You want ‘story’ with that?

I guess from the outside it seems that this is my windmill and I must tilt.

However, to view it in such a light is to do both the windmill and myself a disservice. If I were I knight, I would not stand for being done a disservice, and I would certainly rise to defend the hapless windmill. So, once more into the breach ride I, no knight, but only denied that status by the constancy of the stars.

In past offerings on this blog, we have looked at the spectrum of play, specifically the comparison of how freedom or agency of the participants to make significant decisions grows in direct measure with the reduction of control over outcomes. We didn’t say it with such refinement and economy of words, but what good is a blog post that can fit on a business card? Why this point matters is not that it is hard to grasp, but because it can often go unrecognized in a group among some or all of the participants.

We have also looked at ways of interacting in play, particularly uses of specific or non-specific narrative voices and how that directly impacts the type of experience of character a player can have. We did come out and say that fairly bluntly, but then we unleased a torrent of examples, so again – lots of writing to say something very short and specific. Why this point matters is again not that it is all that difficult to grasp, but because it also goes largely unrecognized.

A through-line in both topics is the notion of story. Years later, this notion retains all of its slipperiness. Recently, I recorded an enjoyable conversation with Ron Edwards of Adept Play on the topic. Sadly, the recording did not go as well as the conversation with volume and lag issues which not only interfered with smooth discussion, they also change the character of the conversation when viewed afterward. I am trying to edit it into something that is more representative of what we said and how we said it, but it is slow and frustrating work. It may be doomed to failure, making it – if it were a story – a tragedy.

We agreed on a number of points and I take those points of agreement as signs of areas which may be less slippery when communicated. One point on which we agreed and took as fundamental to having the discussion in the first place is that the word ‘story’ is usefully flexible in conversation, but as a term for discussion of specifics is a nightmare. As a term it will creep into conversation despite best intentions because it often means what it seems to mean, but we should resist using it because it often does not mean what your listener might think it means. This matters to me because the play of roleplaying games has been very strongly associated with statements like ‘you are part of an epic story’, ‘the GM is a storyteller’, ‘you collaborate on creating stories’, and so on. What does story mean in these cases? In observation, it would seem to be similar to literature or film, and comes with the same constraints and structures that those media have. “This is a cinematic roleplaying game” has grown quite common as a descriptor. What does it actually describe?

What if, like Ron and I did, you bypass all of that and agree that the play of an RPG puts players in the position of making game-relevant decisions in game-relevant situations, and that some of these decisions will be significant enough to warrant the use of the game’s system. That interaction will produce outcomes. If we look at a moment’s or a session’s or a series of sessions’ connections of decisions and the outcomes shaped by the system and player description, we will be looking at a sequence of events, which, when related, could be fairly called – without too much risk of confusion – the story of what happened. In other words: Play Produces Story. Riskier words if you want to be understood, but damn catchy, right? We just have to love those three word pronouncements to death, don’t we?

What if we don’t look at that sequence of outcomes? What then?

I think for most people, the end of the topic should hit just before that last pair of questions. Perhaps it should be the end of the topic (and certainly the post) but for me there is another layer. For me, it has become the most important layer. I might have a fondness for underdogs and lost causes. I might just have tenacity. If I am remembered, you can sort it out after I am gone and chisel it on my tombstone.

What if story is not THE product of play? What if story is A product of play? What if, in fact, it is a by-product of play?

What makes me say this? I think a better question is ‘what IS the product of play?’ For me, as has been noted most recently here, an RPG is a game based on making decisions. To be more specific, it is often a multiplayer game based on making decisions for a character in a situation. When we reduce the medium down to its base level, we seem to have a game that puts in-character decisions in front of us, and that is it. Even if we, as good and neutral observers, try to separate the intentions of the players from our notations of their actions, we are left with that as the typical form of the vast majority of RPGs, (games like Cabal appearing to be exceptions, of course, but not really being so). Players make decisions for characters or analogs of characters in the forms of factions or movements or ideas, and the system helps frame outcomes for those “characters,” and all of this leads to more decisions. Nothing else is needed. No further intentions are needed than to ‘want to play’ and no further or different actions need to be taken, but the game can progress as written and be enjoyed. We don’t even need to talk about ‘what happened’ afterward. We can show up, be social, play our characters, and invoke the system. Will a sequence of events be created simultaneously? Yes. Is that required for play and must there be mechanisms in place to help shape it? No. Decisions, by comparison, are required for play, the mechanisms that make up the system are intrinsically tied to them, and the combination of system and decision is the very substance of play. It seems to me these are the actual product of play. If that is so, then story by any other name, is a by-product of that play.

When we bring player intentions back into view and if we choose to trust what people say are their intentions for play, or trust their recollection of what they were thinking or doing or intending in a given moment of play then we can expect to see things like character or story take on more significance.

We might discover that the group’s intention for play was to get to portray heroic figures in an epic struggle versus (seemingly-)unbeatable odds. We might simultaneously discover that that group has no idea that that intention influences what decisions are presented, and when or even if the system is invoked, and most likely causes some or all members of the group to feel pressure to change or ignore fair outcomes from the use of the system.

We might instead discover that the group’s intention for play was to get to portray interesting (to them) characters in an interesting (to them) setting where really awful things are happening. We may find that they grow attached to these characters. We might simultaneously discover that that group has no idea that that attachment influences what decisions are presented, and when or even if the system is invoked, and most likely causes some or all members of the group to feel pressure to change or ignore fair outcomes from the use of the system.

How could we know which we were looking at?

How likely is it that our own experience and biases about play would color our perception of what we were observing and influence the weight we give to player statements about their play?

How can we tell if the players are making decisions for a character, or as the character? How can we believe them when they tell us their answer? Should we believe them?

Slippery, isn’t it?

Would you like to listen to ideas like this in a more conversational form? Check out the Casting Shadows Podcast~

2 Responses to “You want ‘story’ with that?”
  1. “What if story is not THE product of play? What if story is A product of play? What if, in fact, it is a by-product of play?”

    That sums up my views on the topic of stories in the roleplaying game media. 🙂

    The story is the sequence of events generated by the meeting of the rules, the setting, the genre, the participants; their values, goals, personal play style, decisions, reactions, etc. To me, the story, that word specificall, is always a thing of the past.

    Even the most outliner of writers has to build their story up and then have many passes of rewrites to polish the product, a re-work of the past for best effect. You can’t polish the future.

    As always, excellent piece. 🙂

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