Good Story Now?

edited December 2006 in Play Advice
From another thread:
Posted By: James_NostackAnother question: "Okay, Story Now. But what about Good Story Now?" (I.e., to what extent is our appreciation of RPG narratives a function of creator bias? And how do we correct for it?)
Posted By: shreyasHere's one from me, for you, James: Why care? (about the above) If I'm creating play for myself, what does it matter what the play looks like to Joe Outsider?
My question: where did Joe Outsider come from? James didn't bring him up. I have a feeling Joe Outsider is really just James in the cold light of day.

And a followup: why do we assume that roleplaying has, and will always have, no audience but the players?

And finally: how do we make better stories in the cold light of day?

Comments

  • Mike, here's where Joe Outsider came from:
    I.e., to what extent is our appreciation of RPG narratives a function of creator bias?
    "to what extent is our appreciation [...] a function of creator bias" is a way of asking "to what extent are we appreciating the stories simply because they are ours?"

    Which maybe suggests several things:
    -We appreciate our stories out of an owner's obligation to. They are OUR children, thus we must love them.
    -We are not creating stories (something to be passed on to audiences), but something else.
    -We should be creating stories.
    -What we are creating is really self-indulgent.

    I think that is what Shreyas was replying to.
  • But if James has thought to ask that question at all, isn't it implied that his creator bias has worn off? That now he's looking at the story he's ended up with and wants more from it?

    I know that I've had this experience a lot while I'm still at the gaming table. Just thinking to myself, "jeez, if this were a TV show I would change the channel right now. But it's a game and I'm hanging in, 'cause I can always pretend the story's better than it is."
  • edited December 2006

    Joe Insider is right. That was what I was replying to, not the Story Moon Language stuff.

    edit: And my response is coloured by this: I am at the table to experience the process of playing games with the people that I love, and the words coming out of our mouths are the excrement of that process.

  • I apologize if this is kind of tangental; I'm sort of thinking out loud here.

    Sometimes (and this is probably more than a little dorky, but hey) I like to write up our TSOY sessions in the form of short stories, from the perspective of my character. I get a lot of enjoyment out of this, but in the process I've realized that most game sessions, even really FUN sessions, just don't make very good short stories when they're written down as-is.

    For one thing, the characters. In a regular narrative, I would not be able to get away with having six protagonists who are all equally important, who are all the stars. If I came across a book that tried to give equal time to the disparate PCs in our game, my reaction would be something akin to, "Oh, come ON." Especially since, in my experience, games like TSOY really support and reward players for doing things with their PCs that would be, well, kind of cliched in fiction. Big, heroic stuff, like declaring undying love or an unquenchable thirst for revenge. It's FUN to be like , "You killed my father! Prepare to die!" in-game, but as a story element it's pretty tired.

    Which isn't to say that one shouldn't be aware of what's cliched, what's tired, when one's playing a game. You can play with it, turn tropes on their heads, purposefully go with something new. It can also be handy, sometimes, to think about story when you're trying to decide how something'll play out. A novel wouldn't go into great detail about the protagonist's trip across town, unless there was a point to it -- so if there's not a real point to narrating me go from point A to point B, it's ok to just say, "You walk across town. When you arrive at the Keep..."
  • edited December 2006
    Hey, here's where I was coming from:

    When I was younger, I used to write short-stories. And, while I was writing them, I was like, "Whoa, I am l33t super awesome" in part because I enjoyed being creative for its own sake, but also I enjoyed creating wild fun nifty stuff. And I'd feel this way for, say, six months after I'd finished. Then, maybe years later, I'd look at the thing and say, "Are you kidding me? This is total shite." When you don't have faith in what you're doing, it's hard to keep doing it.

    While I don't deny I had fun during the writing process, it becomes less fun as I realize, through repeated exposure, that I'm not that good. And, after ten years of struggling with this, I've largely stopped writing.

    In the context of these-here Story Games, there's the notion that you're going to create a story at the end of it. Does it matter if it's a good story? I'd like to think so. I'd think that a really awesome Story Game is fun to play, but also, yields something special at the end of the process. In a perfect world, it's something I want from my own play, and preferrably it's something the game could facilitate.

    It isn't an entirely theoretical question; there's money (or sub-cultural respect) for games that can deliver. The quality of the emergent story, as seen through AP reports, is a big marketing tool for a lot of these games. For every copy of PTA bought because of some design-maniac who had to see how fanmail works, I bet there were ten sold because people are like, "Whoa that sounds like a cool TV show, let's play that!!!"

    Now--what makes a "good story" as I've defined it? It's too nebulous a term right now, and I'm not sure I have enough time to flesh it out today.

    Shreyas, you wrote--
    my response is coloured by this: I am at the table to experience the process of playing games with the people that I love, and the words coming out of our mouths are the excrement of that process.

    I totally understand that viewpoint. But then why play Story Games? Why not Monopoly, or poker, or go dancing, or go out to eat? Why this hobby, and not others? (Also, in talking to you and Jonathan on-line every so often, I get the impression that y'all are really, really into the aesthetics of the emerging fiction, and I sometimes get the impression that's a big factor in deciding to play one thing, rather than another. I might be wrong! But it sounds like what emerges is actually pretty important to you.)
  • Posted By: James_NostackShreyas, you wrote--
    my response is coloured by this: I am at the table to experience the process of playing games with the people that I love, and the words coming out of our mouths are the excrement of that process.
    I totally understand that viewpoint. But then why play Story Games? Why not Monopoly, or poker, or go dancing, or go out to eat? Why this hobby, and not others?

    To put words in Shreyas' mouth...

    Because this hobby includes this process.

    The end product is immaterial; most of my gaming stories suck, and I'm gibberingly happy with that.

    Because the process rocked.
  • Posted By: crowyheadmost game sessions, even really FUN sessions, just don't make very good short stories when they're written down as-is.
    Yeah, see, I don't write the stuff down as short stories (dork!) but yes, that's exactly where I'm coming from. When I write an AP report, there's always a lot of stuff that gets left out, or re-arranged, or tweaked. Some of that is inevitable--the fact that we spent 30 minutes discussing pizza toppings isn't germane--but why does the fiction need to be re-jiggered? Obviously, because the players don't have the advantage of foresight: but why can't the game handle that? And where does the instinct to streamline and air-brush the play come from?
  • Levi, I guess if that were it, that wouldn't be enough for me personally. Like, I could understand maybe for a Step On Up sort of game, where the point is competitive or cooperative play with lots of risk... but why Story Now? Like, if the games you tell are all big on telling stories, and themes, and premise-laden characters & such, doesn't the story matter to [i]some[/i] degree? What's the point of (forgive me, dropping into jargon) "author stance," if not to tell a good story?
  • Also---

    But then why play Story Games? Why not Monopoly, or poker, or go dancing, or go out to eat? Why this hobby, and not others?

    Why don't you eat chocolate pie every day? Chocolate pie is awesome, but a man cannot live on chocolate pie alone. So, you eat other awesome things too - burritos, pizza, samosas...

    really, really into the aesthetics of the emerging fiction

    Yeah, to a certain extent you could say this is true. Here is another possibility, and I don't honestly know myself well enough to make a diagnostic that can tell one from the other - really into the aesthetics of the creative process that this involves.

    I can tell the exact same ninja shounen fight story with a slightly hacked D&D and a slightly hacked Agon and a slightly hacked Universalis, but I'm certainly not going to do it with Uni and I'm probably not going to do it with D&D, because the process that that will involve is less fun to me.

  • What Levi said. I like to jam. My friends and I aren't making good music. We're making music together. The reward is in the process, not the product. When I look at the product in the cold light of day, it's rarely (if ever) brilliant art, even piecemeal. Perhaps with vicious editing and rewrites. But that's so, so much not the point of play for me.
  • James;

    This is probably going to sound totally flaky. But let me see if I can 'splain. At the table, playing in a game where the theme and authorship are taken seriously, I'm not chasing the story I'll tell you later. I'm chasing the story that I'm experiencing right now. What makes it good is that it's happening now and that it's happening with me in it. The satisfaction I get from that story belongs to the people at the table, right now, in this specific place and time only.

    That the result may or may not apply or give satisfaction to other people that weren't there, were not part of that place and time, is utterly immaterial. Rather than focusing on making it satisfying for those people, I will always choose to focus on making it satisfying for those of us, here at the table, right now - if someone can come up with a way to do both, sounds great, but in the end, the point of the gameplay is not the end product.
  • edited December 2006
    Let me put it this way:

    1. I understand that many people are largely indifferent to the quality of the story that emerges from the game.

    2. Does it follow that they y'all are totally indifferent? Like, let's say your favorite game is hilariously awesome to play. And then they come out with 2nd Edition of the same game, which--while still being hilariously great--also tells stories a million times better than Shakespeare. Are you guys saying, "All things being equal, when I think of a better story emerging from the game I want to puke. Get that story crap away from us"? Because that seems like a funny thing, for a forum called Story Games.

    If the answer to 2 is, "You know, that might be nice," then that's the point I'm making. And if that's a goal, how do we get there?
  • So, question: What's a "good" story? More precisely, how do you know that the story you're really enjoying isn't one that the other participants find a drag, or vice versa? Other than correctly picking up nonverbal cues that they just ain't into it?

    I do think this issue is one that can and should be addressed by system design. I don't pretend to really understand how exactly, but flags and reward systems seem to have something to do with it. Like, if you're foisting a particular creative angle on your fellows that they just can't dig, your currency to push that agenda should just dry up until you re-train on the shared vibe.

    I have huge esteem for Capes for actually doing exactly that. Polaris also accomplishes it by what's essentially a system of cut-throat bargaining for what goes into the story.
  • James: Not indifferent. Just not paying attention to it during play. I actually suspect that active attention to the Big Picture of story quality is pretty darn likely to short out Story Now. If you are positing some method by which I could not change the rewards garnered in the moment through the act of collaborative creativity, but could be reasonably assured that afterwards my product would meet my own aesthetic criteria of quality better than the product I get with Brand X... well, I'd like a pony with that too, if you don't mind.
  • Okay, am I a totally arrogant prick if I submit that my games generally do produce quality stories? I dunno about everyone else's experiences, but the PTA and FLFS and Dogs games that I've played of late have produced transcripts that are of a commensurate quality to a rough draft of a short story / television show / what-have-you. Now, a large part of that may be the "rough draft" part, since I work with rough drafts all the time and see them change drastically in the process of getting to final product. But I see in (most of) my play a worthwhile story that could entertain others.
  • edited December 2006
    Joshua: yeah, I haven't played Dogs or FLFS, but I really liked the half-season of PTA that I once played in. It's one inspiration for this thread. It was a rough draft, but I think it was the rough draft of something very solid and strong. That feeling of intensity and emotional commitment, I'm pretty sure wasn't creator-bias, though I'm not sure how well I could communicate the full scope of it in words to another person. It's something I'd like to get in all of the games I play, if I could.
  • I think I've managed to refine the style of play I like, along with the appropriate games and players, so that the stuff I create in play is better than stuff I see on TV or read in books -- that includes a lot of games by and with folks around here. There was a thread elsewhere about dull in-character chatter that goes nowhere. I don't have that in the games I play because I hate it. In last Wednesday's game there was stuff that I'd value higher than other stuff, but nothing that wasn't of some measurable worth.

    I treat the imaginary audience the same way I treat my potential customer. I'm going to first and foremost create something I really want, and I'm going to trust in the idea that if I'm satisfied with what I've made, other people will be too. Everyone at the table had a good time? That's a pretty good start in both cases.
  • I'm going with Josh and saying, "My stories are good. If they suck it is only in the way that RPG stories should suck.

    The other thing that I'd say is that for me playing a game isn't like reading a story or watching a movie. It's like a fun version of writing a story or creating a movie. So I do tend to be more interested in the process that we're going through as we go through it, rather than the end result, as the fun isn't in the story at the end (as it is in actual writing, the process of which sucks) but in the telling of the story at the moment.

    When I can get both, that's chocolate AND peanut butter.
  • I'm gonna join the Brand-Josh club (can we make t-shirts?), though I think most RPGs, by their very nature, produce stories that feel like genre fiction (genre stories?). And genre fiction has different standards of "good" than, say, the pop fiction market, or Oprah's Book Club, or the New York Times Book Review (each of which has different qualities they're looking for).

    So yeah, "good" stories? That means almost nothing to me, being the relativist I am.
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyI dunno about everyone else's experiences, but thePTAandFLFSandDogsgames that I've played of late have produced transcripts that are of a commensurate quality to a rough draft of a short story / television show / what-have-you. Now, a large part of that may be the "rough draft" part, since I work with rough drafts all the time and see them change drastically in the process of getting to final product. But I see in (most of) my play a worthwhile story that could entertain others.
    Once I start thinking about it in rough draft terms, I'm more inclined to see that my games are fairly consistently producing decent stories. Our actual session write-ups are really only of great interest to the folks actually involved in the game, but I know I've used those write-ups to produce short stories that people (who weren't present, even) actually claimed to enjoy reading.

    So what gets/would get tweaked if you were to decide to make the rough draft into a solid story, and are those things that might actually improve gameplay if they were tweaked or avoided during play? I'm just going to speak from my own experience here, given that I've actually attempted to do this. These are the things I've found myself changing:

    1) Dialog -- tightening things up, and of course, I'm not going to be reproducing in-character dialog word for word anyway; I have a good memory, but it's not THAT good. :)
    2) Pacing, including switching back and forth between scenes with more rapidity than was actually happening in play
    3) Point of view -- This is where a lot of the real changes happen, since I usually narrow things to the POV of one character (er, mine).
    4) Subtle changes to make events make more sense -- I don't actually have to do this as often as you'd think, but I have, on occasion, realized that an NPC might as well not have been in the scene, so I just leave them out, stuff like that.

    It seems to me that questions of pacing probably have the most impact on actual gameplay. In my experience, if it's necessary to focus on one or two players to the exclusion of others, it works best if the scenes are quite short, so that people don't get bored waiting for their turn in the spotlight...

    I think I have more to say on this, but work just got busy, so I'm going to have to come back and edit or something.
  • Has anyone take an audio recording of actual play and tried editing it into a listenable format? I'd think with the growing popularity of Skype games, this might be do-able, though I'm not sure how much work it would be or what tools you'd use.
  • Kirsten, have you had an opportunity to give PTA a try? It actually takes care of a lot of the issues that you raised. By framing scenes in terms of sets and camera angles, it really quashes the pacing and point-of-view problems.

    Me personally, I can't do engaging dialog in real-time (unless my character is being flippant; I have a lot of characters who are often flippant). But if you accept in play that you can take a moment to put together your next line (and that doesn't mean the character is pausing in the fiction), then dialog "tightens up" a great deal, as well.
  • Posted By: Mark WJames: Not indifferent. Just notpaying attentionto it during play. I actually suspect that active attention to the Big Picture of story quality is pretty darn likely to short out Story Now. If you are positing some method by which I could not change the rewards garnered in the moment through the act of collaborative creativity, but could be reasonably assured that afterwards my product would meetmy own aesthetic criteriaof quality better than the product I get with Brand X... well, I'd like a pony with that too, if you don't mind.
    Mark speaks for me.

    Especially as regards the pony.
  • I think play-by-chat games are especially good at creating literary texts, because of the textual nature of the medium. I have transcripts of several that are pretty interesting from a literary/narrative perspective.

    Face-to-face play will probably be best at telling "good" stories (whatever that means) if it takes advantage of the strengths of oral storytelling as a medium. I doubt most games do this, but Polaris certainly tries.
  • Oh, very good point, Jonathan. In fact from moving from text-based play (MUSH) into tabletop play, I had to restructure my thinking. The florid, verbose descriptions aren't important in face-to-face; instead, it should be about making eye contact with your fellow players and engaging your words with their responses.
  • To begin with, a datapoint: I'm pretty proud of the transcript my friends and I have produced from our first (soon to conclude!) PTA game, and would love to write it up as a script treatment someday (if I knew the first thing about writing script treatments). It's not perfect; the first couple of episodes are awkward, and some themes introduced suffered narrative Darwinism and fell away in favor of others. But overall, we're all three looking back and saying, "wow, that's a TV show we'd actually watch."

    Which is, I'd submit, largely the poiint of PTA.

    This thread actually reminds me of a conversation I was having with my brother Matt. He said, "The thing that's cool to me about RPGs is the interactivity--everyone has their input, and it's unpredictable and surprising. Of course it's not going to be as good a quality as a real story. I just don't think that's something RPGs can achieve."

    To which my response was, "OK, maybe they won't be as good as real stories. But what's wrong with trying to design rules and play procedures to make that story quality as good as we can?"

    To which his response was a Marge Simpson-like murmur. But it did strike me, what a profound position that was: No, we're not supposed to "create story," we're supposed to play an RPG, an activity that may resemble telling a story but isn't. I'd never quite understood where Matt and I's conceptual divide lay regarding RPGs. I'd always assumed making the "story" as good as possible was an indispensible goal. Now I understood my brother's position, and our many, many arguments, so much better. I may be looking at him like he's a Martian now, but at least I understand that he's a Martian. ;)

    Peace,
    -Joel
  • How do you become a better player and create better play? That's simple, but not very easy. It's pretty much the same as any artform.

    1. Engross yourself in good stories. Critically read and watch good stories.

    2. Play with good players. In all honestly, your progress will be more difficult if you only surround yourself with mediocre players. This is a difficult issue, as we have little or no control over the quality of players that are available to us. But this is the same as if you wanted to be a good musician or whatever. Find a good teacher and a good musical group to play with. Good players will challenge you.

    3. Practice, practice, practice. My old musical teacher said it wisely---good musicians are those that practice and play. "Innate" talent won't get you very far if you don't develop it. Just continue to play your games, with a critical eye towards the results. Eventually you're get better.
  • I will say one other thing, though. We have to be careful about comparing RPG play with regular stories, be it literature or film. The improvisational nature of RPGs lends itself to a different type of narrative than the regular writing process does.

    Without getting into it (too much), improvisation is more about moments of expressions, rather than a coherent flow or progression. Obviously, in the normal writing process, you can go back and edit your fiction, making everything fit tightly together. You can't really do that in improvisational artforms like RPGs. You can try, but it's really difficult and it doesn't take advantage of the main advantage of improv, to be able to tweak the fiction to fit the mood of the audience/author.

    Not that all that shouldn't be a concern when playing. Just be aware that the fiction produced by improv is going to look different than the fiction produced by the normal writing process.
  • I posted this in another thread, but I think it might be on-topic here, too:
    Two of the guys in my PTA game from last year were friends who had worked with me on a couple of writing projects. On those projects, the whole point of everything we did - the whole point of our collaboration - was to get an end product of a certain quality. When we played PTA, on the other hand, the end product was not as important as going through the process of spontaneously creating story-stuff. If it turned out that playing through the game resulted in a "good story" that was gravy. But it wasn't really our goal, and it wasn't much like the experience of collaborating when we did have that kind of goal in mind.
    To expand a little:

    When I play an RPG, I'm mostly interested in the process. I like to think of it as "spontaneously coming up with engaging story-stuff" but timfire's "moments of expressions" is probably the better phrasing.

    This isn't to say I'm against aiming for a good story or that I'm indifferent to the quality of the fiction we're creating - but it does mean that there are things I would do while writing a story (whether collaboratively or otherwise) that I'm not interested in doing while playing an RPG, like:

    -spending an hour to get one or two lines of dialogue just right
    -taking long breaks when necessary
    -working on the story in whatever order feels right
    -(when collaborating) hashing out points for more than a few minutes at a time
    -(when collaborating) letting the "hashing out" turn into an argument

    ...and lots more along those lines. Writing, for me, can be enjoyable, but, it can also be aggravating, draining, frustrating. I generally find it rewarding, but it is work.

    RPGs, for me, are play. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try my best or that I'm not going to take it seriously. But it does mean that I'm not going to sacrifice my "fun" (for lack of a better word) in order to get a better story, like I will when I'm writing.

    Something else: the "spontaneous" thing is important to me, too. (I definitely prefer it when people come to the table with the minimum amount prepped - the minimum, of course, will vary from game to game). The band analogy from Sorcerer is pertinent here: jamming isn't aimed at producing a "song". I also like to think about the differences between my response to improv comedy and to "scripted" comedy. Over all my comedy-watching experience, the biggest laughs, the best "bits", have all been from scripted shows. However, the experience of watching improv - the "performing without a net" aspect of the show - often means that I find improv a lot more engaging, even if objectively, the routines aren't as funny (i.e., I'm more likely to say "You had to be there" if I'm relating the experience to a friend).

    The spontanaeity in RPGing means a lot to me: so much so that I'm not going to get too concerned if I the dialogue I come up with is lamer than it would be if I had time to sit and think things through and compose it at my leisure. And I'm not going to sweat it if I get thrown a curve and can only manage to foul it off. (And, with practice, this will happen less and less frequently).
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