Thursday, August 16, 2007

Editorial: Words Have Power

In RPG theory, much like RPG design, we should be constantly aware that the words we use to describe and classify have a depth of meaning and a history of use beyond our particular use of them. The choice of what to call a new concept or how to rename an old one has consequences in how we use that concept and what connotations the concept will gain.

This is an important reason to engage with multiple theories and to examine ideas and concepts from multiple perspectives and approaches. It is very easy to become lost in the connotations of names when we should be exploring the meaning that lies beneath them.

One excellent object lesson in the power of naming in design and theory is the Brain Damage debate started by Ron Edwards in 2006. Specifically he observed specific story difficulties in long time players of Storyteller games, which we called Story Blindness in reporting it. Examining his claim of Brain Damage opens up several interesting places where naming had a surprising amount of influence.

First, is in Storyteller games themselves. Specifically, these games name the common role of GM, the Storyteller in the context of the game producing a story. While we often treat the choice of such words to be incidental, the subtle implication of Storyteller is that the GM role is the giver of story, while the players are thereceivers of it, an audience who, while involved does not participate in the same way. Consider if the GM has been called Narrator how different the implied dynamics would be, with players being the main characters, not the audience.

Thus the Storyteller dynamic sets up the presumption that the story is what the Storyteller gives you, regardless of the quality or pertinence. This is despite the presence of tools that could just as easily foster collaboration (such as explicit theme, mood, and motifs). It is reasonable to see the Storyteller mystique as a major root of the brain damage that Edwards identifies.

This makes it all the more interesting that Edwards' use of the phrase brain damage is such an excellent example of how words can influence our use of them in unintended ways. Few discussions of RPG theory have reached the level of polarization and venom that the brain damage debate entered. At the same time, the term puts a pressure on extracting from the discussion some consensus. How can such a consensus be reached without using our (quite possibly damaged) brains?

Consider, again the difference had the debate started with the term story difficulty or story blindness (as this reviewer used to attempt to express the ideas of both sides in a reasonable manner). Would the debate have focused less on the visceral feelings and more on an examination of the causes of what Edwards observed? Over a year later the debate has polarized itself into stagnation, with only a brave few seeking to explore it, despite how well known it may be.

It is more than reasonable to say that the games and hence the stories from those games will affect our own views of stories. Indeed, the words we use to describe the process we take in building a story can do so. Edwards believed that the Storyteller games do have this effect, but that it could be remedied (in some ways) by games with a different view of stories, those with a Narrativist (also known as Story Now) bent.

One of the critical concepts in Edwards' flagship design, Sorcerer, of this sort is something he calls a Bang. A bang is a moment of decision, a choice for the player characters to make. As a choice of words, bang has very different connotations than, say, choice. Not the least of these is a sense of urgency and violence.

As the term bang has become an important piece of Edwards' theory and its use beyond Sorcerer, it is important to ask does this term present a similar risk as Storyteller does? Do Story Now bangs risk a different kind of damage in understanding stories? These are difficult questions, but ones we must ask when accept that the words we use have power beyond how we intend to use them.

1 comment:

Valvorik said...

The question I've seen traces of is the degree Story Now = Protagonist Play (chinn) and the degree the Bangs need to be the "value vs value defining" character moments some suggest exploring premise, VS can they be any interesting choice?

I suspect you can have "story now" (in that story is not predetermined, flows from player actions at table) that is not based on 'character defining' choices.

I do think that you can't give 'character defining choices' full scope in anything other than "story now" play.