Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Game of Story

The overarcing genre known as the "roleplaying game" had humble beginnings as a conceptual variant to then-conventional wargaming. It was a novelty that the game which focused on large-unit tactics could be refocused on the capabilities of the individual rather than the squad of six or ten or twenty.

More recent developments in the field of "roleplaying games" have had people trying to simplify the game itself, arguably down to the level of finger-paints and Duplo™ blocks.

I don't necessarily want to focus on the gamey games or the non-gamey games. I want to focus on the argument.

Games with Added Story

Checkers and backgammon are both accepted as games. They're in fact similar in that, except for positioning at the start of the game, every piece has equal capabilities.

Chess is a game too, though there's some distinction between different units. There are six types of units in chess, and each type has different movement rules.

It could also be said that chess contains the barest hint of story in the name and design of the pieces. The game is no weaker for the story's inclusion, but the story suggested therein lends it a certain veritas. If instead of pawn, bishop, knight, rook, queen, and king, the types of pieces were named shreb, vonko, gweesh, traad, mamfy, and blort, the many books of strategy compiled over the centuries would still be just as valid. But would it become known as the "game of kings" and have all that strategizing thrown at it if the names were abstact syllables thrown together for mere differentiation?

Stories with Added Game

Oh, come on. Do you really need examples of story? Go to your frigging library.

Now, stories with game elements embedded in them... that seems a more worthy challenge. But it really isn't either.

The most recent development in the story-with-game is "interactive fiction." The sort of text-based adventure games put out by Infocom has a foot on each side of the line, though, and isn't a great starting point. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about when I mention Infocom or text adventures, Get Lamp. I'm just sayin'.)

So we need another story form that's closer to story. One such can be found in the "Choose Your Path" adventures. You might remember the type: Read paragraph. If you take certain action, go to paragraph XX. If not, go to paragraph YY. If you have both the lizard and the personal lubricant, go to paragraph ZZ. And so on. It's like a non-computerized computer game. There's still some obvious game in there, though, so let's go back even further.

The example of complete story with the first vestiges of game can be found in a particular genre of fiction: the mystery. I shouldn't have to explain this one either: the genre's other name is the "whodunnit." You're introduced to several characters. Pretty early on, likely before the end of the first chapter, something Very Bad happens to one of them. For the rest of the book, you're left wondering which of the other characters (the "who") could have committed (or "dunn") the Very Bad Thing (hereafter referred to as "it").

The first explicit examples can be found in the works of Ellery Queen. The reader follows the investigators closely, noting every detail and inconsistency that they do. Finally, toward the end of the book, there's one italicized paragraph. It's a milestone, dropped by the author, stating that by that point, you have enough information to answer questions like who the culprit is, how it was done if that's in doubt, etc. That paragraph is the reader's cue to take their guess and either read on for the solution or to go back and reread any parts they're not sure of to form that guess.

Exit the Flashback

I credit Dave Arnesson with taking the game elements and commingling them so thoroughly. Game and story are so tightly integrated that every "participant" therein is reflected by both game and story elements, and changing one—either one—will force changes in the other.

Something else has happened, though: game systems have expanded and grown in complexity to handle more types of characters, more situations, and more special cases. Some systems have evolved to handle many different genres equally well (or poorly), some systems have sprung up to handle specific types of play. Some systems are made thicker and beefier simply to plug up loopholes and corner cases, to keep the game from getting unbalanced.

And some think the whole mess has gotten out of hand, that so much game in their game interferes with the story. In order to return to purer storytelling, they feel it necessary to cut out some of the game.

A Return to Story

You've seen it especially in the past decade or so. Some designers with aspirations of artistry have pooh-poohed complex maths in favor of systems so light and breezy they seem either delightfully diaphanous or woefully absent. Some designers want to let the story do the driving. Sometimes they accomplish this by leaving the game tied up in the trunk. Okay, maybe I'm not making the point very clear. Examples would be in order.

Example: Primetime Adventures was designed to allow the players to simulate a television show—any show—by creating an ensemble cast of characters, describing them in vague terms, and providing a dead simple conflict resolution system. Conflicts are resolved by drawing a certain number of cards, and counting the red ones. How many cards you draw is mostly determined by how important your character is in that episode. Really. There are tags and attributes in the general textual sense that you can use to get extra cards, but ultimately your character's power level fluctuates from episode to episode and is planned before the first episode is played.

I can see why a lot of what's done is done here: the idea is to allow all participants an opportunity to star in their own story. The conflict resolution system does just that: resolve conflicts, and nothing more. How the conflict is resolved is determined by one of the players involved in the conflict, and not necessarily the one who won it either, proving numerous opportunities for swerves.

So where does that leave the affectionately acronymed PTA? Story? Most definitely. Game? There's much less of it in that than, say, GURPS, but there is most definitely some there.

Another example: shock, by glyphpress. It too is rather story-centric with a rather light system, but then it adds complexity in the form of play structure. For instance, before the game even properly begins, people decide what the story is going to be about. Several "issues" are tossed out, along with some suggestion of what far-futuristic science-fiction or science-fantasy will add its own special nightmarish kink to everything else—this is the title attribute, the "shock" for which the game is named. Players also agree on a few other things, like two pairs of opposite methods of dealing with conflict, like coercion/negotiation, begging/intimidating, altruism/selfishness, individualism/cooperation, etc. So the system itself has blanks to be filled in to determine how it will be used. That's pretty darned minimalist.

During play, every player's character has an antagonist, the person sitting to his immediate left. Furthermore, since every character's story involves both an issue and shock, and those are divided up among players before play begins, every player will have two GMs and an adversary in an adjacent player, who might also be a GM.

Between the customization of the setting and division of topics between players, the game takes on a rather sophisticated, if not dizzying, formality. Again, loads of story and a good bit of structure, but not terribly much system.

A House Divided

The existence of the "story game," as well as the history I cited way, way up there, conjures some interesting philosophical questions. How much game in an RPG is too much? How much is not enough? What do people play these things for, if not elements of both game and story? Does too little or too much game make an RPG "bad?" And if someone says it does, do you feel the urge to smack them hard in the mouth?

The reaction from both sides in the "story games" debate has been visceral, vehement, and often vitriolic. Some players have embraced what is commonly known as the "story game" or "indie game," eschewing the clunky old guard game systems for the newcomers. Other players have chosen to cling to those old guard games, taking up the mantle of "grognard" and decrying the "story games" as insubstantial.

A pox on both their houses, I say.

I regard the "story game" as a mutation, a possible step in the evolution of the RPG. It will continue to exist in its old form, but these new breeds will attract new players, and those new players will find the transition to the older games that much easier. It means more players and the health of the hobby.

That view unfortunately makes the prejudice against any form of gaming, old or new, dangerous. It's a species hunting different specimens of itself, condemning itself to extinction and obscurity, just so long as it remains pure right now.

My point is that yes, the "story games" have less game in them, but that doesn't make them much less valid as RPGs. Besides, if not for the story, what are you playing for? If the game is all that matters, you might as well stick with checkers or backgammon. And chess, provided you're not put off by the intrusion of genre.

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