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[Fifth World] Plot arc engines and oral storytelling

Started by jefgodesky, November 22, 2008, 09:13:44 PM

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My goal for The Fifth World involves doing for ecopsychology and deep ecology what Star Trek did for humanism: using fiction to explore a hopeful vision of the future.  In my case, that involves a post-civilized, feral humanity, something in line with some of the ecotopian fiction out there.

I've studied in the past how writing and orality affect the way we think and perceive, so I didn't take it for granted that the traditional story structures came from story itself.  On the contrary, I rather assumed they didn't, that they instead came from the structures of written story specifically.  Since so many biases, misconceptions, and assumptions surround so-called "primitive" life, I realized early on that a straight-forward approach would likely not work.  Instead, I decided I would need to use the emergent properties of the rules to steer players towards a feral, oral, animist, traditional approach.  And for the most part, I think I've succeeded at that better than I really could have hoped for at the outset, but The Fifth World remains in beta, and some problems continue.  High among them this problem of how to push an oral story structure.

I've mentioned before my fascination with Harold Scheub's Story.  He analyzes oral traditions in several African cultures, and identifies the crucial elements of story in these oral traditions.

Story is never simply a cause-and-effect organization of events.  It is that, necessarily, but that is not the reason for its existence.  We have seen that the narrative is not even the first aspect of storytelling that a child learns: patterning is.  To stop with an analysis simply of narrative, and thereby to ignore the more critical aspects of storytelling—emotion, rhythm and pattern, trope—is to dwell on only the most obvious and the simplest aspect of the tradition.  It is true, narrative is inviting because it can be studied in an almost mechanical way.  It is possible, as Propp has demonstrated, to anticipate the organization of events in a story.  The reason for the attractiveness of this one aspect of story is that it can be scientifically analyzed, charted, and graphed.  But in the end, it tells little about story." (Scheub, 1998:47)

Scheub argues (convincingly, I think) that in oral tradition, story has more to do with rhythm than with what we would traditionally call "narrative," or the "cause-and-effect organization of events."  I think this may speak to one crucial distinction between oral tradition and literature.  Usually couched in terms generally derogatory towards oral tradition, orality operates almost like music, seeking rhythm and consistency, glossing over inconsistencies with repetition, whereas the written word invites analysis and structure.  I would put it as orality operating in a social context that seeks harmony and agreement, whereas literacy operates outside of a social context, and thus invites criticism.  But that trend towards analysis creates a distinctly literate tone.  Oral stories set down in writing often seem repetitive and cliche as written stories (read the Illiad again for examples).  But it also means that written stories tend towards more complex structures.  Literacy creates the notion of the singular author, and places an emphasis on the individual creativity of that author, expressed in an original work.  Oral stories play with rhythm and repetition, which tends generally to create storytellers honored for their ability to use the language of the established oral tradition, its images and themes, to express themselves through rhythm and selection.

Reading Scheub reminded me of something Paul Shepard wrote in Nature and Madness: "[Music's] physiological effect is to reduce inner tensions by first making them symbolically manifest, then resolving and unifying them." Melodies played together harmonize. Music brings us into harmony. It allows us first to create a theme for our own divisions by dancing, singing and playing out a specific pattern of our own. As our own singing, dancing and playing harmonize with that of others, we, the singers, dancers and players, synchronize with one another. It creates harmony from discord in more than just the metaphorical sense. Scheub's understanding of story seems similar. We take images instead of notes, using tropes instead of songs, and begin to layer those images one on top of the other, until discordant images harmonize. Stories thus exist to unify the separate, to bring together what we find divided.

Like music, the necessary steps of that give us a set pattern, like the three act structure. We must first introduce the images we mean to reconcile (act one), then the main point of the story of weaving those images together takes place (act two), and then we must finish the work with the final, climatic unity (act three). Just like music must first introduce the themes, then play with the themes, and finally bring those themes together into a conclusion. But this pattern shows you more a by-product of story than the actual function of story, just like music may happen to follow that pattern, but that tells you very little about a piece's real meaning.

To create stories like those found in oral tradition, I first tried a mechanic that divided play into three acts (three rounds of scene-setting).  I used a mechanic of questions, like "Can two men love the same woman?"  In the first act, players got rewards for posing questions (introducing themes), like introducing a love triangle.  In the second act, players got rewards for repeating questions posed in the first act (repeating themes), like introducing an old love affair.  In the third act, players got rewards for answering questions posed in the first act (resolving themes), like bringing the love triangle to a conclusion.  This turned out rather unwieldy.  Since the game has no GM, whether you had successfully posed, repeated or answered a question came down to the other players at the table.  But that meant periodically ripping everyone out of the game to sit back and analyze it like a literary critic.  This does not seem like a very good solution to me, but I do like the idea of having some mechanic that drives play towards this pattern of rhythmic image invocation to create a story like those found in a functional oral tradition.

So, what could I use to incent players to invoke images rhythmically?

Ron Edwards

Hi Jason,

As I see it, you have two options. One is to refine the current structure you've described, using some techniques to bring the literary judgment, to call it that, into later decisions of play. That way there's no need to back off and discuss it; it merely shows up through more visceral and proactive continued input. One current game in design that's pretty far down this route is UnWritten by Alejandro Duarte (see [][][][]), which although it's about as opposite from your feral-human model as one can get, illustrates some of the same design concerns you've mentioned. Alejandro may be willing to share his latest draft with you.

The other option is to experiment with combining certain roles/tasks in ways which are foreign to traditional RPG texts, but have been practiced without acknowledgment since the beginning of the hobby. A lot of us have recently tried to bring these ideas into the rules explicitly. In my game Trollbabe, for instance, one person is always responsible for scenes beginning and ending, but the table is always open for requests for either one. Furthermore, within a scene, anyone can call a conflict. This effectively releases play from all story-structure conventions and instead the group generates its own emergent structure for its own story without any need for reflection or negotiation about it. In my view, it works well because there is no consensus in any of its mechanisms; the distinction between request and how-it-goes is very sharp. In Kagematsu, another game in development by Renee Knipe and Danielle Lewon, one person plays the wandering ronin and everyone else plays women of a village. Scenes begin by the ronin-player announcing where he goes and what he starts to do, but they are always modified and even given agenda by the actions of one or more of the women.

Side point: I'd be interested to know whether you consider the concept of a "scene" to be imposed by medium, or whether you consider it intrinsic to stories.

Also, are you familiar with Universalis? If not, and if you're talking about the processes of rhythmic input as the very medium and "stuff" of play, then I recommend you try it.

Best, Ron