Gaming and Story-Telling

Years ago, when I was a pre-teen, I encountered a book in a department store. But not just any book. This was a “Choose Your Adventure” book. Here’s how it worked. You’d read a paragraph describing some conflict involving the main character. At the end of the paragraph, you’d have a list of choices for what the character should do next, along with the page number to turn to if you choose that option. Then you’d go to that page and read on. Maybe the character would die horribly, or maybe the story would continue and give you more choices. And so on. This would continue until you reached the triumphant end of the novel, or “won”.

I didn’t think much of the book at the time. It was reasonably entertaining, especially given my poverty of entertainment choices back then. But really, this story was several stories in one, the combination of all possible decision points constituted a story. Not that this occurred to my young mind or held much interest for me, as I wasn’t much of a writer (despite being a voracious reader).

A few months later, I encountered the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. For those unfamiliar with these types of games, you have a person who controls the course of the game (the dungeon master, or more generally, game master). This person narrates, presents options, tells you what you see, and plays all the monster characters. Then you have one more more players. They choose their actions and depending on what they choose, they may roll dice to see if their actions succeed. Ostensibly, the game ends when the players achieve their objectives, gain treasure, valuable artifacts, and experience points which they can use to become more powerful.

That’s how it played out on paper. In real life, the “story” was quite different. Often, the games got really creative, went off the rails, and became absolutely hilarious. Character leveling, powerful items, even winning took a backseat to the story that unfolded. Now all this depended on the game master. Some game masters were quite flexible. They let players bend the rules and adapted the story to player actions. These were the best games, and were in fact, less games and more like cooperative novels that the group created together.

I played Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games, both as a player and as a Game Master. As a Game Master, I was the flexible sort, and I’m proud to say my games degenerated into hilarious fiascos. Again, I never appreciated what was going on at the time, or even really realizing that it wasn’t a game anymore, but a mechanism for creating a story together. All I knew is that it was really fun, and the adventure that resulted was far more creative than anything I would have written (had I written) or read at the time.

It’s illustrative to compare the role playing game with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” one, at least as far as story-telling goes. In both cases, one ends up with a story that’s created with input from the player. In the case of the role playing game, you have multiple players contributing, and they decide what to do, so they have a vaster range of options than the simple list a book provides. A game master basically provides the template story – like the stock portions of the book, but also can introduce some variations to allow for player actions. In short, as a story-telling mechanism, the role playing game offers finer granularity for decisions and dynamism.

Fast forward years later, and the story-telling potential of these games is widely recognized. For instance, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” genre is now called an “Interactive Fiction”, and there are plenty of them and even tools to generate them. Furthermore, there are workshops that practice generating stories for role-playing games. For instance, I recently encountered a writing group that had an upcoming session on using Dungeons & Dragons to generate story ideas. I didn’t attend that, but I did unintentionally attend another.

I was at another writing group. I sat down to write (one of these blogs in fact), as some of the other members filed in. One of them had a game – Betrayal at House on the Hill.

Hey,” he said, “we we’re going to do a writing exercise with this game. Will this distract you?”

I perked up. “No. In fact, would you mind if I joined?”

Sounds great!”, he replied.

The game involved players exploring a haunted house. The house itself was generated by randomly drawing room cards and constructing the house, which meant the house could be different in every game, and one could end up with oddities like an attic on the first floor, or a bedroom in the basement. Yet this all worked out, given that this was supposed to be a haunted house. However, before playing we had an important task…

Our first exercise was to choose a character and then write a backstory. The game itself had a back-story for each character, so we would try to work ours in. So I wrote my character’s back story. I picked the professor character, and so I decided that he was trying to prove the existence of the paranormal, which made him a pariah in the scientific community. The back-story given by the game had him part of a family that had fallen on hard times. This worked in very nicely with his back-story; his motivation for exploring the haunted house was for his reputation and financial, and this gave him sense of desperation.

We then started playing, and were asked to take notes of what happened during the game. I took this to mean taking notes about what the professor thought and felt as things happened. I also took great pains to stay in character. Given his financial desperation and desire for vindication, my character’s actions were clear. Explore everything, and chase every hint of the paranormal, no matter how terrifying. If he ran into a ghost that hurled him into another room, he would immediately run back to the ghost, to try to gather as much evidence as he could.

This also governed how he handled curve-balls. For instance, at one point, he found himself in a room and suddenly a dog was there, and the dog followed him everywhere. How he responded depended on his character. Well, he wasn’t the sort to like animals (he didn’t even like people). However, he was looking for evidence of the paranormal, and since supposedly animals can detect this stuff, he reluctantly accepted the dog as a companion. Minor inner conflict resolved 🙂

Afterwards, we were told to write up the adventure we had, incorporating our back-story and taking any liberties we felt were necessary for telling the story. I ended up incorporating everything that happened, but I found that the dog emerged as a sort of mystery, creepy character. It never quite did anything, but never left his side, and so it was a creepy factor that I played up. It was a short story – a mere 10 pages – but I liked the result.

A few days later, I attended a gaming session at a local gaming shop. This was a beginner’s Dungeons & Dragons session. Yes, beginner’s. I hadn’t played for years, so beginner was pretty much my speed. Well, our dungeon-master was quite an interesting fellow. He told us that he was more of a story-teller than anything else, so he wanted details from us, and wanted us to act in character. If we were sufficiently detailed in our actions, he may let us succeed without dice rolls. He also had various affliction cards he’d toss our way, and we’d have to act them out throughout the game. Good ideas, funny moments and strong dedication to staying in character would gain us inspiration points, which we could use to re-roll a die if our roll sucked.

He was clearly of the game-as-storytelling school of thought, and the game was great fun. We felt closer to each other, despite being strangers, busted out in gut-busting laughter more than once, and left feeling quite happy and enjoying the experience. We all cooperated to create another story.

All this brings us back to constraint and innovation. How do these games work? Well, one way to look at them is as a story-generation mechanism. The Game Master provides the template and may also ensure that the players stay in character, thus providing an additional constraint. The gamers and dice rolls provide the innovation. And of course the players interact with each other, thus leading to new levels of interaction. For instance, if one player does something that messes up something I did, this may lead to a conflict, an additional twist in the story.

These aren’t the only way to generate games from stories. There are actually games that are explicitly designed to create cooperative stories. I may try them one day. However, I find it interesting that role playing games accidentally managed to do a fine job of this task. This also raises a question. Why is it that role playing games can serve as fuel for story generation, while other games like Chess or Monopoly don’t? Part of it may be that they don’t feature explicit characters, but part of it is also that the elements aren’t really story-telling. Dice rolls and piece moves don’t tell a story. It’s not even the depth of game-play. For instance, a game that involved drawing story element or event cards could also generate a story, although the game-play would be shallow. Unless the players had to add connecting events to link one random card to the next into a coherent narrative. Now there’s a game-playing idea – assuming it hasn’t already been done.

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