RPG’s are Not Storytelling

[pt. 11]

When you play an RPG, you aren’t telling a story.

What are you doing? Eating pizza, rolling dice, talking to each other, and pretending to do other things. (Fight orcs, whatever.)

Roleplaying is all about pretending to do things.

It’s not about telling stories. It’s not about making stories.

After it’s over, you can tell a story about what you did at the table: “Then he spilled a Coke on the DM’s notes!”

After it’s over, you can tell a story about what you pretended to do: “Then we charged the bastards, yelling and screaming and waving our swords!”

But during the session, you aren’t telling a story. You’re playing the game.

# # #

Now, let’s talk about why. For me, it’s simple and clear: storytelling isn’t roleplaying. The two are separate mediums, they are not the same thing.

This is a functional description, based on what you actually do in each medium.

Telling a story is relating a series of events. Event A leads to Event B leads to Event C.

When relating a series of true events, this is done after the fact. “Telling a story” is an exercise in retrospective sensemaking. We make sense of our lives in retrospect, after the events occurred.

In the moment, we just live the events.

The same goes for the pretend lives that occur at the roleplaying table. In the moment, we just experience the events. Later we can tell stories about what occurred, but while it’s happening, we aren’t making a story.

Storygames are hybrids of cooperative story-telling/-making (an activity called simming) and RPG’s. A large part of the GNS/Forge movement was an attempt to blur the lines between simming and roleplaying.

They’re not the same. Their fundamental characteristics are very different.

Simming is an act of “authoring” the world, in concert with others. Roleplaying is taking on a role.

Simming is fine, in the abstract. Not my cup of tea, but not inherently wrong.

What was wrong, and foolish, was the blinkered demand that these two things were utterly identical, completely the same, and that anyone who thought differently was brain damaged. (A direct quote.)

From the point of view of media studies, this is patent nonsense. It cannot be true, and a basic, practical description of both mediums reveals why.

You don’t roleplay in a storygame. And you don’t “tell stories” by playing an RPG. It’s that simple.

9 thoughts on “RPG’s are Not Storytelling”

  1. No offense (this is your blog, so I can’t really tell you that your opinion is wrong), but there is more than one way to approach and envision gaming. I definitely see it as telling a story. It may be the fact that I am an avid fiction writer that encourages me to take that approach. As a game master, I try to achieve a level of immersion in which memories of the game are of the characters and adventure, not the pizza and dice. I want the players to get into their characters’ heads. That’s role-playing. As the game master, I try to put the whole of the experience into a satisfying story.

    It’s a different way of looking at it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid, or that I don’t really game.

  2. Let’s start with the most basic problem: what do you mean by “telling a story”?

    1.) A sequence of events, related to another person after the fact.
    2.) A piece of fiction, written according to dramatic structures.

    People defending the GNS (or claiming that simming and roleplaying are the same thing) switch back and forth between those definitions at will, never really settling on one.

    The problem is, roleplaying isn’t either of those things and neither is simming.

    First, roleplaying is definitely not about producing good fiction. It lacks everything fiction requires.

    Fiction deals with ongoing events, developed through the actions of characters. It is dynamic.

    Writing a novel (for example) means dealing with point of view, vivid description, three-act plot structure, character motivations, action blocking, the sudden-yet-inevitable betrayals, evocative character descriptions, scene pacing, novel pacing, chapter shaping, and all the rest. None of this is part of RPG gameplay.

    After all, when’s the last time you say a group of players say “Well, we hit the halfway mark in the adventure. Time for the big disaster, so we can reach the lowest point!”

    That’s not how RPG sessions run. They’re not exercises in producing fiction. They’re akin to… playing pretend.

    Things happen when you play. Events occur. In the game, you meet a strange wandering minstrel, who tells you about a tower. You decide to investigate. On the way, you stumble across a wagon.

    Events occur. You decide what to do. As a consequence of your decisions, other events occur.

    What does this most resemble? Real life. It’s a pretend life in a fictional world.

    When we live our real lives, are we “making fiction”? When we get up, shower, get dressed, go to work… are we “telling a story”? No.

    Can we? Sure, after the fact. “Dude, you won’t believe what happened to me on the way to work.”

    But in the moment? No.

    When we live our pretend lives, are we “making fiction”? When we buy armor, repair our bow, assemble our gear (including oil and alchemist’s fire), and head out to a dungeon… are we “telling a story”? No.

    Stories are created after the fact, by remembering what happened and arranging the events into a coherent narrative. We retrospectively make sense of the events by crafting a narrative. Retrospective sensemaking.

    When you are immersed in a character, and make a decision based on that immersion, you are roleplaying. No more. No less.

    You are not “telling a story”, you’re living a pretend life. You are not “crafting fiction”, you are living a pretend life.

    It’s that simple.

  3. I’ll bare my biases by giving one of my central points of view. That is that art is universally ephemeral in nature. Not just specifically ephemeral art such as performance art, but all art. Painting is only a piece of canvas except when someone is looking at and appreciating it (or criticizing it). A novel is only a bunch of paper except when someone is reading it. You create art not to create a piece of matter, but to shape the experience of everyone who contacts it. The experience is unique not only to the viewer, but also to each instance of contact. A second reading of a novel or viewing of a film is different than the first.

    That’s part of my point of view here.

    So, when I write or run a game (and often when I play a game), I view it as crafting the experience, not just setting a scene and seeing how the players react. I make efforts to create a flow of action that builds to a climax. I keep in mind symbolism and foreshadowing. I give opportunities to shape, build, change and define the characters. In short, I bring my use my fiction-writing skills to inform and shape my work. Perhaps not all gaming is storytelling, but mine strives to be.

  4. nice post! couldn’t agree more. listening to a gm or player “telling a story” is dull at best. I got a bookshelf full of authors who are pros at storytelling.

  5. All art is experiential, but the point I’m making is more fundamental. It deals with what a medium is.

    Radio and television share commonalities, but are not the same.

    Television and cinema share commonalities, but are not the same.

    Storytelling and roleplaying share commonalities, but are not the same.

    It’s that simple. They are different mediums, each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Eh… I continue to look at role-playing games as a form of interactive storytelling, as well as a form of game and a form of extemporaneous theater. It’s a definition and an approach that works for me. But hey, I’m probably brain-damaged.

    Bottom line is, I see what you’re saying, and it’s your blog.

  7. Glen:

    Eh… I continue to look at role-playing games as a form of interactive storytelling, as well as a form of game and a form of extemporaneous theater.

    See, now we’re down to agreeing on specifics. As you say, roleplaying:

    • Has the extemporaneous “in-character” aspect (improv acting).
    • Has describing actions, NPC’s, and scenery (storytelling).
    • Has mechanics and randomizers (gaming).

    It’s like all these other things, but not exactly. Improv acting doesn’t have mechanics, and neither does storytelling. So RPG’s can’t be improv acting or storytelling. And Scrabble or Jenga lack GM description of NPC actions and in-character play from players. So RPG’s aren’t board games or family games.

    Since roleplaying isn’t exactly like any of these, it isn’t any of these. It’s just roleplaying, it’s own unique and funky medium.

    (And no, you’re not brain damaged. I’m talking from the POV of Media Studies — hence the “My Background” section — and other people don’t use the same technical definitions. That’s okay. Feel free to disagree. It’s cool with me. :))

  8. Okay, I’m on board. Any difference between our viewpoints is just that: viewpoints. We agree on particulars. I’m looking forward to seeing where you’re going with this.

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