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Friday, 15 September 2017

Not where it's at, but how it feels

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.”

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.”
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.

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.


  1. The idea of planned story vs. experience is coming to bear in my own most recent play-through with the Devereaux character. I'd planned to kill the governor of Yellowport and side with Nergan, but that's not the way things shook out. At this point Devereaux has been freed Venefax from Attar and been taken into slavery twice, once falling for Lauria and once after getting caught trying to break into the Lord Chancellor's home in Chambara after the latter's goons burned his townhouse down. So he really hates slavery and Marlock permits it.

    However, shortly after his fourth visit to Yellowport, the attempted uprising and brutal crackdown, he ended up in Book 4 and saw General Beldai's army. Once he saw that he knew damn well that a Nergan "victory" would rapidly create a second civil war as the disparate elements of Nergan's army turned on each other (and Sokara) to secure territory and power, which they'd certainly do without the common enemy that was Marloes Marlock. That will create unending misery for Sokara (and likely a big refugee problem for Baroness Ravayne) and he just couldn't do that, no matter how good Nergan's intentions were.

    Besides, as Protector of Sokara (and the one who dispatches Beldai and reduces the rebellion to a few insurgents in the Coldbleak Mountains), Devereaux figures he will likely be in a position in influence Marlock to end the practice of slavery (and if Marlock won't listen, well, there can always be another coup...)

    1. It's interesting to me, and not a little surprising, that some people have complained the Fabled Lands books give them too much freedom. What you are describing is what we intended the books to be: a launching pad for the player's imagination to take flight. But there are players, their expectations perhaps conditioned by single-quest gamebooks, who are bewildered by not being given a goal. Personally I've always preferred the self-starter approach.

  2. I get it, sort of. People are so used to "You are (Noun). You must save the people of (Noun) from the evil of (Noun) by finding the (Noun)." The Fabled Lands series idea of a goal is "This is (eventually, we hope) a giant 12-book geographically-based adventure book series. So go find some adventure already." There's bits with "Find the Thingy to save the Placey from the darkness of Persony." But there's also "sail around and make a buttload of money trading in various ports" and "become a high-ranking member of an evil theocracy." Not to mention just the basic "look the hell around the world and encounter cool stuff."

    I did discover one thing that annoyed me in Book 1. If you accept the mission to kill the king from the Governor of Yellowport, you can meet the king and change your mind, deciding instead to kill the Governor. However, you're not allowed to change your mind again (or for the first time) once you've gotten the codeword Ambuscade. So, in this run-through I guess Sokara will be condemned to bloody civil war.

    That said, perhaps Devereaux can use his position of Senior Court Rank, Hatamoto to the Moonrise Clan and friendships with the Chancellor and the Wisteria Clan (plus the Tengu and maybe even Dawatsu Morituri) to settle the coming civil war peacefully. This would, of course, free up quite a few samurai from both sides to help settle matters in Sokara in Nergan's favor as well as maintain order afterward. Plains barbarians vs samurai with katanas = dead plains barbarians. Meanwhile, if Dawatsu owes me a favor for letting him drink my blood and I've befriended the Tengu at that point, the trau best not start any crap either as darkness will not help them.

  3. I'm curious as to when the trend took hold in roleplaying to ape the forms of movies or (more often) episodic television. I was likening RPG campaigns to TV seasons in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder back in the early '90s, but there I had in mind the way you might factor in a long arc that binds the week-by-week games into a whole. It wasn't as self-conscious as these cod-Campbellian story formulae, which often ask you to see the game in terms of scenes and act breaks and chances for each character to shine. Why I think it's a sterile avenue for roleplaying is because art can achieve great things when it models itself on life, but inevitably enters a reductive cycle when it only models itself on other art.

  4. The first time I really became somewhat aware of that kind of thing was with West End Games' Star Wars RPG. That game was the first and, to me, best attempts to simulate the flow of the Star Wars setting into a role-playing game. Up to that point my experience with RPGs was pretty much AD&D, where a thrilling fight scene would be something like.

    Fighter: I will hit an Orc.
    Mage: I will cast Sleep on the Orcs.
    Cleric: I will cast Cure Light Wounds on the Fighter.
    Thief: I will backstab an Orc.

    In Star Wars:

    "Okay, my smuggler, Yannik Fel is going to yell "Yee-haaah!" while dashing across the room, firing a couple of shots at the stormtroopers as he does and then diving for cover behind the crates."

    Plus, the game would have, in some of the modules, various "cut scenes" showing a bit of what the villains were doing. The whole thing was a really neat breath of fresh air at the time.

  5. Cut scenes -- right, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Because that's an RPG that's trying to be a movie or even a videogame. But how would the PCs be aware of those cutscenes? It's a distancing effect that removes the close identification with character which is unique to roleplaying. As Mike Cule points out, that's a game that is trying to replicate a story in another medium when in fact what RPGs are good at is the internal experience. Not that anything would induce me to play a Star Wars RPG anyway -- the movies are unendurable enough.

  6. Well, you were 20 when the first one came out, so you probably had a bit of that "this sort of popular culture trash will never rise to the level of true, artful cinema" going on. I was 8, 11 and 14 when the various parts of the first trilogy came out, so they pushed my action kid buttons pretty hard.

    Besides, replicating a story in another medium is essentially why people start "roleplaying." Cops and Robbers. Cowboys and Indians. Kids play those "roleplaying games" to replicate and participate in the stories they see on TV or in the movies or in comic books or, yes, video games.

    I get it. You're well beyond those types of "games." However, for more novice players and GMs bits like the cut-scenes or the act/scene structure can be a useful way to organize their gaming experience. It's like when introducing somebody to reading, you start with Dick and Jane instead of James Joyce's Ulysses. Hopefully, they'll see the full potential of role-playing and ground beyond that stuff, but if they don't and still having fun, figure that's okay too.

  7. Actually I saw The Empire Strikes Back three times in its first month. That I thought was great. It's just every Star Wars movie since that's been a disappointment.

    The post is about whether attempting to self-consciously imitate the tropes and forms of existing narrative media is the best way to get an immersive experience. Hence my analogy with life. Life throws up sequences of events that we relate as stories, but they are very different from the cookie-cutter stories you get in Syd Field influenced movies.

    When I started out roleplaying, we thought, "This is cool. We're living an imaginary life." I could relate hundreds of memorable and even moving incidents from even those early campaigns. I don't think it would have been nearly so varied or involving an experience if we'd sat around thinking of who was the star, who was the sidekick, who had got their character catchphrase in for the "episode" or which season or story arc we were currently in.

    The argument, in short, is that you get a stronger experience and better stories too if you just go with how the character feels. Henry James knew that; Blake Snyder didn't.

  8. Like I said above, I get it. I get why some people might be daunted at "too much freedom" in Fabled Lands even though even as I feel it's a ridiculous attitude (would they prefer less freedom in their own actual lives? If so, let them move to North Korea). I see similar situations at the grocery when a parent tells a child "just pick out whatever candy you want" and gets frustrated because the kid freezes up in the face of so many different choices and the opportunity cost of picking one candy out of a whole wall of them.

    One of the things I like most about Fabled Lands is the way you can often enter quests toward the end or in the middle instead of starting at the beginning. Take the quest to defeat Kaschuf in Book 4. The "proper" way to do that quest is: Go to the village, fight Kaschuf, befriend the butler, learn about the locket, sail to that island, find and open the locket, return to the village, fight and kill Kaschuf for a final time, be hailed as a hero. I have done that, but much of the time I'm just sailing around that area (probably attempting to learn the mermaid song) when I land on the place and get the locket with no prompting. It might be a long time before I actually get to the village or I might never go there, in which case maybe Kaschuf chokes on a chicken bone and dies very surprised.

    1. I expect that the players who find FL is too much of an open world are the ones who have mostly played gamebooks or RPGs with a specific plot. We never used to roleplay that way -- the "story" was whatever the player-characters chose to do -- hence the sandboxiness of Fabled Lands. But I can see it's not to everyone's taste.

      I've written about multiple entry points to a quest in relation to videogame design, especially CRPGs. But that's a discussion for another day...

  9. I recall watching a friend play Elder Scrolls Online. He was playing some kind of Fighter-Assassin something or other and butchered his way through a graveyard filled with undead. They kept coming and he kept fighting, then he finally said, "Oh, crap, forgot to get the actual quest for here!"

    One "quest" in Fabled I tended to enter very late during my first play-throughs was the one leading to the Ring of Ultimate Power. If this thing is done properly and your characters has the items/Abilities to succeed the quest is supposed to go something like this:

    1)Learn about Targdaz in Book 1
    2)Free Targdaz from the Ruby Citadel in Book 4
    3)Meet Targdaz at your new castle in Book 5
    4)Ask Targdaz about Magic Items (specifically the Ring of Ultimate Power)
    5)Become an Initiate and then a Chosen One of Nagil in Book 2
    6)Meet the Skeleton Ship in Book 3
    7)Go to the inn Book 6 to act on the skeletons' instructions
    8)Act on the directions, go to and enter the tomb (take a light)
    9) Free Dawatsu Morituri and then either fight him or feed him some of your permanent Stamina
    10) Return with the Hyperium Wand to Targdaz in Book 5

    So, if done "properly" on some level this quest runs through every book in the series (except Book 7 and onward). Of course, I got the series in a weird way. In order of acquisition I got 6, 3, 1, 2, 5 and 4. So, I'd start as a Mage in Book 6, fight Master Tatsu and carry a bunch of Lacquer Boxes until my Combat was 12, then get a lamp, go into the forest until I met the vampires, make a Sanctity roll (which I'd fail) and be taken to the tomb, where I'd fight Dawatsu with the Spear +4, get that cool Wand +6 and scoop up some treasure to boot. It was actually a long time before I even knew about the Ring of Ultimate Power, much less went after it.
    11) Enjoy your new Ring (try not to lose it).

    1. I'll confess I've never seen the search for the Ring of Ultimate Power as a quest unto itself (the Hyperium Wand is pretty sweet as is...). And I'd go so far as to say that overly focusing on the optimal outcome – the 'proper' route – of any one quest line risks undermining the wonderful unpredictability which is one of the great strengths of Fabled Lands.

      Re that quest with Targdaz / the castle / the Ring of UP, one of my more memorable playthroughs occurred when I acquired my castle – but sometime afterwards it was attacked, and destroyed. I'd never experienced that before, but that's how the dice came up, and I ran with it. In-game, it was a huge blow to my character. Even as a player, the site of the once-castle caused a little twinge of sadness in me every time I passed by thereafter.

      And yet I don't feel that was a 'bad' playthrough – quite the reverse, in fact. Fabled Lands really is a journey, rather than a destination.

    2. If only Jamie and I could have got Pan Macmillan to buy a roleplaying game rather than a gamebook series. I'd been constrained to make Dragon Warriors structured and dungeony, but by the early '90s we might have got away with a much more sandbox style of RPG. Unfortunately, publishers were still dollar-dazzled by the success of Fighting Fantasy and didn't really like the sound of anything too original. We'd already spent nearly two years trying to get the publisher Paper Tiger to take our Abraxas RPG, so by the time we met Pan Macmillan we knew the magic words were "it's a gamebook series". Still, we steered that as close as we could to being an open world RPG, I think.

  10. The proper route is usually not the optimal route, in my experience. Dealing with Kaschuf is much easier if you got to the island and get the locket first, then encounter him and give him the bad news.

    Dave, for my money you did a brilliant job creating on open-world gamebook. I was a huge Lone Wolf fan and would regularly replay the books on Project Aon, but I doubt I've been there in over a year because Fabled Lands is just so much more in-depth and involving.

    To an earlier point you mentioned, Dave, I think you'd have an absolute blast playing the WEG Star Wars RPG. When they put that game out, WEG really put a lot of effort into replicating the feel of the movies. Even the "cut-scenes" you disdain were there to reinforce the idea of "we're in a Star Wars movie! Woo-hoo!"

    When TSR/Wizards of the Coast took over the Star Wars license, it was utterly different because they beat and smashed Star Wars to fit into their slow, stolid, D&D mentality. "I run into the room popping two shots at the stormtroopers as I do and then diving over the bar for cover." got replaced by

    "I hit him with my light sa-bre."
    "I hit him with my light sa-bre a se-cond time."
    "For a third time I hit him with my light-sa-bre."
    "Then I hit an orc."

    They just sucked all the energy and fun out of that game world.

  11. Another problem with rules that try to create stories is that they tend to encourage reductive Hollywood-style storytelling. Star Wars is a perfect example of that mashed-up Joseph Campbell for easy digestion. But the most interesting RPGs take you into the mind-set of another culture or era, which you're never going to achieve if you're thinking in terms of which act you're in or whether the midpoint scene happened yet.

    While RPG designers are trying to emulate the most formulaic of pulp/genre tropes, there's plenty of modern drama that's kicking back against the manufactured plotline. Try The Night Of, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Ray Donovan - even GoT season one. Those all succeeded in confounding strong expectations of where the plot was meant to go.