Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Is role-playing about telling a story?

Jerry Stratton, April 20, 2006

In What is Role-Playing?, I wrote “Role-playing games are stories. You create one of the main characters, and you create a story around your character. The rest of the players also create stories around their characters. And there’s an editor who brings those stories together.”

It wasn’t a particularly new idea, but it was a good piece of writing, and it’s been borrowed extensively on the net. But I think it misses an important point. There is a lot of analogizing of gaming to storytelling: comparing gaming to “collaborative writing”, to writing a novel, to directing a movie. But while occasionally useful as analogies, none of these come close to the real role-playing game experience.

I’m going to continue using the word “story”, but in a very loose way that I can’t define because I don’t really know what I mean by it.

I think that gaming can more appropriately be described as a new way of finding a story. Role-playing is more like reading than writing: none of the players, not even the referee, know what is going to happen “on the next page”. Role-playing is not, as I wrote, just sitting around a campfire telling a story. Neither is it a round-robin tale. It is taking part in the story before it becomes a story.

In a role-playing game, each of the players brings something to the story. Most obviously, the players with player characters bring protagonists, and the player playing the referee brings the situation. No player knows the whole story until it plays out, until it is “found”.

In this sense, role-playing can be more closely analogous to myth-making and folk-tales, where every teller builds on previous tales, but can inject new situations, new characters, and new ideas into the existing pattern.

But even that fails to capture the real experience. Role-playing is a different thing than all of those things we try to compare it to. This is why I find magazines such as Interactive Fantasy and forums such as the Forge fascinating: they are trying to zero in on what exactly is role-playing, and what makes it fun.

In my view, we might as well compare role-playing games to sculpture as to storytelling. Players chip away at everything which is not the “story” until the “story” finally presents itself.

Why does it matter?

The way we describe our pastimes makes a difference. Names and terminology guide our perception and our play. The way that we visualize what role-playing is changes the way that we play our role-playing games and the rules we create.

Role-playing by telling a story often seems to mean following a path which, if not completely pre-defined, has at least been well-worn. It often means setting certain choices in advance that cannot be changed by the player characters because that would hurt the story that we already know. At its best, it means guiding the player characters towards a specific kind of fun.

Role-playing by finding a story is more like what I felt when I first role-played: as if I had been climbing arduously through thick woods and bramble and had only now come out in the open overlooking a vast and beautiful open valley.

Not so much an eye-opener as a new vista with new possibilities.

In real life, we are each a walking story, each a protagonist in a story that only we know. Role-playing has an essence of that kind of story: each character carrying their own center.

The vocabulary of story-telling is still useful in discussing role-playing game adventures, as long as the vocabulary does not define the discussion. Talking about a plot is fine, as long as we don’t forget that the game is not defined by the plot in the same way that a story would be. Talking about protagonists is fine, as long as we don’t forget that the characters are not quite the same as protagonists in a film or novel. This is not to say that we can’t learn from stories. But plot and character are ours alone.

August 4, 2007: We are walking narratives
Tunnel Walker

Image from Joaquim Alves Gaspar on Wikimedia.

Over on the Freeroleplay group, Ricardo Gladwell reminded me of the word I’d been looking for: narrative. I can rewrite what I said earlier to:

I think that gaming can more appropriately be described as a new way of finding a narrative. Role-playing is more like reading than writing: none of the players, not even the referee, know what is going to happen “on the next page”. Role-playing is not, as I wrote, just sitting around a campfire telling a story. Neither is it a round-robin tale. It is taking part in the narrative before it becomes a narrative.

Okay, it’s not a perfect fit. But it’s a better one. We’re always looking for a narrative for ourselves.

In real life, we are each a walking narrative, each a protagonist in a story that only we know. Role-playing has an essence of that kind of narrative: each character carrying their own center.

I was using “story” in two ways. At the beginning, I used it in its traditional meaning: a story such as is used in a film or novel. This is what tends to get transferred into games in a way that frustrates players.

The second way, which is the way I don’t understand, is the sense of things we talk about after the game is over. I should have remembered this, having studied schemas and personal narratives in college. Everything we do creates a narrative of some kind. I was fascinated by Bem’s external observer theory, in which a narrative is created to explain a person’s action by that person as if they were an external observer.

That doing this is a skill came up in a Forge discussion about how some players don’t know how to play.

Okay, rearranging your character’s activities for a better story is actually a skill. A skill this player doesn’t have. And before we rush him with bayonets, it isn’t a skill you should automatically have. One doesn’t try and plan out chess for a more exciting game… if a chess player beats his opponent, but does so inefficiently, it’s a legitimate critique to point out how he could have played better, and checkmated 10 moves earlier.

When we say that role-playing games don’t have winners and losers in the traditional sense, this is part of what we mean.

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