Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why storytelling is hard, but Storytelling is easy (long rant)

Your average English teacher (i.e. my colleagues) would probably say that writing a story, or telling a story, is a matter of combining together: plot, characters, setting, flow. Throw in some conflict, literary flourishes, plot structure, and you got yourself a story, right? Wrong. What you got is a skeleton, It’s rough, edged, barren. What it lacks is flesh - or rather what I’d call relish. Not the kind you put on a hot dog, but what a story ought to be told with: “Tell it with relish.” A good storyteller can launch into a story with only a barest idea of plot and characters and pull it off, relying on archetypes, building up atmosphere, and making the story personal and immediate to the audience. A good story is always told with the current audience in mind, each time different. A business report or resume is like baking - the recipe is precise and must be followed to the letter. A story is more like a stir-fry - the basic ingredients might not change, and the method of preparing it (hey, you gotta have a stir-fry pan and some oil at least) might not alter either - but each time it’s just a little different.

So how much harder would it be then to tell a story in which the main characters are actively controlled by other people? How much more difficult is Storytelling (or Game-Mastering) than storytelling? I think the case is quite the opposite - it’s easier to tell the story with Player Characters, than to just tell a good story. There are many types of players, but for this argument I’m reducing all players to two categories - those who want to tell a story, and those who want to hear a story. The first type want to have control over their characters’ story. That is not to say that this type of player wants to have complete control over their character (i.e. choosing when their character dies, etc), but rather this kind of player wants to be able to choose her own adventure, get vested in the world, have freedom. Does she want a sandbox game? Not necessarily. If presented with a story, this kind of player will seek to actively engage with it, figure out why her character is motivated, where she seeks to steer the story.

The other type of player is more passive when it comes to participating in a story. They seek to be entertained, to be pulled along for the ride. Their characters - whether they have motivations or not - need to be given a quest, they are far less likely to go out of their way to find adventure if none is clearly presented. On one hand they can be a godsend to a GM (Game master)/ST (Storyteller. Same difference really). As long as the railroad tracks are nice and obvious, the quest rewards are known, and their characters have a goal, these players will likely play along nicely. I am not being derisive here, the benefit is that this kind of player will work well (or at least function) within the boundaries of the story.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that a good story should be tailored to the audience. Whether the group is composed of those who want to tell a story, those who want to hear a story, or a mix of the two, storytelling with players is easier than simply telling a story. The story-making players often just need a world to play in and interesting things for their characters to do, and ideally their characters’ back-stories and motivations being involved in the main story (if there is one). Get a bunch of these players together, give them a world to sink their teeth into, and you can sit back and watch the chemistry happen. A group composed entirely of story-listeners requires more preparation work, but less intellectual work. The game becomes more structured and laid-out (and that is often much easier to handle than the free-flowing on-the-fly games), and the job of the GM is to continue providing quests and hooks for the players; here, pacing becomes crucial as the story-listeners will get bored more easily if they sit around with nothing to do.

My ideal player type is the former. I dislike structure and being railroaded most of the time, although I do like to participate in a cohesive narrative when I’m playing myself. The story-making players are easier to prepare a game for, and are less interested in the traditional quest structure. On the flip side, the game is much more on-the-fly and that can be occasionally challenging as well. Planning for such players is also harder, often they come up with unexpected solutions and can grow petulant when the narrative choices (or solutions) are limited.

I think that is the reason why when I think about the next game I want to run, the same two themes come up: political intrigue and role-playing heavy, and epic quest adventures with over-the-top characters. The former type of game is for the type of players I like. The latter type of game is for the type of game that I’d want to actually play in. I guess the adage that “Every DM runs a game he secretly wants to play in” is true.