Vonnegut + Chalkboard



Let's talk about this, five people whom still frequent here!
Or better yet, we'll write to one another using the strange power of the internet.

- Nathan

P.S. I'm ready to get out my chalkboard and diagram some games.

Comments

  • what are we talking about?
  • I think Microscope uses this idea of "shapes of stories". While making your history, you determine for every occurence whether it hass a "light" (i.e. above average) or "dark" (i.e. below average) tone. While Microscope has you making a history spanning large stretches of time, there is no reason you couldn't use the same framework for making more, well, 'microscopic' stories.
  • As an opening observation: Vonnegut is approximately mapping character happiness/adversity against time. This is in contrast to Freytag's triangle, which maps intensity against time.

    In either case, I do think that structured story outcomes can be produced through a game's mechanics. Fate points, for example, explicitly trade complications in the moment for the eventual resources to overcome the climax. At another level, Apocalypse World's misses create adversity to oppose the characters, and Fronts push towards a climax.

    The big distinction I'd make between tools for analysing a fixed, written narrative and games for creating an interactive experience is that what the plot feels like as a whole and what it feels like moment-to-moment are two separate things. You can have a perfectly enjoyable experience in the moment that doesn't turn into a dramatic story when you try to retell it later.

    I do suspect that one of the impulses behind developing narrative-focused games was an attempt to get the catharsis of rising and falling action without resorting to railroading.

  • > I do suspect that one of the impulses behind developing narrative-focused games was an attempt to get the catharsis of rising and falling action without resorting to railroading.

    You're right.
    Rob
  • You can have a perfectly enjoyable experience in the moment that doesn't turn into a dramatic story when you try to retell it later.
    I very frequently have the opposite problem, in fact: a game session that is boring as fuck during moment to moment play, but produces a perfectly interesting story.
  • edited August 2015
    You can have a perfectly enjoyable experience in the moment that doesn't turn into a dramatic story when you try to retell it later.
    I very frequently have the opposite problem, in fact: a game session that is boring as fuck during moment to moment play, but produces a perfectly interesting story.
    This is most certainly true. And, I think, a more immediate problem when you're confronted with it. (Hence the focus on "story now".) It probably helps to be clear, when you're looking for a story in a story game, if you mean having fun with moment-to-moment storytelling, or you mean having pleasure from the catharsis of the story shape (whether that be tragedy, comedy, or a curve in-between.)
  • edited September 2015
    For better or worse, I think most role-playing games are this... image
    whether the fiction informs the narrative or not, the structure of play wins over the structure of story.
  • I can see where you might say that--certainly a typical murderhobo story arc isn't going to have a lot of purely narrative adversity. But they likely will have some bad things happen to them just from bad die rolls (literal ill fortune!). The D&D power arc is basically a structure-of-play line with an overall positive slope.

    Though I just had a Dungeon World session where we dipped way down on the ill-fortune side of things (and lost some player characters) and just managed to eke out a win. You can certainly have a structure of play that follows one of the curves that Vonnegut drew.

    On the subject of mapping plots, I'd also mention the web-work technique attributed to the somewhat obscure (and definitely problematic) writer Harry Keeler. Mostly because I want to see someone come up with a map/drawing roleplaying game that uses a metaphorical rather than literal map...
  • [Just pinging in to say I saw him give that presentation live at NCSU when I was an English-and-Philosophy-major sophomore. He's hilarious!]
  • edited September 2015
    In DayTrippers, the GM controls the "vertical" (narrative arc) while the Players control the "horizontal" (movement through the plotfield), and NPCs run around as free-willed Objects pursuing their own goals. The default arc for the GM to work with includes three Crisis points at which the tension/stakes are increased, though the vector for this increase in tension/stakes is adjudicated on the fly, based on the state of the fiction (timed events, PC locations/actions and NPC goals/actions). In practice, this generates an arc something like this:

    --*--
    +---------------/ \
    +----------------/ \
    +---------/ \
    act 1 - crisis - act 2 - crisis - act 3 - crisis - resolution
    NOTE: As @Isaac pointed out, this is organized like Freytag's Triangle in that Tension is the variable being measured vertically (i.e. this structure is inverse to the Vonnegut structure which measures a character's Happiness).

  • I've already posted my obligatory post in the "books" thread, but the place I first saw all this stuff was in Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater (1991). In her examples, Laurel used "Mystery" as the variable being tracked (rather than "Tension" as I have done above). After reading her book, I realized that the vertical variable can differ based on genre, and yet the basic dynamics of the triangle are retained.

  • edited November 2018
    This piece is one of my favorite bits of Vonnegut. I hadn't seen the video before, but I read the print version in Man Without a Country. However, in the essay, he mentions two other arcs: Kafka and Hamlet.

    image

    image

    I think we've ended with arcs somewhat like these I Story Games I've participated in. Font, the game I developed with feedback from folks here, hits one of these two arcs fairly often.
  • I don't see an arc in the Hamlet example. If it's identical to the x-axis, I don't understand.
  • I don't see an arc in the Hamlet example. If it's identical to the x-axis, I don't understand.
    I guess it starts 'lower' than ill fortune and just gets worse?
  • edited November 2018
    I don't see an arc in the Hamlet example. If it's identical to the x-axis, I don't understand.
    From A Man Without A Country:
    But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
  • Thank you for clearing that up. I love it.


  • From A Man Without A Country:
    But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
    Robin Laws seems to disagree with this assessment, when he charted out the narrative arcs of stories in Hamlet's Hit Points. That book dividing stories by scene into up and down shifts, thereby creating an emotional arc over the entire story similar to Vonnegut's analysis. (Laws's book is also more directly related to roleplaying and game design, for obvious reasons.)

    I'm also reminded of this video about the point structure in board games, and how that creates its own emotional arc over the course of play. Certainly, by manipulating the game mechanics, you can create different emotional arcs in players. And in an RPG, you could make the game mechanic's emotional arc mirror that of the narrative... or you could deliberately put the emotional arc of the game mechanics in opposition to that of the narrative.
  • edited November 2018
    That book dividing stories by scene into up and down shifts, thereby creating an emotional arc over the entire story similar to Vonnegut's analysis.
    Those beats look reasonable but also (necessarily) reductive, eliding ambiguity and ambivalence within individual scenes. This act of generalizing tone can be a cool part of gameplay. Up thread, someone mentioned Microscope. Creating an event that sounds great ("Galactic peace achieved!") then shading it as a 'dark' event in your timeline is super-interesting (if it's not over-done). Then you can play to find out why something that seems good was bad (or at least ambiguous) in the context of the historical account you're writing. If you can blur the sense of good and ill-fortune without losing audience/ player investment (as I think Hamlet does) you can end up with something pretty great.

    For what it's worth, I also think Vonnegut was exaggerating the moment-to-moment ambiguity of Hamlet for comic (or rhetorical) effect. Both essays strike me as valuable analysis.

    It would be interesting to make another version of these charts where the line gets wider in more ambivalent or emotionally complex scenes and narrower at points of pure joy, tragedy, or calm. Cinderella at the ball is a narrow peak of good fortune. Cinderella back at home is a wider band of ill fortune: is it better or worse to have a clear picture of a life you've been denied? I'm thinking about this like a sort of narrative amplitude. In this case, Hamlet is a wide band that dips and rises around the neutral point.
  • I'm also reminded of this video about the point structure in board games, and how that creates its own emotional arc over the course of play. .
    That video is great. It'd be great to try to map something similar around the resolution-systems of RPGs, though imagine it would be complicated without a single currency (like points).

  • That video is great. It'd be great to try to map something similar around the resolution-systems of RPGs, though imagine it would be complicated without a single currency (like points).
    For something like Dread or Cthulhu Dark, it's easy to track players progressing toward their inevitable doom. Those games both push players toward an impending death, but with an interesting wrinkle: when you get close to being eliminated in Dread, the pace of motion toward doom increases (higher chance of death each pull). In Cthulhu Dark, however, the chance of increasing your score actually goes down as your score gets higher, so you spend longer clinging to the edge of your seat.


    For a lot of other RPGs, you could track progress over time within a conflict, but not across an entire session. In a D&D fight, for example, I might track how close each combatant is to death. D&D fights often feel like a slog, because people use limited resource attacks early in the fight and then the pace slows down as they are reduced to using lesser attacks and the battle spends more time in the endgame where the outcome is clear but the HP totals haven't hit zero yet. So the curve of combat flattens out exactly when you would want it to spike toward one side or the other. (Some versions of D&D work to mitigate this issue to varying amounts of success.)


    You could also chart something like My Life With Master's progression toward the endgame, an InSpectres collection of mission dice, Lacuna's heartbeat rates, etc. Whatever you would chart would have to be specific to the game in question, though. Choose a resource that is central to the game's system and chart it out, look at the curve and decide if it is creating the emotional effect you want or if a rules could be tweaked to change the curve.
  • NickWedig,

    That's an astute observation about D&D!
  • edited November 2018
    This effect (unleash potent attack first) could be due to lack of (narrative) pacing tool AND too complete information. No time / need for poking and probes. As if all encounters were assassination attempts. I thought tagging the opponent to build a finishing move existed in D&D.
  • Well, I don't want to disturb our dear Mr. Vonnegut. I've started a new thread here:

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/21872/spiking-the-curve-d-d-and-others
Sign In or Register to comment.