Greg Costikyan Finds the Master, Part II

What I should have done yesterday, before responding to Greg’s notes on My Life With Master, was to actually read his essay Where Stories End and Games Begin, which he claims is refuted somewhat by MLWM. But I didn’t, and (as Ed pointed out) I also was sloppy in my use of the term “narrativist.” Hopefully what follows will rectify things and not just muddy the waters even more.

When we were kids, I used to tell my little brother Colin stories that he called “Chooseyers.” The impetus came from Choose Your Own Adventure books, which we both enjoyed. When we had run through all of those we could find, I tried making them up on the fly for him, giving him two or choices for how the story could continue every few minutes. This evolved quite quickly into completely open-form storytelling, where Colin took on the role of the protagonist and I took on the role of everything else. We were, in essence, engaged in a roleplaying game—one with no rules or structure of any kind.

The funny thing is that at the same time I was playing “real” roleplaying games, Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons, and it didn’t even occur to me that these activities and “Chooseyers” were basically the same thing. It wasn’t until years later, when I started playing Amber, that it hit me.

What’s relevant here is that the whole notion of a “roleplaying game” doesn’t require any of the basic things we usually associate with a “game.” One could argue that at the level of a Chooseyer, what’s going on is no longer a game but simply collaborative storytelling. But this doesn’t strike me as useful, because those Chooseyers clearly have much more in common with D&D than D&D does with Scrabble, or even with a game like Talisman. Storytelling is integral to roleplaying games.

In “Where Stories End and Games Begin”, Greg Costikyan argues that

Even the best games have to compromise the nature of “the game” in order to work as storytelling environments at all. Designing or writing here, at the intersection of story and game, is an interesting exercise, but fraught with peril and unhappy compromises. That is true because story is the antithesis of game. The best way to tell a story is in linear form. The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action. Creating a “storytelling game” (or a story with game elements) is attempting to square the circle, trying to invent a synthesis between the antitheses of game and story. Precisely because the two things—game and story—stand in opposition, the space that lies between them has produced a ferment of interesting game-story hybrids. And yet the fact remains: game and story are in opposition, and any compromise between the two must struggle to be successful.

This holds true for a lot of games, but not for roleplaying games, whose very purpose is to merge story and game. In a roleplaying game, the story is generated by all the players collectively, and exists only ephemerally in the context of the gaming session. This is one of the reasons that Greg downplays the role of “story” in paper RPGs:

These “stories” are meaningful to players precisely because they are intimately involved. Players frequently write up “expedition reports,” in which they retell the story of a particular session of play, or several sessions. Expedition reports almost invariably make dull reading for those who are not involved in the campaign, because they do not have the same intimate familiarity with the setting, the same long history with the players and their characters.

The fact that most RPG sessions will generate what is, by literary standards, a bad story doesn’t make it any less a story. The purpose of the story in this case is the enjoyment of the participants only, who, because they’re invested in specific roles as well as the general creation of the story, are likely to have fun (and even appreciate the event aesthetically) even if the story that comes out of it isn’t going to interest anyone else.

It’s like a hootenanny, or at least like the ones I’ve attended in the basement of Marist Hall. People come by; some bring instruments. I play the bongoes. Some of the people there know how to play music; others, like me, are rank amateurs. The output of those sessions isn’t going to win any recording contracts, and might even get laughed off the stage at some open-mic nights. But for everyone who’s taking part, it’s grand fun, and on certain rare occasions even transcendent (bolstered by enough alcohol, of course).

The point here is that an RPG is not an instance of a game doing story badly; it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is a different kind of story. In one sense, narrativists are people who see the goal of an RPG as being to get that story as close to literary quality as possible.

Moreover, the rhythm of a roleplaying game is not the rhythm of a short story; you have peaks of excitement and periods of boredom and things happening here and there. You don’t have a long build leading to catharsis; you have gradual character evolution instead. The closest non-interactive analog is, perhaps, a “series” comic book—a comic with a small cast of characters who have adventures together, some of them short one-issue stories and others with story arcs that are told over several issues.

I don’t think anyone would dispute that a serial comic would count as a kind of story; I certainly don’t think that “gradual character evolution” and a lack of “a long build leading to catharsis” make something cease to be a story.

Many role-playing gamers never give “story” a second thought—they get their kicks from solving problems and playing roles, they don’t terribly mind whether the things they encounter knit together into some kind of coherent story. For them, that isn’t their main interest in the game.

This is certainly true of many roleplayers, with the narrativists crowded at the other end of the spectrum. But their lack of interest in story doesn’t change the fact that it’s the presence of a story that the players themselves create that distinguishes RPGs from other types of games.

The unique nature of RPGs gets blurred by the existence of computer games that call themselves “roleplaying games” as well. But there�s an important distinction between the sort of story created by a roleplaying game and that created by a computer RPG, a computer adventure game, or even a MMORPG. In all the latter cases, there is no element of performance, no true open-endedness, and (most importantly) a yawning gap between the creator (of the story) and the player. The designers of a game may be telling a story that coexists happily beside the game, and in some cases may do it very well, as with Grim Fandango and Deus Ex. But a game with multiple paths to success and even multiple endings, like Deus Ex, is still telling the story of its designers; its story element sinks or swims based on how original and interesting their ideas are, and on the quality of the writing and the graphic design within the game. The player’s contributions may satisfy them on a gaming level, but on a story level they are merely an audience.

In summary: in roleplaying games, game and story exist harmoniously. This is true of all RPGs to some extent; My Life With Master, because it’s so innovative and unusual, just makes it that much clearer. Ed Heil does a good job pointing out what makes MLWM unique:

But what I think is interesting about games like My Life With Master, as well as many other games of its little-known kind, is not that they don’t have very many rules. It’s that the rules they have attempt to support narrativist play over and above the other kinds of play (simulationist and gamist).

In other words, the rules of MLWM create a situation where you have to pay attention to the story that’s developing; if you don’t, you’re not really playing the game.

I have at least three tangents in my head, clamoring for attention, all having to do with the line between RPGs and computer RPGs. I�m going to save them for another day, though.