Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Storytelling Games II

In Step 2: Redefine the Experience, Mr. Dancey seems to be jumping deep into Forge territory. “Death to the GM!”

I mentioned in my last post a fun little card game called “Once Upon a Time”. With that game, you get cards that include things like characters, settings, and plot points. When it’s your turn to tell the story, you toss down a card every time you use the thing on that card in your story. The object of the game is to empty your hand.

The stories, however, tend to be fairly simple and madly disjointed things. Characters get abandoned or killed off on a whim as players steal the storytelling spotlight from one another. You don’t really care what happens to the characters except in a very shallow way, because every element of the story is ephemeral.

Nobody enjoys a bad investment, whether it’s financial or emotional. People are much less likely to invest in a character they think is unstable or subject to frequent, bizarre personality changes. This is why changing the writing team on a comic book often results in losing readers (though a good writer will bring new readers to a title). People are also hesitant to invest in characters who are likely to die. You see this in the classic spoof of old style gaming, where Bjorn Redhawk VIII, virtual clone of his seven forbears, joins the adventuring party shortly after the death of his sire, Bjorn Redhawk VII. And the same is true of any aspect of a story, including setting, climaxes, and even plots.

I asked Mr. Dancey about this, and his reply is interesting. If maintaining a cohesive plot is important to you, assign someone the responsibility of maintaining it. The idea isn’t so much the sort of round-robin storytelling that many of the more daring Narrative style RPGs are, but rather a toolbox that you can pull from to create the sorts of stories that are important to you. So if you’re worried about verisimilitude and cohesion of story, you can put someone in charge of maintaining those for the various aspects of the story, and give them the tools from the box that will allow them to do that.

With a modular rule set, you can have all sorts of tools, from rules that maintain cohesion of character (“each character in the story is assigned to one player, and only that player may control that character and his/her/its resources”) to rules that define the setting. The rule set is going to have to be vast, because it can’t take anything for granted, from the focus of the story to the viewpoint or even the goals of the players, beyond the simple desire to create a story.

This sort of gaming requires a very high level of cooperation and trust between the different participants. Say you want a tale full of magic, and you put one player in charge of the rules for magic. You then have to trust that this player will adjudicate those rules fairly and in the best interests of the group and their story. In traditional gaming, most trust the GM to make sure everyone else is playing honestly. Even if they’re not, the amount of damage they can do to everyone else’s fun is mitigated by them only have responsibility for, and control over, their own character. Of course, untrustworthy players will become known and blackballed just like bad GMs are today, so it’s not as great a danger as it might appear at first. Still, it’s something to keep in mind.

Hopefully, Mr. Dancey will have more to share tomorrow.

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