. The one which has no end. This is another perspective on the word story and it has another definite influence on RPG conversations which use the word when participants have differing perspectives.

Now, for the purposes of this post, imagine a third use of story. This is undefined and is not really a perspective, but will be labeled as such for this post. This one is not used exclusively for an explicit and refined meaning. Imagine this usage of the word story is wholly contextual, shifting meaning from conversation to conversation without notification, and possibly without conscious awareness. In one conversation it means novel, in another it means movie, in another it means plot, in another it means a lie, in another it means a pre-written adventure, in another it means a framework of possible events, and so on. It is often used correctly, in context, but without conscious control of meaning for clarity and with its ability to shift meaning, mismatches of meaning can occur. Meaning shifts with the content of the conversation, and sometimes within the conversation. This is not always noticed, and mismatches are not always obvious. We don’t have to imagine this definition with too much effort, as this is the normal function and usage of generic terms in ‘real life.’ Experience of this can entail two people being oblivious to having had two entirely different conversations while thinking they were having one. It can also function as desired, with both participants enjoying a good degree of comprehension of the other’s points.

How will these three perspectives interact? In many cases, shallow conversations pass without incident. In conversations of more depth, however, statements of a specific nature may trigger confusion and sometimes conflict as the differing perspectives intersect without warning. Imagine two GMs talking about preparation. One espouses our first perspective on story, while the other espouses the second. A third GM joins in as the conversation begins to warm. This GM is of the third perspective, and soon takes a side which does not necessarily conform to what his actual opinion would be if he were more versed in the nuances of meaning which the others are failing to communicate. We’ll call the first GM Laredo, the second Benito, and the third will be Petruchio.

Laredo: …so I spent about 8hrs preparing the story for my campaign before I pitched it to the players, but I still have a lot of work to do to incorporate their backstories into the plot.

Benito: That’s a lot of prep, man. I couldn’t stand to play in a story like that. I like my choices to matter.

Petruchio: Choice is important.

Laredo: Of course it’s important. I have prepared lots of encounters with meaningful choices and challenges. It’s really tough and parts are heartbreaking. The players are going to freak out when they see how things end! I have this whole surprise planned with a secret villain they will think is their best ally!

Benito: You already know how it’s going to end? I thought you hadn’t started playing yet…?

Petruchio: That sounds cool!

Benito: It does? He has written the whole thing out… what are the players going to do?

Petruchio: What do you mean? They are going to struggle against great challenges, and then at the end will face terrible betrayal! I love stories like that!

Laredo: I haven’t written everything out, but I have a sense of where things are going to go. I mean, there are points where the players have to make some tough choices, but I know them pretty well, so I’m like 90% sure I can run this story in about 20 sessions.

Petruchio: None of my stories last that long. Someone usually bitches about railroading, or not knowing what they are supposed to do, and we end up switching to something else. I wish I were as good a GM as you.

Benito: I usually have a sense of where things will go too, and I prepare characters, but I don’t write a story for the players to follow.  I like to be surprised.

Laredo: Right! That’s what I do, too.

Petruchio: It’s cool that you can improv like that!

Benito: Oh, okay – from what you said earlier it sounded like you were planning out the stories in advance.

Laredo: No, I just prepare the encounters, the locations, side stories, and characters. I like each session to have a minor and major climax, sometimes a cliff-hangar… you know – basic stuff.

Benito: That’s what I mean! I don’t do that stuff, it all comes up naturally in play.

Laredo: You create characters, agendas, plans, plots, that sort of stuff…?

Benito: Yes, I…

Laredo: Then we do the same thing. You prep the story for the players.

fade out…

While a made-up conversation pales in comparison to a real one, I hope the source of confusion is made clear in this attempt to show it. It’s not that these people cannot understand the difference of perspective, or cannot recognize that there is one. Their ability to recognize the difference in the heat of the moment is limited by the terms that they are using, further curtailed by their habitual interpretation of those terms, and impeded by the barrier this creates in grapsing what other person is really saying right now. Add in the desire to agree out of simple politeness, the reluctance to argue, or simple confusion, and you have a real mess. It gets worse when the desire is to argue…. worse still when the desire is to argue and win.

To take this more directly to the point, story is not the only loaded word used in that mock conversation. Plot, plan, and agenda are all quite explosive in possible contextual differences, and further drive this set of conversationalists away from mutual understanding as they are drawn upon out of reflex. Plot to Laredo could mean either an alternate term for story from his perspective, or it could be a plan he wants an NPC to accomplish. For Benito, plot would only refer to the plan he thinks an NPC would be attempting while the characters go about their own business. Laredo would simply have the NPC be successful unless it suits the developing story to have the characters intervene. Benito would use the NPC’s skills to determine if the NPC were successful. Very different approaches, and not ones which may be obvious to the other speaker in the heat of a conversation – friendly or not.

There is a distinct possibility that the more they talk, they less they will understand  of each other’s point of view. There is also the sad potential that Petruchio will come to align with one of the speakers and say (and even believe) he is following their process, while actually doing something completely different – possibly with no real control at all.

Further complicating all of this is that when trying to define their perspectives it will not always go smoothly. Story is a fixed thing, planned and prepared to Laredo. Story in an RPG sense is not planned or set for Benito, but he would completely agree with Laredo from the point of view of a book. A story is a complete unit with a beginning, middle, and end. Emulating that flow of story is valuable to Laredo in an RPG, however, and perhaps approaching anathema to Benito. Even in there moments of shared agreement they can find landmines.

Solution, you say?

What then can we do about this? I am not sure I can say for certain. I want to be a part of doing something about it that is not us vs them.

First things first, raising awareness of our own perspectives cannot hurt. The more we know about what we actually do, versus what we say we do, the less chance we have of deluding ourselves and others. Being willing to be patient and explain processes and work toward shared understandings of those processes comes second. Third would be regular checks for topic drift, intentional and otherwise. There are lots of jokers around who love to appropriate cool terms and recast them to their desires. From differing perspectives, we all may constitute a deck of jokers.Many newcomers to discussion groups and forums come with differing perspectives on “common terms” that do not fit well with how that community has come to talk. Being open and engaging, cutting condescension and topic fatigue, is a challenging but important additional step.

Finally, I would recommend to keep on keeping on trying to engage, share, and expand our shared hobby for the betterment of fun for all. Forget right, forget first. Focus on fun – repeatable fun – and sharing that fun with others.

2 Responses to “Speaking in Tongues”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    A good post. Working in higher education, and often interacting with legal terms and the faculty desire to use a fancy word where a mundane one would suffice, I find this sort of discussion extends to many areas of my life.

    In the context of RPGs and these games we play, I struggle with many of “our” important words. I get antsy when people use the term role-playing game to describe computer/console games. While I am aware of my personal bias, I don’t believe that something deserves to be an RPG if it does not have interaction between actual players and a functional GM role. But I’m open to some variance of definition as to what it means to have a “functional GM role.”

    I also struggle with the need of many players/GMs to toss around the word Agency like it has some nearly mythic importance that we game masters have been stomping on for ages untold. I’m fairly certain that you can read my personal biases in the way I just presented that statement…

    But I agree with you, Story, of all words, is probably one that can most upset any gaming conversation. I suspect, deep in my heart (and with experience and instinct of 30+ years of gaming) that most of us are actually, day-to-day at the table, examples of some combination of the three modes for the word Story you teased out. Even those of us who tend to weigh in on conversations about Story by vehemently supporting one version probably do a little bit of all of them.

    Not that this offers any sort of solution, but for my own interpretation I return to my touchstone influence when it comes to telling stories and running games… Peter Beagle’s, The Last Unicorn, and one very memorable quote… When asked about happy endings the wizard of the group replies, “There are no happy endings; because nothing ever ends.” The wealth of sentiments you can build from that statement is where I start planning just about any game I plan to run.

    No matter how much you care about agency or what your definition of story… something always comes before and something always comes after… so situating your moment is the only thing you can do.

    When it comes to conveying that to others and having comprehension between groups, well, I tend to fall back on another quote from that same wizard, when asked whether he was happy. His reply, “Men don’t always know when they’re happy.” We can strive for comprehension and clarity, but ultimately, the definitions of our fellows are likely to conflict – even if only out of spite – and leave us with little chance of making headway (I appreciated your discussion of GNS above, I think it was a perfect example of the struggle of “theory-crafting” in the RPG hobby). Not to say that, at least at the local level, we shouldn’t try. Just that I am more pessimistic about our chances of getting folks to speak like civilized human beings on this topic.

    Seriously though, great post. I always enjoy your efforts to understand our hobby more clearly and you write very thoughtfully on these topics.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting meaningfully (as usual for you). This was one of those posts that forced its way out, but I expect to be greeted with a big, “so what?”

      I work in communication training and that comes with sensitivity to things like this.

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