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Adventure Games and the Myth of Arcs

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.

– Ryan

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23 Responses to Adventure Games and the Myth of Arcs

  1. Gareth says:

    I hear ya on this — I fell into the “design a game to tell a story” trap for quite a while. It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve realized that a story is something that happens organically, in retrospect, as we look at the events as they transpired.

    Or, as I’ve short-handed it for myself: A story is a result of a good game session. Don’t design a story, design a good game.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Gareth,

      Totally. I suspected you might see a bit of that here.

      It’s interesting to me because games like A Penny For My Thoughts or Fiasco, strong story-focused games, have been the reason I see this idea as real. And I mean that in a positive way (hell, I edited one and accepted the ENnie on BPG’s behalf the other). They’re successful, in my mind, because they imply dramatic arcs and leave room for how the story of that game will be reformed as we think & talk on it.

      Unpacking what I mean about that might be another blog post. Maybe.

      – Ryan

  2. EZ says:

    I think we’ve talked a little bit about this, about how some games try to drive mechanics based on the arc and others don’t.

    What this helped me realize is that I’ve liked the former in principle. But really, what I want (mostly as a player) is the ability to control and fight for my own arc. Incentives to sabotage my arc, and resources to ensure success, either moment to moment or with a bigger picture in mind, help that.

    I like this as a GM too, but since pretty much any game lets the GM control their own arc, I’m less picky. I do love systems that restrains GM mechanical power so that I can push hard without risking pushing too hard, so that, as GM I can push against the player arcs (or push for NPC arcs depending on the nature of the story and game) with everything I’ve got and it’s still a fair fight to some degree.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      EZ,

      What I would say is that you want the ability to remix beats into an arc, and not play out someone else’s idea of what that arc is.

      And then I would further say that what you really want in the first place is a toolbox of beats. :)

      So, there was this one game of The Upgrade! where I was playing a real asshole. My “girlfriend” and I were…well, that’s a spoiler for the game. But she found love with someone else. And wanted to be with them. But she was loyal to me. 2/3rd the was through the game, I mimed drinking, and I felt it the right moment to play a reversal. I said “I’m a real asshole” (causing people in the game to laugh) “and you deserve love. Go be with him.”

      The scene that followed was one of the highlights of the game, and when we later talked about the game over real drinks, I saw the arc of a scoundrel and bastard redeemed. At the end of the game, my character and another decided to try a romance, so the redemption was rewarded.

      Here’s the thing: I couldn’t tell you going in that that was the arc. And, in fact, if it went any other way — the character was never redeemed, or redeemed but without reward, I would see a totally different arc. And be just as happy that we “made story.”

      – Ryan

  3. You *wish* I had Slept With Your Mom as only a daily power and not an at-will.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Andrew,

      Really? C’mon. I’m a little disappointed.

      …that you having taken Satisfy My Mom as a power yet. Or so I’m told.

      – Ryan

  4. Codrus says:

    While I agree that the ‘replay’ is definitely an critical part of gaming, I’m not sure that means that players and the GM shouldn’t try to develop stories at the table.

    As a GM, I always try for cool moments that provoke strong reactions from the players. Surprise, delight, sorrow, and so on.

    As a player, I want to pick interesting actions, not simply the tactically expedient options. Interesting covers a lot of ground: It might simply make the other players react, or it might set up other players for cool actions of their own (either by supporting them or putting myself in opposition).

    Would you make the same argument about movies, tv or books? People often summarize or retell the story they’ve seen or read, highlighting the parts they thought were badass. But I wouldn’t make the argument that any of those forms of media shouldn’t have a story because the viewer will make one up in the retelling.

    I do think that gaming has one thing the others do not: unpredictability. Random dice rolls and a group of separate people means no one at the table can have a perfect idea of what’s going to happen. It leaves open the possibility for surprise.

    Talking mechanics for a moment, one thing I think D&D 4e does well is make it easier for a player to set up a ‘heroic spotlight’ turn (usually called a nova by the optimizing crowd). Action Points + limited use powers. The ability to go over the top and deliver righteous butt-kicking/group healing/whatever your schtick is something the mechanics embody pretty well. 4e doesn’t have a monopoly on it: FATE and other fate/story point driven games allow for righteous actions, if a player can save up multiple points and spend them all at once. So, Mechanics can help drive the process of retelling the story by ensuring that characters get spotlight moments.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The difference between TV, movies, books, etc. is the editorial process. In a game, there’s none of that. That’s why I liken games to real life moments rather than media these days. That, and there’s a drastic difference in experience — in real life and in games, you’re experiencing something. In other media, and in the retelling of real life & games, you’re telling someone else of experiences.

      Which is to say, the viewer/reader in media is the audience, so of course it should have a story. We are not initially the audience in a game — there is no audience (in spite of our love affair with the term) in a roleplaying game just as there is no audience in a board game. (However, another reply will take this idea further…)

      Now, you say that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and I’m going to agree with that. But when we try, we should do so understand how the mind works and how social interactions work, and not simply hope to emulate some fiction we’ve seen and love.

      – Ryan

    • Will says:

      To put it another way, a work of fiction—e.g. a novel, a movie—*is* a retelling rather than an actual moment-by-moment series of occurrences, at least as we’re using the terms now. (Movies like Rope and Timecode attempt to play with this idea by showing us things as they happen in real time, which demonstrates that the two circles of Story and Occurrence in the Venn diagram can be made to overlap completely, if we like.)

      I’m not sure that I agree that an arc can’t exist in the moment—and, indeed, as a GM I strive to keep one aloft during play—but I certainly agree that an arc is a collection of beats, and that beats are the unit of drama that we most easily hold and control during actual play. Any two or three beats can imply an arc, though, and games that are actively thinking about storytelling can evoke arcs out of all manner of beats.

      When I was playing D&D 4E a lot, I strove to relate my character’s standout turns in a way that created a little arc, with the move, the minor, and the standard actions combining to form a little cluster of beats—maybe showing how my character goes from injured to revenged via a second wind and a daily power, for example. I didn’t have control over all the beats all the time—a bad die roll might turn a daily from a triumphant act of comeuppance to a sad down-beat—but I was building arcs wherever I could, from the combat round to the choices I made when leveling.

      That said, all of those decisions were being made for, as I often say, the ride home after the game, when we look back on the night’s play and assemble, smooth, and enjoy some of the story we may have created out of the raw material of our play. For me, the fact that stories can reveal themselves in the moment—by design or by surprise—and turn actors into an audience for fleeting moments before we take our next turns, is part of the joy of RPGs.

      Just as we edit our accounts of occurrences to make a story, so can we edit our play in the moment. It’s a form of narrative sparring—more play than sport. That ability to go from account to story and back to account, as a group and in the moment, is part of the magic.

      Great post, Ryan.

  5. Jesse Burneko says:

    Hey Ryan,

    I have two things to say on this. One is kind of general and the other is highly personal to me.

    The first is that I very much I agree with you when it comes to big picture stuff like “arcs” and “character archetypes.” I absolutely think those are retro-constructs HIGHLY informed by the groups interpretation of the game’s outcome. However, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t strive for each moment to be dramatically relevant. That’s assuming that dramatic narrative is your target for play. That’s not a given and I kind of like your adventure vs. story ideas.

    I think that conversation has gotten very muddled in the “indie”/”story games” scenes. Most of early talk about games-for-creating-stories was purely focused on how to make the fictional content of each moment of play dramatically meaningful. (Note: That’s very specific and distinct from, say, the sense of dramatic thrill one might get from rolling a natural 20 and taking down that mother-fucking troll that was about TPK us). That notion of each moment of play is story-worthy somehow got mixed in with other story techniques that require control or knowledge of a wider “arc” or direction. Stuff like fore-shadowing or Hero’s Journey or thematic goals like “tragedy.” Yes, absolutely THOSE things are best observed and recognized in hindsight.

    Now for the personal thing.

    I very recently discovered that how the game *sounds* at the table is very important to me. One of the things I love, love, LOVE about the Dogs in the Vineyard Raise/See system is that when you have a group of people who know the system well the cadence of the speech around the table begins to sound more and more like well crafted theater dialog… even the stuff that’s narration of action. It’s short, clipped, in the moment, and ritualistically controlled.

    So I realized that’s something that I value at the table, in the moment. The more the group sounds like their co-ordinated and have rehearsed this a 1000 times the happier I am. Weird huh?

    Jesse

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jesse,

      I’m likely following up this post at some point with a conversation that roughly goes “okay, so, arcs don’t exist in the moment. what does?”

      That’s where beats come in. Reversals. Build-ups & reinforcements. Platforms & tilts. And it will be in the skillful dropping of those moments that will create joy in these games, and when we look back to this individual experience in a positive light, that’s when we’ll reconstruct those individual blocks into arcs and stories.

      And if you’re weird about that, man, so am I. You remember my post a couple years back, on GM as Oracle for the Groupmind? I may have to edit that and repost it here.

      – Ryan

  6. Lon Sarver says:

    Personally, the stuff that would bore listeners to whom I was telling the story of a game after-the-fact bores me in-the-moment. “I kill another trollkin. 20 more to go. Who’s next?” for half an hour before the Troll Lord teleports in is dreary. Worse, it changes my reaction to the Troll Lord’s appearance from “Oh, crap! It’s the Troll Lord!” to “About damn time something interesting happened…”

    That said, I know that, as a practical matter, creating a Story out of every game isn’t going to happen. Everybody at the table has to be on the same page about what kind of story they want, and how to do it; the dice have to fall the right way…

    But just because an ideal state is unlikely, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lon,

      Oh, we’ll create a story out of *every* game. It just might not be a good story.

      Ever hear someone bitch about a game? They’re telling a story.

      – Ryan

    • Lon Sarver says:

      I think we may be thinking different things when we use the word “story.” I’m not saying that games should have the same look-and-feel as polished, published fiction. As you said in another comment, above, there’s no editor. I like to say that games are always first drafts; minor retcons aside, there’s no going back and fixing plot holes and bad dialog.

      I guess part of what I want when I say “story” may be what you’re talking about with “beats.” I’d love to hear more from you on this.

      Another thing I want is meaning. Not in the deep thematic sense, but in the “what we’re doing at the table directly relates to what the story/adventure is about” sense. The party of 6 random orcs isn’t there to do anything but use up my arrows and hit points, it has nothing to do with the actual quest. So why bother with wandering monsters?

      Once upon a time, I played a priest who broke from his church when he found that the High Priestess/Divine Avatar heading the church was altering the sacred texts to support an empire building war. I wanted an arc for the character revolving around this conflict. I didn’t have it planned out, I was thinking in terms of “my character’s reason for adventuring is to prepare the neighboring people for the coming war” and “one day I’ll present my evidence to sympathetic members of the church, and get some support,” and finally “then I’ll confront the High Priestess.”

      No time table, no elaborate ideas. This is what I think of when I think of a story arc in a game. Not what I’ll tell folks at a con over drinks, but what framework gives meaning to my characters actions.

  7. This doesn’t make much sense to me. So, if an rpg game is never retold than it never becomes a story/arc? I don’t think I buy that and I don’t understand how Penny is trying to be closer to the retelling than D&D. In both games you going to edit out the mechanics?

    Anyways, I don’t think story games goal is to create an experience that is similar to the retelling of the game but to tell different types of stories. RPGs have always given advice on how to tell stories that are similar to the ones we watch/read. I always saw story games as putting mechanics to that advice, not trying to create an experience that is similar to retelling those events.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Chris,

      A game will always be retold. We’ll retell it to friends (or strangers in AP posts). If not, we’ll retell it *to each other*, to the other participants at the table. (“Man, that was awesome when you did X.” or “So, what happened last time?”).

      And, more importantly, we’ll retell it to ourselves. We’ll think about what happened, and in that re-imagining we’ll construct the arc. Much like how a writer will write scenes that later end up being unnecessary to the story, and cut them. (I recently wrote a story for an anthology where I cut three scenes and several characters, so it’s in the forefront of my mind.)

      This is linked to the human drive to build narratives of our own lives.

      I don’t think that’s the goal, either, at least of a successful game. But you’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how many people design games with that as the goal.

      – Ryan

    • Ok, I can buy that there is no fully understood story/arc in an rpg until I think/write/discuss back on it. However, how is this different from reading a book or watching a movie in the moment?

      It also makes it confusing because you are referring to beats. This makes me think of “Hamlets Hitpoints” which breaks down plays/movies into beats. Is there a story/arc when watching Hamlet as opposed to roleplaying it out?

  8. Brand Robins says:

    Ryan, you jerk, you just made me think of things in terms of GNS for the first time in a year. I thought I’d cleared my brain of that particular form of genre codification, and then here you come arguing so close to the line that it summons it back up like a most annoying specter.

    ;)

    So, in my life of game experience, I do think of games as arcs and plots and lines in the moment of game. Its why I GM most of the time. Its also why I hate games that control those pacings and interactions — because I’m already doing them and good at them.

    I do not, however, live life in “narrative now” mode. You’re pretty bang on about that. (I did some posts about that years ago, around how we all make up “stories of the day”, and they were much in line with you here.) But for me that is one of the essential differences between life and creation/art/game — life is lived in the moment and sense comes later if at all, while c/a/g is done with understanding at the moment as a deliberate act of creation of meaning.*

    However, for many of my players, game is something going after “memories of a life never lived” — so they are experiencing game as a live experience in the moment without reference (or with only limited reference) to any narrative structures. They play much as you describe, with the moment to moment decisions being made as discrete actions in the moment. It’s only later that it becomes a structured story to them.

    The neat thing about it is that these two modes are fully compatible with each other if you develop the right set of techniques and communications. I can fully engage with things in terms of the ongoing development and creation of meaning in the moment while they live through the experience and have it create something rather neat. Their enthusiasm and energy gives and immediate vibrancy to the play that a mere act of created meaning would lack, and my focus and form (hopefully) gives an ongoing structure that enables a more coherent and group focused cluster of narratives.

    (And no, I’m not saying this is how narrative and simulationist impulses work together. Because I don’t do GNS anymore. Stop it Ryan!)

    *Yes, yes, I know that’s the point of modernism, sue me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Brand,

      Hah! I jokingly referred to this post as “Ryan hates on Narrativism as people today misunderstand it.” But you’ll see that I didn’t use those words first here. :D

      I suspect we’re going to agree about play style but might get hung up on semantics. I am big on beat management, but the thing about an arc is that it looks forward. And I don’t…usually. I do plan for convention games, but that’s more about putting stuff in a toolbox than it is about writing a scenario. I’ll think “early in the game I’m going to do this sort of beat, mid-game I’ll do this other one, and late-game I’ll do that.”

      But I think of them as discreet beats that I hope will turn in retrospect into someone that resembles an exciting arc. And I tend to have enough skill to make that happen.

      You’re spot on that the point of playing a game is the creation of something (though not always the creation of story — sometimes the creation of joy). But I also see life like that, at times. Live the life that you’ll want to retell later, and all that. But that’s me and a personal philosophy, one that may color my viewpoint here.

      I’ll have to think more on the how this is different for being a GM or single-character player. And how it’s different for a GMless game. You bring up good points.

      – Ryan

  9. Trip says:

    Interesting discussion — although my reaction to your post is to think that you’ve got it all wrong. :)

    Story arcs as experienced in games are (or at least can be) distinct from the stories we tell about those games later. Surely you’re right in a sense that any game experience will give rise to a “story of the session” which may or may not have a dramatic shape. Even a game of Halo slayer can develop a certain dramatic arc in retrospect. But I think what a lot of people mean when they think of arcs are the beats that build and twist and finally resolve over time, over the course of many sessions.

    We can experience beats in the moment at the same time as we consider how to feed past beats back into the game to create dramatic coherence, so in that sense, the arc can indeed be present even in the moment. Contrary to the “there is no audience” idea, I think it’s fairly common as a gamer to be, simultaneously, participant and audience. Anyone who’s ever done an improv — and I’m not even talking a formal theater or classroom setting here, I do it all the time with my three-year-old son — has experienced building a story that arises spontaneously but which couldn’t take dramatic shape without a certain amount of direction provided by the participants. You can be in the moment while some other part of you has the “meta” awareness to build dramatic coherence, and I’d say it’s a false dichotomy to suppose that you can only be in one mode or the other.

    It seems obvious to me that arcs are experienced at the table — when a juicy twist or revelation occurs, when a great dramatic beat caps off a series of past beats, when an awesome resolution ties up several months of developed story. Given that it’s perfectly reasonable and not badwrongfun to move, essentially, from one round of slayer to the next, enjoying such arcs as happen to arise retrospectively, for some those longer developing, more consciously directed arcs are a big part of the enjoyment of gaming.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Trip,

      Thanks for the comment! Honestly, I’ll have to respond to it later after I no longer have a visceral reaction to “You’re wrong” and can read the points on their own merits rather than colored as such.

      – Ryan

    • Trip says:

      Emoticon fail! Read that as, “I disagree”. Sincerely. Interesting discussion, interesting blog which I only just discovered a couple of days ago.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Trip,

      Thanks! And I agree with some of your points, in a “but I think that backs up what I’m saying…so clearly I left something out” part. But I may have to address that, and the other points above, in a new blog post revising this idea. Most of it I still hold to, but some comments have forced me to look a bit further and rethink these ideas.

      If that makes sense.

      – Ryan