Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why Games Make Crappy Stories

So I was reading a "Story Hour" (the accepted term for stories that are in some way or other the output or creation of a game), and it wasn't great.

I mean, the game was probably lots of fun, and the writer was reasonably talented, so it was acceptable as far as all that goes. But it was rock-solid dull. No amount of wit or adventure could save it from its own inherent dullness.

I struggled with why that might be, and realised that in the story, our hero had no interesting relationships with other characters. The story was really just a recounting of one person's accomplishments or failures, whatever those may be, but with no sense of who mattered to this person. There was no sense that and of this person's relationships had the potential to transform the character.

And great stories are exactly about that: about transformative relationships.

So then, why so many crappy stories?

Relationships are really really really hard to model in a game -- especially a game where the modelling focuses much more on either physics or narrative structure (narrative being the darling of the current crop of game invention). But relationships are first of all, much more complicated than either phsyics or narrative. People are complicated, and nowhere more so than in how they relate to other people. Our feelings for others are so often a tangled ball of emotions and experiences and expectations that even the simplest, most mundane relationships can explode unexpectedly.

Second, and perhaps more important, playing relationships at the game table can be pretty awkward. Especially if you want to get to the kinds of emotions that drive fantastic stories. Imagining trying to play out Hamlet vs Gertrude with your buddy. How could you possibly play all the conflicting and horrifying emotions that are rocking those two people in that scene? Just even describing such things is going to be hard and weird.

And yet, stories that don't push the characters' relationship to the edge are stories that don't much grasp hold of the reader.

At the same time, most games reward individual success more than group success -- whether through the acquisition of experience points or wealth, and the then game-significant impact of those rewards. In most games, the best policy is to play a heartless psychopath who unthinkingly betrays his colleagues. You're more likely to end up with a powerful character if you take that approach, at least, so having your character possess strong connections to other characters is disincentivized.

So, there's no hope? Games can only produce crappy stories?

Not entirely. I've been in some games that have included potent relationships -- mostly between characters who are friends, and then an opportunity for one to let the other down emerges, and tension ensues.

This is one of reasons I like character generation systems that encourage connection between characters prior to the game beginning. A group of characters who are all old friends, or at least part of a larger group of friends or relations, makes for more immediate drama right off the bat.

Take for example Joshua's latest Freeport game: the characters include Ricardo the suave womanizer and his long-time partner in crime, Lash the greedy hobgoblin. These two have stuck together through thick and thin, and just having that decision made ahead of the game helps to defuse the Heartless Psychopath type of characterization. Another pair of characters in the game likewise started out with a past, and unsurprisingly, the party is partly split into these two groups. So it's an interesting dynamic from the get-go, and there's opportunities for further interesting things to happen.

This was my favourite thing about Spirit of the Century -- the idea of having the characters all assembled via a series of pulp novel blurbs is sheer genius. So of course I stole it for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

Are there other mechanics that can successfully model the sorts of intense relationships that characterize great stories?


  1. Anonymous6:10 PM

    The Fate 3 System (Spirit of the Century) is definitely one of the better ones. That's the reason I've (as stealthily as I can) been replacing the Mutants and Masterminds complications/hero points system with SotC's aspects/fate points.

  2. See, aspects never worked for me. I tried fitting them into True20 and found that it just wasn't a good match for the d20 mechanic, and when I played SotC itself, I found I didn't actually enjoy playing the aspects system.

    I dunno. Maybe I'm just weird.

  3. I think a Story Hour is always primarily of value to the people who were present when the events unfolded. Especially if it's told through the eyes of one of the characters - its effectiveness is not usually in the recounting of events that occured, but a/ as a mnemonic device (a 'Remember the time when' for the players, where it's not so much what's written as everything that happened at the table), and b/ for the contrast between 'What happened' and how the narrator portrays it.

    A noninvolved reader doesn't get any of that. If they read that "Bob bought an apple", all they learn is that Bob bought an apple. It isn't a trigger for remembering the half-hour of apple-related puns that had the table in stitches, because he has no knowledge of that. For the people at the game, "Bob bought an apple" brings to mind all the jokes about cores and Granny Smith and pies and Johnny Appleseed that accompanied it.

    Nor does the reader attach anything significance to the fact that the Narrator Character chose to recall Bob's apple purchase as the most significant thing that happened at that time. The players at the table know that the Narrator Character is pointedly failing to mention the success of Cathy's devious scheme to trick the apple-seller into putting his apple up for sale in the first place. When reading the account, the players can deduce that either the Narrator doesn't pay attention to Cathy, or is insecure about Cathy's successes, or has some other reason for excluding her from his narrative.

    The narrative by itself doesn't tell the uninvolved reader about the relationships, but the contrast between 'reality' and the narrative can tell the in-the-know reader quite a bit about the narrator's relationships, and the narrator's perceptions of relationships.

    I think even in a story hour which is interesting to the uninvolved reader, it will never be as interesting as it is to those who were there; I'd be startled to find it otherwise.


  4. You've now got me wondering if it's possible to take Hamlet and turn it into a Dread scenario. Interesting...

    Hyp has the right of it: story hours and game accounts are generally unsatisfying to those of us who are story fiends, even those that are well written -- Hyp's accounts, however, on CM of the S7S game are the rare exception because he's captured both the feel of the game AND the pulse of the underlying story, and it literally reads like a story, as opposed to a clunky wooden frame with a story blanket thrown over it.

    But I digress.

    In re: SotC, we've talked about this before -- I think that the experience you had likely wasn't the best showcase of the system, and for someone like you who is intricately and intimately involved with characters, the Aspect system should fit you like a superhero suit. You should be able to retain both your character immersion AND the tiny little voice at the back of your head that says "OK, what Aspect can I tag or bring to bear to make this work for my character."

  5. Hyp: if a "narrative by itself doesn't tell the uninvolved reader about the relationships", then I suggest that it is a failed narrative, at least from the point of view of telling an engaging story (yes, engaging to those without context).

    I'm not saying that people write crappy Story Hours -- I'm saying that there's a fundamental reason why games rarely produce a great story, regardless of how it's told.

    While I agree, lots of Story Hours are written in such a fashion that the uninformed reader doesn't see much of what happened in the game, that's beside the point. I'm saying even if the best writer on the planet told the story, it would STILL suck, because the basic story itself is uninteresting. Games typically produce stories that are not about transformative relationships, and those are exactly the kinds of stories that are most exciting.

    What actually makes Star Wars exciting isn't the lightsabers and TIE fighters -- it's the story of how Luke is transformed through the relationships he acquires and loses. This almost never happens in a game.

    While games can produce fantastic set-pieces and hilarious character bits, they almost never produce truly great stories.

    Tom: it was exactly that little voice getting me to constantly look over my Aspects for something I could use that destroyed the fun for me. I felt like I couldn't do ANYTHING without referring to my character sheet, lest I miss some opportunity to use an Aspect. I guess I SHOULD be able to balance it, but I couldn't.

  6. Hmmm. I'd also contend that it's the GM's responsibility to make the game come alive enough for you that it should be obvious how your character can fit into it thematically. The very disconnect you're describing is exactly the same thing I feel whenever I'm playing in a medium-to-heavy crunchy game (pretty much d20 and its derivatives), as I'm so busy trying to figure out what Talent/Feat/bonus I can apply to just *do* something, that I often find myself in "analysis paralysis" and miss the opportunity to be innovative and creative ... which FATE handles beautifully.

    But that's a bit off-topic. I've generally not been a fan of story hours because more often than not they're just not written very well. I agree with you that if the game punches up the relationships of the characters, then an account of that game in story form is going to have a much better chance of being non-crappy, but for my part, as a jaded reader with a cynical editor's eye, I'm more likely to be a harsh judge. I'd contend that, as a GM, if you're going to take the time to try and make a story come alive from your game for folks who weren't there playing it, you have a greater responsibility to make sure that the story you're telling is NOT crappy, as by your very act of transcribing a game session in story form, you're declaring that "this is story-worthy!" ... if it's not, you're likely going to lose audience share and goodwill. If the session wasn't that great, then it's probably best to summarize it as a montage in voice, if the "voice" is important in the chronicling of the sessions, perhaps more of an actual play account than a "Know then, O Prince, before the oceans swallowed Atlantis..." style account.

  7. Someone explain Spirit of the Century to me?

  8. Hyp: if a "narrative by itself doesn't tell the uninvolved reader about the relationships", then I suggest that it is a failed narrative.

    Yeah, I can see that.

    While games can produce fantastic set-pieces and hilarious character bits, they almost never produce truly great stories.

    Hmm. It's interesting... my initial reaction was to say that if I sit down at a table to play a Star Wars game, I want lightsabers and TIE fighters, damn it, and if the game focused on transformative relationships, I'd feel swindled.

    On the other hand, one of the most glorious games I played at GC'08 - out of a tough field - was Piratecat's Golden Age Supers. And the two moments from that game that particularly glow in my memory both involve significant swings in the nature of my PC's relationship to another character (one an NPC, the other a PC).

    Now, there was no shortage of lightsabers and TIE fighters (metaphorically speaking) in that game, but I know from both experience and discussion of Piratecat's GMing philosophy that he considers the character relationships to be a fundamental foundation of his games.

    So that said... I can't discount the boost that those interesting relationships add to a game. I'd still say that for the games I enjoy most, the lightsabers and TIE fighters are crucial, while the evolution of the relationships are an optional extra... which I guess brings me into line with your contention that games don't produce the stories you're looking for by default, because what is necessary for a great game is not what is necessary for a great story.


  9. Hyp, weird world of synchronicity: I was just thinking myself about PC's Golden Age Supers game when I read Core's post this morning. Kevin goes out of his way to tie characters in with one another at his games, which is no mean feat to do successfully at a con game. Was your game the one with Valiant having to deal with a dead spouse issue?

    Claudio, Spirit of the Century is a pulp game, set in the 1920's, using the FATE 3.0 system, which is also what the Dresden Files RPG will use when it comes out in June 2010. FATE 3.0 is based on Fudge, but with all kinds of cool build-ins and add-ons, with an emphasis on character aspects: thematic elements that are specific to your character that you can draw on (or have used against you!) in a game. I'm not doing it justice by describing it thusly, though... try this instead:

  10. Claudio:

    That's the SRD -- you can get a sense of the game. Basically, it's a game of pulp adventure where characters are not defined so much by numbers and ratings as by descriptive phrases like "Strong as an Ox" or "Trouble Magnet" or whatever. The idea is that you find ways to make the various phrases attached to your character relevant to whatever situation you find yourself in, and awesomeness ensues.

    Hyp: I'm not for a second suggesting that games are more FUN if they're about relationships -- actually, I'd suggest the opposite. Which is why I think games so rarely produce great stories.

  11. Anonymous1:10 PM


    Spirit of the Century is a fairly basic pulp themed RPG. At its most basic, it is a Skill and Feat (to put it in D20 terms) system. Attributes are all assumed to be 'Average' (+0). Rolls are 4dF (Fudge Dice: +1, +0, -1) + Skill, resulting in a really flat probability curve.

    Where Spirit of the century gets fancy is in its Fate/Action Point/Karma system. Characters have 'Aspects' which are short descriptions of the character. They can run the gammit from 'Dark Past' to 'Former Cultist' to 'Ex-Black Hand of Set'. Generally the more detailed and the more it adds to the story the better. There is a process for creating these that can also be used to tie your character to other characters. "Exiled from the Mobai Tribe' for instance could describe the time you saved one of the other PCs from getting sacrificed to the Tribe's god.

    Players can then interface their Fate Points through their Aspects. Spending a fate point without triggering an aspect gets you +1 to the roll. Using it through an aspect gets you +2 or a re-roll... and you can get more than a single +2 depending on aspects that apply. The negative side of aspects is how you recover Fate points.

    This is ultimately a narrative device where you declare the state of reality. D20 gives you a constant -4 to hit for Darkness, in SotC you would tag the darkness aspect of the room. There are some actions that get you a free tag such as using a skill to discover someone's weakness or whatever.

    This even follows through to the damage system. Characters take stress (mental, physical, social) when they loose battles but they can trade that off in exchange for aspects. Things like Gimpy or Loser.

    I've only played the game once but I had a great time when I did. Greatly looking forward to what they do with the system for the Dresden Files game.

  12. Tom C: Was your game the one with Valiant having to deal with a dead spouse issue?

    No, this was a later one - The Reformation of Professor Peril. I was playing Golden Dynamo.

    The two relationship-altering arcs in the session for me were a/ Dynamo and Jetette finally crossing the invisible line they'd been treading - the kiss was the very last shot before the credits rolled, I think (Quartermoon rocked to play opposite :) ), and b/ Dynamo's regard for Professor Peril. Interestingly, I had less respect and concern for him when he was on our side than I did after he reverted...

    barsoomcore: I'm not for a second suggesting...

    No, I get that - I pretty much talked my way around to agreeing with you by the end of my post, I think :)


  13. I think I may have been lucky as a gamer in that intuitively, most of the people I've gamed with understand that the only good stories are stories about people. Not only does the interpersonal relationship around the characters work well to make games that are better stories after the fact, but so does creating characters that have something in their history or background that you specifically want to address; a personal issue to be resolved, during the course of the campaign.

    Without that, as you say, the best games are merely the recitation of plot, and the best plot in the world is only "OK" at best if it involves uninteresting characters.

  14. Well, and I think using the SotC "linked histories" trick sure helped -- at least in the Ricardo/Lash games.

    But are there other mechanics people can think of that likewise promote character relationships?

  15. Well, again, if you want a mechanical representation of a character relationship, you might consider come back to aspects (or flaws, motivations, hindrances, whatever you want to call it): not sure what it would be in True20, but in SotC, I could have an aspect that is "In Love With Sally," (with Sally being a PC) that I can tag or the GM could compel; in HEX/Ubiquity, that could be a Motivation, and in Savage Worlds, it could be a Hindrance, and so on. Essentially, when a player plays to it, or the GM *compels* it or reminds the player of it (always interesting to see it), then the player gets a Fate/Style/Conviction/Bennie point.

  16. There's other stuff like that; background traits and flaws and whatnot that imply relationships with non-player characters, families, contacts, children, etc.

    Those can be interesting tools, like the SotC background blurb creator, but I still believe that at the end of the day, it's not sufficient. If you want personal transformation to occur in game, the most important way to make it happen is to have players who are interested in roleplaying out that scenario.

    *shrug* I oughtta look around and see if I can find a good list of background traits and/or flaws and whatnot that would specifically cater to this particular goal, though. I'm pretty sure some of my old White Wolf and GURPS material has a lot of stuff in it that'd qualify.

  17. Traits/aspects are pretty common and sure, they can be used in this fashion, but as Joshua says, that really only works if the players want it to work. What I like about the exchange of stories idea is that it doesn't matter if your players want to have relationships between their characters, the exchange forces them to think about it for at least a couple of minutes while they write up their piece.

    I can't really think of any other such mechanics, but just wondering.