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Group Storytelling vs. Role-playing

Started by jburneko, April 18, 2002, 10:30:42 PM

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Well, in one of Ron's Beef Injection he mentions acknowledging a line between group storytelling and actual roleplaying but doesn't know where that line is.  I'm not so sure I know where that line is either but I'm very interested in this topic since I'm very vocal about my interest in RPG Theory and when describing GNS Theory to someone, and I get around to describing Narrativism, I'm nine times out of ten confronted with, "But that isn't roleplaying.  That's some kind of collaborative storytelling."  Naturally, I've thought about this issue a lot, specifically to counter that statement which I brace for EVERYTIME I describe Narrativism.  So here goes my stab in the dark at drawing the line.

In a roleplaying game the main characters are anchored to specific players and most decisions are made 'relative' to the players desire to demonstrate (i.e. roleplay) their vision of that/those character(s).  Even in games where you are allowed to alter the circumstances being experienced by ANOTHER player's character, the character being achored to a player is the primary focus of play.  Essencially you're introduce elements into another player's character experience either to set up something you wish to demonstrate about your OWN character or because of a desire to see how the player will have their character deal with the situation.

A group storytelling game, on the other hand, will either have no anchors, weak anchors, or achors to things other than a primary character.  For example in a group storytelling game one player may well be in charge of the setting and nothing can be introduced into the 'world' without that player's concent.  This person is not roleplaying the world, they are simply anchored to the setting.

Obviously this line only becomes an issue in games with high Director Stance since Author and Actor stance manefest themselves in the actual imagined gaming world through character action alone.  So let's examine some games with high Director Stance.

The Questing Beast.  Is The Questing Beast a Role-Playing Game?  In my opinion it is.  Each character is anchored to a player, all player decisions are made relative to their desires to demonstrate something about that character, and when influencing the situations of other player's characters they are limited to things that are centric to their personal characters (motifs).

The Pitch.  Is The Pitch a Role-Playing Game?  I don't think so.  I think it's a gamist group storytelling game.  Sure, you create 'characters' but the events in the real imagined space aren't about those characters.  The rated elements, Props, Actors, Locations and Special Effects, are really measures of how strongly anchored you as a player are to each of those elements in the story.  The shared imagined space isn't oriented to your personal character but rather to the elements that are most strongly anchored to you.

This starts to get blurry with things like SOAP.  But again SOAP still contains that feeling of having characters anchored to individual players and each player experiences, decides and inputs things into the shared imaginative space from an axis that revolves around that character or the characters of others.

Does this make sense?  Can anyone codify this further?


Clinton R. Nixon

Actually (and this is probably anti-climatic), but I think you've got it. The definition's in the name - a role-playing game is about playing a role, pure and simple. You may play that role in a variety of ways - using it as a pawn, immersing in it, making actual changes in the world around the character in order to affect his story - but in the end, you as a player are tied to that character.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


The best description of role-playing games I've ever heard was 'The continuum of activities between wargaming and improvisational theater.'  Hardcore D&D dungeon crawl is very close to a wargame, and a rules-light LARP is very close to improvisational theater, even if the only audience is also the cast.
-My real name is Jules

"Now that we know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, how do we determine how many angels are dancing, at a given time, on the head of a given pin?"
"What if angels from another pin engaged them in melee combat?"

Le Joueur

I'm going to agree with Clinton.  Like I said in the Scattershot Gaming Model, I see gaming as an act of 'if I were this character..." done in a systematic fashion using a shared fictional 'place.'

Sever that 'buy in' point and it becomes something else.  The funny thing is, this begs the question, 'what is the gamemaster?'  He isn't 'anchored' to a single character.  Personally, I believe that gamemasters who provide credible characters practice a sophisticated 'play a new character' technique every few minutes or so.  So they are 'anchored;' they simply 'weigh anchor' more frequently.

Why is that necessary?  It isn't, it's just easier.  Otherwise everyone spends a noticable amount of time away from their 'anchor.'  Better to have one player specialize in facilitating the game, letting the others emotionally engage more consistently with their 'anchors.'

Sorry for only refering to group-storytelling non-inclusively, but it basically looks like gaming is 'within' group-storytelling in some ways.  If you add 'anchoring' and system, you get role-playing gaming.

I think.

But I wonder about the systemic side of things.  All the discussion with Pale Fire prompted me to point out that the systemic aspect is all about translating detailed imaginings into an abstraction and that once that is completed the system must flow to assert that translation or there is dysfunction.

The question is, I suppose, can there be a 'non-systemic' system for gaming, can you make a game that is gaming without some kind of communal abstraction?

I'm not sure.

I haven't any suggestions or examples, but as a good philosopher, I know you cannot disprove anything.

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Mike Holmes

Hmmm. I'm going to disagree here, but I must first point out my bias. Given the description that Jesse has put forward, Universalis is not a Role-Playing Game. And, actually, I believe that the line at which he draws the distinction is exactly that which other people have previously used as their demarcation to declare just that, that Universalis is not an RPG. Which I am fine with conceptually, actually. But I just don't think it's true.

I would make two changes. First, I would say that RPGs are concerned with playing any character, not just a specific one assigned. This would for example bring SOAP back into the realm of RPGs. In SOAP, though you each create a single character, every player plays the role of whatever characters they want in a scene when it is their turn. Universalis is similar in that you play whatever characters in which you are interested.

The other problem makes my distinctions more controversial. In Collaborative storytelling, one often does play the role of a character with the intent of displaying something about them. For example, in an online game, a player may write the character's dialog, and describe their actions. This is playing the role. While not the focus of the game, necessarily, it is hard to imagine it not being done frequently. Furthermore, a single participant may decide to represent a particular character to the exclusion of others, at which point play would fall under the definition that Jesse gives.

I propose that the difference in the activities should be delineated by looking at the heritages of the two communities that currently espouse the different methodologies. That is that Role-players, like it or not are descended from wargamers, while the Collaborative Storytelling thing has been around probably since language began. What does that imply? Well, for the wargamers, there had to be a mechanical system for determining the outcome of in world events. This was translated into RPGs as things like resolution systems, etc. They have come a long way since, but I think that what separaates the two communities most is the debate over whether a mechanical system of any sort is necessary to accomplish play.

To summarize the debate, the Collaborative Storytelling community will tell you that any such strictures on play interfere with enjoyment of it and are unneccessary in general. The only "rules" you see from them are Social Contracts and ones that delineate who may add things, when they may add, and how much occasionally. RPGers, OTOH, state that creativity is increased, or immersion gained or challenge increased by the addition of rules. These are representative examples of the goals behind G and N and S decisions in play. Which are supported by rules made specific to that mode of play.

So, this is where I see the line drawn. The point at which a system is devised that has mechanisms meant to support the goals of play makes that system a RPG. The point at which the system only exists as a framework of "soft" mechanics to delineate things like turn order makes that system a means for Collaborative Storytelling.

As a practical example, I discovered recently that Andrew Martin had made two systems, one just on either side of the line. His Zero System, aptly named, has no mechanics that would put it into the RPG category as I have it above. In game decisions on what happens are soley based on the descriptions of the characters, and the players' interperetations of them. OTOH, his Swift system has a very simple resolution system to determine outcomes. This one difference makes that a RPG, and not a framework for Collaborative Storytelling. Note that one should not fall into the trap of thinking that resolution systems are neccessary for RPGs, as there are other mechanics that can be used to deterine the outcome of events (See The World, The Flesh, and The Devil for an example), and other mechanics not specifically related to events per se would also count.

I make this distinction here for a practical reason. Since the two communities exist, a person who knows which side of the line they are on will better know where to get support. Yes, this is segregation. If someone wants to push an ecumenicism between the two forms, I can understand the urge. But I personally find that the two urges to participae in these two activities are far enough separated, that the same caveats that we put out about plaing with people who share your GNS goals should go double for ensuring that you are playing with people who are either RPGers or Collaborative Storytellers.

[Note that I've used the phrase Collaborative Storytelling throughout. Their community may have something a bit more PC these days, and I'm sure that other terms are used. For example, I believe that Interactive Fiction often falls under what I'd call Collaborative Storytelling (though some cersions do have systems that would make them CRPGS and whatnot]

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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I agree with Mike in full. The character/play distinction has never worked for me, and in my case that's in the absence of any commitment to call (say) Universalis a role-playing game.

On the other hand, what about Slasher, Once Upon a Time, and Pantheon? I consider all of them to be a weird step "out" of actual role-playing, but they are rules-based in the Holmesian sense.

Sput! Oh man, I knew we had to talk about this stuff some day. Chalk me up as still squinting.


Le Joueur

Originally, I wanted to quote Mike up and down, six ways from Sunday, but I can't get it to look right.

Simply put, I was, in a round about way, saying the same thing.  The way I put it is that interpreted strictly, Jesse is saying that gamemasters aren't playing role-playing games, either.  In Universalis (if I read this right) and in SOAP, you play much in keeping (potentially) with how a gamemaster plays, not focusing on just one character.

The point both of us make (I think) is that there is an explicit systemic approach in role-playing games (and I argue that it occurs as a holdover from wargaming to emphasize impartiality).  I call it systemic instead saying anything about game systems to avoid the 'resolution mechanics necessary' trap Mike brings up.

Ultimately, the point I wanted to make (loosely, and forgive my impreciseness) is that in role-playing games you emotionally connect (systemically) with the narrative by direct character identification (you play a character or characters), but in collaborative storytelling you emotionally engage in the narrative by its 'statement.'  (I guess the practical difference might be that storytellers can treat any character as expendable, but role-playing gamers are more 'involved.')

Or it's a difference of how participants 'connect' to the 'flow.'

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!


Based on my understanding of what Mike wrote, Once upon a Time would NOT be a roleplaying game.  Its rules are entirely about who can say what and when which he ascribes to rules often found in "Collective Storytelling".

The other two I can't speak to.  I've never heard of Slasher, and Pantheon didn't hold my interest long enough to read it through a second time.

Mike Holmes

Quote from: ValamirBased on my understanding of what Mike wrote, Once upon a Time would NOT be a roleplaying game.  Its rules are entirely about who can say what and when which he ascribes to rules often found in "Collective Storytelling".

I'm only passingly familiar with Once Upon a Time, but does it not also tell you what youare restricted to talking about (via cards, right?). That's exactlythe sort of system that I was talking about as not being a resolution system but still counting. The telling feature is that a Collaborative Storyteller would probably see this as the system impinging on his complete freedom of lattitude to make up anything he likes.

OTOH, I'm not sure that there is any play of characters in that game other than third person description. As a clarification of my point, I think that role-playing must still be involved, just not specific to only one character. Otherwise monopoly would be a RPG by my definition. RPGs are not just an activity that partially uses a system to create the in-game world, but one in which that world is then Role-Played in.

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Well, you'd probably have to cut the line pretty fine.  But no you aren't restricted by whats on the cards.  You can talk about anything you want.  When you talk about something thats on a card you can discard the card.  If you spend an hour talking about something thats not on the card you can (until someone steals the turn from you) you just don't make any progress towards winning.

The element of winning might be contrary to true Collaborative Storytelling, but I wouldn't call OUaT roleplaying either.

J B Bell

Until there's a summit between RPGers and Collaborative Storytellers, could someone maybe post a few CS links for us ignoramuses to look at?

--JB, who actually thinks such a summit would either be great fun or a horrible disaster, or both.

[edit:  I know I could type that into Google and get lots of stuff, but hopefully folks here are aware of the best or at least most exemplary online docs.]
"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes

Yes, as a Gamist mechanic that makes the action go forward, I'd say the cards work to making it a RPG. Interestingly, the idea of Gamism as in "game" is sort of anti-thetical to CS; they refuse to call it a game in any way, it's a passtime, or even art to them. Again, though I'm not sure on the RPing issue. If it has the system requirement, and if it has no RPing, it would just fall into that third broad category, game (non RP implied) being not entirely dissimilar from Monopoly.

In any case there are likely to be some examples of games that straddle the line and confound the issue some. The point is not to find an exact place for the line, but to understand the dichotomy of purpose that the two activities represent.

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Tim C Koppang

Pantheon not a role-playing game?  Hmm... I disagree.  I'm one of those people who will call Baron Munhausen an rpg too though - so maybe I just have a loose definition.  Here's my thoughts on the subject:

In Baron M-- you are effectively telling a story, and that story is collabrotive (ie the other players can interject with challenges, etc).  However, when it comes down to it you are telling a story not just about a character, but as if you are that character.  In other words, your story is told in the first person.  That seems to me like you are taking on the role of another person.  And that seems like role-playing.  Pantheon (which I think is a great game) works in much the same way.  They just happen to break the action into smaller chunks and everyone participates in the same story.  I've never played OUaT, so I won't comment on it.

What I propose is that a role-playing game is one in which you (the player) make decisions about the on-going story/situation through the proxy of a character.  In other words, when a game awards you GMing power to alter the world/setting/anything not related to character, you are not role-playing.  Those decision may effect your character and allow you to have more rewarding role-playing in the future, but they are not actually role-playing.  It's setup for role-playing.  Now, if a game (1) concentrates only on GMing type power or (2) allows you to switch between characters so often that you are not making decisions through any one character, I would be more inclined to call it a collaborative story-telling game.  Otherwise, it's role-playing.

Lance D. Allen

Y'know, I think I actually have something to contribute here.. I roleplay and write in an online forum on AOL called Lyran Tal. It is an odd mixture of collaborative storytelling and roleplaying, mixed all together, and is quite a bit of fun.

The "system" of Free-form roleplaying is simple; You and the others playing are in complete control of your own characters, there is no GM, and nothing to make you play fair except yourself. In some forums, this is badly abused, and no one plays fair: Everyone is a god, or somehow invincible. In LT and other forums like it, we emphasize Cooperative Roleplaying. You and the other players, even if, IC, they are an enemy, cooperate to make a fun and interesting scene. This means that your badass knightly hero might get his ass whooped by the pencil-necked strangler. If it's a good scene, and both combatants can agree on the outcome, then it's all good.
The part where this crosses even further into Storytelling is that people sometimes get together for the sole purpose of playing out scenes to write. It is still roleplaying, even when the basic goals of the scene are predetermined, because each person is acting as their character would, but is also attempting to get the scene to go toward that agreed upon end. It's the best mixture of author and actor stance possible.
Others on the other hand just play. They don't go for specific scenes, and just play out what happens. This can be a night spent drinking in the tavern, a barroom brawl, or whatever else may happen. It is storytelling, but it is also very much playing a role.. So perhaps the line is fuzzier than you'd think.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Mike Holmes

I'd say that falls right into my definition, Lance. Again, to be clear, RPGs are activities in which you play a role, but the system plays a part in determining in-game events in some way. In what you describe, Lance, there seems to be Role-Playing, all right, but no system that determines events in any mechanical way.  All events are left to the players to determine, if I read you correctly, using only the players responsibility to ensure good results. Which would put it in CS given my definition.

Note well that a lot of CS sites will refer to the activity as Role-Playing. But not as a Role-Playing Game very often. And some may even call it that, not having thought about the line either. Despite the differences in opinions, these activities are close enough together to have a large cross-over (not that I've ever participated, but I know many who have). But the activities themselvees seem very distinct to me.

And I think moreso to the CSers. Some who have not crossed over (and even some that had) would be appaled at the idea of rolling dice, or having numerical statistics for game world elements, or any of that other nonsense that our sort would call RPGs. Ironically, there has been a lot of separation in the groups simply because one side sees the other side as freakinsh somehow. "They don't have rules!?!", "They roll dice to see what happens!?!"

It's akin to different brands of Baptists thinking that the others have it all wrong. Both sides do 90% of th same things that the other side does, but somehow, that 10% is a deal breaker.


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