Story-things

edited February 2006 in Story Games
In a discussion on Setting Materials, James Nostack says:
. . . [N]o game text should have fiction snippets or story-things --unless they're snippets from actual novels/movies/source material. On the other hand, quotes from play are good.

I didn't want to derail the entire thread, but I wanted to ask if this is true? It seems to me that a well-constructed, snappy story-thing can summarize situation and color, or at least highlight those aspects, more easily than either quotes from other mediums or play examples.

I'm not saying I want to read entire books of fiction-posing-as-game-stuff, but a paragraph or two of narrative text often gets me into a correct frame of mind for the material coming afterwards, basically acting as a little flag of 'this is the important stuff here'. I'm thinking specifically of The Shadow of Yesterday, here, as it's the game that's on my mind at the moment.

Comments

  • Stories that tell you what the end product of the game should be? Skip 'em.

    Stories that give you the raw materials that you feed into the game to begin with? Gold.

  • I agree with you that fiction snippets have a role to play in an RPG book, but only in establishing setting or providing color. Fiction should not be tromping on the toes of player characters that will be used in playing the game.

    For example TSoY and Polaris include myths and legends about how their setting came to be, but these bits of fiction don't impinge on what your player characters will be doing in your game. Certain other games, however, have fiction about uber-NPCs that are doing the real work of the setting, leaving your player characters to pick up the leftovers. Big difference. and probably what James is thinking of.
  • I skip all game fiction. Sometimes I'll come back to it and read it later.

    The only exception to this was Nobilis, because nearly all the game fiction was extremely short and all of it was packed with the setting flavor.
  • I was mulling this over, too, Remi. In the Roach I think I may have done something interesting, in that the book has a bunch of collage art that is really a "story thing" - there are news snippets, bits of articles, and other evocative text juxtaposed in not-so-random ways. I'm hoping that it will be entertaining in itself, but also help people see what the game is "supposed to be like". You don't lose anything if you don't pore over the collages, but if you do I think it will be worth your time. We'll see how it works.
  • I, too, skip 95% of all fiction in RPG books these days. Sometimes it provides a good introduction to the mood of the game, but why would I care about the characters they mention if they're only going to be snippets? If it was a book, I'd invest my time, but if they're just there for showing off, it's a waste of space. Give me examples of actual players doing their thing any day, but these snippets are often nothing like what you get out of actually playing the game.
  • I actually read all of the game fiction. But I usually read it after I have read the rules and I read the fiction as a way to grasp how the author feels the game should be played and/or how they believe the 'feel' of the game should be. Nine times it's just liek xenopulse said, it's nothing like what you get from some actual play.

    But I do find it an inspiration for character generation and narration flavor.

    Lisa P
  • Hi!
    I think on the quest to make new and innovative games, we need to be careful not reject the past without consideration.

    I think it's true that some publishers (White Wolf) have used this technique to little effect (potentially even negative effect),

    But that does not mean that the technique itself is flawed. Fiction can provide insight into mood or setting.

    I think that if they are too long or represent characters that the players cannot play themselves, it will do more harm than good. But if the characters depicted are on the same level as the characters made from char gen, it could jump start a good game.
    Dave M
    Author of Legends of Lanasia (Still in Beta)
  • Me, I think we could use a lot more fiction about the players, and a lot less about characters.

    I like WGP's example of having a little comic book showing the actual players actually playing. I hear many Japanese games also adopt this, but they've got a much more comic-friendly culture.

    I keep wondering whether you could take John Harper's idea that he posted in "Own Horn Tooting":
    The text of the Stranger Things game book is an example of play. One session, from start to finish. You learn to play by reading it. It also has little sidebar callouts with some step-by-step stuff, and appendices in the back that are the player handouts. But everything else is the players talking.

    ... and combine it with the idea of making your example of play into entertaining comic format. What you'd end up with is a graphic novel about people playing the game, which happens to also teach you the game.

  • Its all tools to get us in the mood. Whatever gives me a little spark to play the game and inspires a character or an NPC or a vibe is fantatic.

    That said, I don't want the game book to be a vehicle for a frustrated writer first and a good game second. That pisses me right off and I *am* a frustrated writer.

    So, as long as the writing is just a little foreplay, cool.
  • I'm planning to illustrate my examples of play in Verge with a running comic strip.

    I'm also considering putting a small Verge "flip book" animation in the lower right corner. That'd be awesome.
  • A full half of my current game is story-things. Said story-things, however, are all first-person narratives with a narrator of ambiguous authority, and none deal with "the big important thing that is driving the important conflicts in the world." Everything is illustrative; none of it is prescriptive.

    The whole mess should serve as a guide to how you can play the game, rather than highlighting what your gameplay should be about. See the difference?
  • I have "source material" story-things, too.

  • edited February 2006
    Tony: Would it make a good comic, though? The comics Andy showed me advertising/reviewing RPGs seemed half super-streamlined AP and half 'Other Cool Stuff', hardly the strict translation to graphic novel you see. If I'm a little fuzzy on what role Story-things can play in illuminating a game, I'm downright suspicious of the claim that game narratives can be made into compelling long-form narratives of any stripe. It's definitely a conversation I'd like to have, as going from RPG-narrative to comics narrative seems like it would be an even more insane challenge than going from RPG-narrative to pure written form.

    Joshua: I played in the Full Light Full Steam playtest with Clinton and Jason, and I've read your playtest document. I'm pretty familiar with your story-things. The world you set out in FLFS is one that appeals greatly to me. Text-wise FLFS falls, for me, into the same category as Polaris or Nobilis. The text is full of great stuff, but sometimes it was just too much, over-reachingly rich and clever. Despite the story-things not being in the White Wolf mode at all, they were still too long, too distracting, and ultimately seemed to draw away from play and more towards writing-for-its-own-sake. I'll try to expand on this, but my reaction to writing of this style is that I want perhaps less-focused information, faster, in smaller chunks, interspersed with Real Game Stuff. (Note: I also found PTA a frustrating read because the first 3/4 of the book were telling me what to do, leaving the how to the end. Is this gamer damage at work?)

    (EDITS: Grammatical corrections and small clarifying statements)
  • Remi, I'll hold up in responding until you expand, if possible. I'm very interested in hearing what you have to say!
  • edited February 2006

    Tony: Would it make a good comic, though? The comics Andy showed me advertising/reviewing RPGs seemed half super-streamlined AP and half 'Other Cool Stuff', hardly the strict translation to graphic novel you see.

    Okay: Making an example of play does not make an entertaining story. It's pretty much the same way that you can't just train a microphone on people talking at a restaurant and expect it to make a good story. It doesn't have any of the craft that an author brings to it. I'm with you on that.

    I believe that you can make a story (with, y'know, meaningful characters, rising tension, adversity, all that) that is also an example of play, and also an explanation of the entire rules-set.

    I think that very few game designers have, in fact, even tried to do this with their examples of play. I look at some of the "best" examples of play I've ever seen (Nobilis stands out) and even there I have almost zero sense of who the players are ... and certainly no sense that they're confronting adversity or developing as people.

    I don't think it would be particularly hard, I think it's just an effort that designers don't realize will pay dividends.

  • The biggest wrinkle, Tony, is cross-referencing. A gamebook typically does not get used in a linear fashion -- you flip back and forth throughout learning the system and in play. Installing a linear narrative that is also play would lose a lot of that flip utility. The complex interrelationships of the game elements, and the later implications of early choices, will be harder to display.

    Moronically oversimplified example:
    Joey decides to buy his Strength up to 14, because that's always been his favorite number and in the absence of knowing how that will affect play, he has no better standard for making this decision.

    Not a problem that can't be solved, but one that would crop up and require some extra thought in addressing.
  • edited February 2006

    The biggest wrinkle, Tony, is cross-referencing. A gamebook typically does not get used in a linear fashion -- you flip back and forth throughout learning the system and in play. Installing a linear narrative that is also play would lose a lot of that flip utility. The complex interrelationships of the game elements, and the later implications of early choices, will be harder to display.

    Yeah. I agree. That's the main thing you're going to lose.

    Of course, the whole thing about "How do these rules act when they're actually being played" would be hugely easier. So there's pros and cons.

  • It's also possible that a rulebook better organized would get read more often in a linear fashion.

    These days if I could take the material of a White Wolf rulebook, to take the format I've worked with most, I'd probably organize it something like: world, intro to rules, discussion of individual sessions and extended play and a bunch of other campaign advice rewritten to be good for players as well as GMs, then splats and powers, then chargen, then special cases like combat and whatever else gets detailed mechanics. I think (judging from playtest experience) that that's about the order WW customers are likely to read them in, and the book may as well reflect that.

    But then I'm big on reordering. Someone mentioned Steward Brand's How Buildings Learn recently, and I think of table-of-contents adjustments as that kind of thing. See what's done, and support it.
  • Hey, just to throw my two yen in:
    I like WGP's example of having a little comic book showing the actual players actually playing. I hear many Japanese games also adopt this, but they've got a much more comic-friendly culture.
    Actually, just that one game (Tenra Bansho Zero). There are a few others that may show a single pic of "how to sit at the table/lay out dice/cards/etc", or some simple examples with still frames, but TBZ is the only one that I know that actually has a comic that shows people "doing their thing".

    For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a sample. I'm very, very sorry in advance for making that watermark so noticable and lame, but if you stick to the white text your eyes will adjust:

    http://www.tenra-rpg.com/secret-samples/tenrabasicsample.jpg
    The comics Andy showed me advertising/reviewing RPGs seemed half super-streamlined AP and half 'Other Cool Stuff', hardly the strict translation to graphic novel you see. If I'm a little fuzzy on what role Story-things can play in illuminating a game, I'm downright suspicious of the claim that game narratives can be made into compelling long-form narratives of any stripe.
    Yeah, that comic thing was more of an advertisement for several different games under different publishers but all working under the same "uber-publisher": So we see 2-6 pages of cool manga-ized AP where we see the good, bad and funny of actual play, interjected with "scenes from around the table" and the players' reactions. After that, the text parts which go back and explain the games and "Other Cool Stuff about this game", did it in a way to draw attention to their strengths, in an attempt to market them a bit. So... hmmm... it still doesn't really give an exemplary idea of "how to play", but it definitely shows off "what it can do at times", which is good enough to sell, but not good enough to explain.

    However... I dunno if this goes against the "Narrative" bit, but there's these things called "Replays", which are basically a transcript of an entire game session, as if (and as is usually done) someone walked in with a recording device, and then rewrote it in a screenplay format. And it's not just from "the characters show up in town", most begin with "The players' asses hit the chairs". So there's introductions, pre-play talk, joking around, then character creation (or character explanation if the characters were pre-designed). Then, after introductions are made and right before play begins, the names are switched to the names of the characters. Even "OOC" stuff is recorded (including "Laughs", "Bursts out Laughing", etc), but still labelled with that character's name (because at that point it'd be too weird going back-and-forth. When the GM plays as different characters, though, it says "GM: (as Lucia)" and the like.

    Thing is, Replays aren't just "quirky", they're a solid blueprint of "How an excellent session of Game X should go down". And, interestingly enough, about half the people I know in the hobby in Japan got into roleplaying simply because at some point they stumbled upon a replay, thought "What the fuck is this?", then thought "Damn, I want to get in on this!", then became avid players. And I saw a study that polled like over 300 gamers, showing a significant percentage of them got into gaming the same way.

    Scenarios/adventures don't sell well in Japan, but Replays sell really well.
    I look at some of the "best" examples of play I've ever seen (Nobilis stands out) and even there I have almost zero sense of who the players are ... and certainly no sense that they're confronting adversity or developing as people.
    Heh, well, I doubt that you'll see "developing as people" unless the game in itself was a 500-page novel or so. :-) But I get what you mean by "who the players are". To continue the Replay discussion, a lot of them give you a solid idea of the players, because they often introduce themselves, tell a very brief amount about who they are, and even joke around a bit, before and during the game. It really gives the characters they play, when you read what the "Character" said, some real flavor.

    -Andy
  • edited February 2006

    Heh, well, I doubt that you'll see "developing as people" unless the game in itself was a 500-page novel or so. :-)

    Well, then the stories are going to suck, right? Do you think that stories about people playing roleplaying games have to suck?

    I want to make a story about players: people who develop as they play. And yeah, I want to embed the game mechanics in that story, in a way that gets them across. But that's not all I want to do. I want to make it an enjoyable read that teaches you the rules at the same time. Sorta like how you can become an expert in the (crummy) game of Quidditch by reading Harry Potter books.

  • Interesting. I't slike how Yu-Gi-Oh was originally a Manga about a fictional card game, but then actually became a card game (and a fucking successful one). So you basically want to write a book ABOUT an RPG, but inside contain an RPG. That's pretty interesting, actually.
  • Heh. I love some of the techniques I'm thinking about.

    You gotta have one character in the story who cannot be bothered to get the mechanics right. It's, like, somewhere between a pushy passive-aggressive thing and sheer stupidity.

    It's (a) a neat characterization, (b) draws out emotional responses that help illuminate other characters ("NO! Passion Dice! How can you not get that at this point?" or "Uh ... Passion dice. Please"? That's a real distinction) and (c) it lets you keep hammering home the rules that people need to know.

    Sneaky, huh?

  • A graphic novel approach to example of play, where you have the character action in the panels and narration bubbles with the mechanics is a brilliant idea. Mostly because it plays into visual and textual learning.

    ...

    I have a pretty visceral reaction to game fiction - I'm not sure if there are examples out there of actual game fiction that stands on its own as fiction, but usually I get the distinct feeling about halfway through that I'm getting thinly-veiled (or not -so-thinkly-veiled) exposition sneakily disguised as fiction.

    And then there's something like Demon from White Wolf, where the exposition of the setting material is all fiction. Talk about writing a book for one kind of reader.
  • but usually I get the distinct feeling about halfway through that I'm getting thinly-veiled (or not -so-thinkly-veiled) exposition sneakily disguised as fiction.

    The sheer mass and scattered focus of Nobilis' fiction help it avoid this effect. I'm experimenting with other ways to do it.

  • A graphic novel approach to example of play, where you have the character action in the panels and narration bubbles with the mechanics is a brilliant idea. Mostly because it plays into visual and textual learning.

    Okay. But it's not what I'm saying.

    I'm talking about an example of play that doesn't feature the characters. Because, y'know, the characters aren't going to appear at your gaming table. Instead, the example of play focusses on the players, and how they behave.

    I'm a litle astonished at how much people aren't able to hear this when I'm saying it. I guess I'll just have to do this, and then we can all point to Misery Bubblegum and say "Oh, an example of play like that one ... of course. Everybody knows about that."

  • Huh.

    I'm basically working on a project right now which will, hopefully, completely reposition the idea of what "game fiction" is, and how it is used, and what it is used for.

    Not sure how much I want to talk about it in public, though.

    Maybe we can revisit the topic in six months?

    yrs--
    --Ben
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