Story and Narrative Paradigms in Role-Playing Games

By John Kim <>

         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.[1] In addition, my view of RPGs here is influenced particularly by Liz Henry's essay: "Power, Information, and Play in Role Playing Games." [2], as well as by many discussions on The Forge forums [3] and [4].

Story in Static Narrative

         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:

Figure 1: Story as transmitted in static narrative

         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:

Conceived Story
A mental construct within the mind of the author, consisting of a sequence of imaginary events. Within this simple model, the conceived story is pre-verbal and is independent of the expression of that story. An author might express the same story in different ways -- a book and a film, for example.
Perceived Story
A mental construct within the mind of the reader. Like the conceived story, it is a non-verbal picturing of events. For example, a filmgoer might express through words the story of a film which she just saw. However, she will refer to the events which happened rather than describing the images on the screen.
The physical means of communication between the author and the reader, such as book, film, or voice. Within this model, the media is a blank slate which does not include any expression of story.
The discourse is a particular expression of the story. In simplest terms, the story is the what in the narrative that is depicted, discourse is the how. Some people would break this down into "text" (the concrete product) and "narration" (the inferred process of expression).

         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.

  1. Role-playing games are not a medium. Voice, for example, is a medium. RPGs are a structure which can be implemented using different media (such as tabletop play using voice or online IRC play using computers). They could be considered a format (i.e. a relation of author and audience), or perhaps a method of expression (i.e. a writing technique). Really, though, they do not fit in this model since they do not have separate audience and author.
  2. Commonly, it is considered good art if the perceived story matches the imagined story. Artistic technique covers how to express the story vividly and clearly. However, there are reasons to vary from this. For example, a technique of horror fiction is to only hint at the monster rather than show it. The reader then imagines what is most horrific to her, even if it is different than what the author had pictured.
  3. Story requires change. A building may be a work of art, but unless you can see change over time in it, it does not tell a story. That is, static characters and setting are not by themselves a story.
  4. Story is not affected by the media itself or how the reader accesses the media. For example, if the seats in the movie theater are really uncomfortable, that does not change the story I perceive even though it changes the viewing experience. A change affects the story only if in how it alters the viewer's concept of the events, characters, or setting depicted.
  5. The perceived story is not inclusive of the artists and/or the creation process. For example, when I went to see "The Pianist" -- I knew that the director was likely guilty of statutory rape and had fled the United States for that reason. That influenced my viewing of the film (though not in a simplistic way). However, I did not consider that a part of the film's story. In other words, that knowledge was outside of the mental image that I call the story.
  6. The perceived story may be influenced by external knowledge of the characters, setting, or events depicted. For example, I had read one of the Icelandic sagas a long time ago and didn't get that much out of it. After I learned more about the history and culture of Iceland, I got more out of reading the sagas. The perceived story for me was different, even though the discourse was the same.

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.

Figure 2: Interactions in Typical RPG

         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:

Game Master (GM)
Of all the participants, the GM is the one with the most access to information outside the shared space. Within this model, she alone will have access and involvement in other players' character creation, and will also have private notes -- her own and/or a published adventure module.
Each of the players also has a private space, which is their character. There is public information about the character, of course, but there may also be private information. This includes not only the written character sheet, but any private conception of the character. If all character information were truly shared, then the players could exchange characters at any point with no disruption. Within this model, though, there is a unique connection between player and character.
Game Texts
This is public game texts such as the rulebook and player-accessible sourcebooks. These may be used directly, such as laying the game-world map out for all the participants to see. This is the direct vertical arrow. However, more often the participants learn rules and background independently, and are guided by them without directly opening the books. For example, there are rules for character creation. In private the player follows those rules to create his character. Thus the game texts have input on the character design.
Shared Play
This is public statements and other communication made during a game session by both the GM and players. The assumption here is that during a session, the GM and all players are sitting in the same room. This includes any gestures, writing, die rolls, and card play as long as all of the participants can see it.

Reconciling Differences

         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:

  1. The story includes only the participant's interpretation of shared play. The discourse is the shared play (i.e. public statements by the GM and players), not including any other parts. This makes RPG story correspond most closely to the perceived story in static narrative.
  2. The story is the participant's full conception of the imagined reality. The discourse in this case is all elements of play, including the game texts, character sheets, and GM notes. This makes RPG story correspond most closely to the conceived story in static narrative.
The first has the advantage of being closer to the static narrative forms. Play progresses through time, and can be viewed as traditional storytelling switching between different speakers. However, this leaves no parallel for the other elements of play. The second includes the other elements of play, but has no traditional model for structure. Play becomes a multi-media presentation consisting of many parts, and each participant may have a different view of the dynamic events.

         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:

  1. RPGs as Collaborative Storytelling
  2. RPGs as Virtual Experience
In some sense, both of these are flawed since they are based on an analogy of RPGs to traditional narratives -- something which they are not. However, it is also vital to connect back to both intuitive understanding and formal theories of traditional narratives. Without some basis to begin from, an analysis would have to struggle to make any understanding. I will consider narrative analysis separately for each of these paradigms.

Collaborative Storytelling

         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.

Virtual Experience

         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.

Paradigm Clash

         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.

Further Questions

         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).

  1. Wallace Martin, "Recent Theories of Narrative". 1986.
  2. Liz Henry, "Power, Information, and Play in Role Playing Games."
  3. The Forge:

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Oct 29 10:18:18 2003