Sunday, January 08, 2006

This is no longer a history; this is not yet a story*

So I have this big ramble about the place of role-playing games as a form of, essentially, middle-class folk art in modern society, but I actually want to talk about game design right now.

Something is in the air. Something about stories, histories, communities, and how we tell these things and relate to each other through them.

I'm at home (rainy Arcata, CA) right now, and I've been talking a lot with Calder about the game he's working on, which is shocking not the pirate game (wait! A practice game dropped for an important one? I'm shocked!) but a much more fascinating historical game about Ireland. The game has some incredibly sexy tricks up its sleeves, and I'm not going to scare people off from it by mentioning them explicitly. Suffice it to say that, although I have little history in Ireland as such, I will be playing this game enthusiastically and continually as soon as it is available to do such, because it touches issues very close to my heart. I'm going to be talking about it a lot, I think, which means that I should really learn how to spell its name.

What is important about the game, for the purposes of this essay, is the way that stories are framed. Any story gets framed with a direct statement of what the story is about:
"This is a story about love"
"This is a story about family"
"This is a story about duty"

Or whatever else the story is about.

Note that this quite efficiently sets the stakes of the story, where by set the stakes I don't mean the Dogs/PTA/UTB formulation (what game originated this? Universalis?) of "if this roll goes this way, this happens, if it goes this way, this happens" but rather the basic topic of the story. In telling "a story about love" we're going to resolve what we, the players, think about love. Love is at stake, we just don't know how yet.

Now, here's the catch. The characters within the games tell stories of what happened in the past. A character can begin a story, and that's one of the ways to cause a leap in time, where suddenly we're in a new story, that supplements the old one, from an earlier period of history. And they don't have to be the same topic. So a "story about love" can support a "story about pride" or what have you.

It's pretty simple to see that this is a powerful tool to examine history and story.

But Calder isn't the only one poking at this right now. Meg Baker is working on the fabulous Thousand and One Nights, where the protagonists are the captives, servants, courtiers, wives and slaves of a harsh Sultan. To express themselves openly means death, and so they channel their emotions and relationships through stories. Each character uses stories to make their emotions known and try to achieve their goals. Mechanically, each player can start a story, and essentially be running a game-within-the-game, casting each of the other characters in roles within the story, in order to express their hidden drives, desires, and rivalries. I don't want to talk too much about the game, because it's Meg's to discuss and announce and such, but you can see how this is fundamentally touching on some of the same ground -- both mechanically and thematically -- as Calder's Ireland game.

And, in my own Maps, I'm dealing with the same questions. In play, we're examining how a community makes use of its history, stories, and symbols, contrasted and conflicted with how individual people within that community make use of the same or different histories, stories, and symbols. The act of telling a story in a game of Maps -- while not triggering a sub-game in the same manner as the other games mentioned here -- is nonetheless a highly meaningful and vastly powerful action. The act of interpreting a story is a matter of life-and-death.

But that's only half the picture. Maps, like 1001 Nights and Calder's Ireland game, is a game of multiple layered stories and storytelling, it just handles it in a different way than the stories-within-stories model. One of the two core mechanics of Maps is the interpretation of what I'm calling, in my playtest-shorthand, a corpus. The corpus is a set of stories, images, letters, histories, and maps which forms the "setting" of the game. However, at the end of each stories, the players of the story are required to enter new material into the corpus based upon their interpretation of the events of the game. Thus, play naturally builds on itself, and one game may very well be an important legend, or even recent history, for a future game.

So here's two models for mechanics which make ourselves address the role of story in our lives: One is that a player may tell a story, which is in itself a separate game. Another is that previous games become the foundation which we tear apart and analyze in our future play. What are some other ways of thinking about story with games? It seems like a natural medium to discuss the topic.

* This is all the remains. Whatever else is what we make of it.


Blogger Sven Holmström said...

It's interesting, to me at least, that I very recently read a Swedish freeform scenario with mechanics for stories inside of the main story. (Jonas writes about here in English . The game is in Swedish, though.) Martin, the writer actually got some of these ideas in discussion with me last summer (he claims so anyway). My scenarios with these mechanics are far from finished, though, since I am much worse at in fact doing stuff than Martin.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

But thinking more about it: in Swedish freeform thes ideas should originate from the collective Vi åker Jeep (We go by Jeep), who have done some advanced stuff with these techniques. ( is a nice document of theirs. In English. I have probably linked to it already sometime.)

10:16 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I'd be interested to see how your game goes when you run it. Here's a question, though:

Are these simply LARPs with some story-telling in them? Or are they actually LARPs about LARPing?


7:04 AM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

Hmm. Ok, they are not larps about larping, although those exist too. (Some friends of mine recently played a minilarp about an ordinary gaming session. They reported: "fun").

Are the games you are talking about rpg:s about roleplaying? I didn't understand it like that.

Actually they are not larps at all.

First: The game by Martin mentioned above is a gammaster free freeform. In (Swedish/Danish) freeform you normally have one (or two) GM(s), here Martin instead uses 'Scene cards', which are descriptions of each scene. In this case there is only one card per scene. You can also have one per scene and character. (There are four preset scenes. And actually one player is transformed to a GM in scene three, but only for that scene.)

In scene two in this game each character will tell a story fromm the past. This story is told by letting that characters player cast the other players according to his story.

This is really just a version of what is described in the Jeeps dictionary is described something they call Sitting and standing play. Within this techniqe everything you say sitting is contemporary and 'true', while standing play is either a dream or hope about future or a memory from the past.

This can be (and has been) used in for example the following manner: One person sitting down talsk about a memory. Other players (standing) start to play out this memory. The initializer is the owner of this meory and can correct and give direct orders to the ones playing out his memory (one of them might be playing him). They Jeep people often recommend a memory to played several times. Another (for the moment) sitting player can then tell her version of the meory (again through the other players). In addition you wil have a GM (or often two, when talking about the Jeepsters) who can step in to give hints and directions.

Look at this section in their text instead. It's awsome. They use this extensively in No trace for Alex, which should be fully translated into English by now.

These are all examples of table free tabletop. I'm writing a scenario where four players (guided by a GM) play only two characters with a lot of similar techniques. But I'm lousy at getting things done (which as you know and have pointed out, translates as "I'm a bad designer".)

Maybe I totally missed to connect to your initial text, your last comment makes me think that to be the case.

BTW your Maps make me think of Ursula Le Guun novel The Telling. Maybe you should read it. Great novel too.

9:15 AM  

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