Plot arc engines & oral storytelling

edited November 2008 in Game Design Help
My goal for The Fifth World involves doing for ecopsychology and deep ecology what Star Trek did for humanism: using fiction to explore a hopeful vision of the future. In my case, that involves a post-civilized, feral humanity, something in line with some of the ecotopian fiction out there.

I've studied in the past how writing and orality affect the way we think and perceive, so I didn't take it for granted that the traditional story structures came from story itself. On the contrary, I rather assumed they didn't, that they instead came from the structures of written story specifically. Since so many biases, misconceptions, and assumptions surround so-called "primitive" life, I realized early on that a straight-forward approach would likely not work. Instead, I decided I would need to use the emergent properties of the rules to steer players towards a feral, oral, animist, traditional approach. And for the most part, I think I've succeeded at that better than I really could have hoped for at the outset, but The Fifth World remains in beta, and some problems continue. High among them this problem of how to push an oral story structure.

I've mentioned before my fascination with Harold Scheub's Story. He analyzes oral traditions in several African cultures, and identifies the crucial elements of story in these oral traditions.
Story is never simply a cause-and-effect organization of events. It is that, necessarily, but that is not the reason for its existence. We have seen that the narrative is not even the first aspect of storytelling that a child learns: patterning is. To stop with an analysis simply of narrative, and thereby to ignore the more critical aspects of storytelling—emotion, rhythm and pattern, trope—is to dwell on only the most obvious and the simplest aspect of the tradition. It is true, narrative is inviting because it can be studied in an almost mechanical way. It is possible, as Propp has demonstrated, to anticipate the organization of events in a story. The reason for the attractiveness of this one aspect of story is that it can be scientifically analyzed, charted, and graphed. But in the end, it tells little about story." (Scheub, 1998:47)
Scheub argues (convincingly, I think) that in oral tradition, story has more to do with rhythm than with what we would traditionally call "narrative," or the "cause-and-effect organization of events." I think this may speak to one crucial distinction between oral tradition and literature. Usually couched in terms generally derogatory towards oral tradition, orality operates almost like music, seeking rhythm and consistency, glossing over inconsistencies with repetition, whereas the written word invites analysis and structure. I would put it as orality operating in a social context that seeks harmony and agreement, whereas literacy operates outside of a social context, and thus invites criticism. But that trend towards analysis creates a distinctly literate tone. Oral stories set down in writing often seem repetitive and cliche as written stories (read the Illiad again for examples). But it also means that written stories tend towards more complex structures. Literacy creates the notion of the singular author, and places an emphasis on the individual creativity of that author, expressed in an original work. Oral stories play with rhythm and repetition, which tends generally to create storytellers honored for their ability to use the language of the established oral tradition, its images and themes, to express themselves through rhythm and selection.

Reading Scheub reminded me of something Paul Shepard wrote in Nature and Madness: "[Music's] physiological effect is to reduce inner tensions by first making them symbolically manifest, then resolving and unifying them." Melodies played together harmonize. Music brings us into harmony. It allows us first to create a theme for our own divisions by dancing, singing and playing out a specific pattern of our own. As our own singing, dancing and playing harmonize with that of others, we, the singers, dancers and players, synchronize with one another. It creates harmony from discord in more than just the metaphorical sense. Scheub's understanding of story seems similar. We take images instead of notes, using tropes instead of songs, and begin to layer those images one on top of the other, until discordant images harmonize. Stories thus exist to unify the separate, to bring together what we find divided.

Like music, the necessary steps of that give us a set pattern, like the three act structure. We must first introduce the images we mean to reconcile (act one), then the main point of the story of weaving those images together takes place (act two), and then we must finish the work with the final, climatic unity (act three). Just like music must first introduce the themes, then play with the themes, and finally bring those themes together into a conclusion. But this pattern shows you more a by-product of story than the actual function of story, just like music may happen to follow that pattern, but that tells you very little about a piece's real meaning.

Comments

  • To create stories like those found in oral tradition, I first tried a mechanic that divided play into three acts (three rounds of scene-setting). I used a mechanic of questions, like "Can two men love the same woman?" In the first act, players got rewards for posing questions (introducing themes), like introducing a love triangle. In the second act, players got rewards for repeating questions posed in the first act (repeating themes), like introducing an old love affair. In the third act, players got rewards for answering questions posed in the first act (resolving themes), like bringing the love triangle to a conclusion. This turned out rather unwieldy. Since the game has no GM, whether you had successfully posed, repeated or answered a question came down to the other players at the table. But that meant periodically ripping everyone out of the game to sit back and analyze it like a literary critic. This does not seem like a very good solution to me, but I do like the idea of having some mechanic that drives play towards this pattern of rhythmic image invocation to create a story like those found in a functional oral tradition.

    So, what could I use to incent players to invoke images rhythmically?
  • edited November 2008
    I've toyed with the idea of a game where story elements (player-created like Capes or randomly like IAWA) would enter play, but then get eliminated over a series of acts, like an elimination tournament. The elimination could maybe be Survivor-style "players vote story elements of the island" or based on points each story element receives during player (whatever).

    In my head, I picture a big pyramid index cards with story elements. Cards get removed as the acts/rounds drive the pace of the story. The surviving cards bring the important elements into focus as the inevitable finale approaches.
  • Determine the rhythm and structure of the story for the game. Make it clear how players can hit or miss those elements. Reward the players (via their characters, even) when they hit; don't reward them when they miss.

    Maybe the elements of rhythm and structure are the kind of scene (revelation, confrontation, interstice), or matching some specific story pattern defined in the rules. Maybe the reward for hitting the story "just right" is a bonus to rolls.
  • Posted By: jason In the first act, players got rewards for posing questions (introducing themes), like introducing a love triangle. In the second act, players got rewards for repeating questions posed in the first act (repeating themes), like introducing an old love affair. In the third act, players got rewards for answering questions posed in the first act (resolving themes), like bringing the love triangle to a conclusion. This turned out rather unwieldy. Since the game has no GM, whether you had successfully posed, repeated or answered a question came down to the other players at the table.
    Would just having one person (the person who first posed the question) decide if it had been resolved reduce or eliminate this problem? Player A asks a question in the first act, which is echoed by Player B in the third act. Then Player C tries to answer the question in the third act, Player A decides if the question is answered. This means B and C don't need to worry about that question, and A doesn't need to argue the point.
  • Posted By: Adam DrayDetermine the rhythm and structure of the story for the game. Make it clear how players can hit or miss those elements.
    This sounds plausible. I've noticed that genre games (spies, superheroes, space opera fighter pilots, cops, etc.) click more readily with players if everyone sits down and watches the same source material, then discusses what makes it work. It establishes a common frame of reference, which is always useful...but it also gives an opening for establishing what everyone wants the rhythm and structure of the game to be like, and a good discussion leaves everyone with a nice list of genre-appropriate elements ready for use in the game.
  • Wonderful mini-essay! As a musician, and a designer of story-telling games, I find it both interesting and convincing.

    I have had some success in game designs using the kind of structure you describe: play is focused through questions, which are answered as the story unravels. In my case, the most effective solution so far has been to limit questions to "yes or no" forms, with mechanics (a draw of the cards) then answering the question in the story.

    This has worked really well. The difficult part, actually, has been working those questions into a larger narrative. Can you explain how used your questions within a three-act structure?
  • I don't think things like elimination or a pre-set rhythm the players need to match would really match the kind of rhythm I'd like to create here. I really think of this more like the spontaneous rhythm of a good jam session. Like jazz, which derived through various stages of development from the fusion of contemporary Western music and African tribal sensibilities, including an emphasis on that spontaneous "jamming" rhythm with improvisation, albeit one that still tries to do so in the context of a traditional "vocabulary," if you will.

    Someone whispered me a comment that did get me thinking, though. The game defines characters strictly in terms of their relationships (they also have will, but that fluctuates enormously throughout the game); what if the story itself has relationships? Relationships that all the players at the table, then, share in common? The part those relationships play in the story can ebb and flow as players invest their will into them, and it gives me a hook to develop other rules to drive this further. Shock does something like this, doesn't it? I've never played it, but read here and heard on podcasts some very good things about it.

    Paul, my questions really just stood as easily-digested rules for themes. A question would ask something like my favorite example, "Can two men love the same woman?" So in the first act, a player might set up a scene where he narrates his character's suspicion that his wife has cheated on him. So then the narrative would stop, and he'd ask the question formally. The other players would say whether or not they think his narration really posed the question, and for each one who said yes, the player would get a will token. You can see the problem here: we bring play to a grinding halt, remove ourselves from the game, and take a few minutes playing literary critic, before trying to get back to the game. In the second act, you need to repeat the question, so it works much like the first act, except you can only use the questions already posed. So in the second act, a different player might set a scene where he asks an elder about some incident years ago, and he recalls how a man murdered another man over a case of adultery. Then we go around the table again: does that pose the question again? In the third act, you need to answer the question. Two players can offer opposite conclusions, of course. One player can narrate a scene where his character kills the man who slept with his wife, while another might narrate a scene where his character accepts the affair wholeheartedly. It really comes down to what the other players at the table will accept. My brother called it "a bullshitting game," since you can really get away with anything you can sell to your fellow players, but both he and I agreed that could work really well. The bullshitting doesn't bother me, but the huge interruption to the flow of the story does. Following that music metaphor, it feels like suddenly silencing a good jam session so you can take a moment to review the musical technique, and then trying to jump right back in where you left off.

    But, since the game already revolves so strongly around relationships, I rather like this notion of the story having its own relationships that all the players can relate to.
  • Can you not just have the narrator ask the question formally, and the other players - silently and simultaneously - either do or do not hand him a will token to indicate whether they think his story posed the question?
  • Could, certainly, but I don't think that would solve the problem. You're still interrupting the story rather abruptly in order to ask a question about it, and the other players have to suddenly pull themselves out of the story in order to analyze it.

    This lecture by Brian Strum on storytelling makes the point about the altered state of consciousness we slip into while listening to a story. It reminds me of what we so often fight about, calling "immersion." It seems like such a precious and delicate thing, a good game can't break that.
  • Jason, it seems to me that, although players might not instinctively know when a question has been resolved, they seem to instinctively know when a narrative arc is completed. For example, if I find a man murdered, and investigate, and I think someone's the murderer, but then it turns out someone else is the murderer, and that second person is arrested, I know that narrative arc is over.

    I haven't got a specific solution, but I wonder if there's a way you could use that instinctive "That feels like the end of that part", rather than a deliberative "Has that question been answered?".

    Graham
  • I've been thinking about Roger Caillois's sociology of games. He categorizes games and play as belonging to four types: agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (imitation), and ilinx (vertigo). So "agon" would include a chess match, "alea" a game of go-fish, "mimicry" playing dress-up, and "ilinx" spinning around until you got dizzy -- play as seeking an altered state of consciousness, in other words. When I read this I thought of how both Tweet's resolution modes of karma (e.g, highest stat wins), fortune (e.g., highest die roll wins), and drama (dramatic needs prevail) and GNS (gamism, narrativism, simulationism) could be interestingly complicated by adding a fourth category related to ilinx (given that you accept that both GNS and KFD are analogous to agon-alea-mimicry, which I grant needs to be argued).

    But it seems pretty clear that what you're trying to preserve is related to what Caillois calls ilinx, although he described it as a kind of "voluptuous panic" of the sort associated with thrill-seeking behavior. I'm not sure what ilingic mechanics look like (chanting?) but given the oral story-telling focus on repetition, it seems like you might explicitly build into your scene-framing rules the requirement of repetition of the thematic question in the second act scene-framing and answering the question in the third act scene-framing, without any notion of "success" or "failure": what's an unsuccessful sonnet? Either it's structurally a sonnet or it isn't; similarly, either it's structurally a game of The Fifth World or it isn't.

    The thing I'd take away from Caillois for your design issue is that avoiding agonistic (i.e., competitive) mechanics is exactly right. Caillois spends a little time talking about the patterns of complementation among the types. Agon and alea, like mimicry and ilinx, are opposites whose presence underscores the other (so adding an element of chance to a game of skill intensifies both). Agon and mimicry, like alea and ilinx, complement each other -- but agon and ilinx, like alea and mimicry, are antithetical.

    agon <--> alea
    | |
    mimicry <--> ilinx


    So mimicry and alea are places to look for other ways of reinforcing the pattern of orality you're after. In what setting would ecotopian ferals offer thematically resonant accounts of themselves? And how might an act of randomization (a card draw, a dice roll, choosing lots) be used to signal the asking or answering of a thematic question (e.g., "consulting the oracle")?

    You might look at 1001 Nights for how it lets other players ask narrative-complicating questions that the story-telling player is rewarded for taking up; it's almost the inverse of what you seem to be after (if I read you right) but there are interesting parallels.

    I enjoyed seeing this game (if only in passing) at GASPCon, and I hope I get a chance to play it at Dreamation.

    Bill
  • I haven't got a specific solution, but I wonder if there's a way you could use that instinctive "That feels like the end of that part", rather than a deliberative "Has that question been answered?".
    I agree. I like this notion of the story having its own relationships because it allows that intuitive feel for the story arc to take control again.
    ...without any notion of "success" or "failure": what's an unsuccessful sonnet? Either it's structurally a sonnet or it isn't; similarly, either it's structurally a game of The Fifth World or it isn't.
    Indeed. I only used the answering to keep the BS from getting completely out-of-control. While I've generally accepted the premise that you can never design rules to stop bad faith players from ruining a game, I do think you at least need enough rules to steer them in the right direction. The assent of the other players at least provided enough push-back to make sure that if nothing else, you'd given enough for the rest of the table to buy it.

    I read Callois' categorization before, but never thought of the Fifth World as particularly ilinx. You've really given me a lot of food for thought here, Bill. Thank you!
  • Second the suggestion of looking at 1001 Nights - during the storytelling (IIRC), one of the other characters who isn't the current storyteller will say something like, "I wonder if the sultan will discover his heart's desire?" and put down a die, and the storyteller gets to pick it up if his/her narration answers the question.

    So you could potentially have the question asked in character by the storyteller. This isn't outside of the norm for the storytelling mode; spiritual masters who tell teaching stories do it all the time. ("Now, which acted as a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?")
  • edited December 2008
    This is pretty exciting stuff. I love the thought of patterning roleplaying games after music and oral storytelling traditions.

    Like you imply (I think?) part of your problem may be the reward structure itself. If orality is "operating in a social context that seeks harmony and agreement, whereas literacy operates outside of a social context, and thus invites criticism," then evaluations and rewards for playing right sounds like part of the literary mode. Like you say, the problem is "interrupting the story rather abruptly in order to ask a question about it".

    So, what could you use to incent players to invoke images rhythmically?

    I think hard rules are actually much less invasive than carrot mechanics. "You must invoke an earlier image," or even the much softer "you should invoke earlier images" usually works fine, in my experience. The players after all want to play your game, so if you tell them that this is the way to make it enjoyable, they will listen.

    But that's not enough, you also have to help them to make this part of their playing style.

    Visual aids is one possible answer. The game In the belly of the Whale uses a set of tiles with keywords and iconic illustrations to jumpstart the players' imagination. What exactly a tile represents is decided by the first player who uses it, and then it is placed on the table where everyone can see it, to remind them to reuse that particular story element.
  • Hmm. Ilinx looks like the ever fleeting immersion to me.
  • So you could potentially have the question asked in character by the storyteller. This isn't outside of the norm for the storytelling mode; spiritual masters who tell teaching stories do it all the time. ("Now, which acted as a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?")
    I love that idea! Not just spiritual parables; that fits the mode of oral storytelling almost everywhere. We sometimes think of storytelling as a very passive, one-to-many affair, but among people that really tell a lot of stories, you really get a lot more back-and-forth between tellers and listeners exactly like that.
    But that's not enough, you also have to help them to make this part of their playing style.

    Visual aids is one possible answer. The game In the belly of the Whale uses a set of tiles with keywords and iconic illustrations to jumpstart the players' imagination. What exactly a tile represents is decided by the first player who uses it, and then it is placed on the table where everyone can see it, to remind them to reuse that particular story element.
    I like the idea, and the tiles sound like they head in the right direction, but I don't know how well that would work as-is. I'll have to turn that over in my brain a bit; I don't think it quite works, but I definitely get the feeling that something really great lives there, right under the surface.
    Hmm. Ilinx looks like the ever fleeting immersion to me.
    Hmmm, excellent point; ilinx as altered state of consciousness, stories creating an altered state of consciousness, immersion as an altered state of consciousness, something like Csíkszentmihályi's idea of "flow"—I think these might all point towards the same psychosocial phenomenon.
  • I was talking about Ilinx a while ago over at Cultures of Play and I don't think there's a one to one map with immersion (by whatever definition). You can find immersive elements in other sorts of play as Callois defines it - competition, randomness, even mimicry I suppose.
  • edited December 2008
    Thanks for the link, Jason. Based on that discussion, it looks like an issue in making sense of Caillois for thinking about RPG play is how closely what he's talking about maps onto how we already talk about games. I think ilinx is a useful concept in its own right for how it invites us to look for moments when play produces an experience of dislocation: when other players derail your conception of "what should happen" and something new emerges unlooked-for, for example, or when the card with an eerily appropriate meaning in the current context comes out of the Ganakagok deck. Sometimes it's pleasant and sometimes it isn't; or, maybe better, some people like it and some people don't.

    I said that there's something "ilingic" about what Jason (Godesky) is trying to do in The Fifth World and he was too polite to entirely disagree, but I stand by that so long as you're willing to broaden the notion of ilinx to encompass this idea of "dislocation." It only matters to the extent that it points to useful design choices; in that regard, it may be that the right analysis is the one that focuses on the distinction between orality and literacy, leading to ideas about how to embed orality in the procedures of play.

    In any event, my new goal for Dreamation is to go all tribal and play Ganakagok, The Fifth World, and How We Came to Live Here in order to compare how they do what they do.
  • If I need to find you I'll look for the guy in the bearskin carrying a fire-hardened spear. It's wonderful that there are three games all approaching this sort of content right now. Finding a procedural space for storytelling is pretty gnarly territory.
  • I found myself thinking about your suggestion about ilinx just earlier today, and thought that it might plug in well with the setting itself. Certainly, part of it lies in the allure of seeing the familiar in ruins, which seems related to ilinx to me.

    I might agree with you, Jason, that ilinx doesn't quite line up with "immersion" (whatever any given person means by that much-debated word), but I do find the number of times an altered state of consciousness has arisen here intriguing at the very least.

    Bill, great to hear that I'll see you at Dreamation!

    Jason, unfortunately, I have not yet slain any bears, nor taken their skins, so I'll have to go in street clothes. Though I hope to bring a friend of mine to GenCon who just might appear in bearskin, complete with glass-tipped spear (much better than fire-hardened for the post-apocalyptic feral hunter).
  • edited December 2008
    Hmm... Maybe try this on for size. On the down side, it involves writing. On the upside, it involves relatively little writing.
    1. In the center of the table, there is a deck of index cards. At the start of game, this deck is empty*.
    2. The first person to go tells a story. Until her story is complete, she is the storyteller and the other players are the audience. Audience members may ask clarifying questions aloud—“I wonder if the huntress will find her love?”**
    3. When she finishes her story, the other players secretly write the question*** posed by her story on individual index cards. Place these on the deck face down, and shuffle it.
    4. The next person to go draws a card**** from the deck. The story they tell must ask the question written on the card.
    5. When she finishes her story, the other players secretly write the answer given by the story they just heard on individual index cards. Place these on the deck face down, and shuffle it.
    6. The last person to go draws a card from the deck. If the card presents an answer, she must tell a story that argues against that answer. If the card presents a question, she must answer that question in her story however she wishes.
    Obviously, a lot of that can be adjusted for taste. More rounds, less rounds, open-ended, and so forth.

    * — Variation: the deck may be pre-loaded with a variety of questions and answers.
    ** — There may be some mechanic for this, or not.
    ** — Variations: players may be able to choose to write either the question, or the name of a character, or another story referenced but not told, or various other threads you may want the game to support. If a later storyteller draws a card with a character, she tells another story of that character; if she draws an event, she speaks of that event, etc.
    **** — Variation for long-term play: The storyteller draws some number of cards rather than just one, and picks the one she wants to speak of. She then puts the unselected cards on the bottom of the deck. When using this variation, consider shuffling only the top half of the deck, and discarding or archiving the bottom quarter at the end of each session, or perhaps some longer interval.
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