I got to thinking about story in RPGs after reading the Hack & Slash analysis of O Glossary entries at the Forge. Specifically, of interest is the idea of “Ouija Board Roleplaying”. The idea evolves out of the belief at the Forge that one must prioritize and create story intentionally for it to occur in roleplaying. Edwards et al would go on to claim that players in Simulationist play (defined by them as play that prioritizing exploration), especially those who who concentrate on exploring a world as is the case in most OSR influenced games were expecting story to simply emerge which, according to them, was impossible.
While the analysis does skewer the issue appropriately I think it misses something crucial. It’s conclusion gives a key to this:
The entire category is a strawman, because there is not a single actual real world instantiation of his example. People aren’t sitting around tables, and rolling them, waiting for an interesting occurrence, they are playing a game, and characters, and it’s those interactions that create something special.
I would argue in sandbox and other OSR playstyles we are in fact waiting for interesting occurrences. In fact waiting for interesting occurrences as opposed to having them fixed in place as much happen items is one of the defining characteristics of sandboxes and other open play forms (another mistake I think he makes but that’s a quibble, a sandbox is always open play but not vice versa).
What is confused here is that story, or better yet narrative, is not restricted to fiction. In fiction, narrative is a planned thing. The author chooses which events occur in the fictional universe. If the author chooses it to happen it happens and until he inserts it into the story it hasn’t even happened. We may presume Harry Dresden eats every night at Burger King but until Jim Butcher inserts a visit to BK by Harry it hasn’t happened. Remember our ability to insert such events because they create an interesting symmetry later.
In contrast, a memoir constructs a narrative out of a set of pre-existing events. A person takes everything they’ve experienced in their life and selects a series of events that tells the story of their life. Biography does the same thing but the process is done by someone else. Journalism and history can also be done this way. Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War is not groundbreaking in the sense that Foote perused primary sources to create a unique history of the war. Foote worked strictly from secondary sources but created a narrative version of the war. Foote’s success is not in finding new facts but creating a coherent story that organized facts about the war.
That is what Edward’s misses in what he calls simulationist play. Players in these games are living parts of the life of their characters. Story emerges not because the people at the table are co-authors creating a story in the fictional sense. Instead, they are individuals who, after the fact, create memoirs of their characters’ lives. This is how story “magically” emerges during play. People look at the events they experience, decide which are important, and arrange them into a story. In the broader sense the game can be seen as creating history which I think is what -C is after when he talks about things like motivations for NPCs and external events. However, in saying we’re not waiting for interesting events I think -C goes a few degrees off target. As he points out we create interesting interactions but we only know which ones are memorable and important (those part of the story) after the fact.
I think the problem many people have with this concept of story emerging from play is its lack of uniqueness. If we view the emerging story from play as memoir constructed by each player then Osric the Fighter will tell a different story that Mallamabar the Druid and both will be different from the story of Ian Lee the Monk. This maps very well to my experience. Ask all your players to summarize what happened last session separately and you will get roughly the same story but some will include parts omitted in others and the emphasis of common parts will be different. If your goal is literary story via play you won’t get the Lord of the Rings. You will, however, get the first three volumes of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
Note: When I first posted this I forgot about the interesting symmetry I pointed out in the fiction example: We call also take fiction and back fill the other details. This is what much of fandom is about, filling in the non-story details that interest us or move the story closer to the one we want told.