Sunday, September 30, 2018

9th Class: Storytelling

With this class, I feel it is time to discuss some of the theory that has grown around role-playing games, as we hear expressed whenever we seek out information about playing.  One such theory is the identification with the DM as a storyteller ... and consequently, with campaigns being founded upon great stories that the DM creates, which are then expanded by collaborative storytelling carried forward by the players, which is supported in part by the creation of backstories, the history and motivation of the character prior to the start of the campaign.

Let us consider for a moment the Novice participant moving towards a greater understanding of the game, graduating to Advanced Beginner.  As more games are played, the DM acquiring experience will find that much of the game running process includes giving information to the players so that they will: (a) understand what is going on; (b) envision a place as described; (c) create an intended emotional response; and (d) provide ground work for the players to make decisions which move events forward.

In storytelling, this information is called "exposition."  Exposition can be provided in a number of ways: through direct description of things; through direct dialogue given by non-player characters; with images; and with body language to convey importance.  Most importantly, we must all note that the very best exposition is that which is told in the form of a story, rather than just a list of facts.  We are more likely to be invested in a story, we are more likely to remember the parts of a story (because they fit together), and we are more likely to gain pleasure from retelling a story that we like.

And so, from personal experience, a DM who is practicing the game as an advanced beginner will naturally seek out ways to transform the exposition that must be given to the party into patterns which we would all recognize as stories.  Quickly, a positive feedback loop results.  DMs try harder to tell better stories, or find better stories, and players in turn respond to these better stories positively.

Before continuing, let's take a moment to understand what the better story accomplishes.  The DM has a set adventure in mind, which has come about through preparations the DM has made.  The adventure is itself a story: a group of creatures has taken an action that threatens some element of the setting, and the expectation is that the players will be commissioned to put an end to the threat.

However, prior to the players accepting the commission, they must be coaxed out of inactivity, so that they will take action.  They must be inspired.  They must feel that this commission is of some importance to them.  It is clear the commission is important to the DM; the DM has created the adventure.  But having not yet seen the adventure, or knowing fully what value the adventure holds, the players are naturally filled with resistance.

This resistance must be overcome.  The DM can plead with the players, asking that they simply accept the commission because the game requires it.  The DM can demand and threaten the players with in-game punishments, holding their feet to the fire by creating villains who will kill the players if they don't act.  The DM can threaten not to DM.  Each of these tactics, however, will tend to create negative feedback, in that they will be seen as manipulative and ethically irresponsible ~ and they will encourage like behaviour from players who concede to DMs who employ these tactics.  If the DM can threaten not to DM, that we as players can threaten not to play.  If the DM can plead with us to take part in his adventure, then we can plead with the DM to feed our own demands.  If the DM holds our feet to the fire with threats against our characters, we can kill the DMs treasured NPCs whenever it is plain the DM has pride in them.  And so on.

A proper story, however, has the power to inspire a player to take part because they want to.  An inspiring story appeals to emotions, which the players want to express and be a part of, feeding their curiousity, their sense of self-expression, their empowerment and their quest for an interpersonal connection.  As a story relayed by the DM touches on some personal story that a player possesses from their own life, a positive connection is made which then becomes a catalyst for agency and a desire for achievement.  Stories compel these responses ethically, because the participants respond pro-actively.  They don't need to be pushed.  They will rush forward.

By the time a DM becomes competent, they have already told hundreds of stories of their own making, and repeated thousands more that they have repeated from another source. What's more, the best stories remain in the DM's mind, influencing other stories the DM will tell and bearing with them a strong sense of nostalgia that will serve as a beacon for what kind of stories ought to be told.


The appearance that stories create better games seems so obvious to a competent DM as to seem self-evident and absolutely beyond doubt.  It is obvious.  And yet, at the start of this class, I described storytelling as a theory.  What makes it a theory?


To begin with, storytelling has nothing specifically to do with role-playing games, except that we as humans play role-playing games.  Human beings are natural storytellers, and we do it constantly and all the time, in every encounter we have with others and in every instance where we think things to ourselves and try to give those things a structure and a meaning.  It is impossible to think rationally as a human without telling a story of some kind.

The argument that telling a story creates positive feedback from players is only true because telling a story always creates positive feedback ~ once we learn to tell stories well.  We learn as young children to create stories to make friends, to get out of trouble, to get the things we want, to settle differences and to express both our true and our false feelings.  We transform living in time into episodes that we integrate with meaning, and then we combine those meanings into our own life story, which in large part we only tell ourselves.  With stories, we construct periods of regret, shame, doubt, resistance to new ideas; and we construct moments when we redeemed ourselves, where we acted bravely or empathically ... and in every case, some of these constructions are true in the minds of others, and some of them are not true.

But the best stories win us partners in life, friends, loving children, trusting employers, community awards and self-respect.  Whereas the worst stories ~ and we all have them ~ propel us into depression, despair, self-destruction, abuse of others and potentially suicide.

If storytelling in every day life is the difference between how we behave as people, and how others behave towards us, why should we presume that a role-playing game would not function according to those same principles of psychology and biology?

Storytelling as the be-all and end-all of great role-play gaming is a theory because it is arrived at entirely through subjective analysis.  We cannot get there objectively ... and as we've already discussed, if we do not arrive at a position objectively, it is not knowledge.  Storytelling can appear to be a path to great role-playing, but we need to ask ourselves:  does it appear that way because of the game, or because of who we are as human beings?  Does it necessarily follow that because we are treating our fellow human beings better, that we are playing a better game?

There is no answer to that.  Which is why I don't say that storytelling isn't very important to the way that a role-playing game is played.  We don't know, because given the lack of hard evidence, we can't know.

This is not a bad thing.  It is a weakness to take things utterly on faith ~ and there are very many who, having experienced the positive feedback of storytelling, are very much prepared to take it on faith alone.  But faith is not knowledge.  We need to look closely at storytelling, deconstructing it and examining all its elements, if we wish to advance our understanding of that facet of gaming from competency to proficiency.

Until the next class, then.

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