Sunday, September 6, 2009

For the Story's Sake

There's this pernicious misconception that's been around for a while and which has always kind of bugged me. A few threads on Story Games recently have brought that misconception out into the open, and crystallised my thoughts on the issue.

The misconception I'm talking about is the idea that Story Now play is about doing "what's best for the story". The idea goes something like this:

Simulationists are all about "what's realistic?" or "what fits with the genre"
and Gamists are all "what will make me win?", Narrativists are always asking
"what's best for the story?"

Now aside from the stupid idea that creative agendas are a label you can stick on people, what's dumb about this is the fact that asking "what's best for the story?" is completely, directly, and unambiguously the opposite of Story Now play. Play in which the players are focused on creating a "good story" as the point of play is directly incompatible with Story Now play.

That seems kind of counter intuitive.

But it's not! The whole deal with Story Now play is that no one, not the GM, not the players, not anyone, knows what the story you're creating is going to be about, how it will eventually resolve the premise (if it does), and whether the story will eventually have a happy ending or a sad one. All this shit is up in the air. We don't even really know much about the genre of the story we're telling (There's a whole digression here about how genres are things that are retroactively applied to creative works, rather than a formula to be emulated, unless you're doing pastiche).

In Story Now play, it's impossible to know what will make the story "good".

So no one gets to say what the story is about, until it's done, until it comes out in play. If we knew what would make the story "good" we wouldn't be exploring a premise, we'd be emulating a genre. And yeah, sometimes that means that the story is going to suck a little. There'll be times when everyone will wish that the NPC hadn't got his head shot off, or that the dice had come down some other way, but we stick with how it happened in the fiction, because that's the contract we all made with each other when we started playing. We agreed that we'd see this thing through to the end, play by the rules, and live with it.

A "good story" is a shield for players to hide behind when they don't want the responsibility of making a statement in play. My character in Dogs doesn't slap a young woman NPC because I've decided that would titillate the other players. He does it because I'm saying right now that that's how he rolls. He's a guy who will slap a woman right in the face, and you have to deal with that. I'm judging him in my own mind, thinking "Fuck me, this guy is an ass", but I'm also thinking "I can't be honest to who this character is and not have this come out in play". And when the other players' characters judge mine, and find that he's not good enough to be a Dog, I agree with them. But it's not just something I thought would be "cool" in the moment. It was me saying "Here's a guy who, given this power over other people, thinks he's got the right to slap a woman in the face". And the other players are saying "Here are some people, given the same power, who won't cross that line."

It's us, the players, having a conversation about morality and power and the right to judge, and we're doing it through the medium of the game, and it's only possible because we stand behind our portrayals of the characters, and we don't let some idea about what's "good for the story" get in the way of that.

My character in Dogs, Michael, decided to stop being a Dog in our game last Thursday. It was tough, surprising for a lot of players, and the first real sign of the wear that the job is having on the Dogs' faith. Michael struggled to overcome his weakness, but he couldn't do it, and he knew it. He asked another Dog for help, and she told him she didn't think he was good enough either. It was harsh, and awesome. And none of us ever caved to what was "best for the story". There were panicked looks about the table as we discovered what was at stake in the conflict. I think Malcolm and Steve were worried that we'd somehow gone too far, that we should pull it back somehow. But we stayed on course. We saw it through to the end. And it was good.