The Game in a Jam

My friend Willem has this blog, the College of Mythic Cartography. He talks a lot there about “Storyjamming,” which is his term for what’s usually called roleplaying games. I’ve played a few games with him, and what we do and why we do is pretty much the same.

Except that it’s not.

I’m not calling him out or anything; Willem himself will tell you that he sees the two activities as different. And I admit there’s something primally appealing about his ideal of pure Story flowing from the mouths of a collaborative group, reclaiming a lost human drive and tradition, bringing storytelling back to modern ears and modern lips. It’s a noble goal; it’s a goal I share. And in the service of that goal, Willem considers all the fiddling around with dice and cards and points and stats to be mostly unwanted distractions, to be trimmed down to just enough “to drive a story.”

I on the other hand like rules. I like the “game” in my “roleplaying game.” I like stats and dice and tokens and whatzits. I like robust interlocking systems that yield fruitful results from deft interaction. But I want what Willem wants. I want a revival of oral tradition and storytelling for the masses. I want spontaneous meaningful creativity amongst my friends.

So, can I have both? Or am I shooting myself in the foot for the sake of an ingrained preference of my personal history? Am I sacrificing my deepest longings for a framework that is a stumbling-block to story and a barrier of entry to non-“gamers”?

Should I game or should I jam?




13 Responses to “The Game in a Jam”

  1. 1 Matthijs
    September 24, 2008 at 12:30 am

    Have you tried out Willem’s approach? It might not be for you at all – everyone likes different things – but it’d probably be interesting for you to give it a shot in practice.

  2. September 24, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Can I just say that “storyjamming” is just the worst term ever? The word itself is a neon sign saying, “I’m trying too hard.”

    As for having both, isn’t that “El Dorado”? Or am I getting my lexicon mixed up?

  3. September 24, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Stories and games are two of the most powerful tools for human motivation yet discovered – I don’t see why we should leave either one of them on the table.

  4. 4 storybythethroat
    September 24, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Mike- I know Willem’s preference is partly aesthetic but it’s also partly practical; he wants to be able to play story games around a campfire without character sheets, good lighting, or dicerolling surface. So using a minimal-handling framework for story structuring is ideal.

    Myself, I would also like to adapt gaming to a setting like that (hence my conflict), but feel I might lose something important in the process.

    Buzz- [El Dorado (for those who don’t know) is a term coined for a hybrid game of two or more modes of play given equal priority, successfully and satisfactorily. It’s largely believed to be impossible, hence the name.] Wherever the truth may lie in the El Dorado debate, I don’t think that’s what I’m talking about. I’m still placing Story now front and center in my priorities; the “game” elements are used in service to that, period. I expressed it thus to Willem last night: It’s story outcomes that are at stake (directly, not just incidentally amidst a sea of Power Attacks and Improved Bull Rushes), but I want a framework robust enough to fight for my desired outcome, not just play craps for it.

    See the ¡Muy Macho! Credo.

    Matthijs- I have, in fact. It’s what got me thinking about this. A couple weeks ago I went over to Willem’s place to play games with some of his friends. When I got there I found we were playing In a Wicked Age around a campfire in the backyard, drifted to the environment: draw one card in conflicts, draw an extra if you’re pursuing one of two Best interests; if you’re Injured you lose one Best Interest bonus. All other mechanical rules were gone; it was basically Primetime Adventures with an Oracle and three volleys to each conflict.

    While I enjoyed myself, I found myself wishing for the full range of mechanical interactions, and viewed the adaptation as a necessary evil to the setting. But it turns out this is Willem’s ideal. Given that I’m also interested in reclaiming oral storytelling as a primal mode of human existence, this gives me pause: by clinging to “game” am I losing the opportunity to build such a tradition in my social network, through roleplaying?

  5. September 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    How about: Polaris, only when it comes to “it shall not come to pass,” you go from IC/ritualized negotiation to OOC negotiation, instead of from IC negotiation to dice?

    Games have a strong component of ritual. They don’t have to break trances (for a wide definition of that term); they can deepen them.

  6. 6 Niv-Mizzet
    September 26, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Maybe you’re over-thinking this? It’s not a crime to do the things that you enjoy. One should strive to be open to new ideas, for sure, but you still have to be true to yourself.

    I don’t have to order the cheesecake at the restaurant when I know I’m not going to like it. You can have your cheesecake, and I’ll get something else, and we’ll have a grand time because we’re both getting what we want and having a nice meal together. The notion that there is some purer or truer means to tell stories or play games seems to me to rather miss the point–being part of a shared experience with people you connect with, engaging your creativity and having FUN.

    As you know, I like more “game” in my gaming, and you can do with less, and it sounds like Willem even less. So there’s a continuum, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over where you fall on it, if I were you.

  7. 7 Maedhros
    September 26, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this same dichotomy myself.

    I’m generally one of those folks who dislikes the mechanics of a game from taking over the creative space. I play straight-up tactical wargames for that particular fix.

    But the “gamey” elements also bring some real, tangible benefits to the story-creating experience. Similar to an author crafting a short story, in completely free-form storytelling I (the narrator) am divorced from the juicy tension that builds and sustains a compelling story. Like the author, I know what’s coming next and how it’s going to happen. My audience (the other players) can experience the tension created, but I (as author) do not.

    When “game” elements are introduced, it creates a situation in which I am no longer the determiner of outcomes. A degree of uncertainty and surprise is injected into the process of discovering what comes next, and this allows me to share the experience of tension and release. It makes the striving for desirable outcomes more visceral and generates more emotional buy-in, which in turn yields a more satisfying story.

  8. 8 Jake Richmondja
    September 27, 2008 at 10:13 am

    I totally understand what Willem wants, and I think he understands why he wants it. That’s ideally what I want when I set down to play a game/ tell a group story. The problem is that left to my own devices, I’ll often tell the same story, play the same series of events or portray the same character over and over again. A good set of rules can force me (or encourage me) to try things I wouldn’t normally do. For me, taht almost always leads to interesting story and role play. Maybe not for everyone though? Anyway, I feel like that should be the primary focus for rules in a game where storytelling and role play are the focus. For other games? Games about stabbing people and managing resources? those have different priorities.I don’t feel like I NEED to mix up the two. I can, and a lot of games do that well. But I find that the games that give me a guide to playing and a devise for exploring options that I wouldn’t normally explore are the ones that let me produce the kind of roleplay that Willem seems to be after. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these games tend to be rules lite.


  9. 9 storybythethroat
    September 27, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I totally understand the function of rules in generating unexpected or non-deliberate elements to spur creativity. That’s great! I’m all on board with that as a starting point. But I want to go further. What really revs my motor is a procedural framework that requires skill to operate, hence getting what you want is a genuine achievement, but which still acts in the service of story. I think it’s a false dichotomy to assume that the “Story” and the “Game” are necessarily in opposition. It’s just that in the case of story-focus, the “game” is of a different nature than in a purely tactical paradigm.

    So, sure, I could merely flip a coin and gain the benefit of factors outside my control spurring me to greater creativity. But it won’t give me the experience of triumph over adversity, or of trying and failing. It’ll just give me the gambler’s thrill of being tossed about on the sea of fortune, sometimes for benefit, other times for ruin.

    Lest I unwittingly promote another false dichotomy, though, let me state that a combination of strategic ad gambling elements can be quite robust and fun. Nothing against randomness per se, just seeking a context where the thrill of “Oh my God! Will I MAKE IT?!!” is coupled with the knowledge that I’ve striven my hardest and done my very best to tip the odds toward making it. Capeesh?

  10. 10 storybythethroat
    September 27, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Niv: Over-thinking? Maybe. I am me, after all. But here’s the thing. I only have so much time, effort and resources to pour into doing things I like. I will never do as much as I want of all the things that interest me. So given that, I’m looking to refine my understanding of what I want and focus my priorities and methods for attaining them.

    Which means, given that Willem is someone I like and who I enjoy playing games with, I want to really examine this thing he’s doing and how he’s doing it, to evaluate whether I want to really pursue his way of doing things, or go totally in my own direction, or find some way to meet in the middle, or what.

    So yeah, I’m not worried about some ideal of shining purity, I’m just looking at different ways of doing things, and pondering which ways best further my goals.

  11. September 30, 2008 at 12:17 am

    “Storyjamming,” which is his term for what’s usually called roleplaying games.

    I coined the term storyjamming for a couple reasons; to sum up what I do well enough that it repels the wrong players and attracts the right ones (it seems to already have worked some magic on that score), and to make the point that what I want to experience with shared story-telling does indeed differ from 99.999% of what most rpg-gamers want to do.

    In other words, I no longer argue about whether what I do, one can call a “role-playing game”. You probably can’t, and in any case won’t attain any enlightenment or enjoyment from doing so.

    I come at the whole story-games scene, inspired by rpg memories of my youth, and improv games of my adulthood. Hell, and some “shamanic” experiences of my adulthood (whatever that means).

    I have a very specific aim, even more specific than other folks who also want to “storyjam”. I want to recreate stories-of-place, stories that give us another, better story to live in. To remake modern mythologies into something sane and sustainable, by retelling more satisfying ones over, and over, and over, in endless variations.

    As you can imagine, this goal lies so far from the humble and reasonable aims of a strategic, resource-management, brain-challenging role-playing game as to render them from alien worlds.

    I don’t think one has to separate a (rules-heavy) Game from Story, in order to tell good stories. But I don’t want to just tell good stories. Vincent Baker writes games that tell good stories, and they consistently have too many dice and rules for my aims (except for games like the Nighttime Animals Save the World and such).

    Anyway, I think one can only find out by playing, what will actually satisfy you. I think you might possibly find that your intellectual side gets enough other entertainment that you might not miss the “excess” rules. I obviously can’t say for sure, and for my bias, I don’t care about “winning”, or intellectually out-maneuvering other characters in the story, but I do care about having a sincere feeling of striving. I think you understand this.

    If you look again at what Jake wrote above, you’ll note that he does refer to a “step on up” aspect of these (theoretical) games that both he and I seem to like. It just doesn’t come from an intellectual place, but rather a place of emotional courage, in my opinion.

    The challenge comes from pushing your own boundaries, of safety, of what you can say, and of where a story can go. It hits on the taboo. It hits on blindspots you didn’t know you had. As Vincent Baker said once (to paraphrase), he wants a game that will make you do things that noone will willingly do at a table, but once done, no one will reject.

    I want to go deeper and deeper into that kind of world, and when I find myself slowed down I don’t think twice about chucking away excess rules and ever-shrinking my guide to the story experience so that I can tuck it into my pocket as I dive into the abyss.

  12. 12 storybythethroat
    October 5, 2008 at 2:02 am

    Hey, Willem. Thanks so much for joining in!

    Honestly, I find I’m attracted to your story-gaming aims in spite of the name you’ve chosen to append to them. that said, i can totally appreciate your desire to cut right past the whole “but is it reeeeally roleplaying??” debate.

    One thing I’m trying to face within myself is the question of whether my preference for rules-framework is a genuine artistic choice that furthers my aims, or a cultural artifact of my roleplaying upbringing that I’d do better without. And I’m not sure if I can answer that directly by mere contemplation. As you say, the proof is in doing, and I simply need a larger and more varied experience under my belt before I can say for sure.

    I think maybe that variety itself is what I’m after: sometimes I want the elegant and direct style of 1001 Nights or Primetime Adventures, where the rules are simply vague narrative prompts that you can make into what you will,m and other times I want Capes or Wicked Age, where I can, as I say, strive within a framework that gives meaning to that struggle.

    I was pondering more about the striving thing following our talk in person the other night and the concept that leapt to mind was traction. I need some tires with grip so I can turn the wheel this way or that, and work the accelerator and the brake with such finesse that I gracefully negotiate all obstacles at breakneck speed to triumphantly arrive (with a dramatic J-turn stop) at my destination. or spin out horribly, crash and burn, careen into an unexpected destination, or so forth. But if I’m just spinning across an ice floe on bare tires and just spinning the wheel wildly, no control of what will befall me, yeah, it can be a wild ride with plenty of thrills, but it’s not as satisfying.

    On the other hand, I get the feeling that where I see traction, you (and Jana, and perhaps Jake a little as well) just see friction. A drag on your crazy free-basing velocity. A breaking of the story-trance. You want to cast yourself upon the winds of story, and see where it takes you in a Tao-like state of acceptance. Which is cool. I can do that, sometimes. But I want to strive sometimes.

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