What’s the Story? – RPG as Narrative

I’m gonna get a little philosophical in the following post, so be warned. There’s some musing ahead.

I play a lot of RPGs. Right now, I’m playing in three different games, and running three more, not counting the computer RPGs that I indulge in as time permits. I also read a lot of books – got four of them on the go at the moment. And I write a fair bit. Writing is my day job (technical writing), and I’m currently trying to finish writing a novel.

This means that I think a lot about stories.

I’m thinking now specifically about stories in RPGs, because I just finished writing up the character diary for one of my characters. This is something I decided to take on because my character is a bookish, scholarly sort who would keep a diary. My GM in that group has asked me to post it on the game’s forum site, so that it can serve as a recap for the players, and I’m cool with that. It’s fun to write, fun to explore the development of the character out of game time, and fun to let his voice mature through the entries. I’ve done similar things with other characters, but this is the first time I’ve decided to keep a game diary from the get-go, and to make it public. Well, public among the others in the group.

But it’s got me thinking about narrative structure and convention within RPGs, and whether we are, in fact, generating stories when we play.

(Now, when I say “story,” I’m using the word in a very particular way. I’m referring to something that would appear in a novel, short-story collection, movie, or television. That’s a pretty formal and narrow definition, I know, but that’s really part of the point I’m trying to make.)

Yeah, I know, the current trend is to view RPGs as collaborative improvisational storytelling, but are we really telling stories?

I’ve been noticing that, as I write up my diary entries from my notes during play, that I have to do a fair bit of fleshing out of things that didn’t actually happen in play, or smoothing over and conflating things that did happen in play. And even then, it’s hard to call my finished product a story. Even when taken together, the entries from an entire adventure don’t really make up a story. Here’s why:

  • Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. RPGs certainly have a beginning, and a whole lot of middle, but the ending is very often not a clean, defined thing. Sometimes, games fade out as interest wanes, sometimes they are abandoned when something new comes along, sometimes they’re ditched after a TPK. Sometimes they make it to a defined ending point, but even those often leave many loose ends and follow-ups. And the middles sort of go on forever, which is really part of my next point.
  • Stories have focus. They tell a tale, and show you what’s important to the narrative progress. RPGs may have that sort of thing set up in their structure, but focus tends to go out the window once the players get involved. Because people pick up on different things, are interested in different things, and think about things in different ways, they don’t always spot the plotline right off the bat, and tend to wander around a bit trying to find it. Even when they do find it, they rarely want to focus specifically on it – their characters all have other interests as well as the main storyline.
  • Stories are (generally) controlled by the teller. This is what give stories their structure and focus. One voice, one vision, one direction*. In RPGs, the control is split among all the participants, players and GM alike, and each has a different agenda. Each player views his or her character as the main character in the story, and views the story to be about them. Plus the others, but mainly them. This is what weakens** focus and structure in RPGs.

When I look at my completed diary entries, or talk to people about what happened in a game, it doesn’t come out very storylike. The diary entries feel like diary entries, in that they are a strung-together account of events. They may have a little more focus and direction than real-world diary entries, but not a whole lot. Talking about games is the same way – outlining everything that happens in a game doesn’t provide a clear, focused narrative, because of all the little things that clutter it up. If we want to talk about the experience in a meaningful and interesting way, we tend to string together anecdotes from the game to highlight moments that had an impact on us.

Let’s look at the standard D&D*** game. If you tell the “story” of the game, it goes something like:

Goblins were attacking the town, so we went out into the woods, and fought some goblins. Then we fought some goblins with wolves. Then we camped overnight, and a bear attacked us. In the morning we followed the goblin trail to the caves. Along the way, we fought goblins twice more. One of the groups had a shaman. At the caves, we fought goblins with wolves in the first room, then goblin archers behind stacks of haybales in the second room. In the third room there was a pit trap, and we fought some more goblins. Finally, we got to the leader, and he was a bugbear, so we fought him and won. Then we went to collect our reward.

As a narrative, it’s not all that interesting. You fought a lot of goblins and things, and saved the town. There. I just boiled it down to a single sentence. Even if you have a group of very skilled roleplayers who are totally immersed in their characters, it’s not going to really add all that much to the story except some filler scenes to separate the fights.

I wouldn’t buy a book that told that story.****

And have you ever tried to tell a game story to a non-gamer? Don’t even bother. Their eyes glaze over pretty quick, even if they understand what you’re talking about. Even with gamers, what interest there is comes from comparison and identification with their own gaming experience. And a lot of gamers you tell your game story to are just nodding and smiling until you’re done flapping your gums so that they can tell you a real cool gaming story from their own lives.

Now, the argument could be made that I’m oversimplifying and that some RPGs are rich in story. I don’t think so, but I’m fine with being told I’m wrong. What we call story in RPGs is primarily background – the stuff in behind the stories. Or the infamous metaplot, which is closer to what I think of as story, but that I don’t think really comes on stage properly in the average game.

You could also say, “It’s the GM. My GM makes great stories.” And you may be right, but I don’t think so. It’s not that your GM isn’t great, but your GM is making campaigns and adventures, which are story skeletons that get fleshed out by play, and it’s the play that keeps the RPG experience from being story.

I’ve done it myself, creating a campaign that ran for just about eight years, with a storyline running through it, and a beginning, middle, and end, but I have to admit, after the fact, that it wasn’t a story in the way I’m talking about here. It was a collection of events, with a common theme and a sense of linkage to lead from one to the other, and a resolution that tied up most of the loose ends and put a lid on things. But it wasn’t really a story.

So, by my definitions, as outlined above, I’ve pretty much proved***** that what happens in RPGs is not story in the strictest sense. What is it then?

It’s a game.

Now, that may sound obvious or ridiculous, but I think it’s an important distinction. It’s a game, with rules that simulate events in which we participate. It produces a series of linked, simulated events that occur because of our interaction with the rules. These series of events can be adapted and restructured to produce a story, if we put in the effort to weed out the extraneous and add the missing. By applying the structure, focus, and control I mentioned above.

It’s fine that RPGs don’t produce stories as I’ve defined them. In fact, it’s a good thing. The bits that keep RPGs from being the same as novels are the interaction and surprise that emerges from play. Those are great things to have. Control of narration in the hands of the participants is a whole lot of fun. As a GM, not having to flesh out every detail of a plot, and relying on my players to supply the exciting parts is fun. As a player, knowing that I can steal a moment or two in the spotlight, and watch each of my friends do the same is fun.

What about the repetition? Well, that’s fun, too, because in the simulationist rules of the game, it produces varied and interesting results. What does that mean? It means combats are exciting. Introducing a random chance element into play is exciting. It doesn’t look exciting when it’s written down on the page, but man, when you’re rolling and praying for that natural 20, you are excited.

It just doesn’t make for such an interesting story.

So, enjoy the game for what it is. And enjoy stories for what they are. The two are not the same, though, so think about that the next time you read a book or play a game. Look at the differences between the two. It can tell you a lot about the nature of narrative and play.

And, in closing, lest you think I’m picking on games, it happens elsewhere, too. The musical Cats, for example, is a wonderful show, with good music, good lyrics (yay for T.S. Eliot!), good dancing, and great look to it. I love it.

But it ain’t got a story, neither.


*Now, admittedly, this isn’t always the case, but I’m playing it up as a rule to heighten the contrast of my argument. So all you postmodernists out there just bear with me.

**I say “weakens,” but it’s not necessarily a negative. I could also have said “increases the freedom and spontanaeity,” but I am, once again, trying to make a point.

***If there is such a thing. This may be the same sort of philosophical construct as the square root of -1, which doesn’t exist as a number but makes some important high-level math work.

****To be fair, I have bought books that tell that story. And I’ve enjoyed them. I just wouldn’t call them good stories.

*****And if I haven’t, sshhh. I’m bored now, and moving on to the next section.