Making Some Progress

April 15, 2006

I’ve been trying to articulate my new approach to play and design, the approach that led me to write KKKKK, Waiting/Tea, and this year’s unfinished Game Chef attempt. Part of this process is for me, so that I can get a better handle on what I’m trying to do, and part of it is for others, so we can further diversify the ways in which we talk about roleplaying.

I made a stab at an introduction (A New Anthem, Part I) over at Story Games, where I tried to talk about the “low-impact” audience that I want to write for (an audience that includes myself, on most days) as well as why recent indie games, while unmistakably awesome, don’t fill a very real need. Ultimately, before trying to explain how you might design for more general “communities of practice” instead of designing games, I decided that I nedd to talk a bit more about what led me to this approach and what I see roleplaying-based communities of practice looking like. That led me to the paragraphs you see below.

Vincent Baker recently had the neat idea to sponsor a Game-Game Contest, where people design non-roleplaying games in an effort to learn lessons from tradition board and card games. While this is an interesting approach, I have long thought that roleplaying was already too closely connected to its wargaming roots, too much like a board game already. So, while I’m a little worried about being viewed as a Vincent-hater (I love you, Vincent!) or, as Clinton said, “all talk” (ouch!), follow me down a different road for a bit.

A Storytelling Approach to Roleplaying

Since White Wolf first appeared on the scene wrapped up in the trappings of storytelling, with their Storyteller System, and GM-as-Storyteller, and campaign-as-chronicle, and with character-driven play structures (as oppossed to situation- or setting-driven approach), many people involved in roleplaying have been wary of talking about storytelling as a model for roleplaying. Some dislike using the terms “story” or “narrative” to talk about roleplaying at all, seeing these as invading ideas from literature and other narrative media, which don’t really describe what happens when a group of people roleplay together.

However, I think there is one kind of story that is very applicable to roleplaying: oral storytelling, something that regularly occurs in our daily life, but has received much less attention since the rise of high-tech media. We tell stories to each other all the time. “Dude, this one time, me and Phil were hanging out beside the coffee shop off Hillsborough Street…” “This horrible thing happened at work today…” “What were you doing the on the evening of April 3rd, Mr. Johnson?” In talking about this brand of conversation narrative, I’m going to be quoting regularly from Part I of University of Maine professor Kristin Langellier’s Storytelling in Daily Life (2004, Temple UP), the best book I’ve found on this subject.

Langellier begins with a description of storytelling quoted from Walter Benjamin: “The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn make it the experience of those who are listening to his tale” One major purpose of storytelling, then, is the transmission of experiences (real, imagined, altered, half-remembered) from one person to another, through the act of communication. In the course of daily life, stories are often re-told, transmitted down a chain or spreading out into the larger community. As Langellier writes, “Storytelling is reversible in that an audience can take his or her consciousness of the storyteller’s experience and, in turn, become a storyteller and make it an experience for another audience. Audiences can become storytellers and vice-versa” (3).

In fact, it is this reversibility that enables roleplaying to occur in the first place. In the course of a traditional storytelling performance, sometimes the audience can participate in small, significant ways, making comments, throwing out suggestions, laughing, giving encouragement or discouragement, making gestures, even miming or acting out story events. In roleplaying, the differences between storytellers and audiences are even less distinct. Sometimes roleplayers listen to others recount imagined experiences and, sometimes, a few seconds later, they take their understanding of what their fellow players have just said and put their own spin on it, recounting their own personal imagined experiences while their fellow players listen. Roleplayers constantly switch between being storytellers and being audiences.

In her introduction, Langellier also writes, “When we participate in storytelling, whether as storytellers or audience, we reenact storytelling as a conventionalized form of communication as well as collaborating in the production of a unique story or performance” (4). While storytelling is a common social practice with traditions, norms, and specific roles for participants to play, those involved, even if they are reenacting a very similar storytelling experience, even if this story has been told, in a very similar fashion, hundreds of times before, each instance of storytelling is also a unique event. Because storytelling is habitual, the “possibilities for our participation are marked out in advance, so to speak, by the discourse and by our material conditions” (4). However, because each instance is unique, “any particular storytelling event has the potential to disrupt material constraints and discourse conventions and to give rise to new possibilities for other storytelling and how we participate in performing narrative” (4). Storytelling is both traditional and, potentially, revolutionary.

It is this latter aspect that continues to excite me about roleplaying. Every instance of play and every new game has the potential to open up new possibilities that weren’t there before, to transcend traditional conventions, and to redefine the ways in which we think about roleplaying. Czech ex-patriot author Milan Kundera feels the same way about art and the novel, writing “the concept of this or that art (what is the novel?), as well as the meaning of its evolution (where has it come from and where is it going?), is constantly defined and redefined by each artist and each new work” (Testaments Betrayed, 16). This is crucial to remember.

What Does Storytelling Tell Us?

After that overview, let’s consider the four major points Langellier makes about storytelling and see how they relate to a specific storytelling tradition, namely, roleplaying.

I. Bodies, Experience, & Embodied Stories

II. Constraint & Situated Storytelling

III. The Rules a.k.a. Discursive Regularities

IV. Legitimation and Critique

More coming.

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