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The Contract

Desist From Externalizing Your Non-Public Narrative

(or Do Not Tell Me About Your Character)

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
April 16, 2002  
It is tempting to begin every essay with a pronouncement of how important this or that quality is. They are all equally important, because they all connect. Because role playing games address character in a certain way, because they address plot in a certain way, because they address rules in a certain way, and because there are certain cultural attachments to them, they are role playing games. Take away one quality and they, if still definable as role playing games, are not the ones that we would know.

Narrative still seems special. It is special, because the function narrative serves is unique, and so indispensable that it defies a good defining. Narrative is the tell of the story, and a role playing game is, above all other qualities, a told story, so the narrative of a game is the game itself. What differentiates a good game from a bad one is the quality of the narrative.

So what is it? We begin, as always, with conventional definitions. The easiest way to see narrative is to look at plot.

Plot is the events of a story. In any story things happen, and what those things are is plot. Plot is the bones of the story, a series of facts or events. Plot can be more complicated than this, but it does so by getting more exacting. For instance: "they meet, suffer through a series of obstacles and misunderstandings, and end up together" is the plot of every romantic comedy ever written. Start specifying obstacle or origin and the definition is still plot, but more detailed plot.

Plot however is lifeless. It has motion but nothing else. Plot is the progression of events, the logical outlay, commonly. Plot is data, and to turn the data into theory narrative must come along and assess it. Narrative takes the facts that exist in any plot, chooses focus and spin of those facts, and then 'sells' those facts in a compelling way.

Narrative is how the plot is told. This is easiest to see in a story where there is a definitive sense of narrator, someone doing the telling of the story, but it exists regardless. The role of narrative is rhetorical. It acts to persuade, to prove the worth of the plot, or at least the validity of the interpretation of the plot.

Any story can be told in a dizzying number of different ways, though their plots are the same. The differences arise from differences in narrative. Each different narrator has a different agenda, a different spin to put on the plot. (1)

The immediate differences between role playing narrative and standard narrative is focus. Central to narrative is the narrator, or at least the concept of one, the voice behind the words, the mind processing the events. While there can be many sides of a narration, there is only one at any given point in time. Someone is telling the story. That someone can switch, often or never, but there is always a someone, even if that someone is only a detached authorial intellect.

This is never true in a role playing game. Break down a role playing game and it consists of several tales being told from several narrations; the story as understood by the Referee and the story as understood by each of the players. Each person participates in creating the narrative, but also experiencing it as the multiple narratives act and interact.

That all is true, but also too simplistic. (2) In a role playing game, an intermingling of narrative is present, but all the narratives are embryonic. To this extent, a role playing game is neither a game nor a story, but a game with the purpose of creating story, a narrative factory.

Narrative is the act of ferreting out the important parts of a plot. The end result is a story. There is no immediate end in a role playing game, or so many that effectively there is none. The action of a role playing game exists to create events. We sit around a table and talk about what is happening. Rules and randomness come into play, almost like another person dictating a portion of the events. The run of a role playing game is anti-narrating. There is no steady flow of narration, only events.

There is a distant end in to any role playing game. We play to create a narrative.

A group of people sits at a table, and discusses events. None of these events are important in their own right. We could play out the climatic battle, not even the battle, just the killing blow that decides things one way or the other, but what would be the point? The point is to accumulate enough events so that a narrative can be composed. We keep creating events, and then those events reformulate themselves as a narrative, a story. That story is the only thing that we leave that table with.

There are a multitude of intangibles that people take from role playing games. We could talk camaraderie, conquest, catharsis, (es)capism. The greatest of these is the story. Story is the basis of all the others, and a narrative is story. Someone saying that they have a thirtieth level drow anti-paladin - or showing me the character sheet - is as much a brag of narrative as anything else, that there is a quite a story there that they have and could tell. Someone looking for friends finds it in the shared story. Someone looking to get away from it all does so by the attachment to a distant yet personal story they now have.

Everyone wants a good story out of a role playing game. Narrative is the way to get a good story. I don't care how deep or interesting your characters are, I don't care what your plot tree looks like, I don't care if your players are number jockeys, if the way you tell the story isn't solid, it won't sell.(3)

A character with a sixteen page background, including glossy photos, school transcripts and bar graphs (arguably a bulky narrative in and of itself) will not mean a good game. A character with stats that allow arm wrestling with God will not make a good game. What matters is the way that character gets to be used, the way the story gets to form around and beside that character.

And you know all of this! You know the difference between a good and a bad story. You know that there has to be a story for there to be any value to the numbers. The quality of the resulting narrative will be the quality of the game. Narrative is so ridiculously all encompassing that trying to explain what consists a good one would be explaining what a good game is. I can't do that. It is subjective and holistic, and does not need to be done because you don't need to be told what you like. Maybe you could do with some being told of what to like, but not what you do like.

Narrative will take some more time and effort to fully explain. So next time, more of that effort, particularly as it relates to narrativism and the narrative of this column.


1) Part of that agenda is quality...which is a funny way to think about quality because that makes all artistic skill some sort of lure, but it's true: you write a good story so that people will be inspired to read it. Don't think about this one too hard, because it does go to some strange places.

2) Everyone who has complained about their game being a game and not a story (or vice-versa, neatly) has lain the logical flaw out.

3) I have heard this called the 'Spaulding Gray Effect,' to the extent of, "never tell a story that Spaulding Gray tells, because nothing he says is actually funny or interesting, it's just the way he tells it.

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