Roger Bell-West: [A lot of rules recently are] “replicating the sort of story that you’ll find in another medium. A book or a film or whatever.”I couldn't agree more. But you already know that if you’ve read earlier posts like this one and this. In that same podcast, Roger and Michael talk about a sniper character. You don’t just want the sniper to hit the target when it suits the story. The story is whatever happens.
Michael Cule: “I’m not convinced that we’re doing the same sort of storytelling. I’m not sure that story is actually the product we’re trying to produce in roleplaying games. It’s the experience. Not what we say happens afterwards, but what we feel at the time.”
That Hollywood baby formula of turning points and themes and act breaks – that’s the little learning that’s a dangerous thing in game designers' hands. It’s a join-the-dots narrative construction model designed to help Hollywood churn out the product they want to make. It bears as much relation to good (= interesting, unusual, surprising) stories as fast food does to a good meal. Like in life, it's how you react to the random events that's often the most memorable stuff.
Funnily enough, Roger and Michael talk about Save the Cat in that particular episode of Improvised Radio Theatre – With Dice. Download their fascinating salmagundis of roleplaying gaming and genre criticism here. And talking of Save the Cat...
The point here, though, is not that all that Blake Snyder BS will only render up repetitive story structures. Nor is it even that codifying rules for creating stories is less effective than just winging it. (Though that's true too; the only rule you need is to keep throwing surprises at the players and be ready to run with the ones they throw back.) Stories might be a by-product when the dust settles -- we're human beings, everything looks like a story after we've done it. But going in with the intention of shaping a story requires distance. The very opposite of emotional engagement.
Players will often recount their in-game stories; you've seen our write-ups. But what's really fun is that those are utterly unreliable accounts. Ask another player, you'll hear a very different tale. And, as with life, we impose the form of a story after the event. At the time it happens we're right in the thick of things, living an imaginary life not authoring a yarn, and if what you're aiming for is how it feels then stepping back for a bit of chin-stroking analysis is not only going to etoliate the experience, it's likely to bend what might have been a surprising and unique sequence of events into something more like a prosaic formula.
And after all it wouldn’t matter a jot if nobody ever did a game write-up or recounted the adventure later. The write-up is like photographing a sand mandala. The point of a mandala isn’t to end up with a work of art, it’s to be there for the creation of it. That goal of how it feels is a point expressed very well in this video (9:00 minutes in) so I'll wait while you have a look at that.
Why are games written nowadays to reproduce, as Mr Bell-West says, the stories that you'll find in other media? Partly it may be that for a published game to make money it has to have a gimmick, and there's quicker surface appeal in a system that promises you it has rules for ensuring a great story. Or is it that many games lack a deeper cultural underpinning, which means that abstract story forms are easier to impose? If players in a Tekumel campaign are at loggerheads, they have law courts and clan-councils and shamtla and the duelling code to fall back on -- and all of those have their own in-game rules that yield rich stories. In the absence of those social structures, meta-rules for fictionalization may seem more necessary to keep the game going.
And there's the rub. Keeping the game going. That's easy when you're in your twenties with no spouse or kids. Your game persona can take over and initiate events in your parallel life. But not every gaming group has that luxury. Some reviewers of Fabled Lands have complained that without a quest assigned to them they don't know what to do. Jamie joined in our Victorian Investigators game recently and noticed that the players don't tend to drive the story in-character; they discuss and analyze, but then they wait to be told what the story is, and react. Under those circumstances, I can appreciate why people would reach for rules that encourage you to step away from the persona and think instead as an author.
Finding a way to work in your character’s catchphrase, or analyzing the character’s story arc to decide what ought to happen to them next, are signs that the actual playing of the character, the participation in the moment, are no longer fun. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the dramatically ironic style of game for other reasons. I'm eager to play James Wallis's Alas Vegas (admittedly light-years ahead of the usual "storytelling" systems) even though I'd chafe at so self-consciously narrative-shaping a game on a weekly basis. So, you know, none of this is the One True Way. We're just talking.