Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Discussions about the writing and running of tabletop games in terms of fictional narratives or as a sort of collective fiction or exercise in communal story-telling are very common as are the debates brought about by such subjects. Especially when discussing the writing of Game-Masters and the use of not only the terms but the devices of fictional narrative. According to my own personal experiences in roleplaying in both the Game-Master and Player roles as well as an avid reader of fiction, Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different.

“RPGs cannot easily be characterised in terms of standard narrative theories, presenting a different approach to narrative. Their interactive character-based approach differs both from the classical Aristotelian theory and the analytical models proposed by the French Structuralists.” [Louchart, Sandy & Aylett, Ruth. 2003. Intelligent Virtual Agents: Solving the Narrative Paradox in VEs – Lessons from RPGs. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, Germany. 245]

Narratives in fiction and that of Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPGs) are fundamentally different even though they have certain similarities. From the smallest units used in their composition to visualizations of their basic overall narrative structures to how they are composed (authored) and to what audience they are meant for both forms have an array of differences though in these differences also lay similarities.

Narrative in its most basic sense is a chronology of events which build upon or relate to one another from which the basis of story and plot is built.

“Chronology is made up of identifiable events or episodes. These episodes are identified by where they occurred (the setting) and by recalling who was there (the characters). The moments in between which are often not remembered serve to merely link one with another.” [Minot, Stephen. 1993. Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey. 177-178]

As narrative is a very basic element of story, plot may be considered a separate idea artificially constructed by the author(s) where concerning fiction to give the narrative direction.

Plot, as opposed to narrative, is constructed in order to follow the narrative to an ends which can carry personal meanings or messages and is meant to immerse and propel the reader along the course plotted out beforehand by the author(s). Narrative is not constructed of plot but plot does steer narrative in a certain direction that is determined by the author(s). In Fiction Narrative plot is directed by the author(s) and similarly in TRPGs plot can be said to be the same as all the participants (GM and Players) are in place of the author(s). However, in RPG’s plots are less ‘plotted’ rather than constructed by the interaction of the participants against some sort of framework previously setup by the Game-Master which can be termed ‘Adventure’ as the equivalent of ‘Plot’ where concerning TRPG narrative.

“The Game-Master exercises control at a high level over narrative unfolding, plot, pace and the structure of the story. Since the a priori plot line for a campaign is only hypothetical, the Game-Master needs specific tools – in the form of […] encounters […] – to gain some control over the overall campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The TRPG narrative is collectively gathered from the participation of the GM and players including the accumulation of details authored by each whereas the plot of standard fiction is determined by the author(s) and is often carefully constructed to follow the intended narrative.

“A fictional plot is a weaving together of events that are interrelated and which work toward a conclusion.” [Minot.183]

The plot of fiction and TRPGs are similar on a very basic level and this is where the confusion between Fiction Narrative and that of TRPGs can produce unfavorable results which should be familiar to most TRPG gamers.

The desire to change the shape of the adventure and/or campaign into that of a traditional fiction narrative on the part of the GM is the prime example of the confusion between TRPG narrative and Fiction Narrative. When the GM behaves in this manner they essentially hijack the agency of the players taking away their power to affect the game world and alter the shape of the story. This is called ‘railroading’ and is often to the detriment of the game (however, I have met and played with those that prefer the rails and often spend time in-game seeking them out).

“While the DM [Dungeon-Master] can limit players’ actions, in reality, the players have a great deal of agency in creating the story of the TRPG.” [Grouling-Cover, Jennifer. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 49]

Essentially when trying to steer the roleplaying game into the territory of narrative fiction the railroad-GM begins to exclude a major part of the gaming experience and excising an essential part of the TRPG that makes it unique and apart from standard fiction. Railroading is the practice of forcing the players to stay within the confines of a plotline written or in the mind of the Game-Master thereby changing the very nature of the game. Where the GM has acted more as an author of a choose-your-own-adventure book rather than acting in the more appropriate referee mode though commonly in tabletop RPG’s (TRPG’s) the GM may author elements of the adventure particularly the background elements of the campaign world perhaps even the campaign world itself. “The player in a TRPG [Tabletop Role-Playing Game] is not out to discover the secret to the DM’s story but to help create that story through active participation [.]” [Grouling-Cover. 37] There is no sole author when it comes to roleplaying.

The GM acts less as an author of fiction or the care-taker of an all-important storyline but should behave more as an arbiter of the rules, a referee when it comes to negotiating in-game conundrums, and maintain control of the game using the tools available to them such as encounters, playing on meta-knowledge of the players, and the capability of the characters among a few others.

“The Game-Master expects that the encounters specifically created for a session, will trigger actions, reactions, discussions or decisions from the party in such a way that an anticipated plot will unfold. This plot however has a hypothetical aspect since what actually happens is the direct result of the party’s generated reactions to the different encounters. They can be used by the Games Master to shape and pace the dramatic unfolding of the narrative as well as presenting the main source of entertainment to the players, and embodying key events in the construction of the plot. Their smooth orchestration by the Game-Master is critical to the creation, development and unfolding of an RPG campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The GM makes use of in-game devices such as encounters, expressing scenarios that the players may happen upon or induce through their behavior, and determining when the element of chance is required to be relied upon which typically takes the shape of a dice roll of some type. If the party gets too far off the path of the adventure at hand threatening take the campaign into territory which would diminish the overall fun for the group then it is the GM’s responsibility to get them back onto the trail as it were by intervening in certain ways.

“Interventions are generally caused either by players taking longer than expected in dealing with encounters or by the story branching in an unexpected manner. Branching may occur when the party incorrectly determines their role and what is expected from them, pursues future plot events omitting essential encounters or attempts to reinvent themselves. The need for interventions illustrates the plot’s provisional nature and stresses on the Game-Master’s preparation and flexibility.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246-247]

This can be avoided with certain other GM techniques such as “sandboxing” or keeping the details of the adventure as fluid as possible allowing the actions of the player to codify them and the Game-Master should allow themselves the flexibility to work those elements into the adventure allowing them to keep a firm hold on the direction of the campaign.

“Because the DM [Dungeon-Master] cannot predict players’ actions, he or she can not [sic] know what direction the story might take or what parts of the world might be explored. While the DM may control the world to an extent, this control is far more ephemeral than that of an author.” [Grouling-Cover. 92]

In the classical understanding of narrative the author constructs the fictional world, the characters, directs their actions within it, and develops the plot-line via the chronology of events within the story. “[…] RPGs work with a hypothetical plot which is dynamically modified, the mechanisms supporting this dynamic modification seem to rely … on out-of-character and out-of-play direct interactions.” [Louchart & Aylett. 248] Right off the bat it is evident that the narrative of TRPGs is very fluid and mimetic as compared to that of fiction which is much more monolithic. Of course, plot and narrative in both veins are composed of smaller more basic bits. These smaller parts of Fiction Narrative and TRPGs respectively are Scenes, Story-Beats, Episodes, and Play-Units.

Fiction narrative is written by a single author or group of authors who for the most part are all considered primary authors with each more or less contributing an equal amount of material to the story. Authors write for a captive audience whom as they read have no choice but to follow the narrative set down by the author upon whose shoulders and skill rests the ability to keep the readers immersed and in a state of suspense. This allows for a structured plotline running through the events contained in the narrative to make sense of them to the authors’ ends.

The underlying structure for fiction narrative known as Dramatic Structure when visualized appears very similar if not identical to a Bell-Curve (a more strict analysis could yield something more akin to Freytag’s Pyramid but this is a more general discussion) with the climax of the story, the height of the action, occurring at a single point. Of course, the events following the plot often will increase in intensity building up to the climax afterwards the main plotline if not all plot-lines including those attached to participant characters are tied up ending the story. High points on the curve would be points of high-energy and/or action and the low points would of course be lulls in the action. Each of these points represents a single scene or event, the building blocks of the story.

Fiction “is made up of a sequence of related scenes [and] is a construction of units in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” [Minot.184] A scene is the smallest unit of story and each scene is built of beats which are marked changes in the fuzzy or emotional bits or ‘feel’ (not to be confused with mood) in a scene. Story-Beats are the smallest unit that makes up fiction most often applied to screenwriting, or as defined by Robert Mckee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) as an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.

In fact, by this definition the GM and the players are included in the story which is not far from the truth of the matter but it is a little lacking when it comes to TRPG’s due to the breaking out of bounds of the ‘story’. Instead of Story-Beats that make up fiction’s narrative, in roleplaying the smallest unit of narrative is a Play-Unit which consists of a scenario (presented by the Game Master) + decision (made by the players) which then may lead to action (a high point) or inaction (a low point). [Edwards, Ron. 2001. Sorcerer & Sword. Adept Press, Chicago. Pg.80] Basically the Story-Beat of fiction narrative can translate with some work to the Play Unit of TRPG’s. Similarly, scenes can absolutely be drawn from the narrative that forms during play thus relating RPG Narratives to that of fiction and as fiction has its smallest units (technically the scene and emotively the action beat) so does the narrative that evolves from a roleplaying game session.

However, the narrative flow of TRPG’s as opposed to the narrative flow in fiction is very different.

“A narrative in a RPG is here defined as a description through game play of a series of events created by the interaction of two or more participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

The narrative flow of an RPG campaign is essentially a sine-wave with the high points being moments of action and the low points being those of calm or inaction, the definitions of the highs and lows being identical to those of fiction narrative.

The narrative flow of fiction usually moves upwards climbing towards a climax (or anti-climax) with the high and low points on the visualized graph being much the same as that of those on the Sine-Wave of TRPG’s but may be increasing in intensity as the author can reliably craft or manipulate these events in order to do so, in RPG’s the events as they also depend on the unpredictable actions of the players and many times on an element of chance (the dice) will have varying and sometimes seemingly random variances in intensity/thrill-level.

In the same vein, the thrill-level may be at variance for each of the players as well. This is because the narrative of a TRPG is authored by not just a specific individual or group but a whole gamut of folks from the Game-Master, each individual Player, to the deeper levels of authorship which may not be personally present during the game such as the authors of additional supplemental game material.

Basically, it’s the participants who share the authoring of the TRPG Narrative not to diminish the work of the GM whose responsibility it is to both referee games and often provide background material and characters as well as incorporating any supplemental material into the campaign. This also includes authors that are not direct participants in the campaign those authors that have written material used to supplement the game by the participants thereby creating several levels of authorship with the players at the shallower end.

“Although RPG players have a good idea of the overall story in which they are involved, they are more concerned by the development of their characters and their focus is situated at a fairly low level within the overall story, the individual level.” [Louchart & Aylett. 247]

Essentially, it is more helpful to refer to what is called Story in Fiction Narrative as a Campaign in the context of TRPGs as the authorship of narrative between TRPGs and fiction is so very different.

“The creation of a campaign is a collaborative process where the characters, as well as the worlds and environments in which the campaign is set, are developed in common accord between the Game-Master and the players. […] This laborious but highly participative creation process allows the Games Master to prepare the campaign episodes with a good understanding and knowledge of the different characters and world involved. This favours the delivery of a highly flexible narrative structure[.]” [Louchart & Aylett. 245]

The narrative of a TRPG is dynamic, it is a contributive exercise involving the players and the GM and commonly other remote authors where the narrative is simply not consistent across its audience.

“Game play is dynamic and, as it relies upon input from the player, can at least possibly differ for each player. Any narrative will be experienced by a player as a result of their game play. As the game play of each player differs, so their narratives may differ.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 54]

This can dramatically alter the narratives not only retold by each participant when recounting their experiences but their view of the campaign through the experiences of their character and their own meta-game experiences actually playing the game around the table.

“The narrative experienced by a player will be informed by the total sum of their game play experience.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

This very fluid structure and continual nature of the narrative structure of TRPG campaigns seems that it would be at a sublime disadvantage when it comes to the attentions of a passive audience.

A Campaign World is the collection of information that forms the background essentially the stage on which the game occurs and where the characters act. This is aside from the TRPG narrative component equivalent to story in fiction narrative. A campaign world is often referred to as the setting, the place where the adventures happen.

“Campaign settings are designed not to tell stories, but to create spaces for stories.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

What differentiates these game settings from the worlds of traditional fiction narratives is that the players have agency within the world having the power to leave their marks on it.

“[W]hile the world exists independently from the way the characters and players progress through it, the participants of TRPGs do influence the development of the world.” [Grouling-Cover. 77]

The players and even the GM change and build the setting as they progress through their adventures and thus the fantasy world. In many cases it’s the players’ interest in the world that surrounds their characters (the PC’s) that fills in the minute details and sometimes even creates whole new aspects and features within the setting.

“The interests of the players and the questions they ask also affect the world in more detailed ways that more directly influence the narrative.” [Grouling-Cover. 78]

This is not to say the players and their characters have ultimate say in the course of events unintentional or otherwise, the GM still has certain planned events which can alter the player characters’ paths.

“Many details of the world get fleshed out only as the players (characters) progress through them; however, certain events in the world progress regardless of the characters’ involvement with them.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

In TRPGs it’s the audience that has agency over the narrative.

The audience that TRPGs are written for or rather meant to entertain is the participants around the table playing the game. “A RPG narrative is not made for an audience, but for the people participating.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55] The audience of an RPG Campaign is also its authors. When it comes to relating their adventures the players and Game-Masters will form their tales into narratives from their point of view which may be from outside of the game or from within coming from a specific character. These ‘tales from the table’ often divide the narrative into scenes which are extracted from the over-arching campaign. These scenes as they are called in fiction narrative are better referred to as Episodes in TRPGs.

In TRPGs episodes can be a smaller part of an overall campaign or be limited to a single gaming session especially where the group is playing out a specific scenario in the game. It is also especially useful when referring to Episodic Play where the participants in a gaming group may shift, meaning the group is not composed of a fixed membership of individuals or even set number of participants at any one time where using one-shot type scenarios is a particularly useful tactic on the GM’s part to be able to get a game together and keep it together perhaps only later trying to tie them together into a greater campaign. The TRPG campaign like the Story of fiction is composed of Episodes as a story is drawn from a series of scenes. These scenes are composed of smaller pieces, story-beats, and thus an episode is also composed of what are also essentially story-beats better referred to as Play-Units in the context of TRPGs.

As defined before a Play-Unit consists of a situation presented by the GM and a decision made on this scenario by the player(s). The most fundamental bit of TRPGs is a back-and-forth between the participants.

“[An] RPG narrative is constructed by a continual process of communication and feedback between the participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 58]

This interaction is communicated through the context of the rule system they are using.

“Rule books… provide rules that assist participants in creating and controlling their storyworld. These books create the system that is used to structure the game.” [Grouling-Cover. 11]

It is through this filtering medium that the participants are able to negotiate and come to agreement as to what will become a part of the campaign and a reality in their collective fiction.

Negotiation describes the way the group uses social interaction to decide how the events will progress in the narrative… negotiation is a process of reaching a point that successfully lets the story progress.” [Grouling-Cover. 33]

It is from this seemingly basic unit of interaction that the TRPG story, a campaign, evolves from the collective imaginations of the participants, the RPG Group, most likely using material drawn from multiple sources and authors.

The basic smallest building blocks of both types of narratives are similar but still different as they serve different purposes. As discussed previously authors place story-beats of their fiction narrative in order to move the plot along using events which ultimately will lead to the climax of the story. The narrative and indeed the plot that can be extracted from a TRPG session seems to be an emergent narrative, that is it evolves and grows though the GM may set the player group on the path to a certain event and/or climax (which in RPG’s is more of a chapter-mark or framing device) and may completely diverge into completely unforeseen territory. The philosophy of the TRPG is essentially “story now”, the players and indeed the GM will want to enjoy their game NOW, and if any of them find it boring they do have the freedom to try to find the fun in any way that they can.

“The key concept is simple: Story Now. Not “It’ll add up to a story someday,” or “Your character will be tough enough to start a story some day [sic],” or even, “You don’t know this, but a really cool story is underlying these adventures.” No. Story now means that the conflicts and resolutions played out openly on the table are engaging and coherent, at that moment.  […] It means the proposition of conflict, the pivotal role of the heroes’ decisions, and a resolution of the conflict.” [Edwards.80]

When it comes to levels of authorship, traditional fiction is a little more streamlined than the multiple levels found in even a cursory glance at TRPGs. Often there is only a single level with the author(s) being the primary having full control over the narrative and its components. This of course is not taking into account certain series of books or fictional universes where multiple authors contribute to multiple works all set in the same world or universe such as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

In TRPGs authorship is a multi-level dynamic and liquid thing where not only the participants create fictive elements amongst themselves when interacting through the medium of the game but when adding in elements from materials written by other authors. In roleplaying games the authorship also overlaps with the audience as the participants produce their campaign narrative for their own entertainment whereas when it comes to fiction the author(s) produce their stories for an audience that has no agency within the author’s fictive world. The final demonstration of the absolute difference between the narrative structure of TRPGs and that of Fiction is the visualizations of their general underlying structure, the difference between the potentially perpetual Sine-Wave structure of RPGs and the finite Bell-Curve structure of classical fiction narrative.

In conclusion, RPG Narrative Flow is very different from that of Fiction Narrative Flow which can be demonstrated by comparing any of the most basic components of either not to mention the dramatic difference illustrated by way of their line-graph visualizations. RPG narratives are unlike that of the Narratives of Fiction alternating in action or high points with low points at pretty regular intervals as a sine-wave whereas Fiction Narrative has a definitive structure that escalates in action & drama moving towards a climax. In RPG Narratives a set piece may mark a climax and (hopefully) coincide with a high-point providing some closure to most of the prescient story-lines that were prominent in the campaign.

The various components of either type of narrative can be said to be related and can be translated in limited terms back and forth. Fiction is often plundered for ideas for use in the game world and the basic elements of fiction can be extracted from a campaign narrative with the most bottom level translation between fiction’s Story-Beat and Play-Unit being approximate at best. There are relations between the two different narrative styles and structures but a TRPG is not a novel though a novel can be extracted from the conglomeration of story and detail created through the play of an RPG campaign if the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist and the Dragonlance books can stand as examples.

However, the most important difference, at least in my opinion, between the narrative flow of classical fiction and that of TRPGs is player agency and the shared authorship of all involved regardless of their level of participation.

“This [the TRPG Narrative form] is fundamentally different to many other narrative forms, in that the participants have an active role in shaping the future form of the narrative.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 59]

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