Monday, June 13, 2011

Please Don't Say Storytelling

I just wish you wouldn't call it 'storytelling.'

Hill Cantons writes a personal, satisfying tale about describing in depth the visuals in an RPG, which I recommend.  But like most posts that tackle the subject material, Chris falls into the same old habit of equating 'exposition' with 'storytelling.'

Falling back on Wikipedia, I find the following for Storytelling:  "... the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment.  Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative points of view."  The boldface is my own, to emphasize that the central element in storytelling is not the description of the character's surroundings, but the description of the character's actions ... which should not be the purvue of the DM.

I am dead certain this was not Chris of Hill Cantons's meaning.  That is clear from the context.  And I don't think that most of the people who refer to DMing the expositional elements of the game as 'narrating' the character actions and railroading the campaign.  But I am the sort of person who believes that semantics are important in the conveying of information or advice, since a casual attitude towards language results in misunderstandings, miscommunication and misinformation about any important matter.

So I want to write a gentle, non-abusive post that encourages people not to use the word storytelling when describing their ejudication of the game.  Because, as the gentle reader knows, I do not mind shouting at the wind.

'Exposition' is the relaying of crucial information in a story that brings the reader up to speed regarding the motivations behind the characters in the story, or the elements of the setting, or the causal relationships between a particular event and a particular action.  Exposition is not, however, intended to betray the plot.  It may include foreshadowing, the suggestion of something that may happen, but it does not offer a resolution to the story, which is the purpose of narrating the plot.

The DM therefore reveals the situation.  There is a stool in the corner, the room is cold because a window has been broken, the gaping wounds of the body are steaming, indicating the person has been struck only moments before, etc.  This is not storytelling.  This is exposition.  The party may work out that the death occurred by a bolt fired through the window, but the DM should resist telling this part of the story directly.  And the DM should definitely not tell the whole story behind the bolt, that it was fired by Amud, assassin of the Silver Blades, in repayment for a wrong done to his sister.  These are elements the players may learn later on, in a conversation with Amud or someone else, but Amud's motivation cannot be deciphered from the steaming body and the broken window.  Describing Amud's motivation at this time circumvents the purpose of roleplaying.  It tells the story, which shouldn't be told.

If the information is something that a real person operating in the real world couldn't possibly know, but which you feel you must tell the players because you can't restrain yourself, it is evidence that you are falling in love with your own narration.  You are so excited about the coolness of the later story that is going to come up between Amud and his sister and whatever you've got planned, that you have to start revealing it before its time.  And that kind of excitement is a trap.  It presupposes that the characters WILL talk to Amud.  It puts pressure on your players to go ahead with the adventure that you've got planned.  It is railroading them.

Now, the reader may think, what's the harm in a little fore information, just to get them on track, but this is just the sort of information they wouldn't possibly know without having a direct link to GOD.  And as everyone knows, if GOD is talking, you're going to listen.  You will change your priorities.  You will tend to move in the direction that GOD wants, even if you don't particularly like that direction.  In fact, you'll do it even if you hate that direction, because, well, GOD is scary.

The DM is obviously not god.  But he or she does hold the power that dictates the distribution of coin and experience, and it is natural that if you want to survive and win, you are going to move generally in that direction.  The very act of resisting coin and experience where it is presented thusly by the DM is a resistance against authority for some players - which itself proves that the DM is the authority that must be resisted against.  And this resistance or acceptance of the DM's voice can ruin a game.  It can rip a game apart.  It can cause friends never to speak to one another again.

The solution is to never, ever reveal more information than is absolutely, strictly inherent in the exact details the players can see, hear, taste, feel or smell.  These must be the DM's boundaries about saying anything to the players.  They are the limitations we experience as people ... the characters in the game need the SAME limitations.

It is almost impossible to not to break those limits.  DMs are human.  They get excited about their own stuff.  They want to talk about it.  It is hard, very hard, to resist that.  But a good DM must resist with whatever resolve they can pull together to remain silent as much as possible.  If they weaken, they should still strive to let as little water past the dam as possible.  Even if the DM must stop in mid-sentence and push a towel into his or her own mouth to stop the patter, then he or she should do that.

A little word like 'storytelling' puts out subconscious waves of permissiveness that a DM really ought not to foster.  We need to emphasize that description, not meaning, should be ascribed to those moments of the game where important 'seen' or 'heard' elements of the game are conveyed.  The less casual we are about that, the better.


ckutalik said...

Word choice IS important and I appreciate you taking the time to point out some of my own lazy usage (and better yet to have spawned an interesting and thoughtful post).

Especially important when it comes to this particular phrase as its abuse (the so-called "narrativist" games I briefly allude to but a wider phenomena in rpgs since the mid-80s) has launched a 1000 ships of terrible gaming.

Constructing a narrative implies a scripted outcome. Despite his liberties in the versions of his stories you always knew that my grandfather wasn't going to die, that he was going to ship home in 1945 and meet and marry that crazy Czech lady.

It wasn't a collectively constructed game with an innumerable amount of possible outcomes in other words.

ckutalik said...

And another thing, my post was directly inspired by one of yours--and some comments I posted in response to it.

I just couldn't remember the damn title of it.

Oddbit said...

One of the biggest advantages of my latest project now in action is the fact that I don't have the problem I've heard many GMs have involving characters going off in an unexpected direction due to well used situational reveals. The players use their senses and conclude something other than what the GM expected.

If you never have your players go in an unexpected direction, then perhaps you either are a master of leading through direction subtly, or you may be guiding the players by over emphasizing or outright revealing things they wouldn't know.