Story and Game

So. I decided to write about story and games (note that I am carefully not saying “story games” as this seems to be entirely its own term now with particular associations for some gamers). This came up from a comment in a previous post by Creative Cowboy about the need to define “story” when we say it and discussing the issue of the associations that surround the word story. I also recently read an interesting post at Wild Musings discussing ‘story games’ in a particular way. A cursory internet or blog search will turn up reams of writing about story games and I offer up the Wild Musings post as a recent addition to that discussion.

My own post is less concerned with “story games” as a defined category (though I hope to touch on this) and more on the terms “story” and “game” and how they can interact without acrimony on the part of gamers. I’ll break this up into a few categorical discussions and hope that it makes sense at the end…

Story = Railroad
As a long-time DM/GM and a guy who loves to game and tell stories I have to say, I hate this one. I’m not even sure how it happened. Somewhere along the way the notion that if a DM uses the word story he’s planning on railroading your characters roughshod through his novel plot and that the players should just hold tight and enjoy the ride (or flip the table and storm out in righteous indignation). This development in the thinking of gamers worries me. I suppose I can begin to understand how it happened but I’m still troubled. I want to be able to sit down with a group of gamers and tell a story without the assumption that I’m about to enforce my plot-hammer on them. To carry this presupposition into a session just sets up a poor dynamic from the very start. Now, I’ll freely admit, you might have been a player who met one of “those” DMs and you know how it feels to have your every character action seem utterly pointless. I suppose at that point I’d simply want to say — that’s not story – gaming… that’s abuse of DM trust and that DM is not, in fact, telling a story. He’s just marking time until his players leave. (I rewrote that last sentence a few times trying to decide on a less offensive version from my original typing.)

Storytelling = Partnership
This, in my opinion, is the laudable goal of of many Story Games. The goal is to offer a method — baked and built directly into the mechanics — that improve the shared authority of players in defining the outcomes in the game. I’m on record as being not fond of these mechanics. I find that they often go entirely too far in making a so-called Story Game into a metagamey exercise of gaminess in the quest for story. The insulation provided by these mechanics for players (not characters, per se) from the GM is an exercise in separation that seems to spite the very goal it attempts to achieve. The GM is often relegated to a purely reactionary role by these rules and attempts to be an “active” or “strong” GM are met with resistance. I’m sure that some would disagree with my assessment — but this has been my impression in all of my interactions with “story games.” I don’t want to offend anyone with my assessment, it is, after all, only my assessment. If you like these games — I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong. They just don’t work for me.

Story = Partnership, pt. 2
I’ve always wondered about the need to fight with the GM for authority/create mechanics for authority. The type of dictatorial, drunk-with-power GM that would be affected by these rules is not going to run these games. You won’t find the DM from my dungeon-crawling experience of last year running Houses of the Blooded, for example. That’s my point. Now I realize that I’m showing a particular assumption/bias here in assuming that the point of these mechanics is to “protect from bad GMs/marginalize the GM role.” That’s true. And based on my previous point I realize that these mechanics must serve another purpose (no matter how or for what reason they evolved as a style of game) but it’s difficult for me to get into it because I’m so anti-mechanical when it comes to story. The more layers of mechanics I have to interact with at the table the less I enjoy what I’m doing.

But thinking about story as partnership is an interesting idea. I think about the first time I encountered the concept of “scene editing” with points of some sort. I don’t know for sure but the clearest “first time” for me was the Buffy RPG with Drama. I was flabbergasted. I know it sounds dumb but I actually didn’t understand the point of that rule because I just assumed that I could add stuff (reasonable stuff) to a scene whenever I wanted — as a player or GM. I spent some time talking about this with my fellow gamers at the time and a lot of time thinking about it and I realized that there was a split in how we perceived this — but it was less about concepts of permission and more about desire or understanding. Some gamers felt just like me, others didn’t really feel it was necessary at all. Some others felt it was a great rule because they had just never even considered that they might be a partner in the world-building/interactive parts of the game before beyond the limits of their character sheet. And I’ve had that thought tossed out in most of the conversations I’ve had about this — that rules like this empower players by informing and giving a clear framework for how it can be done. My own feeling runs to the opposite — that doing it with points and rules minimizes imagination and trains players that they have to have a “point” that gives them permission.

This is pretty long. I have more to say on the subject but I’ll quit here for now. I keep thinking about and exploring this idea because my favorite games are rule-light, and my favorite game is a diceless exercise in complete permissiveness. I think the next step is to address the idea of GM fiat, the idea of player interaction, and how these don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) competitive notions. Maybe I’ll call it something like, “the art of asking leading questions at the table.”

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you Wednesday!

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2 responses

  1. I’m firmly in the part 2 category, and prefer rules that do guide the uses; as I find a lot of people freeze when provided with a blank sheet in ways they don’t when they are given structure. (My introduction to this sort of system was Adventure! and Dramatic Editing, and how it allowed the characters to make changes of various and sundry sorts of various levels of cost.)

    There’s no problem with rules light as long as everyone has the same general understanding and at least a share perspective on how the game works – however, the more freeform the more the GM’s sensibilities become the mechanic of what works and what doesn’t work. Which is fine as long as everyone’s cool with that – unfortunately, I’ve seen things break down too often in my day job as well as at the gaming table (and I am admittedly, a process nut) to not want written guidance to help the group along.

  2. [...] Story And Game at The Rhetorical Gamer explores how story and game can interact while pointedly avoiding talking about story games. [...]

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