Since OD&D, storytelling has been a subject of debate in the TTRPG community. As Jon Peterson describes in The Elusive Shift, creative and collaborative writers adopted D&D and other RPGs as vehicles for storytelling. In the opposing camp were wargamers, who focused on the games’ mechanics and competitive interactions among players.
Recently, I’ve seen community chatter about storytelling in games, and I see a problem. I don’t disagree with what’s being said, but I disagree with how people are saying it. Specifically, there’s a problem of vocabulary; people are using terms imprecisely, and this hinders any serious discussion of storytelling in tabletop gaming.
In particular—and not only in discussions of RPGS—I often see terms like story and narrative and plot used interchangeably. They aren’t. Each carries a specific definition, and by understanding those definitions, we improve our capacity to think and talk about games in a more insightful way. By putting a name on something and clearly defining it, we become able to recognize it, analyze it, and talk precisely about it.
This post is a sketch of such a vocabulary. It’s mostly derived from Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse, which is an elaborate framework for talking about narrative in visual and verbal media. My discussion of plot particularly draws on craft-based discussions by notable writers like Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder, Sid Field, and Lisa Cron.
My goal is to encourage a shared vocabulary, which is the foundation of any serious discussion of anything. Without common terms and definitions, we can’t efficiently converse and convey ideas. But I recognize that this may not be the most effective vocabulary. I don’t want to hand down commandments—just offer some ideas to help economize the conversation without reinventing the wheel or spinning the ones we already have.
Story and Discourse is an important work of narratology—the precise, academic study of narrative (like biology is the study of living systems). Chatman’s discussion synthesizes a very long history of thought on narrative form and structure, and it delivers important ideas and insights in a fairly straightforward way.
In practical terms, it provides a vocabulary and framework for analyzing narrative structure. This isn’t the only way to talk about narrative, but it is ready-made for more precise critical discussion, and it is relatively accessible.
But narratology also presents some hazards.
There’s been debate, historically, around importing narratology into the study of games. Some argue that, by transplanting methods and interpretive frameworks from external disciplines, we severely limit what we can say about interactive media.
Narratology grew from the formalist and structuralist study of literature and film, which are linear and non-interactive. Using narratology to talk about games either ignores the interactive elements or accounts for them ad hoc. This subjects games to externally imposed values that limit what we’re able to say about games. Espen Aarseth (in Cybertext) goes so far as calling it “theoretical imperialism.”
This position isn’t wrong. Something analogous to narratology but which emerges from the study of games—instead of being bolted onto it—would provide a superior framework and vocabulary for discussing games themselves.
But for the purposes of talking about narratives that emerge from RPGs, I think narratology is a useful tool—provided we don’t lose sight of the fact that it was developed for discussing linear, non-interactive media and doesn’t account for RPGs’ more complex natures. Its applicability is clearly limited. Narratology is a starting point, not a solution.
Here are four basic narratological points:
- Story is abstract.
- Discourse is how we express story.
- When story is expressed through discourse, they create narrative.
- Plot makes a narrative interesting and meaningful.
This is a broad overview that leaves out a lot of details. But it works for a preliminary discussion.
Story + Discourse = Narrative
Story is like a Platonic form; it doesn’t exist in reality, but reality mimics its ideal. There is no such thing as a perfect sphere in practice, but people can craft objects that more or less accurately approach the ideal of perfect sphere-ness.
Stories are the same way. They float around in our minds as abstract concepts. When we convey them to others, these ideas become embodied. And to convey these ideas, we use discourse.
Discourse is any medium capable of conveying meaning or information from one person to another. Writing, spoken words, static images, moving images—these are all discursive. As soon as you use discourse to give concrete form to story, you create narrative.
In short: Story + Discourse = Narrative.
In the TTRPG community, we hear discourse used with a very particular meaning inherited from Michel Foucault: discourse is a set of ideas, opinions, and emphases that collectively constitute a way of interpreting the world. Discourse shapes how we perceive and think about experience.
The same thing happens when a story becomes embodied in discourse. Film “thinks” differently than writing; it has different capacities and limitations that fundamentally shape the narratives it presents.
The same is true of RPGs.
Plot is the proverbial narrative arc. It’s a progression from a conflict’s inception to resolution—beginning, middle, and ending. A well-crafted narrative depends on many factors, but plot is a crucial one.
If a fantasy novel depicts the fighter takes his horse to be shoed, then that event should lead to conflict. Maybe his horse is stolen while his back is turned. Maybe, while the fighter’s gone, a recurring antagonist attacks the wizard and the bard. These events create situations that demand resolution and motivate characters to grow and change.
But if the fighter takes his horse to be shoed and then returns without incident, it’s boring. The sequence builds the fighter’s character—we see that he takes good care of his horse—but it doesn’t advance the plot. The mundane slice-of-life event breaks the plot’s tension.
One of the defining features of great storytelling is events’ strong coherence to plot. The more each scene advances the central plot toward resolution, the more compelling the narrative becomes.
RPGs rarely accomplish this in practice. But they’re not designed to.
RPGs sacrifice an author’s tight focus on plot in favor of player interactivity and agency. The GM can certainly still build overarching conflicts, but characters will inevitably wander off course, spend uneventful nights at inns they’ll never return to, and insert other incidental situations.
That agency makes the pleasure of RPGs much different than those of novels or films. We play RPGs to interact, not to passively receive a pre-rendered narrative.
Some games are organized around a story and are meant to present a narrative. Many pre-written adventure modules also have recognizable plots. Two groups will experience the same story, but they will produce different narratives.
The stories begin in one form of discourse—a written document conveying information from author to reader—and then migrate to another—oral exchanges between multiple people. Then they again move into a new discourse whenever players recount a scene, session, or campaign. And so they become new narratives embodying the same story.
Even if an adventure is based on only a set of random tables for generating a dungeon, players will still narrativize that experience. Even the hardcore tactical gamer will, in memory, narrativize events that, in the moment, were purely mechanical transactions.
That’s Daniel Mackay’s argument in The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Although Mackay consistently emphasizes RPGs’ interactive nature, he ultimately assigns their artistic merit to the post-game narratives their players create.
When doing so, players condense their experience to create a narrative that makes sense of and gives meaning to their experience.
If nothing else, the fact that we narrativize our play attests to narratology’s value as critical tool for understanding a major aspect of roleplaying games. But talking about narrative in RPGs is useful only to the extent that it emerges through play and reflection.
RPGs, as systems, tend to contain no inherent narrative. They’re discourse without story. They’re toolboxes for collectively creating a narrative. The structures of RPG systems and randomly generated dungeons actually diametrically oppose narrative even though those tools facilitate the creation of narrative. But that’s a post for another time.
Next time: Databases & Dragons
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