Sunday, September 8, 2013

Emergent Story - in multiple ways

I was listening to an episode of the The Walking Eye podcast recently. It sometimes has moments of pure brilliance, and I was hoping to catch some of those. Someone mentioned some "Forgespeak", which made me want to write this post. I've tried three times to make this to the point and less rambling. God knows if I succeeded!

Have you heard the phrases Story Before/Story Now/Story After? That was the "Forgespeak" which I triggered on. Basically, those words are all about how and when the "story" appear in the game. Naturally there are strong opinions attached to all those positions. I will just pontificate on the idea of story and when it happens, kind of with those positions as a starting point. We are talking rpg theory here, so nobody just blogs. We pontificate.

It's interesting how "story" became such a loaded term. Personally I blame the metaplot heavy days when White Wolfe reigned. Others were also quite into it, but it seems like the WoD gamers adapted it fully. The Story Before concept relates to that, with the GM showing up with a story in her head before even the game starts. I have actually played in a few con games like that, and they were not all bad. But, more often than not, I don't enjoy that.

But, the other cases of emerging story is more interesting. I'm not entirely sure why the Story After case are considered a sign of "dysfunctional play", but I'll roll with it and consider some cases of emerging stories.

I like to play games where actions of the players affect the world, and small pebbles tossed in the pond by the GM creates big ripples, just because one player or so decides to surf the waves created. That is one quite fun type of emergent story. On the other hand, being thrust into a situation where you have knobs to twiddle and dials to turn is also fun. It seems like some people only likes stories to emerge when they step outside the game system. Others seem to think real story only emerges when the knobs of the game mechanics drives that action. I'm kind of amazed that those two positions are sometimes defended so strongly against each other, when they in my mind is quite similar.

Famously, some people have claimed that the fact that D&D have most detailed rules for combat does not mean the game is about combat, quite the contrary! In that case, story emerges when the rules are not involved.

Other games have rules for social combat, or some kind of game currency you can use in interpersonal interactions, or maybe a set up where the setting and the roles of the characters are creating conflicts to be resolved by the players. I'm actually not sure why especially this latter kind of game so often are scorned by people interested in gaming they "old ways". Sometimes I think it's just a case of narrow vision, thinking D&D is the end all, be all of gaming. At other times it might be that stubborn resistance against "having anyone tell me what my character likes or not". While I can understand the idea of that argument, most people I've encountered arguing like that have also been close minded individuals who came across as jerks in general. Maybe that have coloured my opinion of that argument.

How about this situation? Your character is fighting lizardmen, and overwhelmed decides that as the last man standing, discretion is the better part of valour. From now on that player might decides to always have his character scowl and mutter when lizardmen show up as antagonists. Maybe the character even develops a slight phobia of lizards. That is all emergent story for that character, totally without being based on any rules forcing that to happen.

Compare that to some hippie game where the dungeon crawl is about the mental degeneration of those who crawl underground. Maybe in that game you have a psychological profile, and as you fail some game checks and the numbers decrease, your character get afflicted by some predetermined effect. This is also emergent story for that character. But, in this case it's mandated by the rules.

I personally think the latter way has one advantage. When those knobs and dials are in place, things will happen. If I have to hope for some lucky combination of situation, character and place it will be harder for me as a player to make that happen. It's basically a tool to make it likelier to happen. I think that sometimes the Story Now people have taken that position to be better, since you have tools. I know for a fact that even if I buy a really fancy hammer and saw, I still wont turn into a great carpenter. On the other hand, I still like to have great tools around. Tools I don't have can't help, or hinder. I think that is why I like those games which include more than basic combat, and leaves the rest to the group.

That being said, one thing I really don't get is why so many hippie game designers think that emotional relationships are the only good source of conflict and drama? Do we have to turn all our games into sappy soaps in order to have engaging games? I don't think so. It makes me think of a game I was once in, where we played in a setting developed by our GM. He is a great world builder so just the glimpses we had gotten of the bigger world made me want to go out and explore all that! Imagine my despair when it turned out that we had all been grounded in the village, banned from leaving and exploring the woods and wilds around. This was supposed to be a social game, using the rules for the Buffy RPG. Buffy happens to be a TV series I despise as a sappy soap. Maybe I came to the game from a wrong angle, but it sure didn't work for me.

What I wanted to say with that paragraph was just that the environment can be just a rich source of emerging story as people can. Sometimes I think the dungeon dwellers and the hippie gamers both wants emergent story, but forgets that point, in different ways. Both exploration of time and space as well as interpersonal relationships can create story. Having tools for that in the game system makes for great games when you uses them to hot rod one killer story, or for shiny gears that can lie dormant but admired as decoration as you blaze through the emergent story on wheels you just imagined into being all by yourself without tools.

Yeah, there you have me, creating some group hug of a messy metaphor. Whatever. Here, take a cloth and wipe of some of that grease and oil and go out and game. However.

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