Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A Tale of Two Stories

This one is for Aaron the Pedantic. It has been bouncing around in my head since watching this livestream awhile back:

Dungeons & Dragons aspires to be a Virtual Reality experience. Rather than use keyboards and monitors and goggles, it does so using narration and the human imagination, which are more convenient hardware and software to work with. I do not believe that our technology is yet even remotely close enough to provide the same level of VR immersion that D&D can to a vivid daydreamer.

Because of the way our brains engage with narrative, we treat the DM's narration as "truth," at least temporarily; so long as it maintains a certain level of verisimilitude. And, that suspension of disbelief serves to help us let the VR experience unfold. in D&D, Narrative doesn't exist to tell a story per se, it exists to help you see what happens; it delivers the experience. The dice and crunchy mechanics dictate the shape of the Narrative to some degree, both to ensure that the Narrative remains interesting and does not hit dead ends. And they serve to make sure that the narrator, the Dungeon Master, remains an impartial observer and interpreter of the rules, rather than a biased one.

There is a lot of muddled discussion over whether Dungeons & Dragons "tells a story" at all. That confusion comes from the fact that the word "story" has two different connotatively similar denotative meanings. On the one hand anytime we narrate events, we can be said to be telling a "story." On the other we have a structured art of creating a satisfying narrative with a beginning middle and end, deeper moral meaning, symbolism, and a message which we call a "story".

Telling someone about the funny thing that happened while you were waiting in line at Starbucks is not the same as performing Macbeth. They are both called "stories" even though they are radically different things. This is a major source of the confusion.

Is, essentially, a problem with the English language that is difficult to address. As far as Dungeons & Dragons is concerned, the type of story it is telling is more along the lines of an anecdote about your strange experience at Starbucks than it will ever be The Scottish Play. By it's very improvisational nature, D&D precludes telling a story with the depth of Shakespeare, or for that matter, even a story with a clearly defined beginning middle and end. Although some literary techniques can be worked in to enhance the experience.

Story Games and Journaling Games that have evolved out of the tabletop role playing hobby in an attempt to make an edifying narrated game that is radically different from Dungeons & Dragons. They are not as interested in creating a virtual reality experience, nor merely telling the tale of what happened to you in the line at Starbucks. They want to create a game that is capable of producing Macbeth... or at least a transformative meditation.

This entails a radically different sort of structure to the game, even while it appears on the surface to be something similar. A lot of the reason why Story Games even call themselves "role-playing games," is because the people who would do best at these games are the same people who know how to play Dungeons & Dragons. It uses vestiges of older-form  TTRPGs, such as dice and character sheets, although they are moving away from them, and use them to different ends. Creating a game that produces an Artful literary story involves creating rules that are radically different than D&D, such as rules that allow for shifting narrative praxis: the ability for players to temporarily control the game world rather than just their characters actions via the bounded player agency of traditional TTRPG.

A lot of the material in Story Games is stunningly innovative, and can be ported to more traditional TTRPGs without compromising the VR experience. And likewise there are insights and tools that have been around since the 80s that the Story Games often miss out on because they are exclusively focused on innovation.

As someone who came into the Old School Renaissance community relatively late in the game, I find it frustrating to see how it odds these communities are with one another. Mostly because it really is a matter of a lack of clear communication, and an understanding that they are aiming to create two radically different sorts of experiences.

Not understanding that there are two definitions of "story" means that the two groups are working and talking at cross-purposes. And it helps create conditions where they have low trust in each other, because they are not communicating effectively. It is a feature of Internet communications as well that people tend to assume that if they are not communicating clearly it is because they are dealing with someone who is either ignorant or malicious.

Although that is only the first part of the schism.

Another part of it is that the Old School Renaissance has to define itself in part by what they are not. They're trying to explain why they stick to clones of old editions of role-playing game, or new games that try to create that VR experience. They're not interested in creating The Scottish Play. This can make them come off as hidebound and dismissive of Story Gamers.

Many early Story Game or groups were famously aggressive about denouncing traditional role-playing games and those that play them as unsophisticated or counterrevolutionary. To this day I can't go a month without seeing a crowd of people talking about how they don't like, will not play, and have contempt for players of Dungeons & Dragons, but want to be considered part of the TTRPG scene. There seems to be a desire to position themselves as the new wave that must replace a flawed older one.

That's not to say that there aren't bad actors in either group. There are plenty of people on either side who seem to be very interested in using the schism in the hobby as a justification for abusive behavior. I was involved in TTRPG Twitter for all of a week before I ran afoul of a particularly nasty character who is popular in the Story Game crowd.

The real sin of it all is that both groups have a lot that they could learn from each other and innovations they could recombine if they were willing to communicate; but that would involve first establishing what they mean by a "story," and understanding that there are two different things and that the two groups each want a different thing that just so happens name.

Like all good debates, sometimes you have to start with a definition of terms.


  1. You said it much better than I can. Damn fine work.

    1. Many thanks. Seeing you and Dolli talking at cross-purposes was really compelling at the time. When I was a life coach, getting couples to talk to each other meaningfully was my specialty. Your dynamic together just put my brain into am old analytical pattern that let me spot the discrepancy. And think of a new way to express it that would make negotiation easier.

      Transferable skills FTW!

  2. Nice work. Thanks for linking back to my blog. I appreciate it.

    It seems like an evidently good idea to steal the best ideas from anyone and everyone to use in ones own games. Why wouldn't you do that? Is a puzzlement.

    1. I know I would, but I see a lot of people who throw the baby out with the bathwater: "I don't like X-style games (or people involved in X), and so I will not even bother looking into what they offer."