By John Kim < firstname.lastname@example.org>
Traditional narrative terms -- such as plot, theme, and story -- are often used to describe role-playing game (RPG) play. However, RPGs are also fundamentally different from narrative forms like books and film. The result is that trying to discuss "story" in RPGs leads to a quagmire of jumbled assumptions. I think a formal analysis can shed some light on this issue, by breaking down exactly what "story" means in books and films, and then applying that to RPGs.
I use the specific cases of books and film, referred to as "static narrative". What distinguishes these forms is that the author or authors create a product in a fixed physical form that is later viewed by an audience. There are more interactive narrative forms like theater and oral storytelling, but to focus the topic I do not cover them here. In my formal approach, I also am considering only mainstream tabletop RPG play, which are the dominant form of RPG in terms of books sold.
Based on a comparison of these, I find not one but two separate meanings for what "story" can mean in RPGs. These are what I call two narrative paradigms. They are not goals or techniques, but rather different understandings for what RPGs are in narrative terms. One can try to create a similar story under each paradigm, but the results may look quite different -- because each has a different concept of what the story is. By understanding this difference, I would hope that discussion of story in RPGs can be made more productive.
As a side note, I define an overall model of static narrative as part of my analysis. The basics of this model, while over-simplified, underlie much of the popular conception of story. So while it is neither exact or universal, it does cut to the heart of traditional thinking. The view here is heavily influenced by my understanding of the Tzvetan Todorov and Gérard Genette. In addition, my view of RPGs here is influenced particularly by Liz Henry's essay: "Power, Information, and Play in Role Playing Games." , as well as by many discussions on The Forge forums  and rec.games.frp.advocacy. .
Static narrative has an author who creates a work in relative isolation from the reader. In the formalist view, there are two parts to this work: story and discourse. Story is the imaginary sequence of events involving characters and setting. It is a mental construct within the imagination of a person, i.e. a picture in the mind's eye of what is happening. Discourse is the expression of that story: words and/or images which attempt to represent the events. The story begins in the mind of the author, and is then expressed into a discourse which is contained in media. By viewing this media, the reader then forms a mental construct of that story within her own mind. This can be visualized as follows:
This is over-simplified in many ways, given the variety of narrative forms. However, I think it is important to understand this simple, traditional model first. To formalize the elements:
So to reiterate: the story is not the expression itself (i.e. the text of the book, or the print of the movie). Rather, the story is an imaginary construct: a mental image or model. Through the tool of the medium, an author tries to convey the story as she conceives it to the reader. After viewing the medium, the reader then has another imaginary construct in his head (i.e. the perceived story) -- which may be different than the author's conception.
There are a number of important consequences of this model. I will try to highlight some of the important considerations, with a particular eye for role-playing games.
The term "role-playing game" is used to refer to a variety of things. Rather than trying to universally define all role-playing games, I will restrict myself to a type of game -- what is known as a "tabletop RPG" and exemplified by Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, and Vampire: The Masquerade. In these games, one participant is the game-master (GM), and each player has one character within the imaginary game-world. There are many other types of RPGs, but this case should serve as an example and test for understanding the many variants.
Below, I will outline a structure for traditional tabletop play. It is shown in terms of interactions among four players and the GM.
There are a number of intricacies in this diagram. You will note that I did not include boxes for the story inside the minds of the participants. It is actually a controversial matter what story means for an RPG, and I will cover answers to that later. To expand on the labels in the chart:
There are many differences between RPGs and books, but some are more subtle than others. It is clear that RPGs have no division between author and reader. Each participant both expresses and interprets. Further, this calls into question what the story is. The answer depends in part on what we define as the discourse or "text" of RPG play. The two simplest answers are:
These two answers suggest at least two paradigms for what RPGs are in a narrative sense. There are sure to be more paradigms, but like narrative theory in general I think they will build from these basics. Formulating more sophisticated paradigms will be an interesting area for further study, I think. The two basic paradigms are:
In this paradigm, play is understood as multiple authors producing a single discourse and a single story. This discourse (the shared play) is seen as the product of play, analogous to a book or movie. The key to role-playing is the forming of the shared discourse. All other parts of the diagram -- including game texts, GM notes, and characters -- are considered only aids for producing the true product of play.
This is revolutionary compared to earlier games such as board games, in that it opens the RPG up to narrative analysis. For example, "theme" is a vague word when applied to boardgame or video game play -- but it has a well-understood meaning when applied to a narrative discourse. Ultimately, a storytelling game is considered successful if (1) it produces a satisfying discourse, and (2) all of the participants significantly contributed to that discourse. The other elements (notes, character sheets, and texts) are considered to be outside of play. They may help create a satisfying discourse, and if so they are valued. If not, they are discouraged.
There are many consequences of this paradigm, including:
At its heart, this paradigm relies on the analogy of shared play being a discourse unto itself, like a book or movie. Play is made fun by the joy of creating a story similar to what you would enjoy reading. The core of play is spontaneous expression, i.e. actively entertaining others. Personal interpretation of meaning is generally considered secondary to active authorship.
In this paradigm, play is understood as interacting within a virtual environment, where the GM provides the surroundings while the players create their own viewpoint characters. The basic elements of play are the characters and world. These are conceived prior to shared play sessions, including both the physical notes and the mental models of how they work. Through play, the participants explore what the others have created and further develop their own creations.
The discourse is therefore different for each participant. For example, the GM begins play with notes on the setting and background characters. These represent part of what she imagines about the world. Her discourse includes these notes -- and thus the story (i.e. the mental construct in her head) also includes them. The players do not see those notes, and thus the story in their minds will only include the notes to the extent which they are revealed in shared play. Each player also sees a distinct story -- one in which their PC is the protagonist or at least viewpoint character.
Furthermore, the game texts and mechanics themselves are a part of the discourse. For example, even if a gun is never fired during the game session, the mechanics for that may influence the story -- because they shape how the player conceives of guns within the fictional world. If the mechanics make all guns exceptionally deadly, it increases the tension in a scene where a gun appears even if the gun is never fired.
Most game elements are considered representational -- i.e. they depict some part of the fictional world. For example, the Strength number on a character sheet shows that facet of the character. Non-representational elements are referred to as "meta-game". For example, the player might have a pool of drama points which she can spend to modify any die roll. This does not represent any in-game quality of her character, and thus it is meta-game. These would be parallel to bits in films like a character turning and talking to the camera, or the recognizable substitution of a stuntman. Film elements like camera movement or dramatic music are less clear. In some cases it can be argued that they serve to convey the inner experience of a character, but in other cases they are purely directed at the audience.
There are many consequences of this paradigm, including:
This paradigm sees narrative as an immersive presentation, in some ways more like a museum exhibit than a book or film. The player has many views of what is happening: verbal statements, book text, character sheet, maps, and die rolls. All of these are considered a part of the story. Because static elements like books and maps are considered part of the story, there is more focus on interpreting these. The core of play is considered to be the synthesis of all these parts within the mind of the player -- i.e. creating a vivid mental conception of the fictional reality. Role-play may be viewed as a personal journey into the mind of your character.
Problems can arise within games due to disagreements over the understanding and construction of narrative. A participant who understands RPGs as Collaborative Storytelling may get into arguments with another participant who understands them as Virtual Experience.
To the storytelling point of view, the experiential view seems to result in an unnecessarily limited set of techniques. Players will pass over opportunities to improve the story (i.e. shared play) just to conform to pre-written rules or background. Since storytellers see these as not being part of the story, this behavior may seem inexplicable -- i.e. deliberately choosing a less interesting story. Experiential play may also seem passive, letting events happen rather than actively controlling them. Of course, a fictional narrative is still created so this is not quite accurate. The difference is over the type of narrative created.
To the experiential point of view, storytelling play seems to be creating a product for a nonexistent reader. That is, the product is a story for someone who sees the shared play but not the surrounding experience. Storytelling may freely revise or ignore pre-written rules and background, which runs counter to the experiential understanding of story. Experiential players faced with storytelling play may complain about breaking suspension of disbelief, or lack of depth.
These difference can be difficult to resolve, because it is hard to simultaneously see two different definitions of story. Two people can internalize the same RPG play in different ways -- forming different mental models which they conceive of as the "story". Hopefully this explanation of the distinction will help clarify these differences.
There are many questions left open in my analysis. There could be more paradigms, or subcategories of the two described here. There are questions of how to relate other narrative concepts like genre, plot, and character to RPGs. Also, I have deliberately taken a narrow view of what traditional narrative is, as well as a narrow view of RPGs. Theater, especially improvisational theater, has a closer parallel to role-playing than static narrative. There is also the question of how to analyze other role-playing forms, like solo RPGs, computer RPGs, or RPGs with different structure (like lacking a GM).