Thursday, April 5, 2012

RPG Theory: Story and Storytelling -- Part I

I've posted in the past about my love for OSR style play, but I'm sure that regular readers know that it's not the be-all and end-all for me. Like almost everyone else in the hobby, my interest in RPGs didn't stop at D&D, and that's because RPGs have such broad potential for entertainment, education, inspiration, and introspection. I wanted to explore different systems and different settings. I wanted to see different GMing styles and approaches. I wanted to see different player approaches to character generation/creation/selection and actual gameplay (from roll-playing to roleplaying and everything between and around those two poles).

But one of my other passions is fiction -- particularly Speculative Fiction (which a group of us tend to use as a catch-all term for all types of fantastic fiction, and yes I know that it has been used to mean other things) especially things along the Fantasy and Science Fiction axes -- and there is an expectation even in D&D, which has been accused of being anti-story, of recreating similar scenes or entire stories that could have been taken from your favorite short story, novelette, novella, novel, trilogy, pentalogy, or what-have-you.

So, before we start tackling if RPGs can be used to tell stories (spoiler: yes), I think it's important to raise some aspects of story, my views on them, and hopefully see how other people view these things.

Story vs. Storytelling

The first thing I have to raise is the difference between story, and storytelling. I'm sure we can get into debates about how the storytelling is the story, how the medium is the message, and so on -- but for now, just accept the axiom that they're different and separate (spoiler: debatable) so that I can define my terms.

The story is what happens -- the plotline of events, the arcs of the characters, the consequences of action and inaction, etc. The storytelling is how all that is related to the reader.

For example, if the story is about a powerful wizard fighting a rampaging orc; the storytelling approaches could be as follows:
  • very clinical 3rd Person Omniscient POV -- you know everything that both characters are thinking or doing, you are privy to all their tactical decisions and their fears that they might die in battle, you are shown their approaches to combat and appreciate both as worthy opponents.
  • very opinionated 1st Person POV -- you only know what the powerful wizard senses or thinks, and known nothing about the orc except whatever he says or does, you know a bit about the wizard's past and are shown in flashbacks how he picked up little combat tricks that buy him time to unleash that massive spell he needs to cast to kill his opponent.
  • unusual alternating 1st Person POV, documentary style -- combat progresses as per action, but with no thoughts, only words and deeds; intercut with each exchange is 1st person POV interview ala reality show/documentary, spoiling the fact that neither dies, but making people wonder how either survived given the seemingly do-or-die stakes in the battle.
To those who feel that story and storytelling are interchangeable, I point them to a more modern invention: wikis for a universe covered in a series of novels. It's quite arguable, especially for the novels with rabid fans maintaining the wikis, that the wikis hold all the story visible in the novels and more (given speculation, interpretations, and reminders of potentially forgotten facts about the characters and settings, higher quality maps, and so on). And yet, the storytelling approach in the wiki is different from actually reading the books.

My point -- storytelling decisions matter, even if your story and characters are the best the world has ever seen, because they impact how readers first experience that story.

So how does this relate to RPGs?

So, yes, RPGs are another medium. And yes, RPGs can be used to tell stories -- the storyteller camp obviously firmly believes in this, while the simulationist camp has raised the argument of 'the emergent story' in their style of play, and from a strict perspective, even short-lived characters can conceivably have something that is a story (however boring or pointless).

What are we fighting about then?

It seems that we're fighting a lot about two huge areas: the creation of the story itself (is it just the GM, or is it just the players, or is it some kind of mix between the two -- and where do the dice come in?) and the telling of the story (GM style, Player style, system rules, dice/no dice, etc.) and which approaches are best.

And right there is where I state my belief: just as in the case of fiction, some techniques work better for certain audiences, for certain genres, for certain stories and all the variants of all of these. Sure, there are best practices that always tend to yield good results, but there are also some pretty startling approaches that can yield wonderful results.

What becomes important, therefore, is determining what techniques are best for the stories you want to create / tell / experience -- given that RPGs are not quite novels or TV or movies or video games. What may also be important, therefore, is finding out what new techniques and approaches can be mashed-up with older ones to achieve new stories and storytelling approaches in the hobby that we love.

Next: Part II


  1. As you allude in your post, I definitely believe different genres/metagenres of play require different things. Sandboxes are great, but mysteries (in whatever subgenre) are probably not best suited to that completely open style. Likewise, something like Star Trek (and I don't mean justing playing in the universe of ST but actually trying to emulate the genre) would have a different set-up than pure sandbox, too.

    I don't think the OSR should be about one particular style of play (as there were people playing in different styles in those days) within certain parameters but certainly the advocates of certain styles are perhaps more vocal.

    I think the key is that everybody at the table buying into what is being done, and the player's feeling what their doing is meaningful in terms of having an impact on events in a significant way.

  2. I think my preferred approach runs in line with yours (and Trey's). I believe there's room for story techniques, depending on the game/genre being played. And I believe that can exist alongside meaningful player agency and choice.

    Monsters & Manuals today suggested a definition of OSR that seemed to me to be workable, but certainly not the kind of game my group or I looked for at the table. I'm more sympathetic to the ambition expressed at Roles, Rules and Rolls though I don't think I entirely agree that dice absolutism is the key to that.

  3. I think I am similar to both of you, though we probably differ not only in terms of gaming preferences but also approaches to certain genres.

    Thanks for giving me more to think about -- this topic comes up periodically and I think it's time for me to give it serious thought. Sort of a 'gaming poetics' soul-searching thing.

    I look forward to your further input in my subsequent posts! :)


That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...