Telling Stories, Not Roleplaying

January 22, 2007

When you tell the story of Red Ridinghood to, say, a classroom of young children, you have a fair amount of freedom to improvize the details but are constrained by storytelling traditions. There are a few crucial details:

– The girl protagonist wears a red riding hood
– Red is visiting grandma
– She meets a wolf
– She tells the wolf where grandma lives
– The wolf arrives before Red and eats grandma
– Red arrives
– “Oh what big eyes you have, etc.”
– Some resolution

Aside from that, there are many potentially important things that can be determined. Why does Red wear that hood? How did she come by it? Where does grandma live? Didn’t anyone tell her not to talk to strange wolves? How does the wolf get the info from Red? How does he get there before she does? Why doesn’t Red see through the wolf’s disguise? What about that thing with the woodsman and the part about filling the wolf’s belly full of rocks? Is that appropriate for young kids? Maybe even some of the important points above can be glossed over or ignored. If the story is already well known, sometimes you can make it more interesting by changing major aspects of it to make it new and exciting.

In any case, one of the opportunities and challenges of my recent approach to design is making games that are more like telling stories than roleplaying. When you tell stories, you already know the major incidents and characters that make up your narrative, even if your audience doesn’t. If I’m telling you about some guy that I saw trip over his own shoelaces and fall down a flight of stairs, you probably don’t “know the story,” but I certainly do. Still, that same story would be told differently by different storytellers and at different moments in time. What if I was the one who fell down the stairs? How would that affect the story? What if it was something that happened 5, 10, 25, 100, or 1000 years ago? How does that affect how the story is told?

I’ve been trying to bridge the differences between roleplaying and storytelling. I want to enable people to collaboratively tell stories together as if they were already familiar with what’s going to happen, at least in a general sense. I think surprise at the unknown, what Vincent talks about as the core of roleplaying, is neat. But I don’t think it’s central to the kinds of games I’m interested in designing.

[P.S. I do think surprise is an important aspect of storytelling, but it’s surprise at the details and how things come together, not at the major plot points. An act of storytelling, like a roleplaying session, is an instantiation of a larger tradition. Like Xu Wei says, “it’s new for every moment,” even if it’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times.]

My current struggle is in building a scene flowchart to outline one of the Four Nations stories. It’s pretty difficult but also really exciting. I can’t wait to show it to you.

3 Responses to “Telling Stories, Not Roleplaying”

  1. Brand Robins Says:

    It often seems to me that there is an inherent tension in much of game design between the players (GM included as player) telling the story and hearing the story. For example, people often talk about how they want to be surprised by the story like they were by movie X or book Y. That surprise, however, comes to the reader — not the writer. There have been lots of attempts to deal with this split (such as the famous GM tells the story, players participate), and I think that there can be a lot more. Its an exciting area to be moving into. However, the one thing that I’d say is that Little Red is less set in stone than even your initial bullet points. It only became that set after it was printed and the printed version superseded the oral version. The older versions of the tales, those still from living traditions, change a lot more than that. So, when making stories that we’re telling (rather than hearing), I think it is important not to nail down too much.

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Great point, Brand. Oral literature often varies much more. I’ll post an example when I get home!

  3. Guy Says:

    Have you seen John Kirk’s Gnostigmata?For scene flow-story outline 🙂


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