Story to the People!

Mark UnseenLast week, I talked about a terminology shift some people are making in how they talk about roleplaying games. I jumped merrily on that bandwagon, and if you’re wondering why I bothered, this is it: I can now start to talk about the purpose I’m pursuing in RPGs, without getting bogged down in the clunkier and baggage-laden “isms” these things used to be described with. I can now talk about Story Now.

Waaay back in “So what the Hell does THAT mean,” I wrote:

“It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.”

This is the secret ingredient to shared story creation in roleplaying. There’s lots of roleplaying out there where story creation isn’t truly shared, or where it isn’t prioritized at all. In those cases, the managing of everyone’s creativity is arranged such that “story” is mainly one person’s deal that everyone else recieves and responds to, or else it’s at most a pleasant byproduct. In Story Now play, on the other hand, everyone’s creativity is on the line equally, as shared creators. It demands a lot of trust, and can be a bit frightening. But those who play Story Now attest that the emotional vulnerability is worth it.

Story Now is about focusing on Protagonists, not just “some characters who do some stuff.” It’s about playing characters with purpose, and making those characters the focus of the game. And above all it’s about allowing characters to change.

That’s why the Now, the ever-changing present moment, is the ground of Story by the Throat. Because if you’ve already got a 20-page history and a neat set of “my character would/wouldn’t do that” answers for every occasion, there’s no story to tell. It’s already told, in your head. It’s like this thing of diamond, impermeable, incapable of surprising you. The input of other players will break against your character as waves against rocks and you will not be moved. If that’s what you want. . .sure. But you might be better of just. . .writing that stuff down so a passive audience can receive it. Because in this case a passive audience is just what your fellow players are.

You’ll notice that the nicey-nice platitude that “all goals of play are equally good” or any notion like that is utterly absent here. I’ve found what I want to do, and I’m going to seize it. And I’m not going to mince words about it. So other ways are also fun for people. So this creative agenda ain’t for everyone. I’m not gonna come into your libing room and shit on what you enjoy doing, but here in my living room I’m going to be frank about what I love.

“Story Now!” is not so much a term with a definition (though it is a distinct thing) as it is a fist-pumping anthem. I’m cool with that. If you feel like pumping your fist with me, then great. If not, I’ll merrily march along. But I find enough value in the concept of voluntary and passionate trust in creative endeavors that I’m willing to get a bit aggressive in my appeal. I invite you to join me and live in the moment of Creation together, to putting our creations to the test and allowing ourselves to be changed. Our characters, yes, but us too, as we develop emotional resonance for these beloved imaginary parts of us. Story Now is a battlecry that keeps us all honest, as we hold ourselves to what we demand of each other, that we engage with each other Here, Now, and flinch not from the fire of change.



(for further reading, check out Jesse’s excellent dissection of the different types of story in roleplaying games, at Play Passionately.)

13 Responses to “Story to the People!”

  1. May 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Hear, hear!
    That’s exactly what my game design, Mask of the Emperor, is all about. It’s even listed right in the rules:
    “throughout the game, your character will arrive at situations that demand a choice be made …. the GM’s job, as outlined above, is to take the choices the players make and use them as fodder for the plot…. [PCs are] not always powerful individuals, but centrally important to the events of the story. What happens, hinges on the player-characters.”
    I figure this is a way of describing Story Now! (which is more to the point and, oddly, more vague and more specific than Narrativism as a term) that gives folks who’ve never heard of the Forge some very practical advice on how to turn their game into a Story Now! game. The injection of some mechanics that help the game to “be about something”, in this case honor and reputation, forms the other half of Story Now!
    I think your mentioning of a 20-page back story is really important – all that creative energy should be brought to bear *in play*, not before or after! Yes, delve into who your character is, what he’s on about – – provided you do it during the sessions, where everyone can see it happen. Show, don’t tell, the saying goes ^_^
    I’m pumping my fist alongside ya, man!

  2. 2 Julian Michels
    June 2, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    I’m building the fire beside ya and burning along with ya. Let’s get ‘er done.

  3. 3 storybythethroat
    June 2, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Thanks, guys. And welcome, Zac! I’m glad this thing resonates with you like it does with me. Any suggestions on where to take the discussion from here? I’m always delighted to spin conversations like this one off into new topics.

    (Translation: WRITE MY BLOG FOR ME! NOW!!)


  4. 4 Julian Michels
    June 3, 2009 at 9:41 am


    I’m not sure if you’ve been reading Joe McDonald’s new blog, but it’s been a really great ride so far and at least for me, provides a lot of ideas that I could spin off into blog entries of my own were I the blog-entering kind. Some of the ideas we’re tossing around over there might be more abstract than you enjoy, but if not, I’d suggest you partake in the discussions over there, and see what kind of ideas it gives you for here.


  5. June 5, 2009 at 8:29 am

    If you want to maximize Story Now potential, one very big thing you’ve got to do is have mechanics that emphasize choices the players make, during play.
    An example of how not to do it: the Burning Wheel (which I rag on a lot) has you make a pretty detailed background for your character, devoting an entire separate rulebook to this background, but the things that actually bring your Frankenstein to life are six statements of fact or intent concerning your character: your Beliefs and Instincts.
    Beliefs are things that you can pursue to get metagame points (Artha), because you’re fulfilling something at the core of your being. Instincts are things that you can always choose to do reflexively: if x, then y. Furthermore, you get Artha whenever you let an instinct take place in such a way that it would be a disadvantage to you.

    Example belief: my race will dominate the central valley!
    Example instinct: if ambushed, I cast the Alarm spell.

    All the stuff about your “stock”, your lifepaths, your resource points, and so on is fun fluff, but it’s there to make you feel all Tolkienesque, not to actually drive the story. The exception here is relationships and cirlces: you can spend the same points you’d put down for gear on influence with either a particular person or milder influence with a group of people (the bigger the group/more important the person and the greater the influence you wield, the more points it costs).
    So – out of the famously crunchy rules for character creation, IMO the Story Now content in Burning Wheel comes down to relationships, circles, instincts, and beliefs. Honestly, though, Instincts don’t have much to do with what you want the story to be about; they’re fun moves you can pull off, possibly for story content, but they’re a sort of safety-valve to protect you against the GM saying “well, you’re caught flat-footed. you don’t have time to draw a sword”. Not that they couldn’t be used for such purposes.

    A great, GREAT example of Story Later On, Maybe is Humanity in any Vampire game – it’s up to the GM when you lose it, and you lose it because the GM deems certain actions you take “count” towards losing it. Consider the contrast between that and Sorcerer, in which (I really gotta re-read this to be sure) it’s an active choice on the part of the player to lose some Humanity. Really active, not the ref saying “if you cross that line, son, I’m red-carding you”, but the player saying “Hey, ref! I’m gonna blow one of my timeouts here.” Something like that.

  6. 6 David
    June 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

    As a counterpoint: the detailed background from BW character creation provides context for one’s Beliefs, leading to more satisfying implementation during play. The Belief “My race will dominate the central valley!” will be one thing to the guy with Born Peasant – Shepherd – Conscript – Captive of War – Insurrectionist and something different to the guy with Born Noble – Page – Squire – Knight – Military Order.

    I don’t share a lot of the disdain for back story with regard to characters. I find it useful for grounding my characters’ motivations and methods.

  7. June 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Good point, David.
    I suppose my frustration with it comes in when I forget something that would have been cool for a scene, or if I’m having trouble keeping track of all a BW character’s BITs (haven’t run it yet, but I’m a little intimidated by this).
    High handling time irks me quite a bit; if I’m really grooving on a scene, I don’t want to get yanked out of my mojo to go consult the rules.
    I think background is just fine; it definitely helps to establish who and what a character is. But it can’t be a straitjacket, and there can certainly be too much of it to be useful. That’s what I was getting at.

  8. 8 storybythethroat
    June 7, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I can sympathize with both of your perspectives. I don’t think back story is an evil per se, and it can be very fulfilling–as in the case of Burning Wheel, where the Lifepaths give you a great sense of the scope of someone’s life. But detailed character history can be a crutch, and at its worst even prevent the realization of dramatic progression in play. That can be because the good stuff has already “happened,” or because the character becomes too beloved and precious in their pristine state to ever risk being sullied by actual challenge and growth. Often both, I suppose. I think what saves BW Lifepaths from that fate is precisely the Beliefs and Instincts–distilling that implied life history into some key points of proactivity and conflict to focus on in play.

    As a matter of fact, while I’m enthusiastically gearing up for a Burning Wheel game as written with David and friends–I’d probably love to play a game with just Lifepaths and BITs, leaving most of the other crunch behind. That’s where the meat’s at; the other details merely provide a framework for discrete actions.

    Regarding your point about Vampire, Zac, I was just listening to an old interview with Ron Edwards, where he makes the point that Vampire’s Humanity kills Story Now because it constrains actions as it plummets, which is counterproductive to the bold decisions and rising action of a classic story. Contrast with Humanity in Sorcerer or Keys in Shadow of Yesterday, where the mechanic either tracks (Sorcerer) or encourages (TSoY) tendencies, but the Player and character is ALWAYS free to buck the trend, and is even rewarded significantly for doing so.

  9. June 7, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Well said!
    I’m working up to my own Burning Wheel game right now, a 1-on-1 over Skype with a friend from the East Coast. I fully intend to stay the hell out of the Rim of the Wheel section, using only the Character Burner and the basic rules from the main book.

    On the subject of constraining vs. encouraging action, I’m working on a brand new version of my game about honor, Mask of the Emperor, set in mythical Aegean lands. There’s a character class, Hero, that must select one skill as his trademark; if at any time he’s in danger of being showed up by someone else with this skill, he can either spend a Glory point and swallow his pride, or succumb to it and gain a Glory point. The exact use for Glory is less important here than the way you go about getting them :)

  10. 10 David
    June 8, 2009 at 10:31 am

    I agree about the (to me, somewhat superfluous) crunch in BW. According to Luke et al., BW is a finely tuned engine which integrates BITs with gameplay via the crunch, and fiddling with the crunch breaks the game much like removing a sparkplug breaks a car.

  11. June 17, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I’m going to be referring folks to this article because I think you do a great job of capturing my excitement with Story Now! play and explaining it in a succinct manner. From here I would like to see you discuss ways we can spread the fire. I’m very interested in building my local Story Games community and any thoughts or experiences you have on that would be great to hear. (I’m still reading the previous post, so forgive me if you’ve done that already.)

    I play Burning Empires and I see the lifpaths as solid enough to ground your character in the fiction of the setting but open enough to add lots of detail to it in play. I haven’t seen it hinder play at my table and I feel as if our BE sessions are just as Story Now! as our PTA and With Great Power games. I think it helps that we didn’t go any further than picking the lifepaths – no real backstories were writen.

    Also, I think instincts can cause your character to go against what’s in their own best interests, which can really drive the story in unexpected directions. That’s something that’s hard to achieve in other games no matter how many faults and quirks you give a character.

    In summary: Great blog and discussion – keep it up!

  12. 12 storybythethroat
    June 26, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Scott: done!

    Thanks for coming by! I’m glad you found the blog useful and interesting.

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