Author Topic: Stories about games do not equal Story Now  (Read 1203 times)

Joshua Bearden

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Stories about games do not equal Story Now
« on: July 15, 2013, 03:52:34 PM »
Perhaps its a bit more of "story later".

Background is in this threadwhere I related the following anecdote below. In that thread I had originally attempted to describe an observed phenomenon as an example of coherent play with multiple Creative Agenda's.  I no longer believe that's a correct way to try to describe this sort of activity. However I would still like to discuss ways to describe it in light of what is now understood about role-playing.


An actual experience I had in the distant past nudges my memory now. I played D&D in college with other theatre arts students. The games were fun, the shared imagined space vivid and interesting. I'm pretty sure we all shared a Step Right Up agenda, but there was plenty of colour and exploration --- all the things I seek now.  However, in between games, the DM would write up records of play, removing any descriptions of system or mechanics, enhancing and taking licence with character and dialog, creating stories which were quite entertaining to read.  My thought is that although fully present and committed to providing gamist challenges to us during play, he was quietly pursuing his agenda as a writer at the same time.  I'm quite certain that the dominant reward for the DM's participation in the games was the raw material our gamist sessions provided for his literary endeavors. Could that be described as a "Story Now" agenda in a game that encompassed our Step on Up sessions? Is it even useful to ask this question?

The first line of this thread post contains my answer to the rhetorical question in the quote.  My college friends and myself, including the DM, were all playing with a gamist "Step on Up" creative agenda.  The fact that the DM was capturing ephemeral from our sessions and weaving them, (along with considerable literary licence), into an entertaining narrative didn't change that. Due to the separation in time between the play sessions and the writing, it's easy to see the difference. 

I suppose this is really just an example of what happens in any kind of play. With little effort, the human mind can impose narrative on any sequence of events, no matter how random. "My soldiers appeared to dominate the battlefield in a great dark mass.  The opponents armies seemed scattered and ineffective; but in my hubris I failed to keep an eye on our liberties and with a few daring and clever moves the enemy outflanked us, denying us any means of egress, and annihilated my army to the last man." Identifying the game is left as an exercise for the reader.

For some better literature derived from a similarly abstract game see The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, see especially Canto III.

These examples may seem beside the point in role-playing games.  Isn't narrative a more or less presumed and intentional feature of all role play? Well, I don't think so any more.

But back to what happened in college. The DM's private 'game' of making up stories based on what happened during our play sessions DID have an effect on play.  His stories reflected his impressions of our characters, their personalities and motivations and made us more conscious of how we played in subsequent sessions. I don't remember ever quibbling with him about what additional words or deeds he attributed to our characters beyond what we recall actually playing, but I do recall that I felt inclined to either adopt his interpretation my character or react against it.

I played neurotic illusionist gnome named Dimolimolux... (We were using the Dragonlance setting and gnomes had interminably long names). The more deranged the character appeared in the stories, the more motivated I was to act out in game... I recall he started out being merely timid and shy, with a secret crush on the dashing and beautiful assassin who seemed to lead our party. She was unconscious and being threatened with violation by thugs.  Dimolimolux used illusion to make her flesh appear diseased and infected with maggots. The ruse was successful and the thugs left her alone. When the assassin awoke the events were related to her in such a manner that she believed the priest character was responsible for defending her honour and began to favour him especially. The frustrated gnome was too shy/proud/bitter to speak out and set the record straight and his internalized rage made him even weirder.


Now I'm having a new thought.

Having written this out, I'm wondering if, had this process continued, would the DM's storytelling have eventually lead our game to 'drift' from a gamist to a narrativist CA where we put "the story"  ahead of any of any other motivation

Ron Edwards

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Re: Stories about games do not equal Story Now
« Reply #1 on: July 15, 2013, 06:34:20 PM »
Hi Joshua,

You have definitely nailed it in that there is no Story Now here at all, and your non-RPG examples are completely relevant. No, the DM was not pursuing a Story Now Creative Agenda. The game may have provided service for his writing agenda (in the ordinary use of the word), but that has nothing to do with the in-play experience and the shared dynamics of activity among persons.

This is what I called "Story After," in my Narrativism essay, and not as an alternative agenda, but as a dubiously functional Technique at best that often denotes failed/frustrated Story Now. As I've seen it, it is typically observed as a patch-Technique so that a person (the DM in this case) can basically pretend that play has more content of that kind than it does. (long rant-and-rave snipped; now at the bottom as a P.S.)

As an auxiliary, Exploration-enhancing Technique in the context of some other Agenda, it's probably perfectly functional and fun, although one might wonder why the DM gets all the fun of doing it.

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Having written this out, I'm wondering if, had this process continued, would the DM's storytelling have eventually lead our game to 'drift' from a gamist to a narrativist CA where we put "the story"  ahead of any of any other motivation

I don't think so. You probably know this very well, but I have to repeat that "get a story," "want a story," "resulted in a story" are not metrics or synonyms for Story Now as a CA. My little discussion of Lord Gyrax in Narrativism: Story Now is a very big deal.

That leads to two points. First, even if every person at the table were invested deeply in the GM writing up the in-game material as entertainments, that doesn't mean Story Now unless play itself were identifiably expressing that CA. Second, even if every person thoroughly enjoyed the story-ness of play right there at the table (as opposed to afterwards), unless the absolutely identifiable address Premise variable were observed, then it's still not Story Now play.

This is why I completely disavow the definition of Narrativist/Story Now as "play to get a story." Any role-playing with any CA can do such a thing, although as you rightly point out a certain amount doesn't have to and remains functional. Your account provides a good example of that: you did pay attention to what the DM wrote, and riffed on it in various ways in later play, but that doesn't mean you got to address Premise ever.

Best, Ron

P.S. In the original post, you did that thing right there!

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I'm pretty sure we all shared a Step [On] Up agenda, but there was plenty of colour and exploration …

What is that "but" doing in there!? The two things in your phrase are not in any way opposed phenomena. Exploration (which includes Color] is the fundamental medium of role-playing. Step On Up is one of three things you can role-play for. It needs the Exploration as much as either of the other two.

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Ranting and raving …

One might say, "But it's fun!" I know. I know all about it, being this exact guy to a fair extent during the 1980s, but not as much as one of my friends was, who dreamed The Lovely Dream of publishing a row of best-selling fantasy novels based on (and very greatly embellished upon) our lackluster Rolemaster game. And yes, it is not only creative but absorbing, in a schizophrenically-pleasing fashion that seems quite productive until you look at the resulting story and it's hideously bad. (I hope your DM averted this criticism, which I suppose doesn't have to turn out poorly.)

But the quality isn't the point. The point is what is and isn't happening during play. And sure as hell, what isn't happening is the passionate development and address of Premise during play, at the table. In my experience, the most notable emergent phenomenon at the table is the stifling of anyone there who presumes to direct their characters as protagonists, or speak themselves, as people, in any fashion that reveals frustration with play. I've been the stifled and the stifler, and in each case, appalled at what was happening but unable to stop it … you know, "the story" demanded that we not break the spell.

So to be a contented player in this context means to be utterly at the behest of the authorial DM, who if they get wrapped up in Story Before (again, a mostly dysfunctional Technique, not a CA) becomes a railroader, but if they get wrapped up in Story After, basically a den-daddy who permits the players solely to be the story's id and can only play with people who want to romp about, where and how they are directed to do so. In other words, to give up on Story Now play at the table forever.

OK, done ranting.
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Ron Edwards

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Re: Stories about games do not equal Story Now
« Reply #2 on: July 16, 2013, 05:44:40 PM »
So I was thinking about play of lo these days long past, and the famous games run by Kevin (K.C.) Ryan. One of them was in Sacramento, California, among the group of people who would be responsible for the Champions APA, The Clobberin' Times. The membership of that group shook about a little at first, but eventually settled into ... let's see, memory ... in addition to K.C., Mike, Tim, and Kaye. I followed the adventures and soap opera of their superhero group, Forte, for years.

Along about the time that a couple of guys were no longer regular players and Kaye became a regular (with her seriously fucked-up character Cincoflex, I mean, Kaye!), the group started bluebooking. That meant that between sessions, or if I understand correctly, sometimes after a session, they took out, yes, plain old cheap college-style bluebooks, and filled them with all sorts of writings. An entry might be a diary entry in-character, or a descriptive passage of how a character felt about what just happened, or short stories about what was going on that didn't get seen in play, and lots more. And they constantly read one another's work, all the time. I'm pretty sure that K.C. scribbled along with the rest of them too.

This was interesting. It wasn't the same as the retrofitting of played-events into "look, it was a story after all." Like many Champions groups of that time, play had begun as straight-up fan fun emulation but rapidly turned into stewing social and emotional fictional snakepits, as the players and GMs came to take the characters very seriously, spandex and all. I remember those days with my own group fondly despite our (speaking of all the GMs who liked doing this) constant confusion about how a good story happens.* K.C. was, I think, the acknowledged finest Champs GM known to the extended community, and these guys hit the perfect mix of celebrating superhero comics' absurdity, profundity, structure, and capacity for insight about the real world. It was also fun to see that K.C. was an extremely wholesome and rather sweet man GMing three saber-toothed, uninhibited, totally I Will Not Abandon You players, and the bluebooking often revealed the sweaty, confrontational soul of the emergent story more explicitly than K.C. was comfortable with during play.

Once this feature had developed, the impact on play was huge. It was a genuine subordinate technique of how they played the game, and they were able to do all the "Dark Phoenix Dr. Jackal" and "Cincoflex goes stark raving mad" and sequences involving complicated court battles, and all that stuff that people such as myself tried to shoehorn into play via prior-arrangement or impose via NPCs or simply hope to God that it "would happen," less successfully.

So yeah. A counter-example of Story Now techniques that might prove instructive to compare with what you described, Joshua.

Best, Ron

* See [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents.