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Drama Pyramid

Basic Choice Point with Drama Pyramid

Linear vs Open Storytelling

Story Web

3D Story Web

This is the start of something. This something began with “Storytelling Games as a Creative Medium,” an essay that first appeared in Second Person: Roleplaying and Story in Games and Playable Media. (If I had it to do again, I’d change that title.) Here at Gameplaywright, I’m writing my way towards a more refined way at looking at — and describing! — what we’re talking about when we talk about story games.

Click on any of the images at right to enlarge them. We’ll explore them further in future posts.What is it that we’re doing at the game table when we play? How are we doing it? How can we do it better? How can we teach new Game Masters (GMs) how to make great game experiences, and why is that important?

Here at the site, I’m going to be riffing on these questions, exploring GM tricks and techniques, and looking for ways to critically describe what we’re doing in play. I want to discuss these themes, ask questions, and get your feedback. Through that, I hope we can all hone our craft and make these games more attractive to new players.

Also, I’m hoping you can tell me how I’m doing it wrong while I tell the ludologists how they’re doing it wrong.1

The Gist of It

It’s the difference between having a created story and creating a story. Gameplay can be a storytelling medium just as the act of telling a story can be made into a game.

In his paper, “Where Stories End and Games Begin”, ludologist2 and game designer Greg Costikyan wrote:

A story is linear. The events of a story occur in the same order, and in the same way, each time you read (or watch or listen to) it. A story is a controlled experience; the author consciously crafts it, choosing precisely these events, in this order, to create a story with maximum impact. […]

A game is non-linear. Games must provide at least the illusion of free will to the player; players must feel that they have freedom of action within the structure of the game. The structure constrains what they can do, to be sure, but they must feel they have options; if not, they are not actively engaged. Rather, they are mere passive recipients of the experience, and they’re not playing any more. (Costikyan 2000)

I think Costikyan’s definition of story is incongruent with his definition of a game. A finished story isn’t analogous to a game ready to be played. An author is a participant in the “controlled experience” of crafting her story, just as a player is a participant in the experience of playing a game, but even an author is a passive recipient of the experience once the novel is finished and she’s not writing any more. A game of chess that’s been played is now a linear experience, in hindsight; the moves cannot be unmade and, when recounted, the game will be (and have been) the same every time.

A story may be linear and fixed in its form (though even that’s debatable), but the process of creating it was not. The goal of a storytelling game isn’t to have a story, but to create one. To tell a story. A game of chess isn’t the set, but the action of playing. A game of storytelling isn’t a script, but the action of playing.

The rules of a story game aren’t some kind of coded stage-play script. The goal isn’t to successfully decrypt the rules and produce, through play, the very story the playwright devised. The goal of a storytelling game isn’t to enact one playwright’s pre-crafted, controlled experience. The players aren’t quite players as on a stage — they are all playwrights and actors, at once. The game designer isn’t the author of the story, but the designer of an authorial experience. If well designed, the authorial experience can yield several different stories within a conceptual or thematic territory laid out by the designer.

A story game isn’t out to create one specific story. Instead of a binary state — victory or defeat — a story game results in something analog. It might result in an experience not controlled, but regulated, by game rules that define and describe the imaginary reality of the fictional tale (e.g., the rules let us know whether or not the brave knight’s wound is fatal), but that tale is still not fixed. What happens isn’t predetermined, but it is determined — through play. The players may vie for control of the experience, as in Once Upon a Time, or they may collaborate to some degree in an effort to produce a story of thematic and atmospheric resonance, as troupes of White Wolf‘s Storytelling System games sometimes do. The point is, the story’s not there at the outset, but created through play.

Nothing else is quite like playing or GMing an RPG with storytelling aspirations. Thus, these games can be hard to discuss. The common language is scant, cobbled together from narrative and ludological jargon.

Most of what we have to work with, to talk through, are metaphors, touchstones, and personal experience. I’m trying to add visual touchstones into the mix, in part with the graphics you see in this post. (We’ll explore those in greater depth as we go on.) With these graphics, I hope we can get on the same page so we can have more conversations on common footing.

But this is the start of something — something like what Chris Anderson described in his book, The Long Tail, for which he beta-tested his ideas in public:

My hope is that the same process—stress-testing many of my ideas in public—has led to a better, or at least sounder, book. [The Long Tail, 2006, p. 12]

I’m hoping to beta-test some ideas by smashing them together like atoms, right here, and see what we get. Hopefully, it’ll be something worth writing a book about later.

In the meantime, let’s play.

1. I don’t really think ludologists are doing it wrong as much as I think that those who create a dichotomy between ludology and narratology are turning the contrast up to high.
2 I use the term here not as a philosophical label but as a descriptor of his work: he’s a game designer and expert.