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Author Topic: Story and Narrative Paradigms in RPGs  (Read 3936 times)
John Kim
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« on: November 01, 2003, 05:59:39 PM »

I have just finished a fairly in-depth essay about the relation of story in static narratives (i.e. books and film) versus story in RPGs.  It's a sort of formalist approach complete with diagrams.  My conclusion is that there isn't a definitely relation, and I present two different paradigms for understanding what story is.  The essay is at:

http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/narrative/paradigms.html">Story and Narrative Paradigms in RPGs

I'd certainly be interested in any comments.  I haven't related it to GNS or the Threefold yet, though I'd be open to discussion of how the concepts defined relates to either.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #1 on: November 01, 2003, 08:26:00 PM »

BL>  Uh... wow.

This will take a while to digest.  On first read, it looks like a good start.
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RaconteurX
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« Reply #2 on: November 02, 2003, 03:08:03 AM »

I would not call your essay either in-depth or finished. To me, it seems more like the premise of a work to follow, or the abstract for a research paper. While you defined many things, you failed to express any insights regarding them. Upon completion of reading it, I felt compelled to ask, and not necessarily rhetorically, "Yes, and..?" Very unsatisfying, but very promising all the same. Expand upon the beginning you have made, and it should eventually make for a very impressive piece.
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Marco
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« Reply #3 on: November 02, 2003, 04:35:21 AM »

Hi John. Good work!
I think it's a cognizant examination of some stuff that comes up for me in Sim/Nar game discussions and a good look at is inferred in the process for "generation of story" (or "expression of story") in an RPG.

I found some interesting stuff in there. I looked hard for a discussion of how broad or "mutable" the story was in the Static Narrative--and decied your description of it as potentially a model was reasonable (although I suspect that for at least some people the concept of the static model is what I would see as railroading).

Also: The virtual vs. experiential model as the point of paradigmn clash is, perhaps, a broader expression of what happens--but if I understand you correctly the modes (and section headers) are Static vs. Collaberative (which I think might be weaker terminology than Virtual Experience vs. Collaberative Storytelling).

Finally, I think there's usually some gradient involved.

For instance, the model or "static story" is, necessiarily, incomplete as a model (and perhaps contaning paradoxical logic holes if envisioned as an immutable linear narrative)--it is therefore often subject to revision on the part of the players.

This makes the exercise almost always a gradient of some sort rather than a boolean state (i.e. players are *always* collaberating with the GM in creating story--even if only by being there to play in a super-railroaded game).

-Marco
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John Kim
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« Reply #4 on: November 02, 2003, 09:41:11 PM »

Quote from: Marco
  Also: The virtual vs. experiential model as the point of paradigmn clash is, perhaps, a broader expression of what happens--but if I understand you correctly the modes (and section headers) are Static vs. Collaberative (which I think might be weaker terminology than Virtual Experience vs. Collaberative Storytelling).  

No, I think you're misunderstanding.  The term "static" applies only to books and movies, not to RPGs.  I discuss story in static narrative (i.e. books and movies) in order to provide a groundwork for what story means in RPGs.  Within RPGs, I provide two answers for what story can mean...  These are the two paradigms that I call "Collaborative Storytelling" and "Virtual Experience".  

Static narrative isn't a mode.  A narrative work is static by its physical nature.  For example, a book is the medium of communication between author and audience.  This essentially isn't possible in an RPG format.  So the question is, how do you relate story in books to story in RPGs?  

Quote from: Marco
  For instance, the model or "static story" is, necessiarily, incomplete as a model (and perhaps contaning paradoxical logic holes if envisioned as an immutable linear narrative)--it is therefore often subject to revision on the part of the players.

This makes the exercise almost always a gradient of some sort rather than a boolean state (i.e. players are *always* collaberating with the GM in creating story--even if only by being there to play in a super-railroaded game).  

The first part is correct, I would say.  RPGs simply cannot be static narrative.  Static narrative would mean that a storyteller is lecturing to others without any input or even feedback.  Since the players are willing participants in the process, it is by definition collaborative.  Of course, a collaboration doesn't have to split all responsibility equally.  Different groups may divide power and responsibility differently -- but that doesn't make it any less collaborative IMO.

Games could be railroaded under either paradigm, I would say.
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Marco
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« Reply #5 on: November 03, 2003, 01:33:05 PM »

Okay, I can agree with that. I very much agree that all gaming is collaberative (one of the reasons I disagree with the term 'creation of story'--and maybe 'story now' in Nar discussions).

And if you say that a game can be railroaded under either paradigm I agree even more.

-Marco
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Emily Care
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« Reply #6 on: November 03, 2003, 03:23:28 PM »

Great analysis, John.

The connection of the two paradigms with perceived vs. conceived story is brilliant.  The difference is where the text exists--what is defined as the "true" text of the game (the shared, in-play material; or the conceptual, pre-play-created material + in-character reactions to that). In the first case, all participants are seen as authors in equal share, and in the second, "authorship" per se is segmented and primarily allotted to one party (the gm), with other participants given a single agency to with which to author (character).  This seems to match very real differences in approach commonly seen between self-identified "narrativists" and traditional-style players whom I find hard to classify. Genre-/real-world causality verisimilitude requiring gamists?

Virtual experience roleplaying, as seen by those who see role-playing as intended to be collaborative story-telling, might look like rampant "my guy would do such-and-such"-ism: ie over-prioritizing narrow verisimilitude of character, over narrative concerns, or pure pawn play, with no consciousness of shared story.

And in like manner, collaborative story-telling roleplaying could end up breaking engagement for someone who looks at the experience as something with external reality (ie that has been created by someone else) that must be experienced via through an avatar that "actually" exists in the game world.  Does sounds like sim vs. nar priority conflict.

That's what I see in it, anyway. Thanks for sharing it.

Regards,
Emily Care
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John Kim
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« Reply #7 on: November 03, 2003, 05:01:41 PM »

Quote from: Emily Care
  Virtual experience roleplaying, as seen by those who see role-playing as intended to be collaborative story-telling, might look like rampant "my guy would do such-and-such"-ism: ie over-prioritizing narrow verisimilitude of character, over narrative concerns, or pure pawn play, with no consciousness of shared story.

And in like manner, collaborative story-telling roleplaying could end up breaking engagement for someone who looks at the experience as something with external reality (ie that has been created by someone else) that must be experienced via through an avatar that "actually" exists in the game world.  Does sounds like sim vs. nar priority conflict.  

It does sound like what is often categorized as sim/nar conflict in some Forge discussions.   However, my analysis suggests that this is actually  something very different.  Both sides care about "story" and want to create an engaging story, but they disagree about what the story is.  

Take the example of meta-game mechanics, like Theatrix's Plot Points.  To someone with a view of Virtual Experience, Theatrix play may seem like a post-modern work like The Last Action Hero, since the text directly refers to its own plot.  It's like having a puppet play without a screen to hide the puppeteers -- the puppeteers themselves become part of the performance, not just the puppets.  

Conversely, to someone with the view of Collaborative Storytelling, play without meta-game mechanics may seem to simply ignore story structure and quality.  They don't consider these mechanics to be a part of the story, even though they are a visible part of the experience.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #8 on: November 04, 2003, 09:06:34 AM »

Very cool. I now feel that it's safe to go back in the water to discuss story.

Mike
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fusangite
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« Reply #9 on: November 06, 2003, 06:55:51 PM »

Well, here is my first post on this board...

I'm impressed by the quality of the essay. I agree that this is a legitimate twofold division of gaming. There are, after all, many ways to divide and categorize the experience.

Buying your model, though, I have some pretty immediate visceral reactions. The "virtual experience" approach strikes me more as a pathology than as a style of play. I cannot imagine actually wanting to run or participate in a game in which boundaries between players and their characters are blurred because I cannot really imagining this producing a healthy social dynamic. Am I out to lunch here or do people actually find that "virtual experience" play can function without devolving into interpersonal ugliness?
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John Kim
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« Reply #10 on: November 06, 2003, 11:20:14 PM »

Quote from: fusangite
I'm impressed by the quality of the essay. I agree that this is a legitimate twofold division of gaming. There are, after all, many ways to divide and categorize the experience.

Buying your model, though, I have some pretty immediate visceral reactions. The "virtual experience" approach strikes me more as a pathology than as a style of play. I cannot imagine actually wanting to run or participate in a game in which boundaries between players and their characters are blurred because I cannot really imagining this producing a healthy social dynamic. Am I out to lunch here or do people actually find that "virtual experience" play can function without devolving into interpersonal ugliness?

First of all, welcome to The Forge!  

I'm not really sure what sort of pathological behavior you are imagining.  Personally, I don't see it as any more pathological than other forms of narrative which try to engage the audience.  Take the example of a movie car chase.  Here the director isn't just trying to document for the audience what happens.  He is trying to make the audience feel excited, by using cuts, camera angles, music, and other film elements.  You have a point that this is interpersonally strange.  The director is trying to manipulate the audience, trying to blur the line between them and the character that they identify with -- to the point that they may feel exhilarated even though nothing is really happening to them.  

The same thing may apply to an RPG.  A player in a fight scene might try to not only document what happens to her character, but also to make it feel exciting for the other participants.  This means that she is trying to manipulate them.  In the view of Virtual Experience, this manipulation potentially extends to more than just declared game statements (i.e. shared play).  Participants might keep secrets from each other or lie for affect.  The GM might, say, call for a roll to increase tension even though there is no real danger -- just to manipulate the players.  

You're right that there are ramifications to this.  On the other hand, I don't think that they need to turn into interpersonal ugliness.  It is perfectly possible to identify during a game, but afterwards be able to distinguish it as just a game -- just as one might feel excited during a film even though afterwards one knows it was just an illusion.  This blurring of real person and character is behind most, if not all, traditional narratives.  That said, it is valid to object to it.  For example, Roland Barthes (a very influential figure in modern narrative theory) decries it as dishonest and authoritarian.   Also, the closer dynamics of RPGs might have deeper ramifications than static narrative.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: November 07, 2003, 08:00:34 AM »

Hello,

Actually, fusangite's comment illustrates something important, which has been discussed before (similarities of highly committed Simulationist play to clinical psychological conditions), and he/she admits that it's a visceral reaction. As such, it's not really a point of debate at all. "That's your visceral reaction? How interesting," is about as far as the discussion can go.

Best,
Ron
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fusangite
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« Reply #12 on: November 08, 2003, 12:02:12 AM »

John Kim says,

Quote
You're right that there are ramifications to this.  On the other hand, I don't think that they need to turn into interpersonal ugliness.  It is perfectly possible to identify during a game, but afterwards be able to distinguish it as just a game -- just as one might feel excited during a film even though afterwards one knows it was just an illusion.  This blurring of real person and character is behind most, if not all, traditional narratives.  That said, it is valid to object to it.  For example, Roland Barthes (a very influential figure in modern narrative theory) decries it as dishonest and authoritarian.   Also, the closer dynamics of RPGs might have deeper ramifications than static narrative.


I knew Barthes was lurking close by!

I guess I have a problem with the film analogy because (a) the individual did not create the character (b) the individual did not invest components of the self in the character and (c) the character does not have a continuing existence in time contingent upon its creator. I would agree that what I am talking about is a difference of degree but it seems an enormous one.

I accept that, from a theoretical standpoint, virtual experience need not create uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics. I guess my question is, how often does it create this discomfort?

By the way, I'm really happy with the welcome I've been receiving around here.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
John Kim
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« Reply #13 on: November 08, 2003, 10:17:18 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
  Actually, fusangite's comment illustrates something important, which has been discussed before (similarities of highly committed Simulationist play to clinical psychological conditions), and he/she admits that it's a visceral reaction. As such, it's not really a point of debate at all. "That's your visceral reaction? How interesting," is about as far as the discussion can go.  

I'm curious about the earlier discussion.  Can anyone provide pointers?  It's interesting also that Virtual Experience (the narrative paradigm) and Simulationism (the GNS mode) excite similar reactions.  Their strict definitions are quite different -- even at odds.  Virtual Experience is a view of what story is.  To the extent that it is important, it implies that the person sees play as a narrative and is trying to craft that narrative.  GNS Simulationism is defined by exploration.  

I think these two are associated in people's minds, but I think it is a false association -- just like associating GNS Sim with Actor stance and GNS Nar with Director stance, which from what I've seen is very common.  

Quote from: fusangite
  I guess I have a problem with the film analogy because (a) the individual did not create the character (b) the individual did not invest components of the self in the character and (c) the character does not have a continuing existence in time contingent upon its creator. I would agree that what I am talking about is a difference of degree but it seems an enormous one.

I accept that, from a theoretical standpoint, virtual experience need not create uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics. I guess my question is, how often does it create this discomfort?  

Hard to say.  We'd need more people to understand the terminology and give their thoughts.  Personally, I'd still like to know better what you mean by discomfort (i.e. real or hypothetical examples).  To my mind, I want to push past "comfort" in my games.  Good stories are ones which are insightful and challenging, not just comfortable ways to pass the time.  

You're right that RPGs have ways of engaging which go beyond movies.  As a parallel for active story-making, consider romances in theater or film.  In practice, character romances (in theater, film, and TV) constantly spill over into real-life romances between the actors.  Like RPG players, the actors are controlling of their characters to some degree.  I consider this blurring to be expected.  The opposite is trying to ensure that the stories have no connection to real life.  While that is possible, I don't consider it particularly desireable.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #14 on: November 08, 2003, 01:02:41 PM »

Hi there,

Quick clarification, John - all role-playing is defined in part by the presence of Exploration. That quality is not sufficient to define Simulationist play.

The threads I'm thinking of, which I'm having a little trouble locating, were I believe mainly contributed to by Clinton. He found too many parallels between certain aspects of Simulationist play and "reality/fantasy" pathologies to ignore. Not everyone agreed.

Best,
Ron
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