So, a bit ago I made the distinction between Story Games and Adventure Games. Lately, I’ve been thinking about that a bit, and a long conversation between Paul Tevis, John Wick, and some other fine folks whose names I’m spacing on, I hit on another thought:
When it comes to role-playing games, dramatic arcs do not exist in the moment. They only exist in our retelling of what has happened.
This was met with some, uh, disagreement. So here’s my attempt to explain the thought process.
First, life is experienced in real-time. Take right now. I’m on vacation, visiting my family in Denver. I’m staying with my mom, who is at work. Last night I was talking with a fantastic person until 3am on IM, not realizing that my computer wasn’t set to Mountain Time, so I thought it was only 2. I woke up this morning, took a shower, realized there was no shampoo, went to my mom’s bathroom to grab some of hers, got a text message while in the shower about planning for Sunday, and when I went to towel off I discovered the towel was new, so I got towel fuzz on me, making me wondering if I should just grab another shower right now. Then…
Okay, that’s enough of that. But we experience life like that, right?
Look at any vacation: you wake up, shower, leave the hotel room, forget your buffet coupon so you go back in your room to get it, etc.
Look at any sports game, like basketball. There are a lot of moments that are of little consequence, but when we’re watching a game, we’re experiencing them all.
But the stories well tell of these times is not told like that. We skip the parts of disinterest (except when we’re making a point to highlight that they’re of no interest). We promote the parts of interest. And why? Because we’re communicating to someone else. Because we’re getting feedback and happy brain chemicals firing off when we get them interested or exciting in our telling.
When my sister called today, I told her about my utter failure at time change, and that I woke up at 10. That was the relevant part for her, and she was also perhaps somewhat amused.
Vacation stories about exciting or frustrating things that happened. You only tell me about going back to get your buffet coupon if it means walking in on your son and the maid…
Sports stories are about the…fuck, just watch a sports movie. It’s all about triumphs, reversals, moments of glory.
How we retell these events makes up the stories of these events.
How this relates to gaming
When we’re playing a game, we’re playing it out n real-time. The game may take place in a fictional time, but we as players are experiencing it in real-time. The Trollmaster teleported in and threw troll lightning at the party! I saved, and then I was up next. So I charged forward with my I Don’t Like Your Face power. I rolled to hit, then I rolled damage because my to-hit rocked, but the damage was ass. Now it’s Bill’s turn, and he used his daily power of I Slept With Your Mom, and he totally rocked that with a crit, knocking the Trollmaster back into the lava, doing extra damage.
That’s now how we’re going to retell the story of that. That retelling is dry because it’s just a play-by-play. Instead, we might retell it like this:
Dude, we were all rocking out against his minions, and BAMF the Trollmaster comes in. Hits us all with lightning. Half of us are down. I get in with my shot, fucking him up some. He’s tough, it’s kinda desperate. That’s when Bill throws down, using that power he just got this level, I Slept With Your Mom. Man, the new Bard powers rock. Anyway, he hit the Trollmaster and BAM! Fucker’s in the lava…
Granted, if you’re not at all interested in the story, it won’t matter either way to you. But if you are, the retelling is key. In retelling, we cut out or re-contextualize the “boring” parts — like how instead of “I rolled for ass,” it was “I fucked him up.” We add further commentary, like “He’s tough, it’s kinda desperate” — emotional context for the moment. We change up the language to intensify bits of the story we’re telling, like “and BAM! Fucker’s in…”
This can, of course, extend into the macro-level, where you tell the story of a campaign like this. And I’ve heard loads of stories. Every time I hear one, I ponder about what isn’t being said, or what’s being altered — intentionally, to make a better story, or unintentionally, because memory is imperfect.
The day-to-day life we experience isn’t the same as the one we talk about.
The vacation we experience isn’t the same as the vacation stories we tell.
The sports game we watch or play isn’t the same as the game we describe.
So this brings me to a key point:
Why should we push to make a role-playing game’s experience at the table match what we would tell later? There’s a lot of obsession in indieland about story, arcs, etc, and frankly I don’t think they exist in the table experience. Not one bit. But the moment we talk about that game after the fact, even if we’re just talking to the same people that played in the game, that’s the moment when an arc exists. Just like we’re taking a collection of experiences in our real lives and turning them into stories with arcs, emotional contexts, reversals, etc., that’s what we’re doing with our role-playing games.
Perhaps it’s even when we just think about it after the fact, though I suspect talking about it cements the transfer from pure experience to story.
There’s probably a Heisenberg joke in here somewhere. But seriously, it’s by commenting on our observations that we turn experience into story. In real life. In a role-playing game. That’s just how brains work, how memory works, how two-way communication works.
The only question is: is it a story about what happened in the fiction, or what happened with the people playing the game? And that’s a question to be answered on a case-by-case basis.