Playing characters versus Telling Stories

edited February 2010 in Story Games
On one hand there's the Role-playing Bloc headed by D&D and it's many, many children; it's a grand tradition of inventing and enacting a character in a story.

On the other theres Story-telling games than invoke the ancient traditions of oral story-telling; games that ask the players to tell stories in whole or parts as a narrator among narrators.

I'd just like to open a discussion on people's preferences either way, the pros and cons of both.

This comes from flicking through the The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchhausen in the bookshop today - I was just struck by the enormity of telling a story as opposed just to being a single character.


  • What are you wanting to unpack that isn't already handled in the Stances: Pawn, Actor, Author? And is it not completely natural to move along that "continuum" from no character concern (My Guy) to utter embodiment (Method Acting) to building theme and narrative, in an RPG (not so much in mini gaming or board games)? I routinely prefer embodiment (acting) in RP, but I won't do it to the detriment of a story line that interests me (I haven't said, "My guy wouldn't DO that" in years).

    I guess I maybe shouldn't be in this thread? :}
  • My writerly opinion (and preference) is that playing characters creates story. It helps that, in the past decade, we’ve had all these great technological advancements in roleplaying games to create reliably fun, character-driven experiences.
  • I'm all ignorance, of course, but surely the story as created from the point of view of many character-players pulling together to form the narrative is a different sensation to one person constructing a narrative on his own for the entertainment of others? Is it an inferior or less-engaging method of story-telling?
  • edited February 2010
    Mike, I still say that most players engage in both (and sometimes neither) throughout actual play. "Inferior" means nothing without a context or unit of measure. Are you suggesting/asking that an emergent theme can't have as much impact or be as emotionally stirring (cathartic) as one at which one aims intentionally? If so I'd have to disagree, from personal experience. How often do you see a "cool AP report!" that talks about how well the system and players aimed at theme and crafted an awesome story? Rare, right? More often, it's some element of system or chewing on the scene ("embodiment") that lead to a surprising and moving moment.

    I'd say that collaborative emergence of story ("playing characters") has a different feel to it than intentional pursuit of theme. Not better, not worse. Different. Is a handful of peanuts inferior to or less-engaging than an apple?
  • edited February 2010
    The problem I have with such discussions is that my thinking is so firmly in the middle. I think that story is best thought of as the *by product* of thematically charged characters in motion.

    I'm very against the idea that I'm here to tell you my character's story. And I certainly don't want you to tell me your character's story. At my table we are not simply trading around the talking stick to divvy up right-of-way of story telling. My activity at the table is firmly about challenging the issues your character embodies which firmly requires you to abandon any idea of what story you wanted to tell with your character. Any second that idea may be thrown out the window by any number of things from a sudden unexpected situation change to a die roll that cuts off access to a specific range of outcomes.

    That means that I think most like a "story teller" between moments of character centric role-play. When I set up my character I fill him with issues that will be emotionally grabby. When I consider what scene to go to next I consider the narrative momentum. However, there comes a point where all that "establishing" stops and a "Go Button" gets pressed and it's all moment-to-moment character play from there until the next transition point where the next bit of "establishing" happens.

    That's my optimal and preferred mode of play. There are games that work differently that I also enjoy, of course.

  • Are you baiting me, Mike? I just wrote about this in my blog in length.

    The short of it is that the psychological activity and rewards of traditional roleplaying are very different from traditional storytelling. Both create stories, but the point of a game is not just that it is reliable in creating a story, but that the activity of doing it is engaging. We have a word for activities that are only fun for their outcome, and that is "work". My writerly opinion is that authoring stories is a particular kind of work - it's a kind I love, or I wouldn't focus on it so much, but it's still work. Playing a roleplaying game is not the same activity, but something different. We can even talk about those differences in great detail, as we know pretty well how story-creation roleplaying games of various types actually function. Narrativistic games, for instance: dramatic coordination, bangs, advocating your character... we know how all of this works, and it's a completely different model from how the also well-known story creation form of authoring happens. Games predicated on one will only have incidental similarities with games predicated on the other; one of those incidental similarities is that both methods are rooted in cultural tradition with its genres and whatnot, but having the same subject matter doesn't make them the same.

    Munchausen is a great example of a proper "story game" in that while it has a roleplaying aspect in the framing story, the real core activity is storytelling. In this regard it is not a roleplaying game so much as a game of storytelling in a roleplaying frame. The storytelling is made fun by the whimsical challenge aspect of it - you have to improvise a story in this genre, with these interruptions and extra demands from the audience. It's a performance sport of storytelling, a pretty distant thing in comparison with roleplaying games.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenIt's a performance sport of storytelling, a pretty distant thing in comparison with roleplaying games.
    Yeah, this. Never heard it put that way--that first clause (bolded) is a PERFECT back-cover blurb.
  • edited February 2010
    Posted By: PotemkinI'm all ignorance, of course, but surely the story as created from the point of view of many character-players pulling together to form the narrative is a different sensation to one person constructing a narrative on his own for the entertainment of others? Is it an inferior or less-engaging method of story-telling?
    It's simply different, not inferior or less-engaging. I don't hold my roleplaying-game experiences to the same standards for singular vision that I would a novel or film or even some videogames. Roleplaying is collaborative; it's a pretty distinct activity. There are a lot of players who find the experience more engaging than other types of media. It’s not the quality of the output on which they’re judging it, but rather that they had a hand in its creation.

    That being said, it doesn't mean that decisions aren't made, things risked, or consequences faced. All of which are elements of compelling narrative. Roleplaying games are different things to different people: entertainment, mental exercise, competitive challenge. People don’t engage with them in the same manner as they engage with other types of fiction (if one even would classify a roleplaying game as a type of fiction). This is cool. My games started being a lot more fun once I started understanding this.

    Edit: I'm down with everything Jesse said. Just wanted to add that.
  • My 'inferior or less-engaging' comment was outrageous diabolic advocacy. My apologies, of course, matters of taste can't be discussed with much analytical purpose.
    Posted By: Eero Tuovinen
    Munchausen is a great example of a proper "story game" in that while it has a roleplaying aspect in the framing story, the real core activity is storytelling. In this regard it is not a roleplaying game so much as a game of storytelling in a roleplaying frame. The storytelling is made fun by the whimsical challenge aspect of it - you have to improvise a story in this genre, with these interruptions and extra demands from the audience. It's a performance sport of storytelling, a pretty distant thing in comparison with roleplaying games.
    I think this grapples with issue most succinctly. The difference between roleplaying and storytelling. Does one doubt that a website called 'Story-games' should ignore those games which are storytelling games?
    I think Eero is right to suggest they're something very different from roleplaying - this isn't merely a matter of how much character-advocacy or narration-authority is doled out (both of which falling, I hazard, solely to roleplaying) - it's about the comparison of two separate methods of delivering a narrative.

    Interesting points, ladies and gents. Just trying to digest.
  • edited February 2010
    Mike, if you are interested in some high-level, eye-ruining, at-times-combative discussion of this, here is a thread covering similar ground from not long ago.
  • Baron Munchausen is a hard game. It really is all you, there in the spotlight, telling a story instead of everyone throwing ingredients in the stew. I've run a few games of it and it is definitely more uncomfortable, and also prone to be more tedious I think because it's difficult (maybe impossible) for other people to cue you into what they're interested in.

    I'll take something more collaborative I think. And I do think that's the difference - how many parts collaboration to speaker/audience?
  • edited February 2010
    Whenever this sort of thing comes up I see a lot of people trying to distinguish games with "actor stance" character-playing to fight monsters or something like that from games where we play characters but seek to create good stories.

    But that's just a small part of the spectrum. What about collaborative storytelling games? Munchausen is competitive, and fairly "in-character" (at least, if you want it to be). So is 1,001 Nights.

    I've written and played several pure storytelling games: games with mechanics not unlike your favourite rules-light indie RPG/story game, but where no one plays any one character. More like Universalis, except even that game indirectly encourages people to take sides and advocate for specific characters.

    It's not easy, but possible, to create "story games", which are interactive (unlike Baron Munchausen, which can be all you telling the story by yourself) and create stories. Like if everyone was a GM and never took on the role of any specific NPC.

    I find this kind of thing interesting to explore. It's also MUCH more accessible to non-gamers. "We tell a story together," everyone gets. "You play a character"? Much less so. People ask about wearing hats, about whether they might get hit, etc.

    (Edit: I DO agree, however, that the more it's "tell a story" and the less character-identification there is on the part of the players, the less intense the experience is. Narrating that someone named Mary is dead is not a big deal, even if we can appreciate the sadness of the moment. But if your friend has been portraying Mary for the last few weeks, and you have to look in that person's face and say, "He points the gun in your face and pulls the trigger..." Well, that's much more affecting. But "storytelling" play is possible and fun, as well. Much safer, in a sense, with all the attendant benefits and drawbacks.)
  • I agree with the thrust of your viewpoint, Paul - that is an interesting direction to take. Do you have any illumination for us about the psychological processes involved in a collaborative story-creation game? If you'll read that blog post of mine, you'll see that the problematic issue for me in story-creation as a play priority is that I can do that more facilely and to more enduring value by sitting down and writing that story alone. It's the same general type of activity, psychologically speaking. Your note about the less intense experience in a story-creation game seems to match with this; it's a pretty cerebral process to write a story, you're often more involved with your relationship to a genre than anything involved with the current story. I get this sort of play out of Universalis, unlike many others, it seems. Would you agree with the slightly simplified and exaggerated take that story-creation games necessarily operate in an "authorship mode" not unlike what you do when writing fiction alone, or could you point out some differences that could be leveraged into a full game that made story-creation fun without breaking it down on the coordination/advocation/narration model like many narrativist roleplaying games do?

    I also have a fledgling theory about this that states that story games are more interesting and involving for people with less everyday contact and analytical relationship to stories. At least it seems to me that the people who enjoy Once Upon a Time the best are the ones who are normally strictly average consumers of the narrative arts, and will thus get a rush of excitement at the challenge of having to step up and string a sentence together for a story. Sort of like children working with putty, having little regard for the quality of their creation. On my own part I just get bored at a cooperative story, probably because its quality is not equal to what I'd make alone.
  • Eero,

    I haven't read your essay yet (but will soon), so I'll answer briefly for now, with more later.

    The short version is that I've found the same kind of enjoyment in a properly-designed storytelling game as in a good roleplaying game, although it is generally less intense and less personal. There are the same interests and the same joys: in my designs, I like to use a competitive element, so there's some (light) tactical play involved. You might need to choose between narrating a certain character's success versus another's because of a mechanical goal you have as a player, for example. The enjoyment of other players' creative contributions is there just the same, as well (someone says, "And she takes her mask off... and, as all can see, she's actually the nun from the boat!"--people laugh and cheer), as is the challenge to step and provide your own. This is pretty much the same as in any RPG, as far as I can tell.

    There's the enjoyment of the product or outcome: "Whoa, what a cool/coherent/dramatic story we've made." This is somewhat like Ron Edwards's take on Simulationism: enjoying the creation of a package of fiction that's resilient and coherent; a stylistically consistent fiction. This is a challenge when more than one person involved, and thereby very satisfying when it takes place.

    In a similar space, there's the audience enjoyment of the story: "Wow, I didn't expect that twist!"

    With appropriate System support, there can be some interesting premise- or theme-oriented play going on, as well. My game Musette involves a semi-random "reveal" of cards to decide each character's fate at the end of their story arc. What I enjoy most about that game is the implicit judgements the players make over the characters when the cards are shown. For instance, in the first successful playtest, we had a poor aging banker who dreamt of saving up enough money to take his young daughter on vacation to the Moon. A pathetic and sympathetic character, for whom nothing seemed to go right in life. Towards the end of the story, there was a great crisis that threatened to kill everyone unless they made it to shelter in time. This poor old fellow was trying to gamble with his life earnings, hoping to make enough money to achieve that dream when the crisis struck. One of the players narrated him grabbing as much money as he could (after all, everyone else was running out of the casino, screaming) and rushing for safety. We decided that would be the moment to see the cards.

    The cards were revealed, and showed failure for this character: he would not achieve his Desire. There, an interesting thing happened: everyone around the table was silent for a moment. Somehow, it was clear to everyone involved what had happened: this poor man's greed had brought about his doom. We also all just *knew* somehow that this meant he would die before reaching shelter. In a totally unexpected twist, the mechanics of the game had turned this previously sympathetic character into a morally corrupt failure; a comedy into a tragedy, his story a very clear moralistic statement about the nature of greed.

    So, there's all sorts of stuff you can have going on, I feel, given the right design.

    So far, I've found the main challenges to pure storytelling are:

    * To provide each player with a clear idea of how to play the game--what their goals are, how to go about creating a story together. Responsibilities and limitations, just as in an RPG. What am I allowed to narrate? What is it my responsibility to narrate?
    * To provide enough tools for a story to develop and grow. Here, the necessary aspect is to be able to create, preserve, and escalate conflict within the story.
    * To make sure that players engage with one another's contributions. Otherwise, in "free collaborative narration" there is a danger that each player is trying to tell their own story rather than engaging with that of the other players.
    * To provide a way to bring all this to a conclusion. In other words, I find some systemic support to wrapping up existing story threads and bringing things to a conclusion necessary for consistently good story gaming. At some point in the game, you need to stop rewarding the introduction of new material and focus the players on the reincorporation and resolution of existing material.

    This is what I've found so far, anyway. More experiments may confirm or deny these ideas: they're just my current thoughts on the matter.

    I haven't particularly found your fledgling theory to be true, either. Although you may be right to a certain extent: in a fully collaborative game that doesn't frontload theme and the like, there is a tendency for the lowest common denominator to drag down the level of the overall group. In other words, if you have two master fiction authors playing this sort of game with a 12-year-old who just wants to narrate people getting hit in the face with pies, someone's not going to have a good time.

    I'm not sure comparing the outcome to the quality of a story you'd write yourself makes any sense, personally, no more so than for an RPG session. They're two different beasts, in other words!

    I'm looking forward very much to checking out your essay, as I said!
  • edited February 2010
    Posted By: Jesse..I think that story is best thought of as the *by product* of thematically charged characters in motion... I'm very against the idea that I'm here to tell you my character's story. And I certainly don't want you to tell me your character's story
  • edited February 2010
    My impro background tells me that to a certain extent as long as the characters are well-established then to an extent the story will take care of itself.

    If you have a set of believable characters with different motives, weaknesses and other foibles then conflicts will automatically arise, and the character should know how to deal with them without having to check against how this may or may not be contributing to a greater story.

    Of course, it helps to keep in mind such things such as not creating too much 'stuff' or keeping your story within a sensibly small circle of ideas, reincorporation as a means of getting to an ending, et cetera, but that's just groundskeeping, kicking the thing into form.

    The bulk of the interest in the story can be created simply by the truthful interaction between two or more characters, or even just one character placed in a particular situation, as might be the case in a game like Munchausen.

    For example, in a game of L5R I'm playing at the moment, my Hare Samurai has good reason to hate the Scorpion clan intensely. He's also friends with a Wasp clan member who is betrothed to a fairly high up Scorpion. This hadn't affected the friendship so far because they both saw it as something intangible far off in the future.

    But the wedding was very suddenly moved forward to right now and before the Hare even knew what had happened, the former Wasp had returned bearing Scorpion armour. This was understandably hard for the Hare to take, and now they have the difficult task of working together and trying to rebuild/maintain friendships under the problematic circumstances.

    This didn't happen because it made a good story - that was merely a byproduct of being true to the character.
  • Posted By: Peter SilkThis didn't happen because it made a good story - that was merely a byproduct of being true to the character.
    But it could have happened because of that, couldn't it?

    I mean if you are actively playing towards a good story, it will also move into directions like this. If I want a good story, believable, interesting characters will be the by product instead of the other way around. I'm guessing that's what this thread is all about.
  • edited February 2010
    Posted By: AdamK
    But it could have happened because of that, couldn't it?
    Yes, I suppose it could have happened because of that, but I don't think that's the path of least resistance. It's the difference between 'What sort of characters do we want to play in this situation, let's take them and see what cool story arises out of it' versus 'What cool story do we want to tell, and how can we make characters facilitate that best?'

    I think the latter is definitely possible to do, but I think it's harder to think in that direction - and it's definitely harder to do so on the fly.

    That's why I like a system like Fiasco, which essentially chucks at you some character relationships, needs, locations and objects, then sets you about telling a story with them. The mechanics angle that story towards, well, becoming a fiasco, but how it actually happens is all about the relationships between the characters. If you focus on the Relationships and Details in the game, the fiasco writes itself (with a little, gentle help in the form of the Tilt).

    What I will say is that playing with characters without knowing where the story is going does take a certain amount of guts, and trust that something good will happen. You have to tell yourself things like 'My character had an alcohol problem. That'll probably be important later, and if it is, I don't know WHY it'll be important, but I'll play it and see what happens.' or 'I'm going to shoot this person in cold blood because that seems like what the character would do, and I know there are probably going to be all sorts of bad consequences from that but it'll be exciting to find out what those are.'

    I think there are great rewards with stepping boldly into the unknown.
  • I don't know if it works that way, Adam. It's a big leap from "I want a good story" to actually knowing the steps to take in effective cooperation towards that goal. That seems to me like the crucial issue here: the problem in focusing on a good story instead of playing characters is not that a good story is inherently a dull goal, but that trying to directly manipulate story in a consensual or competitive manner doesn't seem to be a reliable method in achieving the goal in a fun, non-arduous manner. It seems to work sometimes and fail at other times, which to me is a sign of some unseen systematic details that are yet unspoken. Paul's description of how his games work at their best, for instance, resembles the psychology or your average No Myth game in many ways - Zombie Cinema, for instance, definitely involves that rushful tension of introducing story elements and then suddenly making them click, finding a narrative imperative that recontextualizes everything that happened before. So it's a real thing and it seems like you don't need character advocacy to get it (I don't see how advocacy is directly involved, anyway), but as of yet we can't quite phrase the exact mechanism of efficacy that's going in there.

    In comparison, we know quite well how ineffective naive story-orientation can be. In a competitive story creation game the story can easily become trivial and incoherent form-wise, as laughable turns are introduced by players using the most blunt instruments conceivable in forcing the story to go wherever they want it to go. This is, I'm sure, quite familiar to everybody from crude narration sharing games: first one player describes how "his" character finds a million dollars, then another describes how it's set on fire, then the first describes how the firemen come to save his fortune, and so on ad infinitum. Not very interesting. Similarly consensual narration games have their own crop of problems, as creativity is choked by the need to accord with the lowest common denominator.

    From this viewpoint the reason for why character advocacy "works" as a storytelling routine in a game is that it strikes a successful and fun compromise between the needs for individual creative input and consensual coherence. Thus, my question for story creation games always tends to be: if this game does not involve character advocation as its dramatic model, what is the replacement? The great majority of efforts in this direction seem to answer this question by presuming a creative need the individual player brings to the table, which need is then tempered by the limitations posed by the rules set: in effect you have a story, which will then be molded into a new story when combined with the stories of the other players by the rules set. I find this a non-satisfactory model most of the time simply because it does not account enough for the creation and sustenance of that creative motivation the player has. In other words: how does this game work if I do not have any particular story I need to get off my chest?
  • I have to say that, despite finding complexity in the details, I do think this thread title is an apt shorthand description of two popular and distinct play priorities.

    So, Mike, for the sake of comparison:
    I've played storytelling games where my character goes through all sorts of torturous emotional experiences that I as a real person can relate to, and afterward the feeling I'm left with is, "Neat, I got to help author a complete tale with my friends!" And I've played character-play games where my character has some unnecessary battle with some imaginary beastie, and afterward the feeling I'm left with is, "Waugh! Thank god! I killed it! High five, mofos!" For me it's a matter of tugging heartstrings from afar vs triggering simple curiosity or adrenaline from up close. (Sorry for the stereotyped examples, but I think they illustrate the point well enough.)
  • I don't know if it reliably works with serious themes either. Using previously undefined characters and total player control, I was mainly experimenting with less serious storytelling until now. One of my games was about how pirates die from a sea monster and are then telling their story to the gatekeeper of hell, just after they died. It was never meant to be serious, pirates were supposed to be lying and exaggerating. It lived up to this expectation in all the sessions I played.

    Unfortunately, I was unable to test my more serious attempts at "GMfull story gaming without character generation or advocacy" for a longer period of time. (I had one session with my mafia themed game where story was present and players liked it - they complained about the headache after the session though.)

    I don't think it's a better way than character advocacy, but it's different and I like experimenting with it. (Although I really love the thing Eero mentions about recontextualising everything, which happens a lot in Universalis setting generation.) I'm pretty sure it can be developed further by people. It's no wonder that playing a character is more advanced however, it has a lot more playtime behind it than this other method.
  • Eero,

    I don't have any kind of profound, theoretical answer to your question (at least, not yet), but I can tell you how it's gone for me:

    A friend of mine decided a couple of years ago that he was done with RPGs, and that the reason they didn't work so well was because a) they generally insist that the story continue from session to session, and b) players own characters exclusively. Knowing that I liked designing games, he effectively challenged me to design such a game. There were several attempts, and much floundering around (just as you describe), despite occasional successes.

    Eventually, I hit on something that worked, and have used the concept in each successful design so far. The trick was to establish points of contention explicitly, and then make it a rule that no one narration can settle that point of contention. For instance, the group might decide that they're really interested in whether Character X escapes death or bites the dust. Have that labeled explicitly, and then have a mechanism in place for settling the matter. From now on, no one is allowed to narrate Character X either escaping or being killed. This allows tension to build in the story, and removes 99% of narrative power-struggles. In my designs, there might be an option like "narrate something that helps Character X escape, add [some bonus] to the eventual resolution in his favour", and "narrate something that makes it more likely he'll die, add [some bonus] to the other side", and some rule that makes it advantageous for players not to all pile on one side. If I _know_ that your narration, no matter how extreme, does not remove that event's chance of happening, or not happening, I have no reason to object to it. It only heightens the drama.

    It allows people to build in thematic questions, as well. In this case, you might narrate circumstances into the fiction that correlate the escape with the death of someone Character X cares about. We all sit in anticipation, curious to find out which it will be!

    So, that's one way. I'm sure there are other ways, but that's the only one I've worked out to a successful form so far. Does my description make sense?
  • Posted By: AdamKI'm pretty sure it can be developed further by people. It's no wonder that playing a character is more advanced however, it has a lot more playtime behind it than this other method.
    Exactly. It's awfully unfair to compare something in relative infancy (story making) to something that developed organically and over a couple of decades, sometimes as a reaction to constraints of the form itself as it existed/exists ( character advocacy).

    The common divide of GM/Player responsibilty in the traditional RPG set up alone encourages this, and a good chunk of indies mostly are an experiment more in how one can push the boundaries of that form than anything else.

    If I may offer, one possible place to start ( again) on the story making thing is to stop trying to be artsy and try instead to be cliched.

    What I mean is, part of the way RPGs have gotten to this experimental indie stage is because peopple managed to burn through the cliches. They got them out of their systems, and had fun doing it until it wasn't as fun anymore. The need for for the familiar was sated.

    Admittedly, that may be just me, though. If I hadn't played a whole ton of action-adenture rpgs overthe years, I doubt I'd ever have gotten to the point that I could have fun with other kinds of rpgs/sgs.
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