Structuring the Narrative


1. What’s the Story, Morning Glory?

Many roleplayers feel an opposition between being ‘in the flow’ of the game and having conscious input into its narrative.

Evilgaz (1) on UK Roleplayers says:-

I’ve drawn analogies before about not wanting to see the guy behind the Wizard of Oz pulling the levers. I can see the curtain there and am vaguely aware some dude (GM) is manipulating things – but I want to be as removed from that as possible – I like the illusion of this imaginary interactive world.

Its why I’m not as keen on story type games where we all make the games up as we go and its really front and centre and obvious. To me, it’s more like watching a documentary about making a movie, rather than playing out the movie.

The Wizard of Oz is much used as analogy, not least because he’s a) a brilliant story device, and b) a versatile metaphor. Freudians use him as a model for the Superego – the tiny inner voice telling you what to do in order to disguise his [ie your] insecurity.

We want to know someone is taking care of the game – be it the designer, one or more of the people we’re playing with or some sublimated daddy-figure behind the curtain. Catching a glimpse of Kansas while we’re over the rainbow can impinge on our fun.

Many of the posters on Story Games, meanwhile, regard putting the destiny of the game entirely into the hands of a GM or other authority figure as curtailing creative freedom. A five page pile-up on the nature of ‘railroading’ (2) results in:-

FUDGING (aka “Manual Override”)
RAILING (aka “Safety Rails”)
PUSHING (aka “Story Control”)
ROADING (aka “Linear Network”)

Constraints on Descriptive Freedom = railing
Constraints on PC Moves or Decisions = railing
Constraints on Narrative Freedom = railing
Disregard of Dice Rolls = fudging
Disregard of Narrative Choices = pushing
Disregard of PC Moves or Decisions = pushing
Forced/Inevitable Scenes = roading
Adherence to Prewritten Plot = roading

Forms of these arguments have been rehearsed before – often as a result of discussions on The Forge or as part of the unfolding narrative of the One True Edwards. I’m glad I wasn’t there for those discussions. Definitions have lost meaning due to over-use; it becomes difficult to frame an argument using agreed-upon terms.

AsIf sees some of the confusion over ‘what railroading is’ as being connected to the ‘blur’ between story and narrative:-

From the writerly camp we have several definitions for the word “narrative”, leaving aside those which use these words interchangeably:

1. A Narrative (common noun) is an arcless, themeless retelling or reporting of events
2. Narrative (abstract noun) is direction or theme which guides or gives purpose to retold events
3. The Narrative (common noun) is the form taken by the events of a character’s changing (this third I feel is rather close to saying “narrative is story” but has been included for the sake of completeness)

From the sociological camp we have the definition in which a Narrative (common noun) is an open-ended network of stories or statements that a group of people tell themselves about themselves, about their history, about their values, or about their place in the grand scheme.

I think it’s possible to see a commonality among these things, that being:

A Narrative is an abstraction of change relative to a person or group
which is very similar to saying:
A Narrative is an abstraction of a set of stories and statements (“unfinished stories”)

I think the unspoken element here is the conscious and pre-conscious switching between each of these narrative categories on the part of both players and GM. I say we can both domesticate of the impossibility of the game we’re playing and notice we’re doing it: just don’t film it in black and white:-

If I were to play a game based, say, on filmic techniques, I’d want to play the irradiated Japanese girl coming out of the TV. Changing the POV so that, all of a sudden, YOU are the one pushing the policeman down the stairs in ‘Psycho’ seems to me to be more truthful … the ‘real’ story is a change in the point of view. It’s always been there but out of sight – that’s how it connects with narrative and its structure. Everything wavers for a moment and then continues.

An examination of AsIf’s narrative structures gives way to a fruitful comparison between character and narrative. Aviatrix agrees with Nabokov: character transforms a functional narrative. But Wyrmwood says:-

I’d be careful about deep character change being essential to story, that seems like a reaction in relatively modern times to the rise of serial fiction and its iconic characters. It seems like a way to state that, say, Sherlock Holmes isn’t a real story.

There then follow several examples of Holmes’s being a special case: it’s the people around him that change. This is where I start to disagree with everyone. What’s more, I find I’m able to disagree using precisely the definitions of narrative AsIf proposes:-

1. A Narrative (common noun) is the reporting of events by Conan Doyle disguised as one of Holmes’s clients.
2. Narrative (abstract noun) is the direction or theme which guides or gives purpose to Holmes’s retelling of those events.
3. The Narrative (common noun) is the form taken by Conan Doyle’s story as a result of a Holmes changing (he has manic episodes, shoots up cocaine or starts playing the violin as a harbinger of narrative truth).

Holmes transforms constantly during the stories: he transfigures the narrative in doing so, just like a superhero. His ‘arcs’ fit the broadly Jungian narrative structure used in the Epic of Gilgamesh or Star Wars: torture leads to sickness leads to death leads to rebirth. Holmes is a shaman. We see him pulling the levers and we’re convinced.


2. Shape of Truth

Writer M John Harrison talks about the need to pretend you’re not telling a story (4) in terms of ‘fauxthentication’:-

However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

Harrison compares the plot of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (5) with a browser-based fluid simulation (6):-

It’s like life. It’s a world, you make no sense of it, then you die. Any sense has been made prior to conscious perception by all the non-conscious systems that run you, in conjunction with an environment. A broth of algorithms gets stirred up. You try to see that as a meaningful structure. Sometimes it can seem satisfying–even sublime–but most of it is just dull and unfulfilling.

I’ve lifted Harrison’s ideas wholesale because he’s articulating a question I’ve been trying to ask for a while: what shape does truth take in a narrative?

Good games code this question into their systems by a) promising structure and b) changing characters’ point of view about this (almost) structure – the Protocol system by Jim Pinto (7) springs to mind. And you don’t have to be ‘in-character’ to be enthralled by this process, as Epistolary Richard (8) points out as part of the original discussion on UK Roleplayers:-

I’ve found myself becoming less interested in my own character’s plot and more in supporting others, and I find that GMless games provide me more tools to help with this than GMed (which often feel quite restrictive to me).

I don’t bleed nearly as much in GMless games as GMed games generally, but then my joy of play comes primarily from the creation of the story rather than experiencing as the character.

Running an honest game for players who prefer full immersion is still possible: it just means I need to code what I’m doing differently, much as Conan Doyle codes Holmes’s techniques as ‘rational’ when they’re anything but. Conan Doyle is inserting himself into the story via a well-established narrative structure. Does Dorothy lose something by meeting the Wizard of Oz? Yes, but her fellow characters gain a brain, a heart and some courage.

  1. Gaz Bowerbank, Telling Stories to Inform Gaming, UK Roleplayers:-
  2. Tod Foley, Railroading Theory – A Functional Analysis, Story Games:-
  3. Tod Foley, The Difference between Narrative and Story, Story Games:-
  4. M John Harrison, M John Harrison Blog:-
  5. The sequence of ‘Light’ (2002), ‘Nova Swing’ (2006) and ‘Empty Space’ (2012) is, for me, something akin to a masterpiece on the admixture of consumerism and unconscious states of the real:-
  6. M John Harrison, M John Harrison Blog:-
  7. Jim Pinto, Protocol Game Series:-
  8. Richard Williams, Telling Stories to Inform Gaming, UK Roleplayers:-


2 thoughts on “Structuring the Narrative

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