Archive for December, 2008

Role-Playing And Narrative Structure

Posted in Core Principles on December 30, 2008 by jburneko

In various threads around the internet and in conversations about role-playing I sometimes hear people use the phrase, “but role-playing games aren’t movies or novels.” Often I think this is an overly defensive statement coming from play preferences that aren’t story oriented. However, there lies a bit of truth in it if what you’re talking about is the structural nature of the specific medium.

The game Spione uses the phrase, “content dynamics of fiction” to describe the nature of the communicated narrative. I think that’s an interesting choice of words because it implies that something can have the emotional resonance of a story without the structural rhythm of a film or novel. I think this is an important feature of the medium of role-playing that often doesn’t get discussed and when it gets discussed it is often purely in terms of trying to preserve the structural integrity of the created fiction.

Consider the numerous discussions on the “kinds of” stories you see when talking about genre heavy role-playing. Much of the discussion focuses on insuring that the developing narrative retains that expected shape. You see this a lot with discussions about super-heroes and how to guarantee that the players fail in the beginning but triumph in the end. I think such discussion is counter-productive if what you’re really looking for is the emotional resonance of the superhero struggle.

Take a look at the game “It Was A Mutual Decision,” a game about a couple going through a romantic break up. The entire second “Chapter” of play consists of alternating scenes between the man and woman in which each one faces a pro-offered opportunity that will weaken the relationship. This second “Chapter” can go on for a while. If you were to translate it verbatim into a film or novel it would be terrible from a structural point of view. Even the scenes that would make the final cut would need other scenes written in between them to give them context. During the game the content of what would form the basis for those intermediate scenes gets discussed, but it does not get played.

What the game is doing is creating a kind of creative “trial and error” process to tease out what the group thinks the real priorities of this couple are. The scenes themselves, in the moment of play, are not uninteresting or wasteful but they do not flow in the same kind of structural rhythm you would see in a novel or film. Another game that relies on a similar “trial and error” process is My Life with Master which repeatedly executes the cycle of The Master sending his minions out to do ever increasingly horrible tasks to find the real emotional breaking point of the character (as interpreted by the player). Again, watching that cycle in a film would be tedious but the social conditions of having it happen in a role-playing game keep it fresh and exciting.

In discussions on story in role-playing games I would like to see more focus on that idea of “content dynamics” or as I call it emotional resonance and less focus on the structural flow of “kinds of” stories or the functional roles of “kinds of” characters. I think that by treating role-playing as a unique medium and exploring how to create the emotional resonance of fiction socially without being tied to the structural components of other mediums is fruitful food for thought.