Friday, July 7, 2017

Narratology's Limitations

Taking up where the last post left off, the tendency nowadays is to think of the room, the snake and the poison as a narrative, which it is not.  Narratives are defined as accounts, which describe an order of events that take place in the past.  What is interesting is that multiple narratives, even hundreds or thousands of possible narratives, can result from the same set up of the room, the snake and the poison.  This is why we have to resist establishing a narrative before it can take place: our goal is to establish the mechanism that enables a narrative to happen ~ even if we don't know how that narrative will play out until it exists in our past.

Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure, and the ways that we are affected (behaviour) by our perception of those events.  A player character dies as a result of the snake and this produces a reaction to the story of the character having died.  Does this dying character encourage us to be more cautious when approaching rooms?  Are we more cautious where snakes are concerned?  Then, in the wider picture, does the sequence of events that become the narrative cause us to reconsider our will to play?  Or our trust of the DM?  Or the DM's certainty that this is a good way to run a campaign?  These are all examples of how narrative might affect our perception.

This is why we tell stories: to evoke a response.  To teach a lesson or examine a situation or develop awareness about human behaviour or encourage a better human behaviour.  It is logical and rational to examine games of all types to determine what sort of effect is had on us by the way we have interacted in the past as a result of playing those games.

It does not make sense to suppose, then, that "narrative" can also describe something that hasn't happened yet.  In the context of what narrative is and how narrative results, describing multiple possible future happenstances as "narrative" simply doesn't make sense within the definition of the word.  That's why we use other words to describe a possible future; and why we use other words to describe a set-up, or a design, that will ultimately elicit a variety of possible futures.  Those futures haven't been written yet; they haven't happened; therefore, they are not narratives.  Those who think they are have gotten confused about what principles they are arguing.

That's not unusual.  Very often, an individual with a flash of insight will turn a word or a phrase to a new meaning, representing something as what it is not but which it seems to reflect, in order to increase our understanding of that thing.  All too often, however, this is not done very well; and for a time, a fad arises in which that phrase becomes a pursuit of thousands, even tens of thousands of scholars who are temporarily infatuated with this idea as conceptualized.

I will offer a favorite example of this: a Canadian example.  Marshall McLuhan, born right in my own province, wrote a series of books about the media that, for a time, took the world by storm. His most famous quote, "the medium is the message," created a revolution in our understanding of media and its influence on the viewer.

Or rather, it seemed to do so.  While there remain millions of people, academics and non-academics alike, who will rush to assert that this is true, and that McLuhan's key concepts are also true, there is one thing lacking in the whole structure.

Who has built upon this idea?  Having understood that the medium is the message, what do we do with this knowledge?  Where is the next scholarly goal post?  For while McLuhan was certainly a breath of fresh air, he is an isolated breath where it comes to present-day discussions about media and it's influence.  The phrase, "the medium is the message" is the equivalent of saying, "this is a table" or "this is a chair."  Accepted.  Now what?

This present faddism of narrative as the central key to role-play suffers from the same problem.  Suppose we accept that, all right, role-playing is story-telling.  How does that enable me to design a dungeon?  Or encourage a particular behaviour in my player?  Or describe how I should expect a player to respond once I have invented my story?  How do I measure the effects of "story," when the story hasn't happened yet?

No one arguing for story-based role-play is addressing these questions; these are unanswerable questions in terms of "story."  How can I, as a writer, ascertain with certainty what the specific reader's reaction will be to this post?  I can guess that some readers will think this or that some readers will think that, but do I know what you, Joan or Jim or Jason, will think?  No.  Yet I need this sort of targeting tool when you, Joan or Jim or Jason, sit down at my table to play a game with me.

So let's focus on design, hm?  Let's concentrate on those principles, because precepts like structure and function and observable behaviour, that has occurred in the past, can be evaluated and corrected, time and time again.  Let's not waste our effort redefining a term that was never meant to describe the future.


Wonder Woman had some good features; but as a directed work, it had enormous transition flaws and considerable defects with regards to motivation, character development, goals, direction and ultimately structure.  Those things can be overlooked in favour of a fun film, but the flaws exist nonetheless.  I would say I expected better, but DC.  Again.


  1. Thoroughly good read, Alexis, and I mean this for the series at large - "Bogost Deconstructed" was the better post but I'm commenting here, this one being the most recent.

    Something tangential that caught my attention and would have you comment on:


    Wonder Woman had some good features; but as a directed work, it had enormous transition flaws and considerable defects with regards to motivation, character development, goals, direction and ultimately structure. Those things can be overlooked in favour of a fun film, but the flaws exist nonetheless. I would say I expected better, but DC. Again."

    It seems like you're willing to exempt lighthearted movie fare from towing the precepts expounded thus far.

    I ask on what account would you do so: due to them being considered "fun/light" by predefinition? Hinging on the matter of time invested? Personal investment in the thing itself? Something else?

    A very real parallel suggests itself with the lack of seriousness devoted to the approach to RPG play/preparation, what with most people readily assigning such entertainment to the "fun" bracket of things.

    What do you believe to be the nature of the correlation (if any) between things being unpretentious (shorthanded to "fun") and being excused for their shortcomings?

    At first glance, the (partial) pass you gave the movie struck me as somewhat ironic in the face of the rest of the posts, hence my question.

  2. When I describe Wonder Woman as a "fun film," I mean precisely that it did not meet my expectations. It tried to be more than frivolous and failed ~ and because of that I will probably not be watching the film again. I like films when they can be seen over and over; and this didn't meet that measure. As well, I used the word "fun" in this case because that word is declarative, not descriptive. "Fun" is a type of film, not a measure of film.

    Moreover, the time element was 2 hours and 21 minutes and featured considerable visual impact; so while the film failed intellectually, in a visually artistic sense, in many points it was quite beautiful. I can appreciate aesthetic when I see it.

    A frivilous RPG game, however, is neither intellectually nor visually appealing; it typically asks for more of my time and, unlike a film, I have a personal stake in modifying and altering the experience. If I'm told by a DM that I can't alter the experience to one of serious play, because we're having "fun" instead, then I am definitely not interested.

    Finally, if I'd known that Wonder Woman was going to disappoint me as it did, I would not have gone to see it. However, I don't expect that it would disappoint a lot of people; most people are not me; they have little knowledge of Greek myth, little understanding of film dynamics and a much lower bar for what intellectually satisfies them. Therefore, I would generally not argue that others shouldn't see the film, based on my reaction.

    For that reason, I was less than rigid in my description of the film, not because I was "giving it a pass." It did not pass, in my opinion. That does not mean it wouldn't pass in someone else's opinion.

    That of course brings up a new kettle of fish: why won't I give a pass for "fun" games (again, a type of game, rather than a measure). Simple. Because my experience with a film is a solitary one. RPGs are group experiences; therefore, to obtain the best possible experience for EVERYONE, we want to reach for the highest common denominator: that means, taking the game seriously and making every moment as good as it can be.

    Which is, of course, the functional nature of the film-MAKING experience, as opposed to the film-WATCHING experience. I'm rather sad that the makers couldn't do better than this.

  3. Love this series too! And you totally answered my same question about "fun" movies: I've grown very skeptical of any movie that critics review as a "romp" or "rollicking good time" or any other fluffy fun synonym, since it inevitably suggests no deeper elements could be found to comment on. I agree about the aesthetic versus narrative merits: it is interesting to me how "unaesthetic" role-playing games seem to be. Perhaps it is due to the collaborative aspect or the organizational structure.

    Maybe my surprise to consider RPGs in terms of aesthetics comes from internalized beliefs that there is an art to role-playing games, which upon consideration does not quite seem to be true. There is certainly some elegance, though, in how you present your ideas and discussions on the topic: these posts are very academic and weave into each other like a well-constructed lecture series (The Tao of D&D certainly sounds like a snappy university class title too). So then is there any elegance to a D&D game, when the setting produces an emotional response the way a painting or film might? Is that an equivalent emotional response or something different?

    There's artifice and artfulness in D&D: constructions which provoke responses or play with the audience like a magic show, but the design of a game session is very different from designing a trick I would think. Or perhaps not? They both involve reversals of expectations, subtlety and lots of details and distractions.

    I recognize for myself that a lot of my attempts to produce structure like yours in the last post suffer from trying to estimate the space (how tall should the fountain be? how big is the snake? how much of the floor is moss?) while simultaneously trying to establish the functions of the room's components. I guess the answer to solving that problem is just get some practice examining rooms quantifiably and take one's time planning things out, which also touches on pacing and where in the game breaks should occur from the action.

    Well then, I've rambled enough. Suffice to say, a thought-provoking post!

  4. Have you looked at the game "Chubbo's Marvelous wish-granting engine".

    It is a highly narrative game, which uses its idea of genre-actions to encourage play in specific ways - whenever a player does a specific things, defined by the intended genre of the game (for example in a gothic game, when their character obsesses over something or in a fairy-tail game, when the player is changed by a supernatural force), they are rewarded with xp. Similarly, when they provoke specific emotions from other players (defined in character creation, and as part of the genre), they also earn xp. Thus, characters will try to act in specific ways (and on a larger scale, follow certain arcs), because that is how you earn xp. In some ways it is a very simple system. But there might be some gems in the system for you to find.

    I think the author of that game has had many of the same thoughts you have had in terms of creating a game which provokes specific action from its players. It comes from a very different place, genre and culturally speaking, than your D&D, but I think that there might be something useful there.

  5. Archon,

    There are many party games that are designed to provoke an emotional response from players, with all sorts of rewards: Cards Against Humanity, Mindjob, Room Party and Personally Incorrect, to name a few. They use different "gimmicks" than role-playing, but the effect is to encourage a group to use their imagination jointly in order to have a good time.

    For me, the issue arises as I described it in May: that there is a perception that a "role-playing game" is a game where the purpose is to play a role, and not a game in which success is measured in accumulation, in which playing a role is a component. CMWGE certainly plays into the first of those concepts, as it is a story engine.

  6. Ah, I can see what you are saying. Yeah, even if games do have success (and corresponding failure) and improvement, that's not the focus is it. Hmm.


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