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Friday, 19 May 2017

Forget about storytelling and your games will yield better stories

“Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure… Structure should grow out of character.” -- Colum McCann

My friend had just paid several hundred dollars to spend a few days being taught the secret sauce of Hollywood scriptwriting by a self-proclaimed guru.

‘I’d pay to hear Kaufman or Mamet,’ I said. ‘But I reckon they’d start off by saying there is no magic formula.’

‘I knew you’d scoff. Here, I’ll prove it works. Give me one of your Knightmare novellas.’

He counted pages to the plot points, the mid-point, the break into two. ‘See? Fits the three-act story structure exactly.’

‘That’s not proof of your point, though -- quite the opposite. 'Cause I just wrote that book. I didn’t map out where I should put the inciting incidents and reveals and reversals. If you tell a story, sure, it may very well fit the structure - but that doesn’t mean that knowing the structure will help you tell better stories.’

Here’s an analogy you may have heard me use before. Toss a ball and it follows a parabola. But there is no rule in nature that fits the ball’s trajectory to the equation for a curve. The universe doesn’t do equations. Instead the parabola emerges because of the force of gravity making incremental changes to the ball’s velocity. Then we look at it, get our maths on, and say, "Ooh, a parabola."

So too with stories. The changes in velocity are the deep rules of human interaction. The three-act structure is just one curve that you might perceive from a specific set of interactions.

People are suckers for an easy fix. Hence snake oil, superstition, and Trump. And hence also role-playing game design, which has been tempted off into the shrubbery with the seductive promise of a formula for better stories. Things like this:
"Each player around the table gets to write one of the fifty-six Johari adjectives in one quadrant of your character’s Johari window. Pick your character's primary defining adjective from the façade quadrant. The player who gave you that adjective that now assigns your character a Goal, a Grudge and a Geis of her choice. Every time you evoke one of those, the player who assigned it to you takes over as GM to direct you in a scene with potential for a Character Development roll…"
My view on this kind of malarkey is that I turned up to play my character, not to author yours. More importantly, you’re going to get better stories – more interesting, more complex, more surprising, more emotionally affecting, and more transformative – by setting out simply to inhabit the characters rather than by sitting at arm’s length and pulling their strings.

I would never try to shoehorn an RPG session into story shapes when I’m running the game, much less when I'm playing. Let the game take the course it wants without self-consciously imposing story templates and from time to time it will really amaze you. OK, so it probably won’t end up with the tidy three-act form of a blockbuster movie. But what’s more compelling: watching a precision-crafted screenplay tie everything up with a bow, or experiencing life with its shifting, overlapping, unexpected patterns?

The other day I heard somebody talking about a ‘crafted narrative’ RPG system. ‘We enjoyed creating the characters more than playing the game!’ he said – as if that was a good thing. But it’s not, it’s a fail. If you enjoy creating characters, fine. Become a writer. Though, if you do, for pity’s sake don’t subject us to stories wrangled through a Hollywood paradigm. Writers soon learn that it’s more fruitful to let the characters drive the story organically than to try to corralling them with reductive mechanics like goal achievements and epiphany moments.

Human beings evolved to perceive in events the shape of a story, because then it becomes a lesson we can learn. The events themselves aren’t a story, they’re just a cascade of cause and effect. The universe doesn’t do stories any more than it does equations. The story is the parabolic curve mapped onto the events afterwards.

Likewise, the experiences you have while playing the game are the uncollapsed wave function, and all the more interesting for that. When players recount their adventures later, that’s when the storytelling happens. Each character will come away with a different story – for example in this write-up, which describes things from my character’s point of view. If you asked another of the players you’d hear a very different tale. You get it. You’ve seen Rashomon.

In short, you’ll get better stories if you don’t try to create ‘stories’. Because it really is the case that truth (or a simulated life) is stranger than fiction.


  1. Thanks for this most astute bit of writing.
    Best line? "People are suckers for an easy fix. Hence snake oil, superstition, and Trump".

  2. I can't say I've ever worried about wether or not an RPG session was telling a 'good story'. Also realizing that what makes for a 'good story' is subjective and that design by committee is often very bland.

    1. The actual design created by a committee often is bland, but I can see that people might enjoy the process all the same. Microscope, for example, is a system for creating shared fantasy worlds. It's not a roleplaying game, and I'm doubtful whether one in a thousand of the worlds created would bear the load of being used as the setting for an RPG or novel, but if people enjoy it then good for them.

    2. Nice to see your use of Lotte Reiniger to illustrate your article. A largely forgotten maestro of silhouette art.

    3. I wondered if anyone would spot that, Russ.

  3. I could not agree more with the premise of the article. I strongly feel that the best kind of narrative game is one where the player is given the tools to tell their "own" story.

    IMO, this is seen clearly in Paradox Entertainment's strategy games, particularly Crusader Kings 2 - lot of storytelling elements, which players then use to compose massive epics about their dynasties in popular AARs (after-action reports). As time goes on, they've begun adding more and more story elements - and in particular some longer "structured" storylines - and the latter, in particular, do not improve the narrative aspect of the games, IMO. There's a fine balance between telling the player a story and letting the player tell a story, and more text, graphics, and sound effects don't necessarily improve attempts at the latter.

  4. Was reading, sounded good got to 'Trump' comment. No matter if we agree or disagree I like things where they belong, this is an article about storytelling but people all too often can't keep their opinions categorized. Once you ad political commentary to your article you alienate (very) roughly 40% of your audience.

    I came here for good advice on storytelling, once it went beyond that you lost my interest. I'm big on storytelling and I might have begun reading a number of your letters but now I'm not interested. I imagine I'm not the first person who didn't finish the article for the comment and won't be back.

    Might want to see to that.

    1. Does that stat of 40% hold up? Counting those who voted Democrat, and those who didn't vote at all, only about 23% of Americans voted for Trump last time round. And he's at an approval rating of around 35% just now - whereas most presidents only four months into their first term tend to have ratings of around 60% - 70%.

      And that's just in America. Look across into Europe and beyond, and I suspect the level of approval for Trump drops away drastically.

      But, hey, alternative facts are fun too.

    2. Actually I assumed that what Unknown meant was either that 40% of people coming to a blog like this disapprove of posts drifting off-topic into politics, religion, philosophy, science, or whatever, or else that roughly 40% of the population are offended by my opinions. If the latter, I must try harder ;-)

  5. You come to my blog, chum, you're going to get my opinions.

  6. Dave, I absolutely agree with you that player characters must drive their own destinies and the interaction between themselves and the world setting. As you put it so well “the experiences you have while playing the game are the uncollapsed wave function.”
    Pressing any kind of narrative structure onto player characters defeats the object of the activity (you forgot to mention Aristotle, he’s behind it all) . But, a roleplaying game can still function and be hugely enriched with the use of narratives (structured or otherwise)…
    yes I see you reach for that wickedly sharp looking pen, which I’m sure is mightier than a claymore, but give me a moment…
    The narratives I’m referring to occur in the background of the world or campaign. It happens to the non-player characters, it happens in the greater world. People get married, wars occur in neighbouring countries, intrigues, factions. It is the gravy in which the player characters swim. All this enriches the larger environment of the world and campaign. The players themselves can take it or leave it. Sometimes the players will react to these events, sometimes a background story arc will change because of the players actions, but it is their own actions that have changed the ongoing events. I’ve always done this in my roleplaying games to help the players gain the feeling that what they get up to could have an impact in some other context, or at some point in the future (often it doesn’t, but in its way it all helps to keep that wave function rolling).
    I’ve always abhorred a blank or clockwork style world that only reacts to player interactions and lacks the kind of immersion an environment that has it’s own semi independent narrative can offer the players.
    Okay, I’ve stuck my neck out. Please feel free to lay about me with that pen of yours.

    1. I fully agree that you need to have events happening in the game world, Simon. If I gave the impression that I'm advocating everything be the result of the PCs' actions, then I didn't clearly express my point -- which is that rules for story generation (whether Syd Field or the latest cool narrative game) rarely yield stories as good as the ones you get by just making stuff up.

  7. Here's a good f'rinstance that came up in our game recently. A player-character had been unexpectedly felled by a knife wound to the face. The player rolled for this causing a permanent scar, as per GURPS 4e rules, and found that it would. He asked if he could spend a character point to avoid that, because he'd conceived of the character as handsome and debonair and a facial scar would change that, given the society of the campaign.

    Now, if he'd insisted then I'd have let him. I don't believe in making players do things they're unhappy with. It's supposed to all be fun. Nonetheless I asked him not to see his character authorially like that. Sometimes something happens that's unexpected and life-changing, and the way somebody reacts to that can be far richer in "story" terms than closing it off by an authorial intervention. Use of CPs as "fate points" is apt to stop those serendipitous moments.

    The player decided in the end to see where having the scar might take him. It might lead to a better future, or the character might become a broken man. We'll see. The crucial difference is that it will continue to surprise the players and me.