Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Intersection of System and Story

"Emergent Gameplay": About 85,600 results.

"Emergent Storytelling": About 4,920 results.

That was not a well-balance Google Fight. Maybe we could write some sort of story about that...

How did we get here?

So. John Wick.Blog post. Blah blah blah.

Note: "blah blah blah" is not the summary of his post. "blah blah blah" is possibly the best way to sum up the reaction to that post. And the reaction to the reaction to that post. It's reaction all the way down, and it seems like a good bit of it is anti-intellectual.

Note: I hate anti-intellectual reactions and arguments. And a good bit of the reaction to his post sadly falls squarely into the "I Don't Need No Instructions to Know How To Rock" school of RPG theory, which is located right next to the "I'll Know It When I See It" school of pornography identification.

Peronally, I think he has a few things right. Among them, he puts forth the notion that system and story are two very different things that can be separated.

How often they should be separated, however, is a point of contention. He seems to suggest that they should be considered completely separate entities. Meanwhile, I agree that they can be separated, but shouldn't always. Additionally, sometimes they just sort of mingle, or one can spring from the other, and that's when the magic happens.

Hang onto the things of youth for dear life.

Remember how Legoswere? I don't mean the modern boxed sets that allow you to make one and only one shape, I mean the cylinder of bricks the size of an office wastebasket that contained a little of everything. Ah, those were the days.

What does this have to do with "emergent storytelling?"

Well, did you ever just put together buildings and vehicles with those things and then do nothing with them? Did you build an airplane out of plastic lumps, contemplate it for a few moments, and then simply disassemble it again? If you did nothing more than that with them, then you were an incredibly boring child. Or twenty-five year-old. (No judgements, just sayin'.)

What usually happens is that the builder then starts mentally going through situations in which that structure would be used. That's more properly what we would know as "play," not that build-contemplate-disassemble stuff.

But that brainstorming of situations? That's the manufacturing of story. And it came from a cardboard trashcan filled with precisely injection molded plastic bricks.

If you're younger, you're probably still familiar with a form of block-play, and it originated in Scandinavia, too: Minecraft. Yes, the computer game, the one with the big blocky terrain and those nasty green things that sneak up behind you and blow up faster than an internet argument.

There's no story to Minecraft, but that doesn't stop people from acting out roles within it, using it to create interesting scenery against which to tell stories. Also, look up the word "machinima." They're just bits and bytes and voxels, but that doesn't stop people from building story up around them.

I won't leave the girls out either. At least, I won't leave out those girls who weren't already playing with Legos or Minecraft—what's up with that? I'll just mention that the average doll house is little more than a set piece, a backdrop against which other impromptu scenes are staged. And technically, Barbie is a character archetype. Admittedly not a realistic one, but a character doesn't have to be realistic to be a star. Just look at [insert celebrity name here].

In every one of these cases, you're looking at some form of material which would be inert by itself, but which the person playing with it has imbued with a sort of life. It's not high literature by any means, but technically it is "story."

The Playset

But we were talking about roleplaying game systems. Which are sets of rules, inert by themselves...

...and exactly the same thing happens. The parts themselves—the rules of the system and the backdrop of the campaign—have no life by themselves, but they can inspire players to tell or act out (in their heads, none of that Mazes and Monsters horseshit) stories with them.

So if the parts are there, and the participants are willing, the story's simply gonna happen.

A Sorry Reflection

John Wick seeks to design games that get out of the way of the storytelling. In his somewhat infamous "Chess" post, he talks about how most combat modifiers are unnecessary for the task of creating story out of the conflict.

I know this because I purchased Wilderness of Mirrors, a minimalist game that he wrote some years ago. He'd intended it to be a take on "the perfect spy game," which he admits he wrote for two friends that were house-ruling Spycraft to death. The result, while clever, well...

It actually took me about fifteen minutes, but by the time I was done, I had something I was very happy with. They both told me it was brilliant... then they continued tweaking Spycraft.

They all had it wrong

John's friends had it wrong trying to bend an existing generalized system to their will by adding and changing rules to create a game that perfectly fit the story they were trying to tell. I had a friend long ago who did more or less the same thing to Villains & Vigilantes. Both were fool's errands.

But John I think had it wrong too, because he did a fantastic job of creating a minimalist system that allowed to you tell an interesting espionage story... but it didn't really help you to do so. That's why his friends went back to Spycraft.

Technically, I would very much like to play Wilderness of Mirrors at some point. But it's a sufficiently experimental thing that I don't get much opportunity to do so between the various rules-heavy games we play. Although, I must admit, we do enjoy the occasional game of Fiasco.

And a blasphemous suggestion

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition better facilitated storytelling than Wilderness of Mirrors did.

There. I said it. And yes, I said 4th.

And I stand by the statement: D&D 4e, with its myriad rules on movement, power utilization, conditions, character growth, all that stuff that you'd think would get in the way of storytelling, may facilitate the telling of a ripping good yarn better than Wilderness of Mirrors, a minimal system so designed for storytelling that it almost doesn't qualify as a "game."

Note well that word "facilitate.". Neither system tells a story by itself. No system can, no matter how rules-heavy or rules-light. All the system can do is present a codified simulation of a backdrop, something against which the story can be played.

In that regard, D&D 4e is a big bucket of plastic parts. Some of them are very specific shapes, and they snap together in very specific ways, but if you don't have a story in mind, it's possible to find inspiration among those parts and tell a surprising story.

By contrast, Wilderness of Mirrors (and I'm going to say from my experience certain more recent games like Fate Accelerated Edition) are a stack of index cards and a marker. They give you a lot more freedom to tell the story you want, so you can tell something closer to the story you want to tell, but if you don't have a story in mind to start with, you don't have that many parts to play with.

Freedom From Choice, FAE, Informed Decisions, and Musical Composition

I was on the Fate Core Kickstarter, and I'm very glad I was, because I got a bunch of interesting books out of it and I like them very much. The whole Fate (4th Edition, by the way) universe, and Fate Accelerated Edition in particular, is a fairly minimal system, and a true generic at that, allowing players and GM alike to create whatever characters they want in whatever setting they want. The rules are designed generally not to get in the players' way.

But strangely enough, one group I tried to pitch a game of FAE to couldn't make head or tail of it. There was no setting to it, you see, and they didn't have enough ideas of their own at the time to start creating a campaign.

They didn't know what kind of game they wanted to play, and the system didn't help. They couldn't make an informed decision. They didn't have enough information from the system itself to guide their choices. In this case, more specific rules for things might actually have helped them to decide what to do with the system, and what kind of story they wanted.

I relate this to musical composition this way: Having more music software and more impressive DAWs ("digital audio workstations," whatever those are—and no, don't get me started on that rigamarole of taxonomy) does not make making music any easier. In fact, if you don't know what kind of song or composition you're building, having all the choices in the world can make things harder.

There's something else that rules do: They restrict. They limit the actions possible within the game. They restrict. They constrain. And this is a double-edged sword for storytelling, because while it makes the badass much more difficult, it also makes badassery of the sort that makes the best NSTWW-story that much more precious. If you have badasses everywhere, is anyone really a "badass?"

There's another example from music, too: The scale. When you're making music, you don't use every single note on the keyboard. You tend to stay within patterns of notes, because some note intervals just don't sound good together unless they have support. The scale constrains the note selection, and the music produced is better because of it.

Some Other Contenders

I mentioned Fiasco above. It's another one of those games so freeform it almost isn't a game. But it facilitates play through things called "playsets," that contain all the elements of a particular disastrous story. You start with a very vague notion of what kind of story you want to create, pick a playset that embodies that notion, and then roll to see what specific elements are involved. Then things go from there, usually downhill, and often at high speed. The results are catastrophic, and yet bizarrely satisfying.

Anything powered by the much-vaunted Apocalypse Engine (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and World Wide Wrestling, which I'll write about later) facilitate play through the inclusion of character classes ("play books") and codified character actions ("moves").

I'll also throw a shout-out over to Spectrum Games's Cartoon Action Hour. Technically, it's a generic that facilitates play in any genre, but one specific style—that of the 1980's animation slash toy commercial. Because it's a generic, you have to think some about the construction of the adventure, but the additional cheese of the period will inform those decisions.

Sadly, Not All With Sight Can See, or Something

Not everybody who picks up a game of this sort plays to create a story. Or at least, not a complete story. Sometimes it's all about creating a badass character that can chew through the scenery fastest, or amassing the highest score through the collection of gold or experience. All that matters is the achievement.

And while they're technically valid ways of playing, whatever "story" emerges from playing that way is withered or, worse, solipsistic and self-serving. It is a tale told by the teller to himself and nobody else.

I consider it a failing, that people choose to go the self-amusement route rather than trying to make a story that everyone can enjoy. And, given everything I've said above, you should see this coming: It's not a failing of the system. Remember, the system doesn't tell the story. The system can suggest the story, maybe constrain the story a little bit so it stays in the realm of plausibility, but it can't tell the story by itself. That's the players' job. If only more players took it seriously.

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