Story? Really?!

We’ve talked about inclusive versus exclusive before, and in a way, this post will also be about that. We’re also going to stay about fairly basic stuff, which is also very controversial and very important.

We’ve talked about Story’s role, as the focus or the facilitator, but now we need to get down to the bloody mess of Story itself. What is story? What isn’t?

We might want to begin with a definition, due to it being quite lengthy, I’ll repost the first item and simply link to the rest.

sto·ry1   noun, plural -ries, verb, -ried, -ry·ing. –noun

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

And to that I’ll add a short exchange between Keith Senkowski and myself:

Keith Senkowski: fuck story.  it is a game.  no game creates story.  story is created in the retelling
Guy Shalev: In a way, I agree, and that’s one of my thoughts. People keep talking about stories, about narratives. But our lives, when we live them, are just a random group of shit, they only become a narrative and gain cohesion in hindsight.

Some people say that a series of events, each occuring on its own is not story; furthermore, building on that, they say that a story needs to have a purpose, a theme or a thread going through it. Games with stories (a certain brand of RPGs included) therefore require a topic to be about, a common plot for it to have a story, or at least, “A good story”.

But if we go based on the above, then we can have any series of events, random or otherwise, and have them in totality be a story. This is not to say that any series of events automatically becomes a story, but when we retell it, omit and add, especially as to the cause of events, it does become a story indeed and not only in name.

When we play, we do not create a story, we create a scaffolding, a series of events (fictitious as they may be), later, when we recount the story, even if we only do so in our minds, going back over it from beginning to end, we create the story. The story is not created by the activity,  the game which occurred, the story is created by the Story-Machines, our human brains.

Competition as Training Wheels.

Quite recently we held a discussions called “Competition? What for?” on this very blog, and with this post I’m going to give a suggestion on a possible role of competition in games, specifically RPGs.

In most traditional RPGs, there is one person, the Game Master, who weaves the story and the world. Players can act and then the GM has the world and story react to their actions, but in case the group is more reactive, or even passive, the GM can push the story forward, forcing the characters to react and take a stand. The game progresses one way or another, and the GM, a good one, helps ensure that it is so.

A common problem when traditional players are faced with more recent games is that the task of narration is suddenly thrust upon them. It is not uncommon for players to freeze in such an instance. But we’re not going to dwell on that. Many a time these games are based on the assumption that all players will push the game, their characters, the story and/or the world forward. They will introduce complications, go out of their shell and make things happen. Sadly, this often does not happen.

When you have no limitations, you often get nowhere. You are paralyzed by too many options. Once you are limited by some constraint you have an easier time of figuring a direction in which to move and act. Before being thrust into a new game, many a player might do well to have some in-between stage. I posit that competitive games can be that stage (as well as a non-competitive game to which you add a competitive side for this explicit purpose).

You can treat story as a vector along which to enact competition or competition as a vector along which to tell a story. It matters little. Once there’s competition present, there’s a direction. It is clear what the goals are, who you’re competing with and why. Once you have a competition, you may very well not explore other facets of the game or enviroment, but remember, you limit freedom in order to foster creativity and lower paralysis, and once creativity is fostered, you can later remove the competition and have the players use the new knowledge and skills they had gained to explore the game.

Competition has many uses. There are too many games that once you finish reading them you say, “Cool, but now what do I do?” Competition answers that question. You compete, and if the rules make you create a story as you go along, then by the game’s end you should also have a story created and told.

Next month I’m going to focus a bit on the Story component of games. I hope this short entry was useful to you. It was intended as an answer to the previous post more than as a post of its own.

On Tunnels; A Repost.

The following post is taken from this post on the Forge, originally titled [Cranium Rats] On Flags Alone?, I refer to this post earlier on the blog, but it’s not really a Blinder, but a Constraint. I also need this post in order for our next Component post, the one regarding “Flags”.

There had been some discussion on the Forge post, you may want to head over there and peruse it. If you have any new comments though, please post them here.

So, I’m going to continue talking about what I call Blinders, and when it is discussed in terms of games or game-play is often called Constraints. This topic is about games in general, but I am posting this as a question regarding and using as an example, my own game, Cranium Rats, like the post about Codification of Session Length.So, let’s talk about Flags. Flags are there to attract attention to what the players want to focus on, what they want their characters to do. Flags are all about jumping up and down and pointing to the interesting bits.
But, no one enforces Flags in most cases, there is nothing that forces you to create a story involving them, especially in games where you have an omnipresent GM. Perhaps this is how people like it, but perhaps it is not.

In The Shadow of Yesterday your characters have Keys, the way to get XP is by following the character’s Goals. You also have Flags in the form of the abilities on your character-sheet. If you list Diplomacy or Spear-Fighting, then obviously you want these abilities to play a part in the game-play. There is no onus on the GM to provide scenes where either your abilities or your Keys come into play.
The issue of Keys is a step-up from previous designs, where you merely had Goals with no mechanical effects though, like the Abilities.

In Nine Worlds your characters have Muses, which double up as both your Goals and which provide a bonus when you perform an act which follows them. You have narration rights as a player, so you can be pretty sure that your Muses will come into play, this is already some refining of the Flags issue, as you can bring your own Muses in.

In Cranium Rats, I took this a couple steps forward, and probably a couple of steps backwards as well. I have taken the Flags and more or less turned them into “Tunnels”, where you can only narrate new Scenes relating to your Goals. Your character sheet is also quite empty compared to most games, and thus the Goals act as the only Flags.

Now, the question is, how do you feel about this? Do you think you should have Flags and also non-Flags story(taking into consideration Flags may or may not get addressed at all, depending on game and GM fiat), or do you want a game where Flags happen, but not only do they happen, they’re the only thing story is going to address/spring from?

“CSI Games for All!”?; On Promotion

So, Emily Care Boss, author of Breaking the Ice, talks about CSI Games, even though it was prompted by me, asking her if she thinks her newer game(Shooting the Moon) fits, because I think it does. This raises an issue close to my heart, the issue of promotion.

I raised the issue of how Capes is promoted earlier. When I asked Tony about why he promotes the game as a super-hero game instead of putting Conflict in front, his answer(which I can’t find…) was(IIRC) that it didn’t attract as many asses, and when he talked about the playtest he said that focusing on it as super-hero game got him something to compare it with.

I serve in the army, people often ask me about what my game is about, and what RPGs are in general(It’s still the easiest to go from the RPG angle, CCGs and non-family board-games are all but unknown to the public in Israel, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, and if even D&D fails, LotR). When I tell them about the game, I eventually tell them about the Colour, the fluff, the setting, and that is what most people go “Cool!” about. Ron Edwards often says that he cares most about Reward and Colour. Me? I could care less about Colour, I don’t care for Capes’s Superhero aspect, I believe Werewolf: the Apocalypse high politics and Vampire: the Masquerade hack-and-slash are viable choices.

What this shows us is simple, and even obvious. Not all types of promotion benefit all folks. When I came up with Cranium Rats, the Conflict and Competition quickly took center stage, and the Colour, while I love it, isn’t half as important. But if you’d look at ECB’s Shooting the Moon love triangle situation, I think the conflict came from the colour and not vice versa, and selling the game as “A game about Competition” rather than “A Game about a love triangle and romance”(though very much the same) would hurt the game, would hurt the promotion, more crowd would be lost than crowd would be gained. 
I on the other hand talk about Conflict and barely mention Colour, which may not work as well, but I rather do that than “Bait-and-switch”(I think most people who like Capes like it because of the Competitive element, and those who dislike it, dislike it for the same reason, selling it as a superhero game doesn’t inform your audience if they’ll like it or not. I, like Alexander Cherry, am surprised when the game is brought up in Super-hero game threads, I don’t find Super-hero game content in it, though I love it for other stuff it has).

Those of you who do identify your games as “CSI Games”, please mention it in the text, if Competition is what you pride yourself on, do so on the first page, put the “CSI Games; a Definition” post in the front of the text. If your game happens to be a CSI Game, but that is not the focus, but yet you identify your game as such, please put a mention somewhere, even if on the book’s last page or two. This project is all about creating a support-net for other people who work on CSI Games, but once our games get out there, it’ll also help to point people who like the competitive angle to other games who contain that aspect.

JJ Prince, John Kirk, I’m looking at you, this also applies to playtest versions!