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Soapbox: About the Industry

I am not a Storyteller

by Sandy Antunes
Apr 08,2005


I am not a Storyteller

by Sandy Antunes

I had an interesting weekend, running (by myself) a 32-person samurai larp. It was all about character, namely, their characters. All I did was create the game and fire the starting gun. The rest was their creation.

I also spent some time with friends, one of whom is a professional storyteller. And that leads me into my rant today. I get tremendously annoyed when I meet game writers who call themselves Storytellers.

I run into this with computer game authors. "So you're a programmer, or an artist?" 'No, I am a STORYTELLER!' Well, umm... no, you're a worldbuilder. You're maybe a cut-scene writer. Or a script writer, or writing the underlying game world. But you're not a storyteller, and it's damned pretentious to call yourself that.

In some live action games, the GMs call themselves Storytellers. Not because, you know, White Wolf calls their game the Storyteller System. No, these are brave and bold indy GMs, writing their own stuff, and calling themselves Storytellers, honestly believe that the game is their story.

No no no! The players are the ones telling the story! You're just their reference librarian. Sorry, it had to be said.

In one LARP, afterwards, the GMs tried to do a game wrapup where the GMs explain all the backplot. I stopped them (yes, I'm a bad, pushy player. Still, they could have said no.) I politely said, I didn't want to hear what they'd written, I was more interested in hearing what the players actually did.

There is no meaning in GMs speaking backstory. If it didn't come up in the game, it's irrelevant. If if did come up in the game, the players will mention it. The only details that matter are the details that actually were part of the story, and the story is what the players did, not how they started out.

So when a GM speaks of how, two months earlier, the Harriet character (pre-game) broke out of prison and arranged a town uprising, what does that mean? Sorry, it means nothing, that's all player background. Maybe it's relevant, maybe not-- but it's up to the person who played Harriet to decide. Maybe Harriet's player didn't think that part of her background came into play in the actual game. If she did think it's important, let _her_ mention it, because she'll mention it in context!

Truth is, although "Harriet", the character, may have done wild adventures months before, the point of the game is what the _player_ of Harriet does. GMs talking about backplot is self-congradulatory, and worse, it reduces the role of the player. If a player tells their tale, it's real, it's engaging, it's about what just got played. If a GM mixes backstory and in-game events, the player is minimalized-- they really don't exist, save as a pawn for the GM.

So wake up, 'storytellers'! You didn't write what just happened-- at best you watched and took notes. What happened was created by the players, using your original world stuff as a starting point. The story was the players, not you. You're there to answer questions and maybe clarify details, that's it. You gave up the story when you invited us to your game. If GMs want to bore us with their own private back story, they can write the novelizations.

Extending this to the prima donnas who write for computer games and call themselves storytellers, wake up. You're writing a game so other people can engage. You're not writing the story, you're writing the setting. Scriptwriters don't call themselves directors or actors, and game writers shouldn't call themselves storytellers.

Now, going back to my friend who is a real storyteller, let me say, storytelling is _hard_. It's more than writing, first off. I've toyed with doing real storytelling. The "telling" part is key. Telling a story is, for me, harder than writing one.

Fact is, a Storyteller doesn't have to be a writer at all. A story meant to be read isn't the same as one meant to be spoken, and the title "Storyteller" should be reserved for people who actually tell. Telling a tale isn't static, like the printed word.

Storytelling is more than speaking. It's a dialogue with an audience. The storyteller talks, moves, acts, sings, and otherwise tells the tale. The listeners provide feedback, usually non-verbally but, hey, applause and laughs and shout-outs are fine too. The storyteller responds to the feedback, plays with the tale to suit the audience.

Once you get the idea that a storyteller doesn't have to be the writer, using the term properly is easy. In a table-top or live action game, the storyteller is clearly the players. It can't be the writer, because they are absent from the actual story telling event itself!

Oddly enough, both storytellers and writers have to engage the reader. Storytellers do it through the intrinsic merit of the tale, combined with their ability to create a rapport or dialog with their audience. Writers have to engage their audience entirely with the words.

So a good writer has to have storytelling skills and make use of storytelling techniques. Choosing voice, deciding what to leave in and what to leave to the reader's imagination, it's a tricky task. Meanwhile, a storyteller has to have a writer's skills, even when using tales written by others. There is a lot of cross-over, but they are not the same.

Writers need to find pride in their own work, while avoiding a need for pretentions like the Storyteller label. If you aren't standing in front of a group of rapt listeners, providing them with a tale, you aren't storytelling. Sure, it may sound cooler to say you're a Storyteller (always capitalized), but you know, being a Writer is a pretty nifty role to take, too. Add in being a Worldbuilder and a GM, that's a pretty potent set.

And if you don't agree, you can always write me and tell me why. I've told you my feelings here, I'm happy to listen to your story now. Just remember, even if you're posting here or emailing, you're still "just" a writer. And that, in itself, is a rare and admirable thing. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

  • See What Sticks by Sandy Antunes, 06jan06
  • Simple Gifts for Pre-Gamers by Sandy Antunes, 09dec05
  • Col vs Blog by Sandy Antunes, 04nov05
  • Running a First RPG for Kids by Sandy Antunes, 07oct05
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  • A Better Job by Sandy Antunes, 01apr05
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  • April 10, 2002 13 New FAQs
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  • December 13, 2001 Conflict, Ethics, Winning, and Money
  • November 13, 2001 Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!
  • October 16, 2001 Leadership and D&D
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  • June 5, 2001 Fine Print, Part I
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  • January 6, 2000 Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for Business
  • December 14, 1999 Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs
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  • October 5, 1999 How to publish a quality game, accept criticism gracefully, and lead a happy life: Pick Any Two
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  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
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  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
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  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

    Other columns at RPGnet

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