Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

I’m of the view that a lot of the work Ron Edwards and other theorists did at the Forge, back when that place had an active RPG theory discussion forum before Ron Edwards declared the theory complete and shut the board down (one of many things Ron has done over the years which convinces me that he’s a really terrible academic), had a net negative effect on RPG discourse. The biggest achievement of the Forge, I think, was to provide the networking opportunities, pooled resources, mutual encouragement and exchange of advice necessary to cultivate a new wave of small press and self-published RPGs, but that has everything to do with logistical and commercial know-how and nothing to do with the RPG theory ideas they popularised.

Whilst some Forge ideas are useful in a very few contexts (usually when talking about the failures of Forge theory, but occasionally for other purposes), equally a lot of it is quite jargon-heavy – and worse, it’s a jargon which is primarily engineered by someone (Ron) who makes it quite clear that there are some types of gaming experience he specifically wants to promote and be partisan towards, whilst there are other (commercially successful, critically successful, and enduringly popular) models of gaming he is actively and overtly hostile towards. This terminology obfuscates a lot of Forge rhetoric, and in addition if you buy into the terminology too much it becomes difficult to impossible to even talk about certain kinds of game.

If you’re using Forge talk to talk about Forgey games, then it sort of works because the designers of said games tended to refer directly to those ideas whilst designing them; you can easily find the Creative Agenda because the designers made damn sure to include it prominently, for instance, In other cases, when discussing games designed by people with an entirely different outlook, using Forge jargon at best it feels like discussing Buddhism using exclusively definitions and terminology from Catholic doctrine (the jargon doesn’t even relate to the material in question), or trying to discuss which variety of socialism is better whilst exclusively using definitions from anti-Communist literature (the jargon is actively hostile to even contemplating the sort of ideas you’re trying to express). This is a shortcoming when you want a terminology to talk about RPGs in general, but I suppose it’s a boon if you want to encourage the development of a particular type of game which isn’t well-served by major publishers (due, in part, to the necessity to go for a big tent approach when you get past a certain scale).

One of the few bits of Forge jargon I think is sometimes useful to use in other contexts is the whole Story Before, Story Now, and Story After deal. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, this is a way of looking at how a roleplaying game offers the experience of a “story”, which is something a lot of people in the hobby say they want but equally is something a lot of people disagree about when it comes to actually defining what it is or how to achieve it.  Roughly defined, these terms mean the following (note that this is not a chapter-and-verse quotation of Ron’s definitions, which evolve regularly as he updates some parts of his theories and disowns over parts, but a rough summary of the terms as they are most commonly used):

  • Story Before play is exemplified most obviously by prewritten modules and more or less all the refereeing advice White Wolf has ever written: the referee devises a prewritten plot before play commences (whether they do it for the entire campaign in advance, or immediately before each session). Here, storytelling is an exercise in planning out a plot arc for the campaign to follow.
  • Story Now play uses overt system methods to drag the process of telling stories into the context of the session itself. People have raging arguments about what this means because they often are working from different definitions of “story”. For example, if you define “story” the way Ron does, it’s “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”, then game mechanics which hardwire in a premise and steer the process of play towards presenting, heightening and resolving it are Story Now mechanics. (Dogs In the Vineyard was a good example of this, though I confess I sold my copy ages ago so I may be misremembering.) If you don’t agree with Ron’s definition of story, of course, the same Story Now techniques which tickle his pickle will set your teeth on edge and make your palms itch. Games gunning for Story Now generally try to minimise the distinction between “telling a story” and “playing the game” as they humanly can.
  • Story After play looks at story in retrospect. There’s no pre-planned plot from the referee, and there are no game mechanics to hardwire in a particular type of narrative. The game session is a series of things that happen; in retrospect, after the session, you can see about piecing together a story by looking at the events of the session in retrospect and identifying a narrative in that. (Note that if your definition of “story” is “a series of things that happen, told in order”, then there’s literally no difference between Story Now and Story After – they’re only two distinct types if you have a particular narrative theory about what a story is that is different or more narrow than “sequence of events”.)
  • Since the easiest way to understand the concept is as denoting when the bulk of the work of story construction happens, you could propose a fourth type of play: Story Never. This would be almost indistinguishable from Story After, except the effort to construct a story based on what happened in the game never actually happens: the RPG is approached not as an engine for creating stories but as a simulation for exploring worlds, and the stuff that happens in a session is, like the events of real life, just a bunch of stuff that happens rather than part of a cohesive story. Ron never talked about Story Never, mostly because he was working on the basis that nobody would ever dream of playing an RPG without thinking about story.

Note that in a classic example of someone not understanding or appreciating the best aspects of their own creation, Ron would end up distancing himself from the whole Story Before/Now/After thing.

The key to explaining it is to start with the topic: creative agenda. Which is not the product of play, but rather the process. Therefore the issue of “hey! we made a story!” is immediately removed from the conversation. I’ve found that people are perfectly able to understand the point once that’s established.

That’s also why I am not pleased by the recent enthusiasm about Story Before, Story Now, Story After, because it holds Story as an equivalent term for all three. Whereas the Before and After terms are expressly concerned with product, and Story Now is expressly concerned with process – specifically the priorities of the human process, i.e., not merely some “when someone accumulates 10 black tokens, the GM initiates the Climax scene” mechanic. I only posed those two other terms as dysfunctional failures of Story Now, which may be snooty and biased of me, but maybe it would have been better to stay with that – and the historically observable fact that attempts at either are not particularly successful – than to indulge David’s bandwagon for what is merely an unrealized ideal at this time.

However, I think the terminology is useful precisely because lots of people when talking about roleplaying talk about “story”, and often they use it to mean completely different things, and pinning down whether someone is talking about a preplanned plot, mechanically enforced narrative structure, or retrospective anecdote can help greatly in working out where they are coming from. (Of course, you could just say “preplanned story”, “mechanically enforced story”, or “retrospective story”, rather than giving fancy in-crowd names to those terms, but there you go.) As a case in point of how individual the term “story” is, Ron Edwards defines story as the process of producing, heightening, and resolving a Premise, which seems to be the result of him deciding that the college-level introductory literature course he sometimes teaches accounts for the sum total of all stories ever told in any medium, a confusion comparable to someone who’s studied Screenwriting 101 assuming that just because the three act structure is the only format taught in their lessons, it’s the only format that exists, and therefore every movie must fit the three act structure and it’s impossible to make a good film that doesn’t follow it. (Farewell, Eraserhead.) This is the sort of sweeping-but-inaccurate assumption about other people’s specialisations (Ron is strictly speaking a biologist) you often get in academia when people start prattling about matters outside of their zone of competence.

Take, for instance, the Morte d’Arthur; structurally, it is a goddamn mess if you try to judge it by the criteria of the three act format, or Ron’s ideas about addressing Premise, or indeed most modern ideas about narrative structure, but clearly none of that stops it being a landmark work of Arthurian romance which literally set the canon for more or less every significant work that followed it. (If you want to grasp just what an accomplishment that is, imagine someone came along tomorrow and wrote a fantasy novel which took in more or less all the Tolkien-esque fantasy stories written to date, put them into one coherent setting, and actually came up with a massive, epic story with sufficient internal consistency and thematic interconnections between the stories that everyone else writing in a similar mode straight-up stopped coming up with their own fantasy worlds and just referred to the megabook instead. That’s more or less what Malory did.)

Which takes me to the subject of my Pendragon campaign, which in defiance of Ron not seriously believing that addressing multiple creative agendas in a game is even possible or sensible, seems to be delivering hot, juicy slabs of Story Before, Now and After.

It is, of course, mostly Story Before. Playing a game about Arthurian myth where there’s a reasonable chance that Arthur won’t pull the sword out of the stone, nobody will ever find the Holy Grail and Mordred won’t turn out to be a wrong’un would feel dissatisfying for many people, and my players made it clear that they didn’t need or want the opportunity to change mythical history. In addition, for this campaign I am making extensive use of The Great Pendragon Campaign, which is Greg Stafford’s epic synthesis of the Morte d’Arthur, John Boorman’s Excalibur, and a heap of other Arthurian sources into a massive tome replete with adventures to tie Pendragon characters right into the heart of the myth. Not only is it Story Before, it’s Story Centuries Before.

Equally, though, Pendragon is absolutely famous for its personality mechanics. The Glory, Passions and Traits systems provide powerful incentives for players to behave like Malory-esque knights, and the thing about the Morte d’Arthur is that it’s literally an enormous compilation of the heroic deeds and miserable failures of knights; that is literally what each and every single chapter is constructed around, that’s why Malory writes these (to modern eyes, incredibly dull) accounts of tourneys, and that’s the mechanism by which Malory addresses what premises he chooses to address. Although it lacks mechanisms for players to directly take control of the narrative, arguably this is entirely thematically appropriate for the premise of knights pursuing their Passions and having epic pissing contests to see who is the most glorious and worshipful knight, and if you encourage players to do that a narrative that feels true to the inspirational material and the themes of the game tends to emerge during play just like that.

In addition, of course, Story Now doesn’t need to have any mechanics at all. Gary Gygax is rumoured to have once said “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules”; this rumour could all just have been a joke on Allan Varney’s part, but it’s been held up by the Old School Renaissance dudes as support for their pet themes of “rulings vs. rules” and encouraging both players and referees to think outside of the box; if anything, it’s just as true (if not more so) for Story Now play. If people see eye to eye on what sort of story they want to unfold at the table (or, if they agree with Ron, which Premises they want to address during play), then a lot can be achieved simply through direct negotiation. To give my players full credit, so far they’ve been really good at both embracing the personality mechanics and directly making suggestions about developments they’d like to see in the campaign, and whilst it’s early days yet this seems to be developing into some recurring themes for the campaign as they direct more focus onto the things they are interested in. (Of course, in campaign-length play themes are developed at a rather more modest pace than in your typical storygame, which not only insists on Story Now, but often also Story Fully Contained Within A Session, or at the very least Story Quickly, which doesn’t leave much room for gradual buildups.)

In addition, I have been having great fun getting some Story After with the campaign. As has become customary for me, I’ve set up a blog for the campaign to provide easy access to session summaries, and for my own amusement I write the blog as though it’s my own summary of an old chivalric romance the group is translating. This is the ideal excuse for some after the fact highlighting of themes; for instance, Uther Pendragon failing dismally in a joust becomes not just a random quirk of the dice, but foreshadowing of the collapse of his reign and a metaphor for the failure of the Britons to support him. Of course, constructing the blog is a solitary pursuit and isn’t mechanically mandated by the game, but the thing about Story After is that it’s intrinsically something that happens in your head after the action of the session, and by definition it isn’t governed by game mechanics because if it were it’d be happening in the session and be Story Now. (In fact, Dan found Fiasco to be more satisfying in terms of Story After – that is, the narrative his recollection presented of the session – than in terms of Story Now, the process of the session itself, despite the fact that supposedly Fiasco is mechanically pushing Story Now out the wazoo.)

The point of this post isn’t to brag about how awesome my Pendragon campaign is – though I am very pleased with how it’s going – but to make two points:

  • Story Before, Now, and After don’t need to be mutually exclusive, even in games where one predominates.
  • None of these approaches to story actually need mechanical support provided you have the participant buy-in necessary to not need mechanical support.

I find it interesting that Forge theorists jump from a desire for Story Now in their gaming to producing games in which narrative control is the object of competition, when in principle there’s nothing stopping a more collaborative approach. You may object that if people didn’t want to compete for narrative control they wouldn’t play games, but equally if we are to believe the Doctrine of Creative Agendas if your primary goal is Story Now then you are primarily interested in RPGs as a medium for generating narrative rather than as gamey games.

I can quite easily posit a model of Story Now play which is almost entirely co-operative, and game mechanics only come into play when the group cannot otherwise collectively agree on what happens next; in other words, randomisers are used not as part of a constant competition for narrative control, but to resolve deadlocks and keep the story moving. This would probably bug Ron Edwards because it wouldn’t hardwire in a particular narrative or dramatic structure. But equally, I don’t see that narrative or dramatic structures that work for one medium must necessarily be imposed on another; there are a swathe of novels out there whose narrative or dramatic structures simply can’t be implemented in a standard length movie, for instance. Ron, however, is very insistent on his personal definition of story, to the point where he has literally accused people who don’t buy into it or use the term “story” to refer to some other aspect of RPGs of being brain damaged.

The Forge was quite fond in its day of the idea that conventional games represent “twenty minutes of fun in a four hour session”, but I think if you interrogated people who genuinely believe that to be the case you’d find that they couldn’t agree on which 20 mintues were the fun part. For myself, I think that it is important in terms of growing and developing as a human being and as a social animal to learn to take pleasure in other people’s enjoyment – many’s a time in a game when even if what I was being presented with wasn’t directly relevant to my own preferences, I was still having fun because other people at the table were having fun. The older I get, the more I appreciate “broad church” RPGs which can accommodate a range of different types of fun simultaneously, and if your RPG theory doesn’t believe it’s possible to do that, perhaps the theory’s just a little too simple to account for actual observations. Either way, whilst I remain open to the idea of Story Now, I’m still hostile to the idea of Story Now Now Now!!!, which in a bit of concluding shit-stirring I am going to define as “being very demanding and fussy about what sort of gaming experience you are willing to sit through, and insisting that everyone else is doing it wrong” – in other words, Story Now presented with the insistent foot-stamp of an angry toddler.

2 thoughts on “Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

  1. Which takes me to the subject of my Pendragon campaign, which in defiance of Ron not seriously believing that addressing multiple creative agendas in a game is even possible or sensible, seems to be delivering hot, juicy slabs of Story Before, Now and After.

    Oh Arthur, you only *think* it’s possible because you’re *brain damaged*.

    This must be true because Ron Edwards says so, and he’s an expert on bat penises.

    1. It’s true, I played in your Vampire: the Masquerade LARP ages ago and the experience was directly analagous to being abused as a child.

      It’s lucky that the human brain so closely resembles a bat’s penis so that Ron can say these things with such authority.

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