I want to talk about the problematic nature of the phrase, “the story” in gamer culture. In my experience I find that many gamers consider themselves in the game for “the story” when in practice they actually mean several different things.
For example, some people simply mean “a series of causal fictional events.” When talking about their play they get very, very excited about the imagery of the game. “Literary” considerations like theme are irrelevant as long as what happened looked or felt cool on the level of pastiche. Talking about me personally this kind of play does nothing for me. Simply having “a causal series of fictional events”, no matter how evocative or imaginatively vivid, is an insufficient definition of “the story” for playing passionately.
For purposes of discussion here, a story consists of a situation that is built from recognizably real world problematic issues of human interaction that eventually resolves in such a way as to make some statement or comment about those issues. That commentary is referred to here as the story’s theme. (For more on this see the Premise/Theme definitions in the “Concepts from Elsewhere” link on the sidebar.)
From here discussion becomes more difficult because we have to stop talking about the result of play and have to start talking about the process of play. When discussing the fictional events of a game after play has occurred a theme, as defined above, might very well be present. The next question to ask is *how* did that theme enter play?
One option is that theme is wholly brought into play via the GM through a variety of techniques. The story might already be over and done with by the time play starts and the PCs are basically in-world audience members discovering this story. A lot of mystery driven games often results in this kind of story. The players uncover clues which slowly reveal to them some interesting story that happened in the past.
Another option is that the PCs might indeed be the protagonists of the story but the GM has already made all of the significant decisions for them up front and uses a variety of carrot and stick or magician’s force techniques to get them to make the “right” decisions. Often this is combined with carefully chosen setups and dice fudging to also guarantee the “right” outcomes.
A third option is that the story might be happening around the PCs. The real protagonists are one or more NPCs doing things in parallel with the PCs who happen to just show up to witness the key pivotal moments of the story. Most often the PCs act as a kind of reoccurring side-kick or proxy for the real protagonist.
Sometimes when a player says he makes decisions for “the story” he is either one of these front loading GMs or a player who doesn’t mind being complicit in such a GM’s game. He willfully follows the GMs cues and skirts rules to help the GM foster the situations and outcomes he wants. Personally, I pass no judgment on such play. I just wish more people were honest with themselves about what is really going on procedurally.
On the other hand, there exists a flip side to GM front loading. There is a kind of play which amounts to player side front loading of theme. Sometimes when a player says he makes decisions for “the story” he means that he is making decisions based on his assumptions of how the story “should go” which might very well include engineering his own character’s failure at key pivotal moments. A hallmark of these players is excitement at character creation for what WILL happen to the character up to and including that character’s expected final outcome.
A key tell-tale behavior is either the culling of or enthusiasm over creative input based on pre-play expectations of what “should” happen based on any number of things including genre tropes, assumed story structure and character role in the developing fiction. Play often involves ignoring or fudging mechanics to support this culling or enthusiasm. “No, that wouldn’t happen because…”
“…that’s not very noir.”
“…this is the scene where my character should lose his girlfriend.”
“…he’s a ruthless space pirate and wouldn’t do that.”
“…that’s not how the <fandom>verse works.”
It should be clear that these thematic front-loading techniques are antithetical to playing passionately. Playing passionately is about investing in the here and now situation at hand and acting upon it based on your immediate feelings and judgment. Theme is the result of the processes of play itself…not delivered or controlled by any one person, ever. It does not even include the idea of passing around the control of theme. I often describe play as a formula:
Player A’s Fictional Input + Player B’s Fictional Input + System Process = Unpredictable and Uncontrollable Outcome C.
Outcome C then becomes the new here and now situation that the players evaluate and judge. That new judgment is what informs their next fictional input. When the game is over and we step back from the table and reflect on the final outcome C, then and ONLY then can the theme be evaluated. The challenge for game designers interested in fostering this play effectively is to insure that the processes of play do not yield trivial, uninteresting, predictable or easily controllable results.
It’s a dance between being an audience and author. We author up until a point of uncertainty and the procedures of the game allow us to watch as audience the outcome unfolds. From that we make new decisions as authors. That is how playing passionately creates a story.