Monday, May 13, 2013

That Which Is Not That Which Is

It's funny how language works.  Even where it deliberately includes certain words intended to convey specific meanings, if the listener (or reader) simply refuses to acknowledge those words, then language fails.  As a writer, and as someone who tries hard to insert those little specific words into a sentence, it can be very frustrating.

For instance, let's look at this expurgated definition of Narrative (see the link for the missing bits that are not relevant to this discussion):

"A narrative (or story) is any account that presents connected events ... Narrative is found in all forms of human creativity and art, including speech, writing, songs, film, television, video games, photography, theatre and visual arts ... The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, 'to tell,' and is related to the adjective gnarus, 'knowing' or "skilled.'  The word 'story' may be used as a synonym of 'narrative.'  It can also be used to refer to the sequence of events described in a narrative."

And so on.

Here is the thing about language.  The presentation of a sequence of events IS NOT a sequence of events.  Let me try that again.  A presentation of a thing is not the thing itself.  The 'presentation' and the 'thing' are different.

One might think that's obvious.  Strangely, it is not.

If you ask around, or look around, online, I'm sure that you will find many people describing a roleplaying game as a group of people conjointly "telling a story" as a function of the game.  I myself used the word 'narrative' to describe the process of delivering the sequence of events in the game to the players in my DM's 10,000 word post.  And since that time, I have had a series of arguments regarding the use of that word, and the word 'story.'  People are very much locked into the use of either word, and it is used far too casually and interchangeably with a sequence of events (as I say, I'm no better than anyone else).  But the story is not actually the sequence of events, and it shouldn't be understood that way.

If I tell you what happened at my table Saturday night, then yes, it is a story.  If I describe something to my players at the table that isn't happening, but describes some event that happened before the party arrived at the town, then that is a story too.  But the actual game play is not a story.  The actual game play IS the sequence of events, and not the presentation of those events.

Even as I say that, however, in language careful to use all the defined bits, I know that people still won't get it.  We have grown so comfortable identifying the one with the other, the line between has blurred ... and that as made it woefully hard to talk about the actual sequence, when the sense of it being a 'story' in progress is slapped onto the sequence as necessary packaging.

My life, your life, the actual business of living, as I type this and breath and hear the sounds of vents above my head, with the cold air of the over-zealous May air condition freezes me, is not a story in progress.  It is the actual living.  There is no fellow standing next to me narrating the events of the story like a Spitting Image Jeffrey Archer puppet.  Most of the actual events of my life will be lost, irrevocably, since I will not relate of those events, nor will anyone else - and even if I did, the relation of the events is merely more time spent in the sequence; the story I would tell of writing this post would itself vanish moments after its telling ... were it not that I were posting it right now.

This business of posting is the story.  But the actual posting is a series of events, absent of import ... and so too go the runnings you put together for game nights.  In the moment, no one is telling a story.

Or, at least, no one ought to be.  See, where there are issues to be discussed regarding the implementation of stories into the roleplaying campaign, what tales are told AFTER the running are irrelevant to the game.  Even the sequence of events itself during the game are not at issue.

What is at issue is the manipulation of that sequence of events - from the perspective of someone who has concocted a prefabricated story, which has not actually happened, with the expectation that the party will then play out that story.  All other deliberations on the subject of story, or on the interpretation of the sequence of play AS story, are deliberate obfuscations to the actual issue.

The difficulty arises, of course, where individuals who read refuse utterly to attach specific definitions to specific words as they read.  Last week, I was told I had finally started making sense when I used the words 'free will' to describe a player's involvement in the game, though I had been using 'agency' in the sense of a goal-directed activity for two days.  It is most frustrating to be misunderstood in this fashion.  It is most frustrating to have to say again, for at least the fourth time, that the telling of the events and the events themselves are not the same thing.

No real discussion can be had regarding the compulsion of a DM to force the players to adhere to his or her prefabricated story - to thus channel them into a sequence of events which are necessarily predetermined, for no other sequence of events can possibly result in the expected achievement, which is also set by the DM - until this ridiculous failure to read the sentences as written ends.  Yes, this is the internet.  Yes, people are ridiculous.  Yes, words often mean more than one thing.  That is why the language is so dependent on more than the individual words, it is also dependent on context.  Within the context of the game, forcing people to adhere to your story has nothing whatsoever to do with the irrational decision to assign the term "story-telling" to the sequence of events that actually occurs spontaneously during game play, as though telling the story and playing the game were in fact the same thing.

They're not.  They really are not.  But a substantial portion of people reading this still think they are, because in fact they have not read this post.  They've read some of the words of this post, just enough to woefully misunderstand what the post is saying.

Now watch them comment.


Keith S said...

Alexis, this is a good distinction to make, and I think it's helpful when talking about GMing, playing, and developing campaigns.

Getting GMs to let go of their precious agendas and find challenges and enjoyment in the choices their players make is, I think, a critical message to communicate.

Isle said...

So, I gather you're as irritated as I am by those ties that read "Ceci N'est Pas Une Cravate?"

Alexis Smolensk said...

There are many, many artists in this world who think they are terribly, terribly clever.

Guess why vast numbers of people have no respect for art.