Thursday, May 25, 2017

Discussing "Story vs. Rules" again, are we?

I'll join a good band wagon when I see one and I believe this is a good one. Regular readers will be aware that I love to talk about story and narratives and how the rules can inform and manipulate our gaming experience. This is a bit like what a bull must experience when he sees something red. But in a good way ... Here are my 2 cents.

Whose talking?

So we are having four opinion pieces out there talking about "story vs. rules" again:
  • +Douglas Cole over at Gaming Ballistic ("From that perspective, that’s what I think game rules do. They set up genre and task expectations. They (hopefully) reinforce world design, and constrain choices and action to those that would be appropriate for the game being played.", I really liked that one)
  • +Bannister Nicholas over at Dungeon World Dev ("So if Fun trumps Story.. doesn't that mean that guiding the game, to be more fun, is another form or railroading? What if the natural progression of the 'story' is to become a classic tragedy? If the GM obeys the fun rule, it forces a comedy, from what could have been an awesome tragedy, to something in the middle, and no-body wins.", I like that he compares this to railroading ...)
  • +Vb Wyrde over at Elthos RPG ("One of the principal roles of the GM is to balance the two during the course of each game. Sometimes the Story gains the upper hand, and the GM adjudicates things along Story lines, maybe fudging a die roll, or placing a monster somewhere other than directly behind the next turn of the corridor. Sometimes the Game predominates the GM focuses on the rules, battle map tactics, and the exact factors involved to accurately derive the necessary die rolls needed for success.", loved the diagram, too)

All offer valuable thoughts and insights, they started a discussion and gathered, all said and told, around 60 comments, with even more people reading it and taking something away. That's good stuff and entertaining.

But it is also well explored territory, of course. So there is, for instance, also a podcast over at The Escapist from 2015 ("More and more role playing games are driven by story instead of simulation ...", from what I've seen, this is all kinds of not my thing, but it is there) or this fun little essay from 2008 ("We have defined a software architecture that allows the implementation of our approach of the interactive storytelling: the player controls the narrative, but not the game. The game defines an interactive environment in which the player can, by his actions and decisions produce a storytelling under the supervision of the controller.", quoting a shit-load of interesting titles in that direction!).

The list goes on an on. Once you do a little research (and I scratched just the surface here), you get really fast really deep into the subject. And going by that essay I quoted last, I'd say especially the video games industry is way ahead in taking their research seriously. They are pushing it, actually financing people doing the leg work and all that while we sit in our own little echo chambers, asking the same questions again and again as soon as the first echo has faded away ...

Anyway, different topic. You get my drift. What I'm saying is, we can check out the work others have done in similar areas before we write our pieces (theories about writing, video game design and so on are all over the place), apply them and get more, I don't know, elaborate answers? Because while all of the quoted above are in their own way somehow right, I couldn't help but be reminded of the story about the blind men describing an elephant. Everyone describes a part of it, none the whole beast.

Here is my piece of the elephant ...

Once you start dabbling in game design or campaign building or writing about role playing games in one form or another, you are confronted with all the problems outlined above, so I, too, thought about this time and time again.

The essence of it is, we define our world by the stories we experience and tell each other. It's as simple as that: everything is story. Story is the elephant, if you will. The rules how stories work are as old as mankind and we have thought about how those stories work for about just as long. Conclusively, all that is true for stories in general, will be true for the stories we tell in role playing games. I imagine it to look something like this:

Also true for role playing games ...
The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:

  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other.

Nothing of this is new, you know, ...

... but the implications for role playing games are not very well established, it seems. So, yeah, you could say that "Fun trumps Story trumps Rules", but it'd be comparing apples and oranges with a chimpanzee. Even if examined in a specific context like role playing games, you'll end up with a huge variety in parameters (some may call it "taste") and it still doesn't explain what actually is happening in the collaborative story-telling we do for fun. Why do we experience a flow when we play and how do we facilitate something like this? How do we get the whole group on the same page for the stories we want to experience? Or how shape the different parameters like rules and themes and structures in our games? To what effect?

There is no right or wrong because there is way more than two layers to begin with. A rule in a game, for instance, has several layers like that, starting from how it is formulated right to how the individual interprets and uses it, but also how it effects the game itself and how it manifests. If you are up for a little experiment, try and change the word on a D&D character sheet from Charisma to Fate. Or at least announce to your group that you aim to do that and see what happens. You just do a small shift in meaning, but you'll be surprised about the effect (I was). Or try to use the French terminology for D&D instead of the English one.

Rules shape games like that and on many levels. THACO got lots of hate because the rules hadn't been explained properly (according to some). Ascending Armor Class is superior to descending why again? It isn't, it's a matter of agreement to explain and experience the game a certain way. I believe understanding that or finding an understanding what either does in a game is far more important than discussing taste or what is "fun". But I'm digressing again.

Are we having fun again? [source]
More stuff to read (bonus round)!

This particular topic is one I wrote and read a lot about in the last couple of years, so if you are interested to read more about this, I'm more than happy to give pointers. Here are some of the posts I wrote about story and related topics, most of them lead to other posts, essays, articles, books and what-not written by other people. Have fun:

Narrative Distinction and the DM (a series, starting September 2015)

Thoughts on Stories in Open Worlds (April 2016)

Narrative Flow vs. Player Skill (July 2016)

The Random Narrative Generator (lots of theory and an example, September 2016)

The Secrets of Escapism (a series, starting December 2016)

There might be more, but it's plenty as it is so I'll leave it at that. The illustration displayed above is something I had on my mind for a couple of months now and based on some of the thoughts formulated in those posts linked here.

Anyway, my two cents. Thanks to the guys linked above for inspiring me to write this post. It's all good reading and they get their points across, got others thinking and discussing. Good show. I hope my entry adds to that.

Have a nice picture of blind men tackling an elephant as a parting gift:



  1. Story is the product of a game. You all sit down together and pour ingredients into a black box called The Rules, turn the crank, and then story pops out.

    By the way, this isn't the province of RPGs. Any game can be made to tell a story.

    1. Yes, that's what I'm saying in the post. I'd even go as far as saying everything is a story. That's why the far more interesting question is what we can do with that in gaming, since it's something humanity has been thinking about for a long time now ...

  2. You are offering a 300 or 400 level course when I was more offering advice on the "101" level for new GM's. :)

    My article is not so much about the philosophy of gaming and stories as much as it is "Don't worry about being overly bound by the rules when you play D&D." (to summarize in a single sentence)

    1. Yeah, I think it has has its necessity. The basics need to be induced into the community consciousness on a regular basis and well written, too, to keep it entertaining and we also need to expand on it as good as we can to keep those ideas and concepts evolving and available :)

  3. For me as a gm,
    (and for what it's worth I don't consider my self a great or even good Gm so take it from where it comes.)
    I have come to the point where I'm all about the story that emerges from group play over the story as I (as GM) envisioned it. I would go so far as to say the rules don't matter to me beyond being a method agreed upon by the group used to resolve points in the story that have a chance to resolve in an unexpected or unplanned manner.
    The story that bubbles up form everyone adding their own spice to the broth is what gets me excited.

  4. Are the player-driven participants a necessary component to every part of the story? I would say no. But then I prefer a sandbox with antagonists (not necessarily villains) advancing their schemes, and the players dealing with the concequences of those schemes on their representatives in the setting, and doing their very best to alter those outcomes in their favor. Which may mean thwarting a scheme, or supporting a scheme even though it strengthens the antagonist.
    Never split the party? In a real story, the party always splits, or members of the party don't even appear in the spot light until quite late into the story. At the very least, a NPC's backstory adapts to recent events in the story. Ideally, a living world will interfere with an all player-driven story in a productive way.

    1. All the stuff I wrote above comes from sandbox play. It's how I see it: if it doesn't happen to the characters, it didn't happen at all. And I really don't care if it's hitting one character or all of them, the principle is the same. As for the DM scheming, that's (literally) a different story and it doesn't necessarily have to match with what's happening in the game with the players, but it's usually good if it does (imo). And in my experience, if they split, there will be tears. Not mine, though :)

  5. Finally someone that understands! I get tired of the "fun tumps everything" movement because, not only does it lock out aspects of enjoyable play, it ignores the effect rules have as a participant in the formation of the story. Ignoring rules is like ignoring one of your players at the table. There is a ton of valuable input that a well designed ruleset can provide and paying attention to it can be delightful.

    A long time ago I wrote about how rules also act as a validation of the shared narrative. By having rules that are adhered to, they establish the resulting fiction in a way that's more concrete than simply accepting a shared narrative.

    1. Thanks, Emmett! I totally agree. Good rules add inspiration to all the players involved and really good rules shape how we experience the game and the narrative. It's honestly what I aspire to with the rules I'm writing for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, but it's a tall order for sure ...

  6. Seems like the Fun > Rules might not really apply to Sandbox games. Since Rules = Physics, and Sandbox games are usually nothing but Physics.

    1. Well, not in my experience. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself ... but maybe I'm running more of a storybox? Not sure ... But if you go by the diagram I posted above, you'll see that fun could be where motivation is. At least at the player side or the "player story" of this argument. What I'm saying is: if you are having fun or not is evaluated on a different level than what kind of story is being told at the table. In short, you can tell/experience a tragedy and have fun doing so. It's related, but plays in different ball park.

  7. Great post! Here is my 2c, if you don't mind; would love to hear your opinion.

    But the TLDR is that story is fine as a byproduct, not so good as a main goal.

    1. Thanks, Eric! That was a good read and full of great material to read even more. I liked it and I agree to a point. To a point, because while you acknowledge that story happens automatically, you ignore (dismiss?) two important aspects about that: (1) social dynamics of a group and (2) the role of the DM in interpreting what is happening.

      Imagine a DM with bad timing or no sense for stories. The concept of the story coming together afterwards just wouldn't work if the pieces aren't labeled (for lack of a better word) as they happened at the table. And the DM is the one to call if what the characters encounter (not experience!) is, for instance, a comedy or a tragedy, considering the bigger picture of the adventure or the campaign or even just the scene. Knowledge of how stories work is essential for a good DM, imo. Especially if you work with lots of random results! You are right, all interpretation happens on an intuitive level, but learning about how stories are timed or how tension works will feed into those intuitive decisions. It makes for a better game. The DM is also supposed to think ahead. How else would he do that but in terms of "story"?

      The point about social dynamics is mainly aiming at who has authority about the narrative. By default it would be the DM (the classic approach, at least), but often enough people don't work that way. Imagine a player that ridicules every scene the DM describes or mocks other players, makes fun of them and you'd have two worst case scenarios of what I mean. Even if you don't care about the social dynamics of individual groups and how a DM can "work the crowd" or attain authority, the fact that those elements will shape the story potentially for the worse (even just for parts of the group), makes them important and worth considering if you want a satisfying story later after the game.

      Think of it as the difference between writing and reading a book. A reader consumes and interprets after the fact (that's the players in a classic communication scheme), the writer plans ahead and tries to compose his writing in a meaningful way (the DM). There is a feedback-loop in rpgs that gives players room to feed the narrative, but only with the influence their characters have and with the DM to judge plausibility and consequences. I elaborate a bit about that in this here post:

      Sorry about the wall of text :)

    2. All great points. I didn't mean to dismiss these issues, my post was aimed at at defining this aspect of old school. There are certainly shades of gray between "ignore story while you play" and "straight railroad"; this "working the crowd" you mention, or providing the best possible experience to all involved, seem to be somewhere in the middle - and there is certainly value to be found there.

      Valuable advice, and something definitely worth thinking about. Thanks for the thoughtful answer!


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