The Myth of Story Preservation

Some songs comes out of the ground like a potato. Others you have to make them out of things you’ve found… like your mother’s pool cue and you know, your father’s army buddy and your sister’s wrist watch and that type of thing. You’d be surprised what you can find if your, y’know, resourceful.

– Tom Waits

Joe’s post

Mick’s post

Mick writes: “I think it has a lot to do with the difference between what many people think “Story Now” means in roleplaying – .ie. making decisions based upon what works best for ‘the story’ – and what I believe it actually means – organically exploring the premise in the moment as a group and letting the results spring forth as they will from that communion.

In Story Now play you are not at all thinking about making a good story. You are not making decisions for the good of the story. Eff that in the aye.

The goal of games, even narr-heavy thematic games Story Now, is not to make a story. Story happens.

The goal is a night of people making meaningful choices at the table. Story is a by-product, like exhaust coming out of a car.

It is also a by-product of gamist play and sim play. Story just happens.

Looking out for the story leads to constipation at the table. Story does not need to be preserved or looked out for. It is not a just hatched chick that needs everyone to be careful lest it is trampled. Just play the damned game, make choices that are brave. Look at your character sheet, let your character surprise you and story will just happen.

Do not preserve story. Shitty stories are made in those times everyone is being careful not to ruin the story, leading to cowardly decisions and furrowed brows and serious thinking about serious things. Story is fun, let it out of the cage. Let the story get damaged and messy.

I like my stories with only one headlight, the other smashed and a dinged up fender. I like my story with an engine that shouldn’t work, that mechanics insist should not run anymore because there is no spark plug and no engine oil. I like them messy and loud with chipped paint and a spider-web crack in the windshield. You should look at them and know they survived something to get to ya.

Stories just happen in RPG play. Relax. Let them occur.

More on this at Story Games

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33 thoughts on “The Myth of Story Preservation

    • Thank you for the post, Mick.

      It is a brave thing to post something on-line where you say, “I dunno about this,” and invite dialog.

  1. Yes!

    I keep running into gamers who insist that rules “get in the way of a good story.” To which I’ve formulated this reply.

    In the games I play I’ve never seen the rules get in the way of *a* good story. Not once. I have many, many times seen the rules get in the way of the story a particular player wants to tell. That’s good. I hope the rules get in the way of you telling me your character’s story. I’m not interested in you telling me a story. I’m interested in the process of exploring human issues which will create a story. Hopefully, one that neither of us ever expected or perhaps wanted (in the safe and comfortable sense of the word) to tell.


    • I think, very often, that the word -story- get’s tossed around as a synonym for “good game” and that leads to all kinds of confusion. Rules getting in the way of a good game…yeah, that shit happens.

      This is my internet way of entirely agreeing with you, Jesse. I hear ya.

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  3. Hell, yes, Judd!

    Willem Larsen and I were just playing Ben Robbins’ Microscope, and we got giddy as schoolgirls when we read the bit about playing scenes that said, essentially, “don’t you DARE collaborate! Play passionately and let each other sweat a little.” Misspent Youth has a similar rule, where you are ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN to say what your guy’s doing before the dice are thrown. I rewrote my own Spectre of the Beast’s rules about playing scenes and leading up to conflicts when folks in my playtest group were halting play entirely to discuss what they were “interested in the conflict being about.”

    I did it myself in my first Indie Game experience–PTA, of course–and totally sucked the life out of play. Since then I’ve thought a lot about what keeps the heart of story beating in a game, and concluded that it’s the zen-like technique of paying it no mind and as you say, letting it happen.

    This topic has gone around the bend a bit from my original post, but I think it’s awesome. It takes my “let’s make our own authentic human statements!” and molds it a bit into “here’s how!” That gratifies me to no end.


    • Maybe because it is often folks’ first foray into indie gaming, or because it has different goals than D&D or the way PTA play has often become a verbal game of telephone without anyone at the table having read the rules…shit, maybe its something in the text itself or maybe it is because Matt is the devil – this happens quite often with Primetime Adventures.

      It might have something to do with that idea that in PTA you play script-writers or some shit. I dunno.

      Whenever it does happen, it has been pretty easy to point at the text and say, “But…right here it says don’t do that but do this.”

      • I can confirm that my impression of how to play PTA in the “scriptwriter mode” came from our Star Wars LV game. In fact, IIRC you pointed it out on one of my write-ups of the sessions I ran in PR earlier this year for having stated that. PTA has that “game of telephone” thing going on for sure.

        This is tangentially related to the whole idea of your and Mick’s posts, because it was “looking out for the story” that my Star Wars Sith PTA players locked onto when I explained PTA to them (there’s the telephone game thing), and ultimately what almost ruined the last 2 episodes of the game (which I’ve yet to write up but do have recorded).

        I learned what you wrote here then; this just makes it tangible and quotable, easily remembered for the next session.

      • There is a gear-shift that might not be clear.

        When we do the pitch session and create a series, then we are script writers, in the sense that we are creating something together but there is a shift once characters are decided upon and play begins.

      • In my experience, what Matt wrote is fairly clear, at least if you are able to approach the text without any preconceptions or conditioned expectations. Nevertheless, there was definitely a gear-shift for me, because I DID have to filter through the preconceptions and conditioning.

        And I don’t think I’d ever have grokked it without the patient and trusting space to work through it, see it in actual play – *not* working when forced and *working* when set free – and then realizing how to use the mechanics and my friends’ creativity to carry that forward with consistency.

  4. “[Story] is also a by-product of gamist play and sim play. Story just happens.”

    I recently figured out a good (for my brain) comparison: story in gamist games (my main reference being Beast Hunters, of course) is like the landscape in Carcassone.

    As to the main thrust of what you’re saying: Absolutely. In our current PTA game, we’ve had several moments where one player just shoots out something with his character that totally alters what we expected the story to be. It’s a family drama about miners on a remote planetoid, the PCs are all children of the patriarchal mine owner, and I think we all had ideas about where this might go. But then, bang! The golden boy signs up with the space marines that keep the miners in check for the corporate interests. And bang! The headstrong oldest son starts a miner’s strike. And so on. At first we (including the GM) were a bit taken aback, because those are major shifts in the story that no one saw coming like this. But boy is it providing for lots of story fodder.

    So yeah, I don’t think these things would have come up by committee. But they did come up through daring play.

  5. There is an undertone to this which I don’t entirely buy into, though it is more a function of the comments than the initial post.

    First and foremost, I’m largely in agreement with the core sentiment – play the hell out of the game, and if it makes a cool story then that’s great. But there’s a nuance to this that feels a little bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    See, I think there is a skill to narrative. There are players who have a sense of drama, either natural or learned, who know when to throttle up and throttle down, and when to step back because it would be more awesome if it was someone else’s turn.

    Now, I don’t think anyone is genuinely endorsing selfish play, but I think that’s what it ends up sounding like when you talk in terms of just playing hard to the rules and letting it sort itself out. The reality is that a lot of folks who are endorsing that actually know better when they get to the table.

    I sort of file this under the general bucket of the discomfort of talking about things in terms of player or GM skill as something separate form their mastery of a particular set of rules. It’s understandable, but occasionally frustrating to me.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see “Just fucking play” presented to well and so strongly, and I totally support that, but be careful what it ends up demonizing.

    -Rob D.

    • Rob,

      What I was saying was very specifically meant to debunk something Mick said about a certain kind of play and nothing at all about player or GM techniques skillfully applied during play.

      Does that make sense?


      • Absolutely. The reason I did not reply yesterday is that I didn’t think the initial post called for this observation, I was just made a little twitchy by some of the comments here.

        -Rob D.

    • Anything particular twitching ya out that you care to talk about?

      I’d imagine we can do so without the internet equivalent of calling anyone out for a formal knife fight on a rain-slick roof at night.

      • Well, let me abstract the point a bit. There is an idea that underpins a few comments that really is what grabs me. The idea seems to be that if everyone engages the rules text and really pushes it hard, then something awesome will happen. It’s a nice idea, and it’s often true, but it’s often presented under the mantle of TRUTH.

        This runs up a couple flags for me, beyond the simple matter of truthiness. First, I think it falls into the trap of fetishizing rules texts. I’m fully aware that this concern is probably my single largest point of divergence from the larger body of story-games, so I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it will always ping my radar when it comes up.

        The second it tangentially related to the first, and that is that I think it’s a really bad lesson. There’s a lot of value in trusting the rules and going balls out, but it is not the entirety of the potential experience. Compared to the actuality of play, it’s closer to a drill or exercise – something that produces useful outcomes and can be rewarding, but is an explicit subset of the larger play.

        The second is no shock. People get excited about slices of things all the time, and in all hobbies, often so excited that they feel like they’ve found something new or entirely different, and a lot of good stuff comes from that enthusiasm, especially because they’re sometimes right. But sometimes a drill is just a drill, and it can be worth mentioning in discussion.

        -Rob D.

    • Well for my part, I make no claims to truth (or Truth), I’m just talking through my experience in play over the past couple of years.

      For what its worth Rob, I agree in principle about the benefits of a person having a sense of narrative.

      The specific thrust that got this going was when I wrote on my blog that I feel like there’s a distinction between art-by-committee and art-by-community, but I couldn’t articulate it well – and then I used the analogy that I’ve read a lot of people think the term “story now” or “narrativist play” means to play with the primary focus on what’s best for the story, but I’ve come to realize I think it is about letting go, addressing premise, and letting stuff happen organically. Which of course is another shaky attempt on my part to mix a bunch of jargon-terms and buzz-words into my point. Judd then took it and ran with a debunk of the notion of “story now = story first”, as he wrote above.

      In any case, none of this was meant as a manifesto. Not by me, anyhow. It HAS however, been true in most of my play over the past couple of years.

      • Was totally not taken as a Manifesto, and I apologize if I sound like it was. I think I ended up so circumspect as to become somewhat incomprehensible. 🙂

        -Rob D.

  6. Just because I can’t not chew on things, I think I have a more succinct summary.

    I agree that you should just play without trying to create a story. It is a terrible goal. But I disagree that we are best served by just letting it go to let god sort it out (so to speak).

    There are specific skills, techniques and sensibilities with roots in story creation which can make a game better in the same ways they would improve a story. They are painful and clumsy when used explicitly, but a player or a GM who has internalized these narrative sensibilities is more likely to have a better experience than one who has not, or who has not seen fit to try.*

    There is absolutely an awkward hump to get past to reach the point where those sensibilities are truly internalized, but that is the painful nature of getting better at something.

    -Rob D.

    * This is not some magical property of story, by the by. Almost any useful tool could offer a similar benefit if it is a) applicable to gaming in some way and b) internalized. Rules text, good manners and an understanding of probabilities are all examples of similar things which can improve the game, but no one would expect you to “play to”**

    ** Excepting maybe rules. Which is a little weird.

    • Technique is hugely important, hence, Good Sentences, back in the day. Getting better at making shit up with your friends…well, I’m all about helping out that improvement to happen. It really does take skill, no doubt and those skills are only gathered by playing at a nurturing table, making mistakes and playing lots.

      Saying, “Let go,” was just a reaction to a certain kind of creative constipation that I have seen with folks who are story coddling, not advice to everyone who plays.

    • And thank you for clarifying. I was reading the former post and scratching my head, trying to parse it. I appreciate the second swing-around a whole lot.

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  8. I’m coming to the conversation late, but reading the original post and comments, I also have a sense of unease about the premise of playing without a mind for the direction of the story.

    I’m nowhere near as eloquent as Rob or Judd or Mick. I don’t have the universal principals of my concerns boiled down to an abstract argument, so I’m going to rely on a couple examples that hopefully will illustrate my concerns.

    1. A long term L5R game. (Supporting Judd’s position)

    In this game the players are heavily invested in the characters and the continued story. There have been times when things go an unexpected way, but there are also places where people just won’t go. Character death is always consensual. It does not happen until a player is ready to see their character off. Several scenes have been cut off with a statement like “what would be best for the story is if we…” In short there has been a significant effort on the part of the GM and the players to maintain an epic story arc.

    While I love this game, I’ve felt the kind of constipation that you’re talking about Judd. People are afraid to find out what happens if they follow a path that seems reasonable in the moment, for fear of what it will do to the long term viability of the game. In one case I finally did have my character kill himself (seppuku) when he had taken what I thought was too much, and was terrified that starting with a new character would not be nearly as much fun… it turned out I was wrong.

    2. Several games of Fiasco and Penny for My Thoughts. (My concerns)

    In the same group we’ve played many games of Fiasco and Penny. They are one shot games that often as not are an opportunity for us to blow off steam and “just fucking play”. Where we’ve gone in those games is a) often to a state of depravity that saps the emotional impact out of the game and b) to a place where I really don’t know what to do next. I’m going to talk a little about both of those.

    2a) Going too far. Too many times my experience with “just play, don’t worry about the consequences” does not result in genuine play but in one-upmanship as one player tries to top the awesomeness that is already in the scene. This usually works for one or two exchanges of escalation before it breaks the walls of what I thought the game was about and we stop playing Go and start playing Animal House. So I caution players to temper “just fucking play” with what is going to bring more to the story. Not in terms of sculpting the story for the future, but in terms of grist for the mill. I see it like an energy exchange. A selfish (or just unthinking) player may take something awesome in a scene and do something that sounds cool for them but ultimately saps energy from the group and leaves little for the others to work with. That sounds a little too esoteric so here’s an example. “I heard you had an abortion Stacy, wow, that’s crazy, how are you doing?” I think the thoughtful response is to engage that statement and give the other players something to chew on “I feel horrible about this but I’m so happy, I was terrified of having a child” or “I feel empty inside like my skin is just the husk of a human.” I think a selfish response that doesn’t give more fuel to the collective fire is “oh, yeah, it was part of my contract with the abortion doctor. He needs to test out different methods so I get pregnant all the time and have him abort the fetus. It wreaks havoc on my menstrual cycle but I get paid good money for it.” This has taken the emotional impact and turned it into a farce, at which point as a fellow player, I’ve lost interest.

    2b) Getting lost. I think this is much more conscious fear of many players. What will we do if? How do I proceed if the characters all die? If the kill the big bad? If they don’t take my plot hook? If I steel something and they say they don’t care about it? If two of the PCs get into such a heated argument that they want to kill each other? Or that the players actually get mad at each other? What if someone makes a choice that makes it impossible for them to stay with the group?

    There are hundreds of these concerns but I think they all boil down to “Crap, that was unexpected. What do we do now?” Sometimes someone thinks of a clever solution and the story keeps rolling, but I think a major reason why players do restrain themselves is because they are afraid of getting into these awkward silent moments where nobody knows how to proceed. Or because the only logical way to proceed is something that isn’t fun for anyone. “Great, we lost this battle now we’re all slaves. THIS IS NOT THE SOTC GAME I WANTED GUYS!”

    So I argue to play now but play with sincerity and be ready to hit landmines where you’ve got to stop play to figure out how to proceed. I think without an effort to sculpt the story, they are going to happen.

    • Playing doesn’t mean not caring and it doesn’t mean not taking your fellow players into consideration. That isn’t what I mean at all.

      What I mean is that you can’t worry that each and every decision won’t conform to some overarching thematic, epic and amazing thing that you are building together. Down that road lies constipation.

      What will we do if? How do I proceed if the characters all die? If the kill the big bad? If they don’t take my plot hook? If I steel something and they say they don’t care about it? If two of the PCs get into such a heated argument that they want to kill each other? Or that the players actually get mad at each other?

      Many of those problems sound like problems with the mechanics that aren’t backing up play properly.

      Or because the only logical way to proceed is something that isn’t fun for anyone. “Great, we lost this battle now we’re all slaves. THIS IS NOT THE SOTC GAME I WANTED GUYS!”

      Oh, c’mon, escape from the slave-pits of Planet X is so pulp it makes my teeth hurt. I loved it when my pulp heroes were captured, as Johnny Stripes was when he went to Evil Earth and fought his evil alternate earth twin, Jack Stars and was put into the Evil Tower of Evil London.

      Reply to my reply if you want. I want to re-read your post and reply more later, I think. Lots of GREAT stuff to digest there, Sean.

      Thanks for replying.

  9. Playing doesn’t mean not caring and it doesn’t mean not taking your fellow players into consideration. That isn’t what I mean at all.

    What I mean is that you can’t worry that each and every decision won’t conform to some overarching thematic, epic and amazing thing that you are building together. Down that road lies constipation.

    I think the state you are describing is gaming nirvana. It’s the golden road I want to walk but often find I stray off in one direction or the other (constipation on one side, chaos on the other).

    Rob talked some about internalizing narrative constructs so that by following a particular pattern or technique (“of course the princess is captured…”) you keep the story employing the themes and tropes everyone wants without actually (and explicitly) sculpting the narrative.

    I think I’m just not there yet. I still spend a lot of time thinking about “how is this going to work” and running into walls trying things out. Like learning (and eventually mastering anything), it takes a lot of work, and produces a lot of “less than awesome” results on the way there.

    So… looping back around the the point (I knew I’d get here sooner or later), I’m totally down with your post and the comments that have followed, but I think there is a process of learning how to play in the moment, making decisions fueled by the meat of what is going on right now, while still employing techniques that will engage the other players and keep the story in the sandbox everyone else wants to play in.

    And this learning process is one I’d like to think on more… and probably put out an episode of Narrative Control about 🙂

    Oh, c’mon, escape from the slave-pits of Planet X is so pulp it makes my teeth hurt.

    I can’t believe I made up such a lame example. It was something that came off the top of my head and as soon as I read your reply thought “duh, that was terrible”. It’s what I get for trying to make up a hypothetical example rather than using a real one.

    Thanks for the reply Judd. This is a great conversation and I’m really glad to be thrashing around inside it.

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