Characters know the Laws of Story? [N.Gaiman's 1602]

edited June 2008 in Story Games
I was reading Neil Gaiman's "Marvel 1602", there's a point in it when the one of the Fantastic Four, the tragic Thing, is asking Reed the genius if he could ever be cured. Reed answers that logically yes (essentially enough knowledge and power, what can be done can be undone etc.), "Yet I posit we are in a universe which favours stories. A universe in which no story can ever truly end; in which there can only be continuances.... the laws of story suggest no cure can last for very long .... in the end, alas, you are so much more interesting and satisfying as you are."

All characters in fiction live in a universe in which "the Laws of Story" rule, though those laws vary (e.g., by genre), but generally under the "invisible hand" of story by which they do not know this.

Would it be "more believable" in a way for the characters in a RPG (player and NPC) to know "the Laws of Story" exist? To struggle to make it a drama and love story rather than a tragedy but know it is a story? To know that dramatic logic is at work? Thus the appearance of a nemesis, the significance of metaphor etc. all flow quite logically?

In PTA, characters don't know this but there is an overt nod at Player level to this fact.

I've sort of hinted at this in my games for a long time, in the view that "story" is a fundamental human desire and need and that collective human unconsciousness shapes things in this way in a universe where magical force responds to it.

C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Triology has humans settled on a world where such forces were powerfully at work, one character realizing the only "course open to him" was to make himself "the epic villain".

In 4e D&D for example, the Player Characters are "special", the heal wounds overnight, why? Because the Story is interested in them, they are not going to die except in an "interesting way". As long as they "are interesting and their story incomplete" they can return from death.

Do you think this can be handled with a relatively serious tone?



  • I'm working on a game called Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel in which an author is writing a novel and the characters become aware, in some manner, that they are being written about. It's still in conceptual stages, but the idea is that they realize that the more complicated and interesting (from a story point of view) things become, the more the author is satisfied. When the author is unsatisfied, he begins Revising, and no one wants that, because it's always going to make things even worse. So, they have to sorta play along, making things "interesting" enough that the author won't revise them, but not so "interesting" that they can't live with it. Which ends up being an impossible goal as struggles and conflicts between the characters are highlighted and pressured and blown up by this whole predicament.

    I see it as serious, with humor. But it's still only conceptual.

  • There's an Over the Edge scenario where, I believe, one of the NPCs, by observing the improbable events that happen to the PCs, concludes that the universe must be a story and the PCs must be main characters.

    I don't remember which book it's in though...

  • The original Changeling totally does this. A lot.
  • Yup. And Exalted: The Fair Folk, quite a bit.

    When I came to the Forge, I was working on a Fudge-based micro-campaign called We Regret to Inform You the Gamemaster is Dead. You played characters in a fantasy roleplaying setting whose world as slowly collapsing because the GM has died and the players weren't playing the game anymore.
  • A friend of mine once ran a Mage adventure at a convention where an NSC discovered a new kind of radiation, which the PCs were asked to investigate. They went through the gate ... and ended up in their player's bodies. That new radiation was the Lindstrom Waves - what we call spotlight time. The PCs were asked to investigate because this radiation was strong around them ans needed to power the gate to send them through.
  • edited June 2008
    In an Itras By campaign I played in, one of the characters knew he was a character in a game. It wasn't a big deal to him, and the player hardly ever brought it up. Towards the end of the campaign, while the characters were talking, this suddenly came to light. It ended up in a scene where my character asked us players - through my friend's character - why we were treating them so badly, etc, etc. It was interesting enough; fairly banal at the meta level, but immersion-wise it was quite rewarding, to put it that way.

    [EDIT] Oh, and of course, in "Five characters in search of an identity", the characters know they're characters in a role-playing game - they just don't know which characters.
  • Thanks for examples. I don't mean "I know I'm a character in a game" rather more like "I know I'm a person in a universe whose laws of physics seem to include dramatic sensibilities".
  • On a similar-but-not-identical note, I have found some satisfaction in playing characters, usually in mythic or post-mythic sort of settings, who are intentionally trying to "write their story" and be remembered in a certain way.
  • Posted By: ValvorikThanks for examples. I don't mean "I know I'm a character in a game" rather more like "I know I'm a person in a universe whose laws of physics seem to include dramatic sensibilities".
    Sparingly, it works. Reed is a super-genius, so it's just awesome that he has such a theory. If Indiana Jones has a theory that hinted he knew he was in a movie, it probably wouldn't read as well. Although we see the opposite a lot as a joke, the old clam "Hey, this is the real world!" - I'm also thinking that being cognizant of being in a fiction based reality is something along the same lines. It's a nice joke (or fan service, if you want to call it that) but it usually doesn't have a dramatic impact (unless you count Reed's decision not to spend time on a cure for Grimm a dramatic change).

    Although in TORG, some Cosm laws had rules such as this, and they were known laws of reality (at least by some). IIRC, Nile Empire (the pulp reality mixed with Egyptian occultism) had such a law, even called "Law of Drama".

    But I think it can be handled seriously. Although like most things, they tend to start off as comedy as we test the limits of our new boundries, I don't see any reason it need stay silly. It would largely depend on the scope of the knowledge (limited to a select few, that may or may not include all the PCs, is a good start) and what effects it has in-game and in-story.
  • For another fictional example of the Laws of Story being consciously referenced by the characters, look no further than Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad. Granny Weatherwax's sister Lily is using the power of stories to manipulate events, so that it will be impossible for the poor servant girl who is the heir in disguise not to marry the (frog) prince.

    Except, of course, that messing with people's lives like that makes her the villain, so she is inevitably defeated.
  • GURPS Discworld has a rule whereby "a one-in-a-million shot will happen nine times out of ten" that gives a bonus to characters trying to pull off something dramatically appropriate but doomed to failure. There are plenty of other games that give bonuses for "cool," which is essentially applying Laws of Drama to the Laws of Physics. Even if the players don't sit around having in-character discussion about it, their characters' behaviors are certainly influenced by this knowledge. I suspect having a game session that makes these mechanics explicitly acknowledged but not played for yuks is just a matter of having the players all agree that this is an idea they want to explore.

    Is there a game that makes this its central focus? Not that I am aware of.
  • In a Mage game I played a character who believed he was in a roleplaying game and his idea of Ascension was that he would get out of this world where things happened based on the laws of stories and drama and become a real person. His avatar was his player (Who wasn't actually me. The avatar was a stereotypical gamer based on a friend of ours.). This was assisted by the fact that White Wolf wrote an evil counterpart to themselves into the WoD in the form of Black Dog Games who made evil versions of the WoD games.
    The main problem was that the character preferred D&D and didn't actually understand what game he was in.

    Anyway, I think it's sometimes, if not always, interesting to have characters in a game world react as though:
    1. Game physics are the laws of physics of their world. (There's no reason your 20th level fighter should beat hell out of the mage for dropping a fireball on you most of the time. It might cook peasants, but you're made of sterner stuff.)

    2. Recognize that they are being driven by the laws of story if they are in a specific place where the laws of story clearly override "reality" or if the world being depicted actually follows the laws of story. For example, princes in fairy tales are almost always good and handsome. Everyone in the world believes that. It's not that it's a "Law of Drama," just that the world already conforms to specific tropes and everyone within that world accepts it.
    In order to have characters consciously react to laws of story, you'd have to take them out of the world that they normally act in, such that, say, Super-heroes sucked into a fairy-tale realm, could react based on fairytale tropes because they recognize the tropes rather than being bound within those tropes as "real-life."

    Damn, did that make any sense?
  • Yup. And Exalted: The Fair Folk, quite a bit.

    Yes. And I've had the FF in my Exalted game explicitly speak to the PCs (Solars) in these terms and mindset. (And that's within creation, where the power of Story is weak as compared to outside of it)
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