Story to the People!

Mark UnseenLast week, I talked about a terminology shift some people are making in how they talk about roleplaying games. I jumped merrily on that bandwagon, and if you’re wondering why I bothered, this is it: I can now start to talk about the purpose I’m pursuing in RPGs, without getting bogged down in the clunkier and baggage-laden “isms” these things used to be described with. I can now talk about Story Now.

Waaay back in “So what the Hell does THAT mean,” I wrote:

“It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.”

This is the secret ingredient to shared story creation in roleplaying. There’s lots of roleplaying out there where story creation isn’t truly shared, or where it isn’t prioritized at all. In those cases, the managing of everyone’s creativity is arranged such that “story” is mainly one person’s deal that everyone else recieves and responds to, or else it’s at most a pleasant byproduct. In Story Now play, on the other hand, everyone’s creativity is on the line equally, as shared creators. It demands a lot of trust, and can be a bit frightening. But those who play Story Now attest that the emotional vulnerability is worth it.

Story Now is about focusing on Protagonists, not just “some characters who do some stuff.” It’s about playing characters with purpose, and making those characters the focus of the game. And above all it’s about allowing characters to change.

That’s why the Now, the ever-changing present moment, is the ground of Story by the Throat. Because if you’ve already got a 20-page history and a neat set of “my character would/wouldn’t do that” answers for every occasion, there’s no story to tell. It’s already told, in your head. It’s like this thing of diamond, impermeable, incapable of surprising you. The input of other players will break against your character as waves against rocks and you will not be moved. If that’s what you want. . .sure. But you might be better of just. . .writing that stuff down so a passive audience can receive it. Because in this case a passive audience is just what your fellow players are.

You’ll notice that the nicey-nice platitude that “all goals of play are equally good” or any notion like that is utterly absent here. I’ve found what I want to do, and I’m going to seize it. And I’m not going to mince words about it. So other ways are also fun for people. So this creative agenda ain’t for everyone. I’m not gonna come into your libing room and shit on what you enjoy doing, but here in my living room I’m going to be frank about what I love.

“Story Now!” is not so much a term with a definition (though it is a distinct thing) as it is a fist-pumping anthem. I’m cool with that. If you feel like pumping your fist with me, then great. If not, I’ll merrily march along. But I find enough value in the concept of voluntary and passionate trust in creative endeavors that I’m willing to get a bit aggressive in my appeal. I invite you to join me and live in the moment of Creation together, to putting our creations to the test and allowing ourselves to be changed. Our characters, yes, but us too, as we develop emotional resonance for these beloved imaginary parts of us. Story Now is a battlecry that keeps us all honest, as we hold ourselves to what we demand of each other, that we engage with each other Here, Now, and flinch not from the fire of change.

Peace,

-Joel

(for further reading, check out Jesse’s excellent dissection of the different types of story in roleplaying games, at Play Passionately.)

Jettisoned Baggage

Vincent Baker, author of Dogs in the Vineyard and In a Wicked Age and so on, is doing something interesting on his blog. He’s taking a term of RPG theory, a much-contested one with a ton of emotional baggage. . .and jettisoning it*. He’s saying, “everyone means something different by this term, so if you use it, be prepared to define it; as for me, I’m going to be calling the thing I’m talking about something else.”

(*PLEASE, don’t bother reading the article if you don’t have a dog in the fight. It’ll just be confusing and probably a drag.For awesome Vincent Baker talkings, read this page instead!)

The thing he’s talking about, it’s part of a set of proposed goals of roleplaying from the theory discussions at the Forge. The name he’s shedding is Simulationism, with its counterparts Gamism and Narrativism. In their place he’s using their more descriptive taglines: The Right to Dream, Step On Up, and Story Now.

I love it. I’ve also noticed Jesse Burneko doing this on Play Passionately, saying Story Now all over the place with nary a whiff of “Narrativism.” I intend to do the same. This is a great idea for two reasons:

First, it’s much, much clearer. This clears up all the confusion impressions people get like, “I like story, so I must be narrativist!” or “Realism is important to me, am I playing Simulationist?” The taglines make it utterly clear that we’re talking about specific, nuanced concepts, not just any ol’ thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of “Narrative” or “Game.”

Second, and this is the important bit–the term switch helps defuse the inflammatory history of the concepts. Identifying something as an “ism” is incredibly loaded and polarizing. It quickly becomes a matter of identity politics and battle lines. Story Now sounds to me like a cool and engaging thing to try. “Narrativism” sounds like a damned religion. You can easily get on board for a round of Step on Up play without having to invest your identity in being a “Gamist.” That means we can talk about these things in a healthy and nonthreatening context. That excites me a whole lot.

So I’m going to be trying Story Now on for size, seeing if I can use it as a fruitful line of conversation and exploration. I’m hoping Story by the Throat can benefit from bringing its core element into the foreground and taking a good hard look at it. Come join me!

Peace,

-Joel