Role-Playing And Narrative Structure

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.

8 Responses to “Role-Playing And Narrative Structure”

  1. mythiccartographer Says:

    Excellent points. Perhaps one of the possible elegant functions of story games comes down to a kind of story sandbox, where players work out where exactly the tensions and breaking points (and ensuing arcs) truthfully fall, by feeling their way through it and giving/receiving curve-balls, rather than just treating it like a math equation that will unfailingly produce a specific kind of story.

  2. Sounds good to me. That desire for System as “story math equation” was pretty much the subject of my previous post about overly processing the fiction with the rules. It seems like a fairly common desire. As I mention in that article I once held that same desire.

    I think people hungry for story in their role-playing but who are looking to the “math equation” solution to that hunger need to do some self-reflection on what they REALLY want out of play.

  3. mythiccartographer Says:

    It occurs to me to that, more or less, we all know how to tell “stories” – we do it all the time, even if just talking about someone cutting us off in traffic. The best stories have a lot of emotional tension and satisfying releases, the worst sound like a string of mundanities. Any psych text will tell us about how humans turn experience into a structured story.

    In the context of a game which provides a safe social environment, and we use it to pack in a tremendous series of emotional risk-taking and consequences, why don’t we just trust that we will have something worth telling a story about?

    None of my best personal stories have any kind of planned structure; I simply enjoy telling them the most. I have the most passion for them.

    I think Hollywood has fooled us into thinking that structure makes story, when in fact I think passion makes story. Human beings will fit that passion into a structure, after the fact, as any psych textbook will tell you. But when I experience a well-structured story with no passion I feel manipulated.

    • Well, there’s a reason I call this place “Play Passionately.” I think our personal passions are pretty much natural story machines. If we invest emotionally in the fiction and are willing to show a little vulnerability in how we choose our narrative “moves” and if the system has within its design some key transformational qualities then an equally honest and engaging story will be the result. Hell, it *might* even conform to structural expectations but playing from that passion rather than to those structures is the idea I’m advocating.


  4. mythiccartographer Says:

    p.s. of course, file this all under IMHO, because I remember a while ago reading Ben Lehman comment that he most valued the role-playing that resists later exposition to someone else:

    Trying to describe it in the aftermath is comparatively boring. It would not be a satisfying short story, nor would it be of any quality as improvisational theater. Talking about it with others in our play-group who weren’t present, we fumbled for words, coming up short (as I just did, again), as if we were recalling something through the thick haze of a black-out night.

    This of course blew my mind; I find when I’ve had a good session that has churned my goats and fired my vision, anybody I later relate it to feels jealous and wants a piece of this storyjamming stuff.

    I had recently returned to role-playing games/story games after 20 years because I thought maybe they could teach storytelling skills to folks; I still hope for that. Your opinions give me further hope. Ben’s makes me wonder if I’ve left something out, or have continue to use a wrench when I need a screwdriver.

  5. playsorcerer Says:

    Hi Jesse,

    I think there’s something really tricky going on here:

    When you write, “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,” I’m here to tell you that I think the gaming-culture assumes a lot more “structural rhythm” than they really do. That’s why people who try hard to “make story” often railroad hard, and to little effect.

    Here’s the baseline structure of a movie or TV show: Have a cool scene. Follow it with another cool scene. After that, have a cool scene. Repeat.

    There ARE other structural components to think about… structuring a film, for example into about 12 to 15 sequences that rise to a climax and then push into the next sequence is going to do wonders for any script. But ratcheting tension and then releasing it is pretty natural and easy.

    But over all, I’d be wary of how most people who spend a lot of time gaming thing movies and TV shows are built. They’ve been too influenced by gaming habits and see what they want to see and ignore the rest. Case in point: how much resistance is there to the notion that stories, by definition, structurally require grabby moral and emotional choices for characters?

    As a quick example of the lack of “structural rhythm” in film, I’ll just toss out Exhibit A: The Dark Knight. I love the movie. But really, structurally? It’s a mess. This is not a big criticism. Most movies lack the “logic” of progression that most gamers assume make a story work. Honestly, in Dark Knight we skip from one incredible moment to the next, (incredible even being little romantic triangle scenes, not just explosions).

    As long as those scenes are “orbiting” a few key concepts that define the movie — and you kind of hammer a out a plot — you’re going to end up with a decent script. The work is really in knowing those concepts and executing them in interesting ways (emotional, cinematic, and punchy ways) scene after scene after scene.

    I offer that a lot of gamers who rush after Story like in Movies or TV often have paid little attention to what makes stories work. They are rushing after a chimera — an incomplete notion of things they’ve noticed on the surface of the viewing experience. But they haven’t gone under the hood.

    But ultimately, “playing from that passion rather than to those structures is the idea I’m advocating,” is also how the best scripts get written.

  6. playsorcerer Says:


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