Roleplaying by the Throat

OK, enough preamble–now it’s time to take these concepts and wrestle ’em to the ground. I’ll focus on roleplaying to start with, since that’s the central activity for this blog.

In “So what the hell does THAT mean?” I wrote:

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment.

Let’s unpack that a bit. “Passionate Engagement” is of course the key, the centerpiece to the whole philosophy. It’s a basic commitment, when we as roleplayers sit down together, to build an enjoyable and fulfilling experience that satisfies our aesthetic and emotional standards. Something we can be proud of. Not because we “made art” in any hoity-toity sense, but because we were vulnerable enough to invest something of ourselves in our shared creation, enough to generate some intensity and genuine emotion and possibly grow as humans and friends.

There’s a tradition that sometimes rears its head in roleplaying culture, of non-investment: “It’s just a casual thing, let’s just chill and munch some snacks, roll dice, slay a dragon, crack some jokes. Don’t…y’know…make a thing of it.” Even when players sink a ton of their time, effort and money into the hobby, this “don’t take it too seriously” vibe can rear its head. RPGs in this case are less creative exercise (which is a kind of exertion), and more blowing off steam (which is an escape from exertion). Which, sure, is a valid goal. But it’s not my passion. I’d prefer either a passive entertainment or a non-story activity for that purpose. For story, I need engagement.

Engagement with what? Look at the next part of my little rant that divulges the very reason I roleplay: to see what our Protagonists are made of.

I don’t mean anything as basic as “Can Hero McBadass slay the dragon? Roll Dice! Yes, he can! He’s BADASS!” After all, what does that show us about Hero Mc-B? Did we discover anything about him as a human being? Why did he slay the dragon? What hardship did he endure? Did he have to sacrifice anything to slay it? Who was hurt, and who benefited, by his actions? Did the act change him, irrevocably, for good or ill?

That’s where Story by the Throat lives: right there in those moments where the character is in the heart of the fire and we ache with the uncertainty of what he will do and what it will cost.



17 Responses to “Roleplaying by the Throat”

  1. August 24, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I spent some time rereading Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea books, and I noticed that she pins her plot on just these kinds of moments; decisions that reveal the character of the protagonist.

    I in fact look at these as not character defining moments, but more character-revealing moments; almost as if the central mystery of all stories comes down to that dynamic yet shrouded inner nature of the characters at the heaert of the story. Revelation, not definition. Which for the most part, popular corporate-driven entertainment doesn’t trust as a sufficiently satisfying mystery in and of itself. Which explains why Hollywood sucks.

  2. 2 storybythethroat
    August 24, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    “I in fact look at these as not character defining moments, but more character-revealing moments; almost as if the central mystery of all stories comes down to that dynamic yet shrouded inner nature of the characters at the heaert of the story.”

    Yes, exactly! that’s why I worded it the way I did: to *see* what the Protagonist is made of.

  3. 3 Skull
    August 24, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    i Have seen the over casual outlook to gaming to often, myself. I had friends who did that and now they don’t game at all. Its a sad thing when you can not put passion into you hobby. It a hobby, man! your suppost to grab it by the balls and swing that sucker around for all its worth.. Especially since it cost $30-$40 to buy the manual to play.

  4. 4 Niv-Mizzet
    August 25, 2008 at 8:59 am

    So in what sense is the kind of interaction you’re describing necessarily a game at all? If the story and the character interaction is so central, why not join an improv group, or write some interactive fiction? In other words, why are you dipping your chocolate in my peanut butter? I’d posit that the tactical simulation aspect of gaming, and the truer “role-playing” aspect that you describe, have always been at odds with each other. If you take it to one extreme or the other, I wonder if you lose that hybridization, what it means to be a “role-playing game.”

  5. 5 Maedhros
    August 25, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Poe said it better than I can:

    “Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry.
    Music – without the idea – is simply music.”

    Substitute “gaming” for “music”. It’s not that “story” is at odds with “gaming”, but that it adds so much to it. Gygax and Arneson were among the first to realize this when they added “story” to Chainmail to create Dungeons and Dragons.

    “Without music, color becomes pallor. Man becomes caucus. Home becomes catacomb, and the dead are – but for a moment – motionless.”

  6. August 25, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    I actually suspect that what I most love about story-games doesn’t really fit the conventional notion of “role-playing game”, and so I usually call it “storyjamming”. I suppose you could dive into Forge theory in order to pick it apart really, but I agree; I don’t really care for the tactical element in role-playing at this point. I want to tell stories, not play a wargame with a story.

    Improv games, of course, still involve play and game; just not competitive gaming.

  7. 7 storybythethroat
    August 25, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    “So in what sense is the kind of interaction you’re describing necessarily a game at all? If the story and the character interaction is so central, why not join an improv group, or write some interactive fiction?”

    That’s a good question, my Swedish friend. There are several ways to answer it, and I think the answers are all personal–in the sense that everyone’s got to answer it for themselves, and every answer’s gonna be different. My basic answer is experiential: I encountered roleplaying games early in life and so they’re really “in my blood” in terms of how I approach things and where my passion lies. I approach creativity via roleplaying games because I *like* them. And I’ve enjoyed RPGs the most precisely when story elements of the nature I’m describing emerge from play.

    The analytical answer goes something like this: the “game” and “story” elements of an RPG synergize to create something greater than the sum of its parts. As uncertain inputs like randomizers or other players come into play, it allows the players to be at once Author and Audience as they switch between directing events and awaiting their results. Executed just the right way, this can be exciting stuff! The trick lies in making sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of WHAT we’re doing and HOW, and making sure player input matters in all the ways it’s supposed to.

    So yes, it’s precisely the hybridization that charges the activity for me. Check out Capes, f’rinstance, on the Sidebar links: it’s a beautiful and fun melding of the two poles in a no-holds-barred way. The site has a nifty Flash demo that walks ya through a sample sequence of play. So I don’t think that the tactical and the roleplaying necessarily *have* to be at odds. :)

  8. 8 Sven Seeland
    August 27, 2008 at 3:39 am

    “I in fact look at these as not character defining moments, but more character-revealing moments; almost as if the central mystery of all stories comes down to that dynamic yet shrouded inner nature of the characters at the heaert of the story.”

    Those are all well and good and maybe I just don’t get it but… for me the REAL meat of a story is when a character *changes*. When he or she is in a way re-defined. Those moment where uncertainty turns to certainty, when previously set-in-stone beliefs are shaken and questioned to be either confirmed or shattered. I might be nitpicking here, so sorry if you’re actually saying the same thing, but I think that “discovering” a character is one thing and interesting to be sure but “developing”, “defining” and “changing” a character is where the shit hits the fan, emotionally. At least for me.

    However (as I’m writing this realizations starts to crawl up on me) it might be that this re-shaping of a character is actually more an adaptation of the outer appearance to what that character “really” is underneath. In that way it would be more of a “discovering”, I guess. Seeing what lies beyond the superficial mask, once it has been challenged so much that it starts to crack (or something like that).

    P.S.: Please excuse my English. I’m a non-native speaker and while I think I read/write/speak the language reasonably well, subtleties have a tendency to be mangled or get lost in translation.

  9. 9 storybythethroat
    August 27, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Sven, I think you’re on pretty much the same page with Willem here; the ‘discovering” process is a phenomenon of the moment, where we find out what the character is made of *right now*. What you’re talking about is something that emerges over a string of those moments, where we get a glimpse of the character being one thing (say, a coward), then later glimpse him or her being something else (brave). Chain enough moments between the two extremes and you’ve got a compelling portrait of change.

    That make sense?

  10. 10 Sven Seeland
    August 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Yep, that makes sense… though I’m inclined to nitpick even more. ;-)

    But for now let’s just say that I believe it’s more interesting (to me) to whitness the process, the change, than it is to look at the single instants of revelation.

  11. 11 Niv-Mizzet
    August 27, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    I think I’ll keep playing Devil’s advocate for now, seeing as how someone needs to do it, and especially because it’s fun.

    How, exactly, does a character in a game show themselves to be a “coward,” or to be “brave?” Or maybe a better question is, how can a transition from one state to the other be anything more than a somewhat perfunctory decision by the player? We tend to think of people as brave in real life when they face difficult or dangerous circumstances, but forge onward in spite of those dangers.

    There’s no actual danger in a role-playing session. (Or rather, in the context of the game world, there tends to be danger EVERYWHERE. So in a way it’s sort of run-of-the-mill to be embroiled in constant conflict.) The matter of being “brave” or “not brave” in a game is an intellectual one–basically whatever seems like it might be cool at the time. Where’s the drama in that? Where’s the pathos? In a novel, in a film, the creator can craft a whole world around a convincing story. The author has to EARN those key moments where you see the characters growing and changing. How can a character’s motivations have that ring of truth in an in-game setting?


  12. 12 Sven Seeland
    August 28, 2008 at 1:33 am

    Well, it really depends on how you play. In your average D&D Session there might not be a whole lot of drama because of the points you described (no real danger / danger everywhere). Plus, the system encourages tactical decision making so not many players actually go into developing a “real” personality. At most what you get could be described as a specific “style” (a way of doing things to differentiate you from others) but not a full fledged personality.

    In other games with certain players however, this works really well. Where worlds are set up so that there is indeed a choice between being cowardly or brave. In settings where believes can be challenged. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer comes to mind but I recently had exactly this kind of experience in a (very atypical) Shadowrun game as well. Many of the so called Indie Games or Story Games support this style of play. Think of Dogs in the Vineyard or With Great Power…, just to name two of the top of my head. The characters tend to get stuck in (moral) dilemmas where they have to make real decisions that tell us something about their personality. This isn’t really much different from book or film, as far as I can see. If you disagree and you do see a difference, please elaborate. There are also films (books not so much) where characters never change, there is danger everywhere but no real danger, etc. Think of James Bond or Mission Impossible or Die Hard or simmilar action flicks.

  13. 13 storybythethroat
    August 28, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    “How can a character’s motivations have that ring of truth in an in-game setting?”

    Niv, my gut response is, “the same way they can in a mainstream work of fiction.” We empathize all the time with characters who possess no more reality than we and their authors give them. Sure, not all the time–each person has different resonance thresholds for character types and such, and stories varying quality. But in the best cases, we care very much indeed.

    So doing this in a RPG setting relies on exactly the same qualities of personality, theme, and storycraft as more “professional” tales. Not every roleplaying session achieves this quality, and not all of them even aspire to it. I’d say my closing remarks up above are a good touchstone for what to shoot for, but I think I’ll expand more on particular methods and practices in a future post.

    Also, bear in mind that “coward’ vs. “brave” was just an example off the top of my head. You can substitute any human qualities and the point still stands. There are plenty of meaningful choices that a character in a story can make that have nothing to do with loss of hitpoints, and what you choose for your character can speak volumes, if answering those questions is interesting to you and your fellow players. In any case, it requires a willingness to empathize with your characters, to treat their fictional escapades as an authentic human experience. Some people want that particular fix in the form of a book or movie but not in a game; for instance when you and I get together we enjoy quite different sorts of games and activities.

    But if for those who DO want that experience in roleplaying form, I aim to continue exploring how to achieve it.

  14. August 30, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I totally didn’t read the whole conversation.

    Here’s why I don’t write interactive fiction instead: words are the least interesting expression of language. If I had the option to have Chuck Palahniuk come over to my house and tell me Invisible Monsters, I would. I would get a better story, complete with ALL of the vitriol he is capable of, and delivered in a less contrived fashion (because, really, he gets pretty contrived in his attempts to deliver vitriol through writing). I could see his body language, hear his voice, wow.

    And so given the option to write stories together or tell stories together, tell wins hands down. It’s a more interesting use of language for me. It’s better than writing stories because all of the space that would be lost is the space that best carries the things I want carried.

    The reason I play roleplaying games is that it is the easiest and most holistic/comprehensive way to get at the heart of story telling and sharing (for my values of “heart”, of course).

  15. 15 VoidAngel
    December 25, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    So hey, I’m a bit late with the response, since RPG blogging is not among my normal hobbies. But I thought I might contribute something to the conversation since I’m Throat’s brother (hence how I got onto this blog; I’m clearing my email backlog) and approach RPG gaming from the opposite angle to get to nearly the same place.

    My intro to RPGs was the same as Throat’s, as you might imagine, but I’ve always enjoyed the tactical aspects of RPG systems more than he does. Partly this is because I’m good at it. He can tell you at length just how dangerous I can be in a tactical environment, since he was the GM trying to balance combat encounters to challenge me without being too tough for me to handle. Not that I’m a perfect tactician by any means; I bring up the matter to demonstrate what kind of a gamer I am: I focus a -lot- on how I fight, and how to maximize my combat potential.

    As I continued role-playing, I found that combat encounters, while the bread and butter of my preferred RPG experience was (and is) combat, it really wasn’t enough to hold my interest in itself. Sure, it’s fun, and it’s great to explore the options you have on the strategic (character generation and development), logistical (gear and consumeables), and tactical (if I have to explain…) aspects of the game. But if I only wanted a tactical wargame, there are much better-developed and/or more accessible systems out there, from Siege of the Citadel to Risk to Battletech or Heavy Gear. If I was playing a roleplaying game, I needed a -character- whose role I was playing.

    So, without losing any of my love for the tactical subgame, I play an RPG not only to fight, but to test my character’s uh, character. Sure, my Fighter/Rogue/Bard(onelevel)/Dragon Disciple may have 26 strength and amazing combat mobility, but why is he hitting you in the first place? Why did he learn to pick locks when he’d never dream of stealing for profit? If you encounter me in an RPG, I’ll be the combative in the group. I’ll be the Paladin, the battle mage, the orbital drop infantryman. And each and every one will have a well-developed, though not necessarily identical, reason for being who and what he is. Once I’ve decided -who- he is, I can test myself against the game world’s challenges, combative and otherwise, to see if I can make him who I want him to be; because even a child is known by what he does. That’s why I play an RPG: to define and refine my character’s identity through action.

  16. 16 VoidAngel
    December 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    P.S. Another poster brought up a point that I found interesting, and so I’ll touch bases on it briefly here: The idea that the tactical/mechanical arbitration process and the roleplaying process are diametrically opposed and interfere with each other. I find this idea to be false, because the mechanical arbitration you use (whether you draw a card, or roll the dice, or just have a set of “I can do these three things” rules) is -essential- to the gaming process. For that to make sense, you need to realize that a roleplaying game (and you may need to refine that down to something like ‘tabletop roleplaying game’ because of all the variations from LARP and ‘diceless’ games to psychological therapeutic methods that claim that very broad title) is NOT storytelling. This is a common description, and it’s true in a very broad sense, but technically what you are doing is not telling a story, even collectively.

    A storyteller controls the story and the characters. If they fail, he wants them to fail for reasons of his own. They succeed in order to advance his plot agenda. A roleplaying session [i]creates[/i] a story; it does not tell it. It is this aspect, not of ‘realism,’ but of [i]reality[/i] that makes this gaming medium attractive and accessible to diverse people who may not even have the literary skills to actually write good prose on their own, much less with two to four other people.

    I can’t write fiction. I do not have the skill. But I (or anyone) can -be- somebody, and that person can show who he is by reacting to whatever fate and planning throw at him. But without a mechanical process to arbitrate, you can’t really have chance. Everything is happening by design, and whether or not you succeed is based on whether the controlling entity (the gm, the group, whatever) agrees with your desires. That’s not a roleplaying game, that’s interactive fiction, no matter if you use character sheets or just sit around a table and have someone writing it all down.

    So, to summarize the claim I’ve been doing my best to support: A ‘roleplaying game,’ as we’re talking about it, MUST HAVE a mechanical process (even if it’s just simple rules that are -not- open to general interpretation; doesn’t have to be dice) to arbitrate and provide a baseline for characters to actually interact with the game world in a meaningful way. If you only have the mechanical elements, that’s fine; You can have a ton of fun with just D&D’s combat system by itself, but you’re not -using- it as an RPG. On the other hand, if you do away with the mechanical processes, you’re not playing an RPG, you’re writing the Swiss Family Robinson. RPGs do a little of both.

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