The Difference between Narrative and Story

edited November 2014 in Story Games
The words "Narrative" and "Story" are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous.

A Narrative is a set of event-types and ideas, typically related and selected for thematic purposes but not necessarily sequential nor dramatic. It is open-ended. Narratives involve theme, word choice and emphasis, but exist without any need for Plot. A Narrative does not need a Structure; it just happens. Entire cultures can (and do) tell themselves Narratives. The Theory of Evolution is a Narrative. "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave" is a Narrative.

A Story is more directly tied to the concept of Plot and Character. It is a set of events with a Beginning, Middle and End, selected and arranged so as to convey a particular Meaning and/or Point of View. A Story, when it "works" (i.e. in a manner many people find acceptably resonant with one Narrative Structure or another) is the manifestation of a Narrative, in such a way as to support or refute it.

A Narrative functions as both a Template by which Stories are interpreted, and as a Filter determining which Stories will be accepted and which will be rejected or denied by adherents of that particular Narrative.

A Narrative Structure can be emergent, but if everything works right, what it emerges "into" is an already-existing (because archetypal) Narrative Structure, in either its positive (affirming) or negative (denying) form. A Story's Structure is called a "Narrative Structure" when we are speaking of the framework or formula rather than the content. That's because we're looking at a template. Joseph Campbell's famous monomyth is a Narrative Structure. So is Aristotle's dramatic arc. A Narrative Structure is the shape and purpose of a Story, absent the mundane, non-archetypal details.

A storyteller with a given Narrative Intention may pre-select certain types of events as being more probable, or pertinent for inclusion, than others, in the Story that unfolds. It is possible to mechanize and gamify this. It is also possible to "bake it right in" to the structure of the game itself.

So. Is there such a thing as a "Story-Driven" game?

A 100% "railroaded" game can be "Story-Driven". But other than that, no. Stories cannot actually drive events, because they are comprised of events. The Story is the events that are recounted when the important points are selected afterward for retelling, the Narrative is the set of Stories and beliefs it makes manifest, and the Narrative Structure is the arc, or "shape" of the dramatic curve that Story ended up taking. So if we're talking about typical RPG design at least, the words "Narrative-Oriented" or "Story-Oriented" would be more precise ways to express what's really going on.

Is there such a thing as a "Narrative-Driven" game?

Most trad RPGs are not, the way the rules are designed. Because ideally the Story is an emergent property of what happens at the table, and the Narrative cannot really be judged until it's complete. But because of the difference between Narrative and Story, it is possible for a game session to be Narrative-Driven or Narrative-Constrained, while the Story itself remains undetermined. The only requirement is that the Story elements as they unfold must either be guided by mechanisms adhering to the designer's intended Narrative Structure (e.g. the tilt in Fiasco, escalation in Dogs in the Vineyard), or bounded by them (seasons in The Quiet Year, continued survival in Dread).


  • Would you mind sourcing these observations? Because these are the dark waters of fiction studies :-)

    That is, folks tend to all agree that narrative, story, and plot are different things, but exactly how each gets defined is either the source of profound understanding or hair-splitting technicalities, depending on who you ask. (And then you fall down the rabbit hole of Barthes and Bakhtin and Foucault and Derrida and...well, anyway.)

    I'm interested in all this because the question of "how can we utilize the rather detailed understanding that exists about what makes a good narrative" (I've been reading a lot on how screenwriters approach stories because no one is as obsessed with narrative structure as a screenwriter) to make good/interesting games has been my current obsession. One of the purposes of my Midnight's Voice game is to start figuring that out.
  • @Aviatrix I'll try to find some citations for you but really this is just the accumulated knowledge of years, coming out of my head. Side note, I think you'll interested in a little playtest I have coming up. :-)

  • No worries :-) I feel that the definition of narrative above is just slightly off, but I can't put my finger on it or really say anything profound about it right now.

    I look forward to the playtest info :-) I may also end up doing my "Tolstoy" project with the Midnight's Voice group as a further exploration of drama and dramatic structure--my pitch is that it will have even less action! But lovely twenty-minute scenes where you ponder whether or not to dance with Prince Alexei or hold out until Count Alexander shows up--if he ever does! (Bonus XP for doing it in French ;-) )
  • Could the difference your looking for be ?
    Story = Past. Told after the event.
    Narrative = Present, Told In the moment.

    Also what drives story and narrative is the events of the components involved.

    In nature these events can be very predictable and lend themselves to study and probability.
    But when it comes to dramatic events they are less predictable.

    Trying to create a good story would mean to pick between events that have already taken place, but would be great fun to reenact or retell.

    Trying to create a good narrative would mean to observe between predictable and unpredictable events as they unfold in the moment.

  • Ah, yeah. I stumbled across this distinction when I started going over narrative elements in board games. A lot of board games don't have a specific story, a specific plot. But what they do have are links of theme to mechanics, bits of cause and effect, hooks that feed into a general narrative feel. So I think it's not a difference of when it's told...but rather a difference of abstraction vs. specificity.

    Story is these events which happened in this way and concluded like this. Narrative is these sorts of events which happen. A narrative isn't a story, but a story is a narrative.

    (My thoughts, anyhow.)
  • edited November 2014
    Both true, plus also consider the aspect of Narrative Structure - i.e. a "container" or "template" according to which Stories are created or judged. In light of all the above then, the word "Narrative" (a) is much more abstract than, (b) has more meanings than, and (c) denotes things that are clearly of a different and broader class than, those things denoted by the word "Story".

    I find that dictionaries and even Wikipedia don't really discuss this difference, but writers, linguists and sociologists do. The concept of "Narrative Structure" is one that's more commonly differentiated, as here:

    As for "Narrative" vs "Story", here are some rather banal but substantiating links I found:

    But for my money (and politics aside), here is the most interesting one by far:
    which is a response to this lecture by John Hagel:

    Excerpt: "Hagel’s formulation has the broad social narratives at the highest level—what we would label master narratives, which endure over time and are broadly known by members of a culture—and personal narratives at the lowest level. The step he is missing is what we have called local narratives, systems of stories about events in the here-and-now. Local narratives ground master narratives in contemporary events and define a place where individuals can cast themselves in roles, aligning their personal narratives. This creates vertical integration, where all three levels are aligned, and it makes for an extraordinary persuasive package."

    (You had me at "Persuasive Package".)

    A "story" has the typical definition here, a retelling of events in the shape of an arc with a beginning, middle and end. But a "narrative" in this sense is a connected network of stories and statements (which Hagel intriguingly calls "unfinished stories") which provides a sense of identity or purpose to a social group or a whole society. The part about providing a sense of continuity and commonality is the part I was highlighting in the OP; but the idea that a Narrative also includes "unfinished stories" really drives home the important difference.

    So in this sense... "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" is a (probably apocryphal) Story that supports a Narrative of "Americans Value Honesty". "Saddam Hussein has WMDs" was a (false) Story that supported an "America Is Always Right" Narrative.

    # # #

    Another intriguing statement was the idea that a Narrative is open-ended. Because of this, it invites participation. (Or play!) In practice (or play), your participation (your Story) may end up either supporting or refuting the Narrative. I realized this goes both ways: the Narrative may support or refute your Story as well. For instance: You may take part in a covert mission in the war, but the government denies any knowledge of your mission, and after the war is over no one supports or believes your story. Your story has a beginning middle and end, but it will be refuted by the official Narrative (public perception via media) of the war.

    # # #

    In @David_Berg's thread "I need a name for the characters' job", the following statements are examples of a Master Narrative at work:
    "___ are unique people who take on supernatural problems the Empire can't fathom"
    "___ have an uncanny understanding of Evil supernatural forces."
    "Peering too deeply into the supernatural is not good for the minds of Men"

    A Local Narrative brings a tactical level to a Master Narrative. I see them as fractal (local) manifestations of Master Narratives, which is perhaps why Hagel did not mention them. For instance, within the Master Narrative that says "There exist powerful and monstrous creatures spawned by evil which torment man and deserve to be slain", we might have a Local Narrative that says "The evil Gazoo of the Tulgey Woods eats farm animals and terrorizes the children. We are at its mercy, and must make sacrifices to appease it. One day we will be delivered from its tyranny by a mighty hero."

    Personal Narratives are qualitatively different. These are statements that individuals or groups tell themselves about themselves. In this category go many of the trappings of RPG CharDev, such as Aspects, Goals, even Character Classes, etc. Statements that say "I am a ___ that does ___." "I am a Watchdog of God who fights the evil in mens hearts", "I am a warrior prince destined for the throne", etc. Little by little, one by one, all Narratives wish to be substantiated by Stories. I believe that is what happens when a Personal Narrative comes up against (collides with?) a Local Narrative, and the veracity of both are tested.

    Now. In RPGs (unlike descended myths), not all sessions are successful - i.e. not all stories support the narrative - because it is possible for a PC to fail, and/or the narrative to turn out to be wrong.

    But those aren't the games players really want, are they! At least in western culture, we like for our heroes to succeed. And that why when David Berg says: "Tales abound of the deeds of ___, mostly of the heroic and swashbuckling sort" - those "tales" are the Stories (game sessions or "modules") in which the characters' actions succeeded in adhering to (or being reduced to) a stable Narrative Structure, and therefore those Stories supported a Master Narrative.

  • edited November 2014
    Interesting. I don't have the spoons to get too deeply into this tonight, except to note that you've so far been approaching this from a sociological point of view. My own training (reformed Lit major here*) leads me to approach this question from a more writerly perspective, although this has advantages...if what we are trying to do here is figure out how to use these concepts to create, I dunno, Art if such a thing is possible in a game.

    Do you think we could try and make an atomic example of the difference? A narrative that isn't a story? A story that isn't a narrative? That might be instructive.

    *Though my MA thesis was on genre studies, not narrative studies. And I didn't even like theory that much :)
  • I am confused, but maybe I'm just missing the point of the thread. I'd say that no play is "driven" by anything other than the participants, and that most "X-driven play" talk best refers to player motives and goals. So "story-driven play" is play where the players prioritize story. And a "story-driven game" is a game which gets its players to prioritize story. That would be my response to the opening post, although perhaps this thread has already moved well past that.

    Regarding adherence to stable Narrative Structures, let me just mention that with good recapping procedures, the group can turn most series of play events into some semblance of satisfying stories in retrospect, and that with such procedures in place, the need to generate quality narrative ingredients in the moment can be relaxed. Not saying this is preferable! Just wanted to note it and see where you think it fits.
  • edited November 2014
    you've so far been approaching this from a sociological point of view.
    The word "Narrative", yes, largely. Not so for "Narrative Structure".
    My own training (reformed Lit major here*) leads me to approach this question from a more writerly perspective, although this has advantages...if what we are trying to do here is figure out how to use these concepts to create, I dunno, Art if such a thing is possible in a game.
    Meaningful Art, yes. I was an Anthro major, myself :-) So here's a notion that occurred to me... Big sandbox worlds already (should) include (a) Master Narratives happening at the world/campaign level, and (b) Local Narratives happening at the city/group level, and (c) Personal Narratives (which we might consider "thematic interpretations" of particular character's arcs) happening at the individual level.

    What about the possibility of designing a three-tiered system that has all this, plus a mechanic for making determinations about success or theme or plot based on how closely the three levels are aligned?
    Might be cool.

    Of course as I wrote that I thought "Don't we already do that instinctively?" Which I think is part of what @David_Berg is saying in his last para above. And perhaps we do. But perhaps some of us are better at it than others. And perhaps it would be neat to teach a machine how to do it.
    Do you think we could try and make an atomic example of the difference? A narrative that isn't a story? A story that isn't a narrative? That might be instructive.
    · A Narrative (writerly sense) that isn't a story: Aristotle's laws of poetic justice.
    · A Narrative (sociological sense) that isn't a story: "Do God's work on Earth and you will be rewarded in Heaven."
    · A Story that isn't a Narrative (or doesn't exist in relation to a Narrative): I don't think there is such a thing, not if the Story is successful as a Story.

    We all know the Story is (supposed to be, anyway) emergent.
    One question that arises: To what extent can Narrative Structure be emergent?

    Narrative Structure can be...
    • Pre-Existing with all Story Elements included (this is a pre-existing Story, really)
    • Pre-Existing with only major Story Elements included (unfinished stories and proto-story notions)
    • Pre-Existing in Template Form only (i.e. a signifying "arc" without any signified values yet)
    • Determined early in session, reactively (GM) or proactively (group)
    • Determined late in session, reactively (GM) or proactively (group)
    • Fully Emergent; Allowed to not "take shape" until done
    In fact there is probably no such thing as a totally new emergent Narrative Structure, because all the archetypes and narrative dynamics were drilled into our heads long ago (see David Berg above again). What actually happens is that the Story gets simplified to its principal "beats" and compared to a backlog of Narrative Structures stored in our heads, where it is determined to be either a good fit for one of them, or a bad fit for any of them (in which case the Story feels broken or weird). This simplification and comparison happens mostly unconsciously but also happens in post-session discussion, and sometimes can take several hours, or even days.

  • I used to go for variations on the ‘narrative is direction, story has a shape’ definition, but the more I thought about it the less this made sense.

    It might be said that there quite a few game agencies for translating narrative into story – but I’ll leave that to you to decide.

    Personally, I believe (without any real evidence) that the best parts of in-game story creation are pre-conscious in nature. Players can feel something happening before they know what it is. But that’s kind of… structuralist and perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

    Asif’s taxonomies are convincing but, for me, do more to identify the constituents of what he’s trying to describe than define it. Maybe that’s the point.

    Part of me wants to say: “Find a metaphor to describe narrative, another to describe story and then an interrelated third to illuminate the parallax between the two.” The problem with metaphor, of course, is that you can end up with a five-page pile-up on the nature of, say, ‘railroading’.

    There’s a very funny interview with Jacques Derrida in which he resolutely refuses any effort on the part of the interviewer to frame the dialogue. At one point the cameraperson chips in: “Which philosopher would you choose as your mother?”

    Jacques loves this. “Ah,” he responds, “I see: this is your personal style.” He doesn’t answer the question.
  • Love it, @Abstract_Machine! I agree that I'm being a bit Structuralist here. Perhaps Levi-Strauss and Propp are easier to map onto game structures than Foucault & Derrida. :-) I'll admit that it generally doesn't usually harm anyone's understanding seriously when these two words are used interchangeably. But another reason (far less erudite) is that I'm making this thread do double duty as a footnote in the Railroading thread, where I believe the distinction is an important one.

  • Ah, I'm flashing back to my grad school days :-|

    I don't have any profound theoretical observations here. Just a few practical points.

    So, thus far this has been a kinda anthropological/theoretical examination. This is a good thing, we need a framework, cf. bell hooks talking about theory and praxis.

    BUUUT, that said, to a certain degree the theory is only going to take us so far in this understanding. Or to be a bit more concrete: I can pull out my Northrop Frye & talk about how Pride and Prejudice is an example of a spring comedy*, or pull out Bakhtin to talk about the interaction between narrator voice and character voice** in the novel, and I'm sure you Structuralists have plenty to add.

    But none of that is going to be as practical as could be if you actually want to write a book like Pride and Prejudice.

    Obvious caveat: to write Pride and Prejudice, you also need to have a razor wit, a fantastic ability to observe fine and telling details, and one of the great prose styles in the history of the English language. But, and here's a key point, it's not just those elements that make it such a great novel and satisfying read. The truth is, Austen's novel is also fantastically well structured. This is a characteristic of a lot of great narrative art.

    Even stuff that has a shaggier structure, like, oh say, War and Peace. But the thing about that monster is that the individual sections are fantastically taut (well, at least most are) and the overall complete and deep understanding of the characters and their motivations--which, along with his superb ability to portray the conflicts between inner and outer mental states makes Tolstoy our most humane of writers--keeps that thing humming along so that it rarely lacks drive and momentum.***

    All a roundabout introduction to the idea that the process of playing a "story-directed" game probably needs to be informed by the actual process of creating a story--and may benefit from the practical applications of such rather than the theoretical.

    Caveat the second: obviously, my contributions to this board are heavily weighted towards precisely this kind of thing; my bones have been made, such as they are, on the weight of my AP threads. But I do feel I have a certain intentionality to those threads; that since I expose the mechanics and discussion of why I made certain choices (or mistakes) that we can use them as a body of evidence to discuss the praxis of narrative creation in the medium of a game.

    Because writerly advice about narrative construction takes some very different tacks; I won't rehearse them all here, but the most important boils down to: plot is character. Narrative, really, is character: that is, without a consistent understanding both of where a character stands and what they are changing into, you will have a narrative that will instinctively strike the observer (and participant, in the case of performance) as wrong somehow. Most structural advice to writers boils down to strategies and templates to make this work.****

    A side point: John Rogers kept a very interesting blog while he was running Leverage that gave a lot of peeks into the process of writing a TV series. And he talks quite a bit about the process of breaking a story. That is, you may have an idea for a story ("Nate needs to rob a museum and Parker broke her leg!"), but you may not have an episode--or, more to our discussion, a narrative. The two phases of breaking a story are the practical--can you divide the story idea up into scenes, can the ideas in those scenes be conveyed with camera shots and dialogue, do we have enough for everyone to do this episode--but also thematic: that is, do the scenes flow logically from the choices the characters make, and are those choices consistent with the motivations of the characters (and our prior understanding of those motivations). Rogers talks a lot about needing to connect scenes so that they obviously develop out of what happened before and the choices made by the characters as opposed to a "and then this happens" kind of plotting.

    I will submit as well that a lot of what we are looking at in the difference between narrative and story is going to come down to the thematic intention of narrative.

    And I submit in addition that despite the close identification between player and character in RPGs, there hasn't perhaps been as much done as you'd might expect in looking at character-driven structure.

    * At least I think that's how it gets classified; I read Frye a long time ago and even then I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with his (brilliant) ideas.

    ** Bakhtin is awesome on this stuff and is one of the few theorists I've ever considered rereading for pleasure.

    *** I somewhat facetiously describe War and Peace as "soap-opera, plus battles", but that doesn't change my abiding love for that beautiful book.

    **** Probably non-story narrative as well, in the implied character of narrator and reader--but then again I'm an old Bakhtinian.
  • Also for your consideration: I read this last night in Nabokov's Notes on Russian Literature. This is an interesting passage, especially as it is part of Nabokov's rather pointed attack on Dostoevski as a second-rate writer. But it may have some points to consider:

    When an artist starts out on a work of art, he has set himself some definite artistic problem that he is out to solve. He selects his characters, his time and his place, and then finds the particular and special circumstances which can allow the developments he desires to occur naturally, developing, so to say, without any violence on the artist's part in order to compel the desired issue, developing logically and naturally from the combination and interaction of the forces the artist has set into play.

    The world the artist creates for this purpose may be entirely unreal — as for instance the world of Kafka, or that of Gogol — but there is one absolute demand we are entitled to make: this world in itself and as long as it lasts, must be plausible to the reader or to the spectator. It is quite inessential, for instance, that Shakespeare introduces m Hamlet the ghost of Hamlet's father. Whether we agree with those critics who say that Shakespeare's contemporaries believed in the reality of phantoms, and therefore Shakespeare was justified to introduce these phantoms into his plays as realities, or whether we assume that these ghosts are something in the nature of stage properties, it does not matter: from the moment the murdered king's ghost enters the play, we accept him and do not doubt that Shakespeare was within his right in introducing him into his play. In fact, the true measure of genius is in what measure the world he has created is his own, one that has not been here before him (at least, here, in literature) and, even more important, how plausible he has succeeded in making it. I would like you to consider Dostoevski's world from this point of view.

    Secondly, when dealing with a work of art we must always bear in mind that art is a divine game. These two elements — the elements of the divine and that of the game — are equally important. It is divine because this is the element in which man comes nearest to God through becoming a true creator in his own right. And it is a game, because it remains art only as long as we are allowed to remember that, after all, it is all make-believe, that the people on the stage, for instance, are not actually murdered, in other words, only as long as our feelings of horror or of disgust do not obscure our realization that we are, as readers or as spectators, participating in an elaborate and enchanting game: the moment this balance is upset we get, on the stage, ridiculous melodrama, and in a book just a lurid description of, say, a case of murder which should belong in a newspaper instead. And we cease to derive that feeling of pleasure and satisfaction and spiritual vibration, that combined feeling which is our reaction to true art. For example, we are not disgusted or horrified by the bloody ending of the three greatest plays ever written: the hanging of Cordelia, the death of Hamlet, the suicide of Othello give us a shudder, but a shudder with a strong element of delight in it. This delight does not derive from the fact that we are glad to see those people perish, but merely our enjoyment of Shakespeare's overwhelming genius...
  • edited November 2014
    Aviatrix this point here:
    These two elements — the elements of the divine and that of the game — are equally important. It is divine because this is the element in which man comes nearest to God through becoming a true creator in his own right.

    We can create and generally make a mess of it :) I think because we meddle too much with our creations.
    The trick is to bake it just right so they take on a life of their own. You cant find God in his creation cus he don't meddle in it.
    Hagel in his video above i think points to this in a way, Narrative hasn't got the answer totally defined.
    You as the creator cant know the answer you have to look for it or play it.
    But story is a dead thing with a beginning and end.
  • Hrm. I suppose within the context of that discussion...

    I think it behooves us (me) to step back a bit & make sure we understand exactly what the goal here is. Because narrative seems to me to have very different meanings in the world of anthropology/sociology and the world of fiction creation. And as well, there's a great danger of a value judgment coming into play here--such and such is "just a story" while this over here is a narrative. I'd prefer not to rehearse the narrativism vs. gamism vs. simulationism wars here.

    Because: Anna Karenina is most definitely a story--I can tell you how it starts, what develops in the middle, and how it ends. It's also most definitely a narrative--multiple ones, and we don't even need to reach for Bakhtin* to talk about the multiplicity of voices in the novel. But is Anna Karenina something that is open-ended or invites us to participate? I mean, sure, I guess we can wonder where Levin and Kitty's lives go after the end of the novel, but...that's not really an important question.

    However, it would be a fatal mistake in my opinion to develop a theory of narrative that excludes one of the greatest--if not the greatest--novels ever written.

    So I'm going to swing back to the intention of the discussion, and the intention behind making the differentiation; not even to the question of "how can this make better games", but rather, "what is crucial enough here that we need to make the separation"?

    (As noted, the distinction as formulated by writers seems to have a different thrust than in other contexts.)

    * Bakhtin was particularly good on genre questions, and interestingly enough he discusses the novel as the only open-ended genre still in existence; however, it's been forever since I read it and I won't try to butcher his thoughts right now. (But it does power my rant about the fundamental flaw in The Lord of the Rings is that it must generically be a romance but Tolkien despised romance and kept trying to force it to be an epic.)
  • @AsIf,
    I can tell you that I use Narration/Narrative/etc. instead of Story, because some people use Story as a way to identify RPG gamers as better/worse than themselves. And I want no part of that.

    I like the Story-games forum, because we don't generally indulge in that sort of thing, but outside of this forum, I avoid the term "story" in order to avoid the story game vs role playing game vs indie vs trad vs etc. arguments that I detest.

    I think the Narrative superstructure you are creating where a story can exist or not within it, is ideal for RPGs as there are some RPGs that do nothing to create a story, but clearly things happen and a story is possible.
    Dave M
  • Yea agree my context is more in the vain of the muse, inspirational.
    I would love to capture such a thing in a game.

  • Some interesting points above about the connection between narrative (as opposed to narrative structure) and character; writer M John Harrison says:-

    Affront the idea of narrative or affront the idea of people, never both. If you affront one of those systems of belief (that story is possible, central & worthwhile, & that character is fixed enough to generate “motive” & not the constantly shifting product of relations at another level) the commentariat will simply assume you’re incompetent or mad. But affront both & they’re up on the roof in an instant, wearing some kind of old sleepwear, ringing the bell & warning this little Texas town, “Wrong! Oh! Wrong!” while you try to sneak away like a fake Mexican wrestler on a stolen horse in the night, someone who has unsuccessfully bet against himself & the system he once loved etc etc

    He also says:-

    When we're all stumbling about in the dark I'll eat the ones who come near.

    I also believe in some sort of 'divine' spark. I'm just not sure it's real.
  • edited December 2014
    Lots to think about up there. While I'm really looking at the difference between Narrative and Story, and while I think substantive differences between the definitions of those two words have already been shown to exist in both fields, I do agree that the writerly and the sociological definitions differ. But perhaps not so much as to be entirely exclusive of each other, at least for our purposes. I shall now try to square that circle, at least somewhat.

    From the writerly camp we have several definitions for the word "narrative", leaving aside those which use it interchangeably with the word "story":
    1. A Narrative (common noun) is an arcless, themeless retelling or reporting of events
    2. Narrative (abstract noun) is direction or theme which guides or gives purpose to retold events
    3. The Narrative (common noun) is the form taken by the events of a character's changing (this third I feel is rather close to saying "narrative is story" but has been included for the sake of completeness)

    From the sociological camp we have the definition in which a Narrative (common noun) is an open-ended network of stories or statements that a group of people tell themselves about themselves, about their history, about their values, or about their place in the grand scheme.

    I think it's possible to see a commonality among these things, that being:
    A Narrative is an abstraction of change relative to a person or group
    which is very similar to saying:
    A Narrative is an abstraction of a set of stories and statements ("unfinished stories")

    What do I mean by "abstraction"? That's where various professions differ.
    • Reporters, accountants and functionaries abstractify stories into narratives by removing incidental detail to arrive at journalistic reportage, suitable for administrative and educational purposes. I want to call these "Narrative Accounts" not Narratives.
    • Fiction writers abstractify stories into narratives by removing incidental detail to arrive at a framework, a shape, devoid of individual signifiers but serving as a container for archetypes, themes and dynamic processes.
    • Sociologists abstractify stories into narratives by removing incidental detail to arrive at cultural themes. These themes serve as "attractors" around which individual stories have tended to cluster, and into which they merge.
    So: A Narrative is an abstraction of a set of stories and statements, which may be attained by various means.

    I shall take leave of Journalists from here on, because their methods and purposes - to tell the empirical facts of a story and nothing else - are of little interest to roleplayers or RPG designers, and where they are, they bear little mystery. "Watch the World Die" yields a straightforward narrative account of the world's collapse in the form of a written timeline. That's not particularly tricky to do.

    Back to sociologists and writers. Another difference between sociologists and writers is a thing roleplayers are very familiar with: the difference between writing and reading (or experiencing). They face in opposite directions. Sociologists are myth-classifiers. Writers are myth-makers. Sociologists tend to be looking backward at stories already told, or sideways at unfinished stories that are in the process of linking themselves genealogically to stories already told. Writers of course are also able to look "backward" at stories already told (analyzing Tolstoy, perhaps), but in their professional mode they tend to be looking forward at the stories they are considering telling. From this writerly position, Narrative does not only follow after a Story, waiting to be extracted from it, but Narrative also precedes Story, informing and guiding it, like a Platonic Form. This is where we cross some epistemological bridge into recognizing Narrative Structures. How do we know they're real? We know they're real because we can tell when a Story adheres to them.

  • edited November 2014
    More thoughts...

    In the case of the sociologist's "Master Narrative" we can say that the subject participant is "a society that tells itself these things" but for the RPG designer or GM the subject participant is "all PCs and NPCs in the gameworld", as the Master Narratives are conveyed through the rules, box text, sourcebooks, character classes, art and other ephemera, as well as via archetypal and stylistic conventions (for instance, all the things we tend to know about vampires and vampire hunters), and verbalized at the table. Like the descriptions of what the unnamed adventurers do in "Delve", or the rules of chivalry in "Pendragon", or all that stuff Monte Cook writes about how a typical player character views "Numenera" in that world. Master Narratives in the sociological sense map directly to these game ephemera and mechanics, and they're open-ended, inviting player participation. Some of these Narratives may include complete Stories, but it is their gist and theme - not their form - which is really important.

    Up until the moment of play, these Narratives look either backward ("The Serpent People have enslaved us for these many generations"), or sideways at unfinished stories in the process of linking to stories already told ("As a Warrior of Gnutaarh, you will play your part in our coming rebellion, and your name shall be added to the Scroll of Heroes!")

    But everything changes when we start playing (or prepping for play, or designing certain types of games). As gamers, as GMs, as interactive fiction artists or as designers, we face the gameworld with a writerly orientation - i.e. we are looking forward at Stories that haven't happened yet. And for better or for worse (which is a matter of playstyle and design intention), suddenly Narrative Structures can begin to appear in precedence of Story again. As observers of the unfolding story, our desire for a good Narrative Structure takes root, but since we are not only audience members but also interactors in this game, we can actually steer toward it.

    # # #

    After the fact: Well-written AP reports (looking back at a game session) can be straight narrative accounts, or they can be literary masterpieces. The live games they recount may likewise have been boring and mechanical or wildly spontaneous and imaginative. A good writer can trick you by "removing incidental detail" or adding it. The readers of the AP will never really know what the players in the game felt. But because they're both humans, they both use similar criteria to judge whether what they experienced was "a good Story".

    Game sessions and APs represent not only "stories that have been told" but also "stories that can be told" in a particular world. As such, they partake of the general logic of "the way stories are shaped" and "what sorts of things constitute a story". And since stories tend to fall into classes based on their patterns, they partake of (or fail to partake of) Narrative Structures. What Structures? From where?


    The fictional world has an ontology that, while it strives to be internally consistent, is obviously fictional and not the same as our own. It is a "second-order" ontology. The majority of game ephemera - including those Master Narratives in the game text and all the color the GM barfs forth - is there to constitute the ontology of the game world. This answers such questions as "What are Owlbears?" and "What do the Borg do?".

    But as for the epistemology down there, it's different. Whether the characters know that they know it or not (typically not), our heads are literally the source of all knowledge about the second-order world. Unlike us up here in reality prime, for our characters there IS a place where the buck stops. It stops with us, and the knowledge in our heads (and books) here at the table. Because the system and the players (including any GMs) both exist in this world, this place in a real human's head is the guaranteed area of overlap between the two worlds. How do our characters know what they know? Because we know it. They don't stop and ask us - "Wait, why am I charging this serpent guy?" "Because you're a Warrior of Gnutaarh, you idiot, and this is the story of YOU DOING THAT!" - and because we know that we are creating a Story while we are playing, we don't bother to supplant this epistemic certainty. How would we supplant it, anyway? By making Stories that are only pleasing to non-humans, or non-moderns, or not us?

    As a result, even when playing, even when deeply immersed, there is only one epistemology going on when it comes to The Way Stories Are Shaped. It is our own real one, guided by the same archetypal forms and dynamic processes as the writer's Narrative Structure.

  • I'm going to swing back to the intention of the discussion, and the intention behind making the differentiation; not even to the question of "how can this make better games", but rather, "what is crucial enough here that we need to make the separation"?
    I think the separation will be integral to a complete understanding of aspects of gaming and game design, not the least of which is "railroading" and other applications of narrative intent (the thread from which this one sprung).

    In the railroading thread I have posted a thought-experiment in which Story is the domain of the Players and Narrative Structure is left to the GM.

    In my "ScenePlay" model, there is likewise a strong interplay between a formal Narrative which pre-exists gameplay, and an emergent Story which arises out of it.

  • So: A Narrative is an abstraction of a set of stories and statements, which may be attained by various means.

    Je reste contente; I think that bridges the gap nicely.

    I think it's possible to see a commonality among these things, that being:
    A Narrative is an abstraction of change relative to a person or group

    Now here our hobbyhorses meet cute :-)

    One of the fundamental principles of fiction is that it must involve some kind of change in the main characters--not just of circumstances, but of belief or understanding. (Dan Harmon talks a lot about this in his adaptation of the monomyth to story structure, but you can see in practically every discussion of fiction since about the mid-1800s. (At least in the West.)

    And yet it seems to me that this is an under-exploited feature of a lot of RPGs; more, that there's often a lot of resistance to the idea of a character changing.

    Sorry to go back to the well with Nabokov, but here's another point from his Dostoevski essay:

    Besides all this, Dostoevski's characters have yet another remarkable feature: throughout the book they do not develop as personalities. We get them all complete at the beginning of the tale, and so they remain without any considerable changes although their surroundings may alter and the most extraordinary things may happen to them. In the case of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, for instance, we see a man go from premeditated murder to the promise of an achievement of some kind of harmony with the
    outer world, but all this happens somehow from without: innerly even Raskolnikov does not go through any true development of personality, and the other heroes of Dostoevski do even less so. The only thing that develops, vacillates, takes unexpected sharp turns, deviates completely to include new people and circumstances, is the plot. Let us always remember that basically Dostoevski is a writer of mystery stories where every character, once introduced to us, remains the same to the bitter end, complete with his special features and personal habits, and that they all are treated throughout the book they happen to be in like chessmen in a complicated chess problem. Being an intricate plotter, Dostoevski succeeds in holding the reader's attention; he builds up his climaxes and keeps up his suspenses with consummate mastery. But if you re-read a book of his you have already read once so that you are familiar with the surprises and complications of the plot, you will at once realize that the suspense you experienced during the first reading is simply not there any more.
    I'm going to leave the application of that quote to a wide swath of traditionalist RPGing to the clever reader :-)

    I need to chew on the more profound implications of the rest of your posts for a bit.
  • /nodding in agreement.

  • AsIf’s ‘writerly’ definitions suit my sensibilities more… but then, I’m not sure I trust my own sensibilities.

    (That won’t stop me stealing them.)

    First I preferred Dostoevsky, then Nabokov, then Dostoevsky again. I found Nabokov’s ‘control’ to be more dishonest than Dostoevsky’s unchanging entanglements. I hope I’ll come round to Tolstoy’s soapy humanism too – despite its being so cheapened by repetition. It took me five goes to come round to Melville. I love Melville.

    Yesterday’s Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast contained an anecdote about a GM who used to change the traits on the character sheets of his players according to their Sanity levels. (I think the person concerned posts on these boards.) Some players might consider this to be r-, r-, rail-, really rather too much, but it’s the sort of thing I love.

    No unchanging structure bears too examination – character, narrative or story. We’re forever doodling in the margins. Roleplayers with whom I’ve spoken on these matters don’t care for this outlook – the game and its systems are to them inviolate; an unchanging narrative structure, if you like. I’d love to find a way to have it both ways.

    AsIf’s taxonomies have helped bring this into focus & I’m grateful… but perhaps not as respectful as I should be.

    If I were to play a game based, say, on filmic techniques, I’d want to play the irradiated Japanese girl coming out of the TV. Changing the POV so that, all of a sudden, YOU are the one pushing the policeman down the stairs in ‘Pyscho’ seems to me to be more truthful. I realise this is unreasonable.

    What’s this to do with narrative & story? Well… the ‘real’ story is a change in the point of view. It’s always been there but out of sight – that’s how it connects with narrative and its structure. Everything wavers for a moment and then continues.

    I’m not much fun at parties.
  • @Abstract_Machine: Spoiler alert -- Nabokov considers Tolstoy the greatest of the Russian novelists :-)

    (I mostly agree, although I haven't read Gogol yet.)

    As you might expect from lectures by Nabokov, his opinions are highly...opinionated, although it does clarify for me why Dostoevski has always seemed such a slog.

    (Soapy humanism in Tolstoy! Sir/Madam, may we say pistols at dawn? ;-) )

  • ( Sir/Madam, may we say pistols at dawn? ;-) )
    OK – but who plays Dolokhov and who plays Pierre? Do these referents count as narrative structure? Answers in philosophical conjecture at the end of the book, please.

  • Gogol is disqualified from being the greatest Russian novelist by virtue of 1) being from the Ukraine and 2) burning his manuscript unfinished.

    I'm reading this thread with interest. I work as a storyteller and I'm fascinated by the difference between the story and the telling. (I mentally winced when AsIf defined a narrative as "A Narrative (common noun) is an arcless, themeless *retelling* or reporting of events." 'Telling' is a powerful word, it has its own implications.) All along this thread I have felt my sense of understanding the distinction between narrative and story solidify and then vanish.

    But hey, that's part of the fun, right?
  • edited November 2014
    Haha! Solve et Coagula!
    (1) I should remove the word "retelling" huh? "Reporting" is sufficient.
    (2) I wince at the journalistic/administrative sense of narrative to begin with :-)

    A useful metaphor comes from the world of computer programming, and I don't know if you'll understand this right off the bat or not, but it's possible to think of narratives (writerly sense) as object classes, and stories as instantiated objects.

    The sociological sense is a little less simple to find a programming metaphor for: perhaps a protocol or handshake function shared in common by a multitude of instantiated objects.

    PS - My idea of fun at parties is quietly sharing a dry running commentary with a fellow introvert.

  • I'd be careful about deep character change being essential to story, that seems like a reaction in relatively modern times to the rise of serial fiction and its iconic characters. It seems like a way to state that, say, Sherlock Holmes isn't a real story.

    In a similar vein, we tend to say RPGs are this thing in between the two sides of writing a play or novel and watching or reading it. But, while authorship and audience are two borders of RPG activity, there is a broad space within and there is no reason to expect it to be a simple combination, for the same reason that the American Midwest is not just a combination of New York City and Los Angeles.

    The part I often feel is missing from these discussions is what makes a the act of crafting a story compelling, not just the story itself. Certainly simple story-play and the structure of affecting fiction are starting points, but as we keep investigating we should expect narrative structures which are unlikely to create a great work of literature, but create a richer experience of that creation.
  • edited November 2014
    Agreed. But for reasons which I think are probably obvious (?), broadly-drawn characters, pulp and melodrama were among the first things to get mechanized.

  • Yeah, Sherlockian type stories and their sequelae (I am thinking of the Asimov robot stories, which have some similarities in form) are a kind of special case; they rely on the reveal, and create tension in the reader via the introduction of a mystery where the elements of the solution are deliberately held back. (Less true of puzzle stories like Asimov wrote, but in essence he was showing Sherlock's work :-) )

    I note in passing Nabokov's reference to detective stories above, which in light of @wyrmwood's comment makes a lot more sense to me now.

    But it's a fair cop--the character change imperative leans towards the "Art" version of the story, although I'll note that it can happen in very pulpy stuff as well--the movie Die Hard, for example. OTOH, the Chandler stories, which are kind of the king of pulp on my shelf, don't really do this (with the exception, somewhat, of The Long Goodbye, the flawed masterpiece at the end of the Marlowe cycle.)

    Hrm. I'm wondering if maybe we're unearthing some of the functional problems with mystery games that have sometimes surfaced?
  • edited November 2014
    @Abstract_Machine: given that I'm the one who began by blathering about Art and Literature and you mentioned soapiness, I suppose I'm Pierre ;-)

    Never fear, I'll spend the next five pages of the thread berating myself about how I must change my life after this existential crucible that revealed the hand of God while not changing anything that I actually do in my life :-)

    (The nice thing about the philosophical section of War and Peace is that you only need to read it once; I did, long ago on my first reading, so I don't bother when I go through it again.)
  • I was thinking the same thing as you, @wyrmwood, regarding serial stories like Sherlock vis-a-vis character change. But I think there's more to say here: historically most "trad" RPGs have existed in a sort of weird nether-realm on this issue, where your numbers may change, but the question of whether you change thematically is kind of up in the air. It's an entirely good thing that we have games like Spirit of the Century at one end, that are firmly entrenched in the pulp camp, and also Burning Wheel, which takes a firmly literary approach to character growth and change as being both mechanical and thematic.

    But I should note that you're also right, @wyrmwood, about there being many things in RPGs that are fun to create even if they wouldn't be fun to experience in more traditional media: cheesy overacting being just the most obvious example :-) (There are also types of fun that RPGs offer us that simply aren't present in less collaborative forms, like the mythopoesis of Ganakagok.) One interesting phenomenon I've noticed is that sometimes the games which, post facto, produce the most coherent stories/AP reports weren't actually the most fun to play. I essentially judge game sessions on two axes: how good was the fiction we produced (for whatever value of "good" is appropriate to the game) and how smooth was the process of creating it (I don't want to say "fun" because in some really dark games that might not be the appropriate word, but it shouldn't be a slog).
  • There's a lot of wisdom in that, @Deliverator!

    It's interesting...what makes the Holmes stories fun is a) the eccentricity and fun features of Holmes and b) the novelty of the mysteries. You can re-read the Holmes stories...but the reread is a different experience, I think. Certainly different, at least to me, than rereading the Chandler mysteries; there the mystery is really not particularly important and what is interesting is the voice and characterizations.

    (An implication: that we haven't considered the aspect of style/voice WRT to narrative/story. Maybe we need to separate them for analysis--but it's a vector in aesthetics which we should at least be aware of.)

    Hrm. Maybe we can generalize off of that? To say that in general, what is interesting in mystery stories is the voice and style? (Plus the puzzle aspect, of course.) This has some interesting implications for thinking about mysteries in games...

    There is the historical artifact that rpgs have traditionally been designed around the capabilities of the heroes, which is why you get the "Holmes Problem" of the nigh-omniscient main character.

    Regarding your second point...yeah, there's an element of truth there. Frex, my Masks of Nyarlathotep remix: it was a lot of fun to play, and I think the AP comes off pretty well. But I did edit the write-ups, somewhat; not a lot, but I compressed dialogue here and there, didn't report stuff that actually consumed playtime because it wasn't really important, and on a few occasions speculated about the mental state of the characters. (I also occasionally added linking material to explain or justify the events in the main story.)

    Didn't we talk on this board once about people trying to use Fiasco to create a screenplay, and reporting that it took quite a bit of work to actually make the transformation happen? I'm not actually surprised--Fiasco would generate what a screenwriter would call a story, but it still would need to get "broken" into an actual screenplay.

    For my current Midnight's Voice AP, I'm taking a different tack; the dialogue is really 99% verbatim. (I remove a few of the false starts, or the sort of "yes, go on" utterances, but I almost never replace anything people actually said.) I don't know if the AP is interesting as fiction, though. (I'm too close to it at the moment, although I think the project is moving along well...)
  • edited November 2014
    Character change in Doyle's stories tends to be off on the side, in the past, and often in the recent past (characters who were lured or trapped into criminal life). But never to Holmes himself.

    I kinda think the whole point about Holmes is that he's an anomaly - he is not a normal person, or even the kind of person you'd particularly want to be. When you have a character who is so singularly abnormal and that abnormality is the keystone of his value, who exists in a world - as @Aviatrix said - "designed around the capabilities of the heroes", his nature cannot change because it's his whole teleological qualifier. It's all rather Socratic, if you think about it. An object-lesson. An anti-strawman.

  • Tod, I agree with your post but to clarify, I meant that a lot of trad RPGs were concerned with the capabilities of the PCs and so you get the Holmes problem (or its more pernicious iteration, the Doctor Issue) since to stat out Holmes you need him to have some kind of unbelievable ability that puts him far ahead of other PCs.

    This is less of an issue nowadays, but it still crops up. Smallville had a nice take on it, of course :-)
  • edited November 2014
    I agree, and part of the reason is simply because it's easier to mechanize a solid-state object than a dynamic one. It's easier to write functions emulating collision detection in 4D space than it is to write functions involving multistate objects with self-determined (and therefore approaching random) vectors. That's the "obvious?" thing I was hinting at before.

    Anyway to get back to the main point... Over in the playtest metathread for my card game "ScenePlay" there are some links that I hope can clarify things. Without getting into too much detail: In the game, players have a hand of cards which represent scenes (generic event types or scenic tropes from tv and movies), and they collaboratively/competitively play these cards to fill out a sequential template representing one or another Narrative Structure.

    So for instance, this is one such Narrative Structure, based on Campbell and Vogler.

    The obsequious "Heros' Journey" is a Narrative in both writerly AND sociological terms. In the writerly sense, it gives themic structure to an as-yet undetermined set of elements resulting in a coherent arc which can be envisioned and communicated - a Narrative Structure - tracing the development of change in a certain type of character. But taken as a whole it ALSO represents a set of conventions we happen to hold true in our society about what a "hero" is and what they're supposed to do. That's Hagel's "Master Narrative".

    So there we have a Narrative (in both senses), and its written or graphical representation (sans signifieds) is a Narrative Structure. That's the upper left corner of the PDF linked above - a conceptual, literary or graphical model representing a Narrative is a Narrative Structure.

    Now. As the game progresses and scenes are placed in this template, characters, locations and events instantiate or manifest as "real" data-objects, which inherit their core properties or qualities from their counterparts in the abstract Narrative.

    When all Scenes have been filled, it is inevitable that you get a Story, like this, which partakes of the general themes inherent from its Narrative. But the style in which the elements are presented and the degree to which their arrangement emulates the shape of the Narrative Structure determines how likely an audience will be to concur that it's a good story, or at least a good story of that type, which is to say, a Story that does a good job of representing and supporting its Narrative.

  • There's a lot of wisdom in that, @Deliverator!
    Surprising... Wisdom is well-known to be my dump stat. :-)
  • edited December 2014
    The OP deserves more attention.

    [edit] I should reread posts before answering them. The text below is therefor just crappy thoughts. Anyway, I think the distinction between the words are worth keeping in the mind when designing how the game should be played. It's the Robin D Laws's way for story-driven games (Hit Points for Hamlet) and the Ron Edward's way (The Big Model) for narrative-driven games.

    It's one of those things that we all assume about roleplaying games but never discuss. I, for sure, didn't even know there was a difference between »narrative« and »story«. I wonder what would happen if someone took this to the heart and wrote games that were purely narrative-based.

    I thought games sprung from The Big Model were that, because the base of the game should be around the Premise - a question that should be answered or brought up by playing the game. Kagematsu got, to give an example, the following part in the game.

    Shame. Honor. Love.

    Individually defined human emotions. Intangible human forces that can direct our lives. You might be able to recite the dictionary definition of any of these words but what do they really mean to you?


    Think about the first question again, how do you define shame, honor and love in your life?

    This is the principle behind Kagematsu.
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