Thursday, December 6, 2018

19th Class: Scripts

Rather than discussing the material in the 2nd Lab, let's first talk about script theory.  This was a concept proposed by Roger Schank in 1975, which he built into his book, Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures, in 1977.  The work covers a great deal of territory and it is interesting material for anyone interested in exploring contest in language understanding and pragmatics theory, but we don't need to address those subjects here.  Part of Schank's proposal, which remains relevant today, is that scripts are one way that we can understand how stories are created and how those same stories can be deconstructed and understood more clearly.

A "script" describes a small number of acts performed by an actor, or active person, upon an object or within an object space.  Schank's example, used for its commonality, is the script we follow when we interact with a restaurant.  The script contains specific characteristics: we enter the restaurant, we are shown to a table, we receive the menus, we're asked if we want drinks, we make up our minds, we order, we wait for the food to arrive, the food arrives, we eat, we ask for the bill, we pay the bill, we leave.  Whatever else may happen, even though steps may be skipped, this is what we expect when we enter a restaurant to eat there.

Scripts describe more than the procedure.  Through scripts, we understand the part we expected to play.  Whether it is the process of paying and entering a movie theatre, the commute to work, watching a game on the television, visiting a relative at the hospital, attending a meeting or whatever, we know from experience how we're expected to act, generally what we're expected to say and even how to feel.  When the lights dim at the theatre, we feel excited; during the commute, we grow bored or frustrated; we shout when a goal is scored; visiting the hospital, we mute ourselves, just as we do with a meeting when the boss speaks and we listen.  Most often, we don't consider the script-following habit; it is just what we do.

Since every part of our lives follows some kind of script, we can see that the activity of role-playing games also follow scripts, even though we are acting the parts through characters.  We meet with the opening of a dungeon, we discuss prices with the merchant, we argue with a guard, we prepare ourselves to rush a group of monsters ... these are all scripts.  We tell ourselves that role-playing is a "story," but in fact the story is a collection of scripts that have been strung together in a particular pattern.  The "story" is too large a concept for our primate brains to fully comprehend; so instead, as Schank theory argues, we whittle the experience down to scripts ... and then we play the part we expect to play inside those scripts.

We're familiar with scripts that are repeated often enough that they grow tiresome.  Commuting to work is famously among the worse, but it is also the reason why we resist going to the same restaurant, visiting the same spots for vacation or finding old content on youtube that doesn't sufficiently depart from scripts we already know.  As we discussed earlier, we deliberately seek rupture in our lives because it produces a new set of scripts, which we have to learn on the fly without warning, awakening ourselves from the morbid slumber of repeating the same familiar scripts we already know.

That doesn't keep some people from retreating into familiar scripts and resisting anything new.  Knowing the part that's expected, such as playing mahjong every Thursday for decades, can promote comfort, security, a sense of belonging and of family.  We may hate some repetitive scripts and embrace others.  There are people who appreciate the commute as an opportunity to read, contemplate, listen to music that they alone like and feel free from the combined rat race of the office and the oppressive responsibility of home.  What scripts we like and have ceased to like differs from person to person.

Participants who condemn "roll-playing," for example, have grown tired of scripts dependent on die use; while those who condemn excessive "role-playing" have grown tired of scripts surrounding talk and the art of persuasion.

Still, it is fair to say that any particular script that is repeated too often in an RPG will acquire a shroud of ennui.  Distinctive scripts that become especially tiresome or established are often called "tropes" ... and overuse of these can exhaust players and DMs alike.  When players speak about the game losing its appeal, we can be sure that they've become saturated with the scripts they've encountered, so that now they feel they are staggering from script to script without relief.  The argument that DMs "need a good story" is meant to counter this, but without understanding how a good story needs a set of new scripts ~ ones that will not confuse the player with their oddness, but will instead inspire the player to adjust to what's happening.  Without understanding exactly what is required (a "good story" is a vague, non-specific request), a competent DM hasn't the training necessary to produce the result.

A part of the repetitive-script problem is that when we shorten a script, or even the characteristic of a script ~ such as a rule like a perception roll ~ we increase the repetition of that characteristic and thus the weariness of both the characteristic and the script to which it belongs.  Any game element that the DM relies upon overmuch ~ which may occur because the familiarity of the element is reassuring and comforting to the DM, like the game of mahjong ~ risks eventual player burnout.  Likewise, the narrower the setting, the more pronounced the behavioral expectations of the players (that they be heroes, for instance), shortens the overall lifespan of the campaign.

Some players might not care; they like the scripts and they like playing them regularly.  Eventually, however, even the hardiest of DMs and players will begin to notice that their physical responses just aren't what they were.  The game becomes a matter of going through the motions for the sake of belonging.  The script of playing ceases to describe game play, but something else:

In the Innovation Lab, we discussed the importance of reducing dead time.  Running a tight ship, maintaining an order of play, reducing chatter, encouraging your players to plan before entering into actions can all sour in the face of scripts that have been played out already and are too familiar.  The players already know the plan; it is the same plan that's always used, because it always works with the combat scripts this DM runs.  The players chatter because they already know the script that takes place at the market between the most eloquent role-player and the DM.  There's no need to pay attention.  Jokes come out because they break up the same script where the DM introduces the players to the adventure, or where the mentor comes to give advice, or where the players supposedly fall into Joseph Campbell's abyss, or where the treasure is given and so on.  The players have been here.  It isn't new.  We shouldn't expect them to respond positively to a request to reduce their dead time.

Scripts reach a level of repetition that requires dead time, because the script of playing has become "how do we pass the time while the same scripts play out."  We don't come to play the scripts.  Our game is to carry forward our imaginative commentary on the scripts, not our engagement with them.  This is a process that can be seen plainly in the dialogue surrounding the popular web series, Critical Role.  The fundamental scripts the series presents are well-known and very familiar; the audience watches to see how the participants play the scripts ... not what scripts are played.

Comment is a passive response, an observation without direct engagement.  An immersed, innovative player is one that engages actively with the material.  If players are overly familiar with the script, there's no requirement that they innovate anything.  In preparing for a campaign, our research, planning, resources and so on should be directed towards the creation of dissimilar, rare scripts, that haven't been played exhaustively ... in our next class, we'll talk about what makes any script, in our lives or in gameplay, effective in drawing engagement and appeal for the participants of that script.

1 comment:

Drain said...

Boy, all this talk of scripts got my mind drifting back into my clubbing days for a moment.

Ah-hem,anyway, it also reminds me of those playgroups that skip from game system to game system, keeping the same DM (or a different one with the exact same schooling), aimless derelicts looking to get the spark back. Game stores love those types, they're good to lap up whatever's fashionable, game, edition or supplement.