Thursday, March 21, 2019

29th Class: Narrative & Hunting

With this class, we're going to discuss the second "insolvable" problem of role-playing: "How do we invent a narrative that possesses sufficient nuance, story, action and interest for our players?"

Note that I do not ask how we invent a "story."  In an earlier class, we discussed how humans are natural storytellers, in that we do it constantly.  I argued at that time that we tell stories as DMs, and as players, because that is part of our nature, and not necessarily because that behaviour has anything to do with role-playing.

In another class, we talked about scripts ~ the various procedures of living that we're familiar with as we ready ourselves in the morning, go to work, visit a restaurant, or any other activity where our behaviour follows a set pattern.  We can argue that role-playing games consist more of scripts than stories.  The players know what to do in town, once they've entered a dungeon or once fighting starts.  The scripts of game play ~ drawing a weapon, checking for traps, talking to the statue, dividing the treasure ~ are as well known to players as any "story" that's glossed on top.  The story seems to provide the narrative with meaning and purpose; but the game is often played without it.  Any dungeon crawl is a collection of scripts.

In our recent lab, we noted that while certain patterns and themes might occur frequently, literature is not easily fit into a box.  From that, we must acknowledge that an RPG's player characters are not required to experience the death of their old selves and a revelation that changes their outlook upon the world.  They are not required to atone.  They are not required to accept or trust the introduction of a "mentor" who tells them what to think or do.  In fact, these things are largely anathema to players.  While a book might present its characters as individuals whose outlooks or personalities will be changed by the events of the plot, most role-players will show little to no interest in changing their characters for the sake of introduced events by the DM.  Therefore, we should not suppose that any traditional narrative ~ in the sense of a literary story arc ~ will have the effect on players that it might have on an author's fictional characters.

Yet we are stuck with the concept of story because it IS a narrative.  Player characters start in a place.  They move forward, experience "trials and failures," they do learn things, they do receive gifts and other rewards ... and in retrospect, after the fact, this does create a story framework.  Remembering, always, that as humans we turn everything into a story framework.

If I am late for work because I missed the bus, because I dropped my goldfish bowl on my kitchen floor as I was heading for the door, I immediately begin dramatizing what follows.  Even as I am watching the goldfish bowl fall to the floor, the shock of the story's introduction sinks in:  "Oh my god!"  As I'm saving my goldfish and cleaning up the glass, I'm asking myself, "Damn, damn, damn, I'm going to be late."  We are formulating the story as we move through our commute.  We're rehearsing the story by the time we enter our workplace.  We package life as drama, in real time.

But this sort of drama is very hum-drum, much too dull and ordinary for what we expect from literature.  It may seem dramatic, but that's only because it happened to us.  To others, the events are distracting, but hardly compelling.  The conversation soon moves onto another story, from the news or from someone else's life, as the day dribbles on from boredom to ennui.

What sort of stories do we like to hear?

In his book, Three Uses of the Knife, David Mamet introduces the concept of a "perfect ball game."
"What do we wish for in a perfect game?  Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun?  No.  We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended towards a satisfying conclusion."

Mamet then goes on to describe, in detail, a baseball game in which both sides gain and loses a series of advantages on the other, so that it looks as though Our Team is going to lose, but then they turn it around, then it goes bad, then they rally, and etcetera, in a steadily increasing pattern that leads to a crescendo.

The word we should focus upon here is "reversals."  We get close, but then there is a set back.  We get closer, but there's another issue, and we're driven back, forced to retreat and regroup.  Then we get close again, there's a moment of panic, we get closer, Jimmy dies, we get closer ... and then we succeed or fail.  It is all reversals.

If we think about it, the role-playing narrative doesn't really need an ending at all.  Role-playing games are based on the achievement of a success of some kind ~ but distinctly not in the finite setting of a baseball game.  RPGs are infinite games.  As the character achieves something, the immediate compulsion is to set out again to achieve something else.  There is no ending.

A "story" implies an ending.  There's some point, in the future, where the baseball game ends and we either win or lose.  All the loose ends are necessarily tied up, because once the game ends, anything unresolved is simply thrown away.

But no matter how carefully crafted the story is in an RPG, the loose ends are still there when the story ends.  None of the players are entirely and absolutely satisfied or unsatisfied.  They can fail the quest; they can lose the Immortal Stone of Carn; they can lose half the party to permanent death; the compulsion to keep going remains.  As the players work through a modules or someone's conceived story, they're thinking of other things they'd like to do, after.  This is a key word.  After a baseball game, we play another game.  After a narrative in role-playing, we're still playing.

Players invested in their characters don't see the end of the adventure as a firm "ending" ... unless it is forced upon them by a DM who decides to close the campaign.  Even then, players will continue to think of those characters as "alive."

This gives us two clues as to the construction of the RPG narrative: a) we thrive on reversals; b) we prefer a steady state campaign, where new material is constantly available.

Of course, we live in such a culture.  The reversals are sometimes pleasant, sometimes less so, but always a challenge; and our triumphs are important to us.  And so long as we don't die, it feels like a steady state.  If we want to comprehend what gives our lives coherence, we may be able to apply that to role-playing games.  We might then build a supportive, narrative structure based on changes and perpetuity.

In his book Theatre, David Mamet speaks frankly about human nature:
"Man is a predator.  We know this because our eyes are in the front of our heads ... As predators we close out the day around the campfire with stories of the hunt.  These stories, like the chase itself, engage our most primal instinct of pursuit: the story's hero is in pursuit of his goal ~ the  hiding place of the stag or the cause of the plague on Thebes or the question of Desdemona's chastity or the location of Godot.  In the hunt story, the audience is placed inthe same position as the protagonist: the viewer is told what the goal is and, like the hero, works to determine what is the best thing to do next ~ he wonders what happens next.  How may he determine what is the best course towards the goal?  Through observation."

Our biological heritage is adapted to hunting and finding.  We are rewarded with dopamine if we spy a berry on a bush or an animal track, extraordinarily subtle things that nevertheless define our survival if we're hungry and our clan is hungry.  We are sustained with endorphins if we must spend hours in a hot sun to pick every berry or survive the stings of bees to get a fistful of honey comb, or if we have to track an animal for two days in order to eat.  Our stomachs remind us it is time now to be brave, to fight the animal on its ground and survive.  We're flooded with seratonin when we return to the clan with armfuls of food.  Whether we are still crossing the savanna, we are still built for hunting.

Note how none of the hunting narrative requires an "ending."  Mamet's problem isn't the narrative; it is how to contain it in the structure of a play for an audience that will sit for only so long.  Role-playing games are not limited by this.  We can sustain the hunting narrative for thirty or forty hours, over session after session, if the hunt is interesting enough and if the reversals that take place ~ "the thrill of the chase" ~ remains compelling, intriguing and exciting.  We don't need to bind ourselves inside a story arc to achieve this.  We only need a sufficient "food source" that will feed our human compulsion to see, to know, to follow and to find.

Two proud hunters enjoy their new experience level.
We're not pursuing that ideal, however.  Instead, we're employing a clumsy apparatus intended for a physical space and an audience that will become bored if they sit passively for more than 150 minutes.  We're tying ourselves in knots trying to use a three-act framework to produce the reversals that don't need acts and don't need frames.  They only need the sort of dramatic flair that we already inculcate into our everyday experiences.  As we are finding the object, or following the enemy, or knowing what the castle is about, or seeing the big bad, we are creating the drama ourselves, in the immediate moment, building the ongoing collection of events into a story fluidly, progressively.  We don't need to be given a story.  We're constucted to make stories out of virtually nothing.

We said at the end of the last class that the DM could not carry the presentation of the campaign alone.  Here we find ourselves understanding how the DM creates the framework that enables the players to present.  The DM determines the nature and fabric of the hunt: a) where things are found; b) what is found; c) what direction this points; and d) the factors restraining the free movement of the players to follow the hunt.  The players provide the drama.  The players tell the story, as they piece together the meaning of their experience ... just as meaning making is our compulsion to understand and to keep hunting.

The question in your minds should be this: what are the best things to hunt?

Until the next class.


JB said...

Currently chewing this over and mentally it. Found myself nodding a lot as I read.

JB said...

Hmm...should say "mentally digesting it." Apologies.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Glad to see that four hours later you're still thinking about it. Don't get heartburn.

JB said...

Was actually just checking back to see if anyone else had commented in a more intelligent fashion and noticed my gross typo (*he wrote sheepishly*).
; )

Danielle Osterman said...

I got a lot out of this post. The analogy of hunting is really productive and neatly consolidates a lot of the comments you've made about how the 'story' is a poor framework for a roleplaying game. Thank you, Alexis.

Joey Bennett said...

I like this. It helps me deconflict some of the competing goals in running a good campaign to recognize that anything that holds the players' interest properly will become a story in their minds. That is what humans do. Now to just practice running the game in a manner that lends itself to that until I can do it well.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Exactly, Joey. In effect, you just have to knock the goldfish bowl out of their hands.