Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cooperative Storytelling

Everyone likes to tell stories.

Many people think they don't, and many more think they are terrible at it. But I find that, given the right constraints and suggestions (choppertunities glarrrrrrghhhhh...) even the most uptight, unimaginative person can tell great stories. Or, at least, pieces of a great story.

When you get people together to tell stories, there are basically three stages. Each player moves through the stages at different speeds: some players need a lot of help, some players just need a little time to adjust to the situation.

The first stage is "bewilderment". In this stage, the player doesn't really know enough to try to tell a story. In this stage, the player is usually happiest to hear stories - to follow, rather than lead.

Giving the player a viewpoint and examples is the fastest way to get them through this stage. For example, "You're the pirate king, and those guys over there could use some pirate help..." or "you're the incarnation of joy, so keep that in mind as you play..."

The second stage is "immersion". In this stage, the player is part of the world. In this stage, they usually want to explore the world using their viewpoint, and they can be relied on to seek out new experiences and help direct events as their viewpoint (character) would.

Many LARPs and tabletops reach this second stage and stop. It's easy to design a game which uses the second stage, but more difficult to design a game which allows the players to get to stage three.

The third stage is "creation". In this stage, a player stops adhering to the viewpoint given them and begins to think about the world and its stories at a larger level. At this stage, they can be relied on to guide and create situations that try to make the world more interesting.

In order to allow for this third stage, though, a game has to let players make significant changes... which has serious drawbacks. And I'm not talking about content or any of that - generally, players moderate themselves very well as to what is acceptable storytelling or not.

No, I'm talking about the fact that the history of the world gets very deep. New players and slower players will be unable to keep up with the flurry of new stories, and the people who created the stories aren't going to want to tell them over and over again. This generally results in "writer packs" of three to five people working on their corner of the universe and basically ignoring the fact that everyone else lives here, too.

Moreover, I have never seen a game designed to let players be in any of the three stages without being hindered. I've designed games which are good for any one stage, but the rules make it hard to be in one of the other stages. This leads to a very uncomfortable unbalance as to how many players of each stage there are. I don't know the ideal ratio, if there is such a thing.

What do you think? Can you think of a rule set which lets players go through all three stages unhindered? Can you think of a way to bring in fresh blood without requiring a lot of overhead from the experienced players?


Patrick said...

I can't come up with such a rule-set off the top of my head, but I think the disparity between acclimating each stage in a given design is reminiscent of my "Conservation Of Agency" idea. In each stage, the total agency is greater than the previous stage, but the emphasis seems to shift from local to global agency. So if you have a system that is highly conducive to local agency, it'd work well for bringing players in, while one conducive to a lot of depth would be good for tight-knit hardcore cadres.

I think this problem can be mitigated somewhat with the computer, because you can design an interface to be transparent and implicative, and people can sort of go at their own pace, given adequete balance, Montessori style. Its like a free market approach.

Craig Perko said...

In this case, my experience makes me disagree. Focusing on global agency leads to an explosion of complex content - stories that those outside the small group of creators don't know anything about. That complexity keeps new players (and slower players) separate.

In short, it's the issue, not the solution.

While a computerized solution is plausible, I have huge doubts as to whether you can get the same kind of chemistry between players that you get in person. I think story-creating in person is more effective and efficient.