Passionate Play #5: You Can’t Ruin The Story

I’m going to make a bold claim (what else do I do on this site): Stories can not be ruined. Okay now let me qualify that: Stories can not be ruined through legitimate situational transformations alone. That might sound odd since my last Passionate Play post was all about how a Sorcerer game failed. However, I would like to point out that there was nothing wrong with the state of the fiction. The story was fine. Right now I could totally pick up the fiction where it left off and keep writing. What happened was that the players’ creative connection to the fiction was severed.

Recently Alex Duarte asked me to play his game unWritten. The setup is a pseudo-Europe with swashbuckling overtones. The Princess of Pseudo-France has just become of marrying age and the Kings of Pseudo-England and Pseudo-Spain are vying to marry her for political gain. My character is the Princess’s brother and Laura is playing her bodyguard.

The game is structured such that every player gets a turn to put their character in the spotlight where everyone introduces adversity for that character. It was Laura’s scene and I introduced an assassin who makes an attempt to kill the Princess. Laura’s character goes to stop him.

Now as this is going on Alex made a comment about downgrading my attempt to kill the Princess to simply attempting to wound her. Laura made a concurring comment about how if the Princess dies it deflates our entire setup. And they kind of proceeded assuming the situation was downgraded to wounding without really talking to me but that’s okay because Laura scored a partial success and although I had narration with that outcome my response was the same regardless of whether we were talking about wounding or killing.

However, I want to look a little closer at that sentiment that somehow the game/story would die along with the Princess. Is that really true? Yes, it certainly would have completely transformed the nature of the story at hand. I’m not convinced it would have ruined it. Let’s take a look at the characters.

My character has listed “his sister’s emotional welfare” as the thing he most values. Her death would certainly be shocking to him. Currently my story is about growing up and coming to terms with adult responsibility. My character projects a lot of that onto his sister and his somewhat controlling desire to preserve her innocence. Her death would likely have transformed those controlling elements from being less about change and responsibility and more about revenge or learning not to blame yourself for things you aren’t really responsible for.

Alex’s character is the son of the man ruling the country while the princess was still underage. I think he’s in love with her. Since line of succession would fall to my character that would have likely put us at political odds. His story would have likely changed from one about practicalities of politics interfering with love to one of childhood friendship put at odds through those same political practicalities.

Laura’s character probably would have faced the most radical redefinition. Her initial setup seemed to be about duty and honor and loyalty. The Princess dying would have transformed that into a story about dealing with failure or possibly having to find new purpose in life when the one thing you’ve dedicated yourself to gets taken away.

Now I’m not saying that any of these rather severe and radical transformations wouldn’t have severed our creative connection to the fiction. Indeed the commentary at the table suggested that it likely would have but I’d like to point out that The Princess’s death would not have “ruined” the story. The story would only have been radically redefined from our current expectations of it.

What I take away from this relative to my Play Passionately interests is learning to cultivate the skill in distinguishing between a genuinely bad artistic decision and these moments of radical transformation. I suggest that Playing Passionately as I envision it means being willing to risk having these kinds of transformations occur One moment you thought the story or your character was all about thing X but due to a turn of the situation or dice it’s no longer possible to pursue that thing. The story at hand has changed on a very fundamental level and you need to be willing to change with it.

If you feel the change at hand is severing your connection with the fiction perhaps taking a break is in order. Call the game, go home, sleep on it, and reevaluate the fiction. Reevaluate yourself and your relationship with the fiction, find what does engage you about this new situation (and its ramifications on your character) and begin authoring from there.

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18 Responses to “Passionate Play #5: You Can’t Ruin The Story”

  1. brandrobins Says:

    Jesse,

    I agree with your basic premise. However, I have to diverge around this point: I don’t give a shit about the story as a quality artistic artifact. I only care about the story in terms of people’s emotional and creative connection to the ongoing development of the narrative.

    So anything that is going to harm those later issues, regardless of if it would make for a terrible artifact story or an artifact story as good as Prometheus Unbound, is going to be something I avoid (or kill with a stick, depending on how aggressive I feel).

    (The fact that I spent the last couple years writing for a living may have something to do with this. When you are actually writing everything is about the quality of the artifact you’re creating. So that’s shit for me having fun. )

    And the truth, from there, is that when people say “will ruin the story” about an RPG they’re actually saying “will ruin my enjoyment of/connection to the ongoing narrative development.” Its been, in my experience, pretty rare for people to be saying “it will make a bad artifact story.” Some folks do want it to sound like they’re saying the second, as it gives them a rhetorical position with the strength of aesthetic high ground to argue from. But mostly, they’re really talking about the first.

    So for me the skill has been less “seeing which is artistic and which is emotional” and more “seeing which changes will actually disconnect me emotionally and which will just challenge me to do something different.”

    • Brand,

      My article is very much directed at that second kind of person. It’s a very different thing to say “the story will be ruined” and “my commitment to the developing narrative will be broken.” One puts the emphasis on others to maintain the integrity of the artifact based on the speaker’s criteria and the other puts responsibility on the speaker for evaluating their own artistic investment. So the first thing I’m advocating is to identify that distinction.

      The second thing I’m advocating is to take a moment to evaluate the knee-jerk reaction. Are you REALLY going to be disconnected permanently? Is there no way to turn that initial jar or disappointment into a new form of creative energy? I’m not saying it’s possible all the time. My Sorcerer game that went south is proof that yes, the fiction can veer off into a black morass of no fun from which there is no return. All I’m advocating is asking the question: Is it really a disconnect or just an unexpected (and perhaps *initially* unwanted) challenge?

      Jesse

  2. mythiccartographer Says:

    In some ways I see that ability to stay committed to the developing narrative regardless of what happens, as a kind of muscle to develop. It seems important to stay realistic, and speak up when you need certain things from the narrative, but if taking a break can allow you to go where you wouldn’t otherwise go, that sounds great to me. And the more times you go where you didn’t want to, the looser your hold on the reins, and the more fun I bet you’d have.

    This reminds me of Vincent Bakers idea that he wants games which create situations that no one would ask for, but once there, no one will reject. Except in this case you’ve mentioned folks rejecting the developing situation…

  3. brandrobins Says:

    Jesse,

    It is an interesting thing. The other thing to consider is that sometimes the disconnect happens after the moment.

    Like, I’ve rarely said “I want to stop because this is going to ruin the story” (story meaning “my emotional connection”) — but there have been a handful of times where I’ve rolled with something, or times where I didn’t even question something, that has turned out to be a problem after the fact.

    I remember a game about three years ago in which my character, a priest, had this radical realignment in his relationship with god due to some complex plot developments. I didn’t even blink at it, and just took it all. I even ended that night on an up note, as I’d “HIT THAT SO HARD.” But, coming back two weeks later, I found I had no emotional connection with the character or his story anymore. I’d neutered it, and not even realized it at the moment.

    I still don’t know why.

  4. unwrittencontinuum Says:

    Jesse,

    I agree with you, in fact, I think the game might have gone in a more interesting direction had we done that. It just didn’t occur to me, I don’t think it occurred to any of us. unWritten could definitely have handled such a drastic change in the course of the story. unWritten is designed for the Support Players to push hard on the Lead Player. However, sometimes you just get caught up in the direction that a particular story is going and you don’t see other options.

    I think that is where I was on Sunday.

    alex

  5. “Are you REALLY going to be disconnected permanently?”

    What if the answer is yes?

    • Paul,

      The name of the site is Play Passionately not Play Unreasonably. If there really is a cliff of emotional no return around the corner then you re-evaluate. It can be argued that many systems have that evaluation step explicitly in them. The Free & Clear stage in Sorcerer or Stake setting in Primetime Adventures.

      Indeed in the example I used I’m not entirely convinced that “backing off” was the wrong thing to do. There was a very clearly articulated vibe that killing The Princess right then would be no fun and so I didn’t push it. It was more the turn of phrase Laura used about the story evaporating that inspired this post because its a sentiment I’ve seen expressed under less clear circumstances than this one. In particular I think it’s one of the telltale signs of the phenomenon I call player-side railroading (which this particular incident wasn’t an example of).

      I’m very fond these days of using the word “legitimate” to describe certain elements of play. Play Passionately is about putting things the player personally values at legitimate risk. I think it’s a turn of phrase I got from reading Sorcerer’s Soul where Ron spells out the four large outcomes for a Sorcerer game and notes that the player has to be willing to accept any of them that legitimately occur, meaning that they won’t have full control to dictate which one they end up with. But! That concept of legitimacy is at least partially defined as “creatively validated by the group.”

      Like I said to Brand my point is that you can’t ruin a story through legitimate situation transformations alone. The worst that can happen is that you can end up in a very different story than the one you thought you were in. Which might very well result in a total loss of creative commitment. But that’s on you, not on any fragility of the created artifact that must be “preserved.” So when you’re faced with that all I ask is that you evaluate WHY you feel that way. You’ll likely learn something about yourself which is another goal of Play Passionately.

      Jesse

  6. unwrittencontinuum Says:

    Well, there’s definitely a balance between pushing hard for the story and ignoring the investment that each player has in the developing story. The fewer players in the game the easier it is to gage. Cheap answer, I know. But, you’re right, the story can’t be broken, though investment can be lost.

    Like in most game theory discussions, there is no right answer. I think the key point is seeing how far each player is willing to be pushed beyond their expectations. The next time we play, don’t hold back man!

  7. playsorcerer Says:

    I think this is very important:

    “The worst that can happen is that you can end up in a very different story than the one you thought you were in. Which might very well result in a total loss of creative commitment. But that’s on you, not on any fragility of the created artifact that must be ‘preserved.’ ”

    And is what Jesse is really getting at.

    Years ago I played a game of Sorcerer that Jesse GM’d. It was a kind of Gothic Germany Fantasy setting. My guy was a noble, who’s son had run away years earlier. His demon was a Passer demon, who looked like a little boy and never aged. My guy’s Kicker was, “My son comes home after 15 years.”

    Well, we started play, a servant with a shocked look on his face saying, “a man claiming to be your son is at the front door.” I have my guy reply, “Send him away.” (I had no idea up until that moment what my guy’s response was going to be to the arrival of the son.)

    My guy’s son keeps trying to make contact. I get angry, and set about trying to frame him for a crime to get him run out of town. Eventually, my guy is responsible for his son’s death, and (if I’m remembering this correctly) while trying to cover his tracks, tries to summon a demon — which blows his last Humanity rolls. His Humanity goes to 0 and he’s essentially an NPC.

    Now, we’re half way through the run of the sessions. My guy not only is “out of the game” — but he’s lost the thing that’s been driving him the whole game — his vengeance against his son. Since is son is dead.

    Which is where the quote from Jesse kicks in. Because I said to Jesse, “Okay, give me the character sheet back and let me re-write it,” (per the rules) and said, “Okay… my guy was driven mad that night under that tree. He wakes up. Outside, in the rain, under a statue of beautiful woman reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. And he is in despair.

    And the rest of the play is about my guy trying to make amends for what he did to his son. It becomes a story of redemption, with my guy finding his son’s body and burying the remains in the family plot.

    What I did was, after I was disconnected from the emotional and creative commitment I’d built up was to re-commit in a new and different direction.

    I think sometimes we miss you can do that. We usually see loss of character life or a sharp change or stop in agenda or direction of the character as some sort of end.

    But let’s say the Princes from the unWritten game gets killed. Now what? Well, things like this happen all the time at the mid-point of movies. This is where the whole game plan changes. (The pirates are really the cursed undead! We were sent to rescue the colonists, but now we’re trapped on the planet with the lone survivor! You’re looking for what the word Matrix is really about, and then you swallow some pills and find yourself on a hovercraft in the tunnels of a ruined earth.)

    So, the Princess dies. Now what? Do they follow her to the underworld to get her back? Do the have have 72 hours to gather flowers for apothecary to make a potion to revive her?

    Yes, yes… I know. This wasn’t the original genre, blah, blah, blah… you know what makes story interesting? When it keeps turning in unexpected ways — like the pirates of the first half of the movie turning out to be the undead in the second, or the world turning out to be a computer generated fiction. Or whatever.

    Gamers keep wanting to claim the mantle of creativity, but they keep shutting down the possibilities of big creative turns by trying to set up all the rules too tightly (or ceding the GM the right to have pre-planned big twist later on.)

    But what if, in order to not “deflates our entire setup,” the players all continued on the set up — they are all responsible for protecting her, they are all devoted to her. She’s dead. It’s a STORY. A COOL, COOL STORY. What happens now, now that it seems all is lost. Where does the story go.

    Note I’m NOT advocating willy-nilly making up of new crazy fiction in all directions. I’m saying, if the group really knows what matters most, when things look all lost, when then… change the rules to keep driving forward in order to feed the parts that are most important.

    Whether it’s the group of the individual, I believe, as Jesse says, it’s on us to reconnect to our creative commitment and say, “Okay, my son’s dead, I have 0 Humanity, my Kicker looks like I have nothing to play… what the hell am I going to do?” And then find something to connect to and commit to that springs forth in a new, unexpected way. It’s incredibly fun to play this way.

  8. Because you tell the story after the fact, you can’t ruin it, as an artifact, almost by definition.
    Your artifact will be created containing the twists and radical changes.

    You can ruin it as it was before the twist, that is to say, if after it all ends you say it was a story of “Loss and redemption”, but until a specific moment it seemed like a Horror story of the gore-kind, you can ruin that story.

    And that can ruin it to some people.

  9. playsorcerer Says:

    Hi Guy,

    I wanted to address something. I followed you’re link. I know YOU tell a story after the fact, but when I play, I’m making up the story right then and there.

    I’ve found that in the last couple of years most of my sessions of Primetime Adventures, In a Wicked Age, and Sorcerer would stand as solid stories as constructed through play.

    This is why I’m not worried about turns or twists ruining the story. In my experience (and this is only my experience) everyone in these games has been on the same page aesthetically (because of the procedures of the games and everyone committing to listening to what’s come before creatively) and nothing gets added that breaks anything. Revelations and reversals are all working together.

    Now, this is only my experience. But in my view, there are so many ways people play and use RPGs that its impossible to say what other people are doing unless you’ve been at someone’s table.

    Christopher Kubasik

  10. oberonthefool Says:

    So, is this basically what “Story Now” is about? Being willing to let the story go where it goes, rather than where you imagined it going when you started telling it?

    I find I have issues with that sometimes- ideas all too often spring full formed into my head, and I become invested in “ooh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” and spend too much energy trying to steer in that direction rather than just trusting the game and the players and MYSELF, to let things unfold as they do and engaging fully in the moment?

    Is that what Story Now means?

    • playsorcerer Says:

      Hi Oberon,

      That’s the core of it. (In addition to that, it’s about letting the story go where it goes while driven by creative choices the players all care about.)

      I want to comment on this part of your post, where you write: “ooh, wouldn’t it be cool if…”

      Something to consider:

      I’ve noticed that lots of folks want the things that they want to “happen” in the story, or what they want the story to be about should somehow arise “naturally” or spontaneously. There seems to be a notion that to state clearly what one thinks would be cool or one would like to have happen would be to break the natural process of making story with RPGs.

      I’d offer that one of the core principles of playing Story Now successfully is the ability of someone to say, “You know what, I want a scene where my guy confronts his uncle.” For some folks, a player asking for that scene from the Game Master is some sort of breach of RPG etiquette: It’s breaking “immersion” or not playing the character or getting all meta.

      To me, it’s people playing toward the coolest story with the greatest engagement.

      Now, how that confrontation is going to turn out is unknown — and the interaction of the rules and the players is where the game part of the game comes in to play. And, as Jesse has written here many times over, there’s a tension there. People might want the confrontation with the uncle, but some people don’t want the RISK of how that confrontation will go. But for me, that meeting of the desire for a story point and the risk of the outcome is what a story is all about. We discover the outcome, which presents a new set of ambitions or problems or goals or conflicts for the character to deal with.

      So, what I would recommend is that when you have that thought, “ooh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” instead of trying to subtly “steer” it toward that moment, see what happens if you simply ask for that cool moment to happen — and see what comes about as actions are taken and results are revealed…

  11. oberonthefool Says:

    The difference is between “wouldn’t it be cool if my guy confronted his uncle”, and “wouldn’t it be cool if my uncle disowns me”. It’s too easy sometimes to get invested in outcomes rather than possibilities. That’s the point I was getting at.

    So, yeah. Basically, what you said.

    • This is why I talk about “player side railroading.” Notice there is ZERO difference between a GM who thinks, “Man, if I don’t succeed in kidnapping his sister then he’ll never come fight the bad guy.” And the player who thinks, “Man, if my uncle doesn’t disown me then I’ll never be able to fight for revenge.”

      In BOTH cases one person is reaching across the table and trying to play the characters of another person in service of “the” story. What I’ve been noticing is that for every GM out there who thinks the players are there to experience “his” story there exists a player who thinks the GM is there to feed him exactly the right “story beats” to play out the story arc he has envisioned for his character. That second case is NOT the same as the GM providing character relevant choices and challenges.

      BOTH of these cases result in one person’s creative contribution being wholly subservient to another. One person expects another person to simply be an imaginative enabler for the other. It doesn’t matter what “side” of the table this is happening on.

      Jesse

  12. oberonthefool Says:

    Well put. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but the point is valid. Thanks for indulging my thread necromancy!

    • Bah. There are no dead-threads here. That’s why the front page is organized as a chronological list of articles rather than the traditional blog format of scrolling posts with the newest at the top. I had to do a bit of research to figure out how to set that up for just this reason.

  13. oberonthefool Says:

    I guess with a blog you can never tell when someone will run across something old and find it interesting enough to respond to.

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