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Author Topic: Brain damage  (Read 179491 times)

Posts: 1351

« Reply #30 on: February 12, 2006, 12:18:14 PM »

Wow, that was more unsettling, personally, than I was expecting.  Whenever, you start bringing in your Biology background into your gaming observations I'm never quite sure what to make of it.  I certainly agree with your data (observed bevhaviors) and the corrolations with other behaviors.  Whether that's a form of brain/mind damage to the extent you imply -- well, it strikes me as something you're not interested in debating and frankly, since that technical feature isn't the overall point, neither am I.

However, what I'm drawn to is the things you list as features of story impairment.  The thing is, I see LOTS of sub-groups exhibiting those symptoms.  I'm thinking about non-gaming geeks who spend hours meticulously arguing over technical details of sci-fi films and seem unable to enjoy the *story* because they couldn't buy into some minutia of the presentation.  I'm thinking of fan fiction authors who can't tell the difference between their own work and genuine article or who insist that their absurd extention of source material events is really there in the core text.  I'm also thinking of the academics who insist on writing article after article on how "Frankenstein" is really all about lesbianism (yes, this exists).

Now, perhaps this is out of the scope.  Certainly, no where do you assert that dysfunctional "story" gaming is the ONLY way to become story impaired, but I do see the symptoms you describe in a lot more people than than just the broken gamers.


Posts: 236

« Reply #31 on: February 12, 2006, 01:19:06 PM »


I concur that some roleplaying produces the "story-blind" pathology, where people lose the ability to understand what goes into a story. But that is not the only pathology involved in this. By struggling to escape or strenuously avoid story-blindness, you risk becoming "story-obssessed", holding that stories are an end in themselves. This pathology already causes intra-narr dysfunction, and promises to only get worse.

Always remember, stories are means. We have to find the ends on our own.

  - Mendel Schmiedekamp
Lisa Padol

Posts: 365

« Reply #32 on: February 12, 2006, 01:44:45 PM »

If people really are associating the "second wave" of roleplaying with storytelling, that age-old human activity, surely it's because they don't have any other storytelling in their life.  If most roleplayers attended the National Storytelling Festival or similar events as often as GenCon or Origins, you'd think they'd have a much broader perspective on storytelling as an activity, since they would realize that the kinds of stories that roleplaying has traditionally engendered, as well as the ways in which these stories are told or presented, is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling.

Or Story Swap -- I think there's a group in the Boston area. I've been to at least one SCA story swap there, and at Pennsic, Enchanted Grounds is a good place to listen and to practice. Some filk circles at cons are set up to allow stories as well.

Reading's also useful. Every year, I'm reading and voting for the Mythopoeic Society's Adult Fantasy Award. Forced, I say, forced to read a list of books that are trying to tell the kinds of stories I like to read. (Well, mostly -- some are telling verry different stories, and the variation in signal is useful. That's how I read Nalo Hopkinson.)


Posts: 802

« Reply #33 on: February 12, 2006, 05:53:48 PM »


I noted that.  I still don't agree. 

I'll assume that you're interested in a dialog on this point, and proceed accordingly.

-Levi, you're in over your head, bro.  Reread what Ron wrote and think on them for a while.  A long while.  And no, he's not interested in dialogue at this point.  And I'd rather ya not reply to this particular post either.  It won't help.

-Ron, thanks for making your point clear.  I've been wanting to communicate to my gaming group for a while now why I don't enjoy the same sorts of games they do anymore.  You've helped me out a great deal.  'Preciate it.



John Kim

Posts: 1805

« Reply #34 on: February 12, 2006, 10:44:24 PM »

Early role-playing history includes a vast diversity of play-approaches and game design. Commercially, it was canalized toward specific forms of Gamist play in the late 1970s, and that effect had a big impact on role-players of approximately my age (41), and a little younger. However, especially if we (this age group) didn't participate in role-playing much between the late 1980s and late 1990s, it's hard for us to understand what happened to the new wave-fronts. The commercial canalization was absolutely overwhelming, dropping the diversity of published game design to practically none. Gamist play and its troublesome relationship with other agendas is simply not the issue that drove the values-issues in role-playing culture during that time. Yes, it's hard to buy that, because to us, "good role-playing" was predicated on nothing but how one dealt with Gamist play (yes, no, how much, in what way, etc).

Instead, starting with the college crowd in the late 1980s, hitting the next wave of high-schoolers in the early 1990s, and peaking in the middle-late 1990s, the primary issue was as I've described above, this whole "story" thing, and again, dividing and re-coalescing and agonizing over (as I say above) "just say it, the dice don't matter," vs. gutting it out with the dice and saying it anyway. Both of which ultimately rely on Force for anything resembling story to emerge.

In many ways, the older bunch, especially a specific subset of RuneQuest and Champions players, understand how stories can emerge through actual decisions and actions during play better than the younger bunch. Not that it was common back then, but at least it was a matter of groping in the dark rather than gouging out one's eyes as a starting point. (Hey, John Kim, I think this is where you and I, for all our disagreements, do connect and recognize one another.)

Ah.  Well, I don't agree with the "brain damage" metaphor -- but I agree that the early nineties was a low point in the history of published RPG design, where a lot of diversity dropped away and most new games channeled into imitations of Vampire and Shadowrun.  You can also see very clearly the rise of published adventures which are written as linear stories.  Torg and Deadlands in particular have adventures which are written as a strict sequence of specific scenes, but White Wolf has their share of them.  I'm 36 now (close to you), but I wasn't particularly absent from gaming during this time.  For example, from 1991 to 1993 I was involved with the Columbia University Games Club which had various undergrads and a few grad students.  After that I was playing more with friends rather than clubs or conventions, but I was active on the rec.games.frp.* newsgroups and so heard a lot about other people's play. 

But while I agree with some points, I still think that your original post is fucked up.  I have three objections:

1) You write from a high horse of "story" as a good thing, but in my opinion it was failed pretensions to "storytelling" that caused the whole mess.  It's exactly the games which held up a structured notion of story which were the worst cases, while the non-linear-story games held their own.  White Wolf brought in themes, flashback, and so forth as suggestions.  Torg advocated adventures with scenes structured into acts progressing towards dramatic climax.  In your conclusion, you write: "the Sorcerer rules work, but the gamer brain (well, the "story-oriented" variety) does not".  I appreciate the parenthetical comment, but by failing to explicitly recognize non-linear-story games in the rest of the posts, you are implicitly associating them. 

2) The "brain damage" metaphor implies something drastic and uncommon.  While bad RPG design is a bad influence on social relations, it's much less so than, say, television (in my opinion).  It's not like the normal state of human relations is all love, roses, excellent authorship, and good times.  Thus, citing that you've seen dysfunction in gaming groups is not proof of some extraordinary state.  People are fucked up.  When I look at, say, the local Parent-Teachers Association (i.e. the other PTA ;-), I see a seething mass of disagreements and dysfunction.  My grad student in my post-doc was regularly covered in bruises from his soccer games, which were fucking vicious. 

3) I also don't think that storytelling is particularly natural.  That is, take the average schmoe off the street, and they don't have a good appreciation of story structure.  They can't tell the difference between hopping over a fence and conflict.  They won't write good stories.  Maybe our experiences just differ here.  Story-oriented gamers may have specific blocks regarding playing narrational RPGs, but outside of RPGs I don't find them any different than the average. 

- John

Posts: 1741

« Reply #35 on: February 13, 2006, 03:28:22 AM »

Further, I find the idea of framing this difficulty as "brain damage" to be unhelpful and potentially even forming of negative habits all of it's own - Self-deprecation that doesn't lead to positive change is useless, and condescension at any level, which is a natural outgrowth of framing things in such a fashion, whether or not it's your intent, actively retards any process of growth and learning.

That's my position on it.

If nothing else, I emphatically agree with this (I have a teacher friend who is certain her students have been brain damaged by cell phones--not through radiation but by reinforcing ADD-style behaviors. Year after year her sample-group--her students--proves her conclusions!) I'll go one step more: I think the kind of storytelling that is done with something like, say, Champions, produces a fundamentally different product than other forms of traditional storytelling (and even other forms of collaberative storytelling).

I have a family of people who attend story-telling conferences and productions. Some of them game. Whatever the impact from gaming is, it hasn't prevented them from taking home prizes.


JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
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Matt Snyder

Posts: 1380

« Reply #36 on: February 13, 2006, 09:11:34 AM »

Intense, long-term tensions based on romantic partners who do not support one participant's inclusion in the group; usually accompanied by an increase of dishonesty among former friends

Ron, can you further explain this, perhaps with a concrete example? I’m not quite sure I'm getting it, and I definitely want to make certain I understand this one for my own personal experience, as you probably can guess.

Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #37 on: February 13, 2006, 09:53:03 AM »

Hi Matt,

Um, since you were actually the most recent example I had in mind when I typed that, I decided not to be more specific. I guess in order to stay within the range of public decency, I have to say, "Disclose as you see fit," because you're exhibit A, if you want to be.

Heh. Public decency. Like that's any sort of standard people seem to be willing to spot me ...

Marco & John, thanks for posting here; you guys don't often drop into the lair, and actually I think we might do better in it, by and large. My responses ...

1. John, I think we fundamentally disagree about Joe Schmoe and stories. It has a lot to do with asking specific questions of people. I agree that most people aren't spontaneously going to give you Premise/Conflict, etc, but with non-jargony, basic questions, they pump'em out without a problem - even saying "of course" and other "this is obvious" signals.

However, arguing about that doesn't make sense anyway. Your #3 comment wasn't really an objection, but rather logging a difference of perspective and perception. We can see where each other is coming from, at least. We merely disagree. No rhetorical problem seems to be at fault.

I don't see your #2 comment as on point. I'm talking about a specific kind of impairment (or symptom or whatever you like). I'm not talking about a generalized unpleasantness of any kind, including any and all "meanness," but a highly characteristic profile, with very specific features. Just 'cause other human activities have their own features of ruthlessness and so on, or even that other sorts of unpleasantness might show up in role-playing, doesn't have anything to do with what I'm saying.

Regarding your #1 point, I think you're supporting my point rather than refuting it ... my point is that "story" is an awesome thing, but that so-called "storytelling" as presented/sold in the games I'm talking about has nothing to do with any such thing. In other words, yes, it was failed pretensions at storytelling that caused the problem. I'm suggesting that instead of failed pretensions at the thing, we do the thing, period. Because, in my view, that's what a lot of people came looking for.

2. Marco and Levi, as a general thing, it always puzzles me when you or anyone objects to me saying X, because it might hurt others who are not you. There's this protective thing going on in your responses, Levi, and it's shown up in posts of yours, Marco, from a few years ago, which I just don't get. "Oh, it might hurt others, the way you said it!" Really? The children? The pets? The starving masses? People who need you to protect them?

I don't see things that way. I don't consider myself powerful enough for my words to reeeeeach out and hurt people, especially some unspecified mass of them, somewhere. I really can't imagine being concerned with the impact of my points except with those who are experiencing the impact.

3. Marco, you might be overlooking the point that I'm not talking about "gamers" and "gaming," I'm talking about a very specific point-of-attraction to role-playing, and a very specific procedural-aesthetic for role-playing which betrays it. I guess also, I have no idea what you're talking about the types-of-storytelling point, or how that point goes further than some other point. So after your initial sentence agreeing with Levi, I'm not gettin' your post at all.


Posts: 215

« Reply #38 on: February 13, 2006, 09:53:39 AM »


Your primary point is I believe this. to selectively quote you.

Routine human capacity for "understanding, enjoying, and creating stories" is damaged ... by repeated "storytelling role-playing"

I have to agree this is a locical conclusion to your GNS modelling essays. I suspect you may be overstretching the usage of the model, and if you reflect on your own model this would make an interesting story premise.

My problem with the theory is that the kind of observed behaviour that best supports the theory:

- The person cannot summarize any story in simple four-point structure (conflict, rising action, climax, conclusion) - they typically hare off into philosophical or technical interpretations, or remain stuck in narrating the first ten minutes of the story in detail

Is observable in many walks of life (despite your assertion that a subset of roleplayers are somehow unique), and is expressed in many ways in our culture.

Roleplayers are just one subculture that has been encouraged to over-analyse and over complicate as a result of positive feedback from peers. Its no wonder that when asked to simply summarise a film they have difficulty, and so on this point we agree. But, I would assert that many other subcultures have the same problem the most similar being related subcultures that have no roleplaying experience but still have a version of this feedback loop (Sci-fi, horror or fantasy fans).

For instance many academics get sniffy when they here the old cliche that they lack "common sense", but often this is not merely the uneducated attempting to snipe back, they are sometimes seeing through the over intellectualised stance that academics are encouraged to take within their sub-culture on otherwise simple issues.

I would highlight as an example that breed of film reviewer who seems to have forgotten that films can be fun or silly, and still be artistically valid or even profound.

I have deliberately left my primary concern with your theory until last: Your Brain Damage metaphor is unhelpful.

There are a number of obvious reasons for this, and I am sure you consciously decided to ignore them, but making controversial statements to notch up the emotional response for the reader is best left to fiction.

Your "If someone wants to take issue ... I just shrug" is just self encouraging pre-emptive behaviour, you knew right from the start that people would take issue.

Lets try and look at the very real phenomenon you are detailing with a little dispassion. I suggest the term Mental-Block.


Posts: 92

« Reply #39 on: February 13, 2006, 10:10:26 AM »

John Kim – Your point #3 doesn’t necessarily conflict with Ron’s original post:

I'm going to start with a claim that a human being can routinely understand, enjoy, and (with some practice) create stories.

Understanding and enjoying stories doesn’t mean appreciating story structure. And most Joe Shmoe’s need some practice to begin writing stories.

Wow…great post; glad I read it!

I’d like to look at Darren Hill’s idea and expand on it: that perhaps certain people are wired in a particular fashion. Maybe there is the possibility of “damage” to developing minds, but couldn’t some minds be more susceptible to damage than others?

I’m 32 and got into Vampire/WW towards the end of high school. Previously I’d played a lot of AD&D (not 2nd edition). My prior gaming group had been drifting our games to create stories, and the WW game system seemed to me as a breakthrough at the time…saying that story was important and mattered. Plus it seemed to give validity to what was otherwise a money-suck/time-suck hobby (“you are discovering something about yourselves and characters through the telling of stories”).

But why did I get into gaming in the first place? Escapism, really. A kid with an overactive imagination and too much brain power that had friends of a similar temperament. I played some sports in school, and had friends with whom I interacted socially even before discovering RPGs. But I wanted more…I wanted to BE a character in a story (name any fantasy character you can think of), and yet I wanted to have rules and game structure, a refereed game rather than a free-for-all. I didn’t know anything about story structure, or how to create a good story, but I wanted to enjoy myself in a story with magical powers and fantastic adventures. Perhaps I should have started writing instead of gaming, but I was at an age where I still wanted to interact with peers in play, rather than the voices in my head.

Enter WW games…and I start meeting people in college that are similarly interested in telling their own stories (about themselves) and want a structured setting in which to do this. I also meet players who simply want to blow things up…that don’t give a shit about telling stories or describing character, they want a video game about werewolves and there isn’t one, so they turn to an RPG. Most players I’ve met in the last fifteen years have been this type:

-   escapists, they want to love themselves in a game(whether an RPG or video game)
-   imaginative (if they wanted a set structure they’d play a video game; they play RPGs because “anything is possible,” i.e. RPGs appear more open-ended, though defined by genre)
-   they want structure, rules, paremeters. They want a referee that officiates, keeps things “fair”

Here’s the point: these folks (including me, I am sad to say) are still “story-ish” – we want to create stories all right, but we are SELFISH storytellers. Some fall into the Typhoid Mary or Prima Donna syndromes, but even if they are not so over-the-top to “wreck the game,” their number one concern is still “what happens to me/my character,” not “what happens to the story.”

The sorcerer games I’ve read in the posts here describe a level of maturity in play that I have not found in gaming…table-top or on-line…since I was 13, playing drifted AD&D. But even in those old games, there was a lot ego attachment to characters; they were the protagonists of the story after all.

But again, to the point: what does a person with this kind of inclination do, besides gravitate to these dysfunctional “story-ish” games? I’m not so sure I was damaged in the head…I think I began with a particular type of damage and it became exacerbated with poorly constructed RPGs, and the failure to find satisfaction in gaming (c.f. the bitterest role-player in the world; ha!).

My first stories were read to me from a book by my mother while too young to read. My style of telling stories is to tell stories…me tell you. They come from my ego. They are not shared. They are not collaborative, except in only the barest way (give me some input to which I can react, so that I don’t have to do all the work myself…I want a dialogue, but I want to control the direction of the conversation).

I agree there is brain damage in most players. I think the brain damage is the reason many game in the first place. Telling stories is an art form. Telling stories with true collaboration is tricky, and requires some un-damaged brains working together. Otherwise, egos get in the way of the story and the group splits…kind of like a musical band breaking up.

One more thing: I don’t believe this topic is about self-deprecation, but about bringing to awareness an issue that prevents full enjoyment of a hobby; yet another reason behind dysfunctional play. Nothing wrong with posting to a board…it invites open discussion from the “Forge Brain Trust.”  : )

Levi Kornelsen

Posts: 210

« Reply #40 on: February 13, 2006, 10:17:35 AM »

There's this protective thing going on in your responses, Levi, and it's shown up in posts of yours, Marco, from a few years ago, which I just don't get. "Oh, it might hurt others, the way you said it!" Really? The children? The pets? The starving masses? People who need you to protect them?

I don't see things that way. I don't consider myself powerful enough for my words to reeeeeach out and hurt people, especially some unspecified mass of them, somewhere. I really can't imagine being concerned with the impact of my points except with those who are experiencing the impact.

I will explain my stance on that.

It is my firm belief that every single act of communication has the potential to affect others.  It can affect them in ways that they carry on with the subject matter, and the way that they communicate with others about it.  It can flavour perceptions.  You are powerful enough that what you say can affect others in this way.  We all are; everyone is.  Every time we speak.  Every time we write.

The person communicating and the person recieving the communication share responsibility for what takes place in the act.  I don't consider myself protective.  I try to be responsible, by my own lights, and believe that it would be good if others were, too.

You don't share that view.  Given that, I don't think I have any more that I can usefully bring to this conversation.  If I'm incorrect in that, please correct me.  Otherwise, thanks for bearing with me.
Matt Snyder

Posts: 1380

« Reply #41 on: February 13, 2006, 10:51:56 AM »

Um, since you were actually the most recent example I had in mind when I typed that, I decided not to be more specific. I guess in order to stay within the range of public decency, I have to say, "Disclose as you see fit," because you're exhibit A, if you want to be.

Understood. Concrete example indeed!

My only comment right now is that I haven't been able to date to put that situation into context as it relates to my role-playing hobby especially well. I believe I have a solid grasp of the larger, more personal issues, but thinking of it in this new light is instructive.

Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra
Walt Freitag

Posts: 1039

« Reply #42 on: February 13, 2006, 11:22:36 AM »

Since this apparently isn't a debate anyway, I'm just going to post my own very different -- but not at all contradictory -- observations. My perspective: I'm half a decade older than Ron. I may very well be one of the older gamers he referred to, who avoided the damage. In any event, I believe I did avoid the damage. Or at least, that particular type of damage. I started playing D&D in my junior year of high school (early 78) and founded a role playing game club (and began my first GMing) in my freshman year in college (late 79).

At the outset, role playing and dungeon crawling were pretty much synonymous. I've posted elsewhere in defense of dungeon crawls, about how dungeon crawling is uniquely functional in ways that quickly get lost when the focus shifts to adventures built around "stories." Also, in those days, the do-it-yourself spirit concerning rule systems was still predominant (though it went from a necessity to an option with the publication of the AD&D 1e hardcovers), and was still to some degree being actively encouraged by TSR and game-accessories publishers (though that changed completely, very soon thereafter). (The DIY spirit that I'm referring to is not the "golden rule" as applied in forceful play; it's more like "agree to your own rules and stick to them.") The official modules were predominantly dungon maps that deliberately avoided linearity. Story was limited mostly to frame story (how the PCs learn about the dungeon, mostly), easy to modify or ignore. Typical play aids also included catalogs of "things to put in your dungeon" such as All The World's Monsters, Grimtooth's Traps, and articles in the Wild Hunt APA and Dragon magazine along the lines of "20 new magic potions." Also stuff that no one could figure out what it was good for, such as "dungeon geomorphs" (sheets covered with unlabeld dungeon floor plans)

What I'm building up to is this: as unbelievable as it seems, and as clueless as it might make me look -- I played D&D for a year before any notion that role playing had anything to do with stories or storytelling crossed my mind.

And when that notion did occur to me (in 79, still in high school), I remember it vividly as a flash of insight, a huge intellectual leap that none of the people I'd played with had yet made. I began imagining a story-oriented game system (which I cleverly named "Characters & Conflicts") and thought it would make me rich and famous. From all of this you might reasonably assume that I was dim. But "story" just wasn't in the role playing culture then, at least not in the tiny portion of it that I'd been exposed to. I had to reach out quite far to grasp for it, though many other people must have already been there well before that time.

In retrospect, I'm sure my gaming friends and I had an easier time finding functional story-oriented play by extrapolating the limited source material of dungeon crawling and homebrewed AD&D than later gamers had trying to sift it out of the mountain of published misinformation and rubbish. My solution was a particular no-myth technique (though I didn't have that term to call it by, of course), based on my eliciting and picking up subtle clues from the players as to how they wanted the conflicts to develop around their characters. This ran counter to most of the advice dispensed in all the how-to-play sources, the old ones as well as the newer ones. (Going against that advice didn't seem odd, though, because from my point of view I was trying to do something "different from regular role playing" -- create stories through play -- so it made sense to me that I'd need different techniques.) I never had to deal with being specifically told "here is how to create stories through play" using techniques that wouldn't actually work.

When the bad advice did start coming out, I just igonred it. "Lather, rinse, repeat" says the instructions on the shampoo bottle, but no one really "repeats," do they? Everyone knows that the "repeat" part is just a way to try to sell you twice as much shampoo -- and furthermore, if you really followed it literally, you would end up shampooing over and over again forever. So, the whole phenomenon that Ron reports -- essentially, that there were and are large numbers of people out there stuck in an endless "repeat" loop because their shampoo bottles say so -- I missed it. There were a few clues: people I've met at gaming conventions; people who signed up for my LARP events requesting Elric-clone shadowy aloof all-powerful characters and couldn't seem to understand why in a LARP, where nothing happens except social interactions between PCs, such characters would be not only inappropriate but impossible to play; crowds of role players in game stores that had nothing in common, techniques-wise, with me or my role playing friends; and later, AP accounts at the Forge. Otherwise I assumed that role playing consumers were happy doing what they were doing.

However, I did see the mass of published material as, at the very least, useless to me. I did come to the Forge and write, in one of my earliest posts: "Many GMs including me regard the content of a typical sourcebook to be more like [what should be] the output of play than what should be the input... In other words, to put it crudely (though not as crudely as I'm tempted to): publishers are selling us waste product and telling us it's fuel."

I wasn't being completely honest about the "...selling us..." part, because I never bought the stuff myself. But in the cruder words I didn't choose to use then, I said they're publishing shit and telling us it's food. I originally meant this specifically in the context of my own particular techniques and theories of play. As far as I knew, masses of other players out there could be thriving on the stuff. But Ron is now standing up and saying, essentially, that shit is shit, period, and a steady diet of shit not only has undesirable effects on the hobby -- which he's been saying for years now -- but undesirable real-world effects as well. Effects that he has observed first-hand. That merits serious consideration.

"Brain damage?" Inflammatory rhetorical noise. To me brain damage is something you can see on a CAT scan. (My twin brother's problems, which can easily be seen on a CAT scan image from across the room, have less to do with story proficiency and more to do with counting to 20, reading at a first grade level, and keeping his balance while walking.) Something appears to be going on that I might call cognitive maladaptation (though that may be too imprecise a term for a bio prof). However, the null hypothesis must also be considered: what evidence is there that the problem isn't a pre-existing condition that the role playing hobby selects for?

- Walt

Wandering in the diasporosphere

Posts: 258

« Reply #43 on: February 13, 2006, 12:03:20 PM »

Ron, if I read you right, you're explicitly disclaiming the idea that most non-gamers can make good stories untrained, which some people seem to read you as saying. Your claim is narrower - that you can prompt stories out of them in a way that you can't do with "broken nar" gamers, right? IOW, if you ask certain questions in order about a book, play or even anecdote, their responses will fill out the four-act structure of motivated, thematic action we call story, right? And that in your experience, broken nar gamers can't do this, even with prompting? Ask them to "re-tell" Die Hard (a fave of yours, IIRC) or Lord of the Rings or What I Did at the Beach - or what happened in their most recent campaign, and they can't retell it in "story shape," as briefly defined *passim*?



Unqualified Offerings - Looking Sideways at Your World
20' x 20' Room - Because Roleplaying Games Are Interesting
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 336

aka Sean

« Reply #44 on: February 13, 2006, 12:06:47 PM »

Um, guys? The question about how many people can just naturally tell stories, 'get' story structure, have stories elicited from them, etc. is an empirical question. Ron's experience is that the basics are pretty commonly graspable; others have divergent experiences. Is Ron too optimistic about his students' learning abilities? Are John, Marco, and Levi too exposed to people who just can't do it, or demanding too high a level of ability to count such people as 'competent'? Are some or all of those people working with too limited or skewed a sample? Who knows? We can't settle that on a messageboard by talking, alas.

The question about whether mental blocks are brain damage is a very complicated question bringing in questions from biology, psychology, philosophy, and probably other disciplines. Again, no amount of arguing is going to settle it here, because even though there are members of all three academic professions on the Forge, we're not going to settle the brain-mind question to everyone's satisfaction on an RPG board. It may not be settled during any of our lifetimes, in fact. So we're left with the question: does Ron's rhetorical choice succeed by shocking people into seeing what's going on, or fail by alienating and pissing off people who otherwise would have got something useful out of what he was saying? And how much does it matter what some imaginary neutral audience would derive from the words anyway? (Levi, I guess you've already answered that for you, and that's cool - I'm more with Ron though.Still this does point to the fundamental ambiguity between public pronouncements and private conversation that makes internet message board conversation difficult in certain ways.)

So with all the stuff we can't argue about usefully stripped away, what's left? When you think about mainstream RPG production in terms of playstyle, there have been two big waves so far. The first wave was the late seventies wave with AD&D1, where Gygax, in conjuction with the Blumes and Schick and the tournament scene in general, decided to use their considerable share of the industry to focus D&D, TSR, and thereby a certain amount of play more generally around (a) a consistent ruleset and (b) gamist play in general. If you were a certain kind of gamist you were served OK by this, otherwise you were screwed; if like me you were part of the earlier, more incoherent/free-wheeling/locally CA-adapted D&D scene, you read Gygax's new Dragon editorials with bitter tears as the man you looked up to as the creator of your game started telling you you were playing it wrong. But that's all a long time ago now and peripheral to Ron's main point here.

The second wave, as Ron identifies correctly in my view, begins with certain applications of AD&D1 (Dragonlance) and Champions and got heavily enshrined in a lot of AD&D2 and Vampire/White Wolf games (and on through the history John Kim talks about in his last post) - this is the 'storytelling' style that he's talking about. Surely there are some people who enjoy playing this way and some people who play this way but don't get the 'brain damage', they just assume 'that's what roleplaying is', maybe they're friends with the GM and like being pawns in his story every week or two while they do their own thing at other times, I don't know.  That's another claim that we can't really assess because it's big and empirical, other than to say that we all know that there are people and games out there like Ron's talking about, even if we may know some who aren't too.  

But whatever. It seems undeniable there's a big something (call it 'Narrativism', 'story', whatever) that a lot of people want, that these games claim to provide, and that they then betray through the procedures of play they encourage and support.

I know I'd rather not play at all than play in one of those games. That's what I did in grad school: the local game groups were playing extremely railroaded, follow-the-GM's-story Ars Magica and Vampire and Werewolf and Champions; I tried to sit in on a half-dozen sessions but couldn't take it, I didn't have time to GM, the AD&D guys were OK but just doing their monster-bashing thing, so I said fuck it and went and played chess for five years instead.

So anyway, Ron seems to me to have both the problem and the history of the problem right. If you don't like the way he expresses it, OK, I don't always like the way he expresses things either. I learned to PM him to ask what he means in such cases. Maybe he's exaggerating the empirical scope of the problem too, though I know for a fucking fact that what he's talking about is not extremely rare in the current gaming population, and that it didn't just come out of the blue, it has causes, which I think he's right about both at the level of psychology (biological or otherwise) and game publishing history. Does anyone want to dispute that? Because that's the only thing it seems to me we have a prayer of settling in this thread one way or the other; the rest of it requires social science that none of us really have the time or funding to conduct properly.

Oh, and here's a follow up question: assuming Ron's even partly right, what do you do about it? My call: make games that really satisfy that 'story itch' and don't help train people to the behaviors Ron identifies. Which, come to think of it, there are a certain number of people doing right here on the Forge, though there are certainly others to be found elsewhere as well. Hmmm......

P.S. Walt, though my precise history varies in certain ways, my path to story in RPGs in the late seventies/early eighties was astonishingly like yours in general. I think Ron's right that there were especially large percentages of Runequest and Champions players who got functional narrativism early on without especially supporting mechanics (though a nod to Champions disads is due, that was a big breakthrough even if the implementation varied in quality), relative to other games, but if you look to people like the early Alarums & Excursions contributors in the broader D&D/FRP community of the mid-late seventies, you see other people making the leap very early on too. In some ways the shift to AD&D1 effectively marginalized this, but that's the last war, so I'll leave it be....
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