In “The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box”, Gabor Lux describes two models of adventure design. The first, the tapestry, follows a predetermined, built-in plot. The other, the mosaic box, supplies a set of components that players assemble into an adventure and, subsequently, a narrative.
Gabor’s model is extremely astute, but its scope stops short of the bigger picture. The tapestry and the mosaic box are extremes on an adventure module continuum, but RPG systems also exist in this spectrum. Systems tend strongly toward the mosaic box model—or as I’d like to consider it here, the database.
Analogies in New Media
When a new medium emerges, one of the first things people do is convert old media into the new form. The Internet Archive—which contains a large collection of public domain books, ephemeral films, and much more—is a perfect example of digitizing physical media for preservation and dissemination via new media.
But aside from collecting and cataloguing old media, new media also exerts an influence on older forms. The choose-your-own-adventure book is one example of an analog embodiment of new media’s capacity to accommodate branching narratives.
RPGs are another example of how print media can mimic new media’s fundamental structure: the database.
In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes narrative and database structures as diametrically opposed. Narratives are linear sequences experienced in time; databases are nonlinear collections of objects arranged in space.
Despite their structural opposition to narrative, databases aren’t incompatible with narrative. Using a database facilitates the creation of a narrative structure. Narratives represent routes through the database that is, in this case, the RPG system.
The Narrative/Database Spectrum
In themselves, most RPG systems don’t contain a pre-rendered story. They are a set of mechanics that players will use to construct a story. The system is analogous to a database: a collection of discrete objects with no inherent narrative order. But through user interaction, these bits and pieces can construct a narrative.
Some RPGs contain mechanics that facilitate story development. ARC, for example, uses the Doomsday Clock and Omens to create the skeleton of a narrative arc that remains open enough to accommodate whatever story the players want to experience. Spire and Heart both feature beats that define individual character arcs. But these beats are chosen by players rather than being predefined, and so the beats function as a database that the player searches and retrieves from to build their narrative experience.
Other RPGs like D&D or Pathfinder don’t provide mechanics to facilitate narrative development. They simply provide a mechanical system for resolving conflict and let the GM establish and manage the conflicts that define the narrative. Oftentimes, RPGs like these will provide tips on storytelling, but as every GM knows, pursuing a prefabricated plot frequently ends either in railroading or in players pursuing a different story entirely.
Sandbox games like Forbidden Lands minimize the GM’s work by providing an abundance of tools to use during the game instead of preparing a session beforehand. The players’ decisions about where to travel and how to interact with the places and people they encounter will determine which tables the GM will use.
In all cases, actions function as an algorithm, which complements the database structure. Player choices are input that runs through the game’s formal system (or, more accurately, a subsystem called on to resolve a particular action like sneaking or stabbing). The output is a narrative consequence that moves the game forward.
Through this feedback loop, players learn the system’s underlying logic. That competence allows them to make more economical choices and progress through individual adventures and the game at large.
When a user navigates a digital database, they will narrativize their experience. (“First I looked at this, then I saw this, which led me to this, and then I found this.”) Likewise, a player will narrativize a game’s events, even if that game is simply a randomly generated dungeon. They may not grapple with profound themes or meaningfully develop their character, but they will certainly remember and tell the tale of their adventure.
A series of escalating obstacles—whether monsters, puzzles, or traps—are an ideal foundation for narrative, since resolving one conflict necessarily propels the characters on to the next. That narrative will be even more satisfying if each obstacle progressively challenges a character’s beliefs about the world and/or themselves, and they emerge from the dungeon with a material prize (wealth) and an emotional one (personal growth).
But a scenario’s narrative quality depends on player creativity and motivation. It can’t be dictated or forced; it must emerge from the assembly of elements.
Writers vs. Wargamers
The opposition between database and narrative logic shaped early RPG culture as documented by Jon Peterson in The Elusive Shift.
In the 1970s, there were two broad schools of thought on the “right” way to play D&D. On one side were collaborative storytellers who used RPGs as tools for crafting narratives. On the other, wargamers played competitively and favored using the (database of) game mechanics to determine outcomes rather than using narrative rationale.
Later, the same divide split munchkins—younger players who leaned on AD&D’s comprehensive ruleset—and grognards—veterans who favored a freeform approach (rulings over rules, problem-solving through player ingenuity rather than formal mechanics).
The schism emerged due to the discrete fanbases that early RPGs appealed to. It persists because of the inherent opposition between database and narrative logic, the tense incompatibility of emergent and crafted narratives.
Story & Syntagm
The database/narrative dichotomy is a case of the interrelationship of paradigm and syntagm. A paradigm is a collection of things to be chosen from. A syntagm is a meaningful combination of certain things at the exclusion of most others.
The paradigm is the all-inclusive database of options. The syntagm is the narrative that exists only by excluding the majority of the paradigm’s content.
An example of a paradigm would be the English language, which contains a huge roster of words. An example of a syntagm would be this sentence, which is an intentionally constructed sequence of a few words selected from the whole language.
In terms of RPGs, the paradigm is the total set of mechanics a system encompasses. The syntagm is the sequence of mechanics the players use to get from point A to point Z.
In language, the syntagm is carefully chosen. In RPGs, it emerges through complex interactions; player agency will likely disrupt the GM’s plans, and in games that rely on randomly generated settings and adventures, predicting—let alone crafting—the syntagm is impossible.
The paradigm, however, strongly controls—if not outright dictates—players’ options for constructing their narrative. But that’s another post for another time.
Next time: RPG systems & scientific paradigms.
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System as social contract between designers and players
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