Monday, May 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on GMing Great Story

Maighdean-Mhara (the Sea-Maiden)
All went well for three years until one day the young couple were walking by the loch shore again.  This time the monster rose out and it was Finnseang who was dragged under the waters before Murdo Og had a chance to defend her.  Murdo Og was wailing and lamenting his lost bride when an old man walking by asked what was wrong.
Murdo Og told him and the old man said: “I will tell you how you can rescue your wife and destroy the monster forever.  In the center of the loch is an island.  On the Island is a white-footed hind, slender and swift.  If you catch the hind, a black crow will spring out of her mouth and if the black crow were caught, a trout would fall out of her beak, and in the mouth of the trout would be an egg.  Now in the egg is the soul of the monster.  If you crush the egg, the monster will die.”  

When I read this passage I was struck by the simplicity and natural forthrightness of the flow of the story. Here is magic at its most enigmatic, and it is at the same time handled without flourish or frills. We are told that the magic is of a certain nature and we are expected to accept that this is magic of an enchanted realm and that the magic works as such. I liked the matter of fact-ness of the way the scene is described and my feeling is that it is the attributes of simplicity and forthrightness regarding an enigma that makes the story not only work, but moreover, great literature, as is evidenced by its vast longevity.

Then I was thinking about how a Gamesmaster could make such stories.  Is it legitimate, for example, for the Gamesmaster who might be playing out this above described Adventure to show up as the old wise man Non-Player Character with the magical knowledge, and even the exact solution to the problem?  Well, almost it does, but it becomes something of Deus Ex Machina, one feels, and I think we can legitimately question if that would be truly satisfying in a game-play sense.  After all, it is the seeming spontaneity of the events in the story that make them charming.   So how does the Gamesmaster go about creating truly literary quality stories, where the Characters (both Player and Non-Player) act in ways that convey the same kinds of qualities as we find in the fairytales and ancient legends of old?   The author of the ancient stories was able to imbue his tales with a depth of meaning and his characters with a significance that makes them accessible to everyone who reads them, even now after many centuries, though the world has changed so incredibly.  The stories still carry the power to speak to us out of the depths of time.  They still have meaning for us, even if we don't quite understand consciously exactly what they are whispering to our hearts.   This is the nature of Literary Quality stories.  They flow with the currents of an inner and often hidden universal significance.

But in a Role Playing Game it’s hard to achieve this.   Naturally, the author has a great advantage over the Gamesmaster and Players in this regard – for the author every Character is far more likely to do what he wants and expects and directs them to than in an RPG where the Gamesmaster does not control the principal Protagonists (Player-Characters).  It is not far fetched to argue that this fundamental difference makes it much more difficult to achieve truly Great RPG Stories.  However, it can be done, and it’s our job to see that it is done.  The question I keep asking us to consider is, How?

Well there’s so much RPG Theory out there, and yet my feeling about the vast majority of it, in summary, is “hogwash and fiddlesticks”.   Honestly, I do not think we can find the answer to that question via RPG Theory.   What the Theorists seem to wish to do is to establish rules by which RPGs can be made into a Science of Story Creation, but that is more than I think is possible for the Art.   They seem to believe that through rigorous analysis of RPG Players and Gamesmasters behavior (and feelings) can be factually and accurately defined, process flowed, and manipulated, just as a biologist might describe the interactions of a microbe, or a psychiatrist describe a patient’s spiritual epiphany.

But RPG Stories are not subject to this analysis any more than is art or spirituality.   In fact, it really comes down to the fact that you cannot codify the Spirit of Beautiful Art.  As such, I do not believe in a 'Science of the Spirit of Beautiful Art'.  Science is based on facts and measurements, and art is based on intuition and spirit.   You cannot measure intuition and spirit, so there can not be a science of it.  There is a great deal of scientific (or analytic) commentary on Literature, its styles, modes, periods, forms and the myriad of other things that Academics and Scholars like to study.  And all of it is well and good and interesting stuff.  But I think the Ancients went to school to learn the craft of authoring the immortal myths learned that craft in a very different way than what we think of as School today.  The myth-maker was, in the most ancient of times, a Shaman, and his education was obtained by two means.  The first was technical.  He learned the tools of his craft, which were complicated and difficult to learn and use well, with many technical details to be mastered.  But there was another side to their education that I do not think is generally understood today.   And that has to do with the Mythic-Journey.  The entering, spiritually, into the Other World to glean wisdom, and winning such pearls of wisdom, bringing them back to our ordinary world as the gems we have handed down to us in the ancient myths.

The ancient Shaman-Poet-Myth-Maker wrote from the genius of his heart, mind and spirit, and he took the world around him in all of its glory and pain and translated it into words for the sake of creating beautiful art.   I do not believe it was a science of art that made him great.  In fact, were he to have tried to do this via a scientific method (or in our case Gamesmastered according to RPG Theory) I seriously doubt he would have produced the wonders he did.  So that’s my criticism, anti-Intellectual as some people may find it.   Nor do I think we will find that RPG Theory alone can produce Great RPG Story, try as it might.   What I do not find when I read RPG Theory is what I'm seeking - how to create RPG stories that have the qualities of great literature or ancient myth.  There is something deep and profound hidden within and behind the mythos of the ancient stories.  I would like to know how I can bring this quality into my RPG World, and allow my players to experience something similar to what we experience when reading the ancient works of literature.  I do not feel that I will find the answer in RPG Theory as I find it has been discussed thus far.

What I think is required, instead of Analytics, is actual Life Experience.   Gamesmasters who wish to create Great RPG Stories should read great literature in abundance, and learn to distill out from it what makes those works Great Story, or Great Art.   But moreover they should seek to live a life full of experiences that can help them to shape their Inner Vision of the World, and make their inner light gleam with the pearls of wisdom so necessary to creating Meaning in Story. Then they can begin to add elements to their RPG Worlds that may begin to cultivate a landscape in which Great Story has a chance of growing.   It is not an all or nothing thing, but I see it as an evolutionary process.  You simply start with something that has literary qualities, and you keep watering it, cultivating it, and letting it grow with your players until you begin to see that your World bears the fruits of Great Story over time.

Another aspect that I think may be helpful is for the Gamesmaster to learn to develop a vision of the world based on their own life experiences.   To do this requires living a life in which experiences lead to insight.   I recommend this in the same sense that Shamans would head off into the other world via their dreams and obtain wisdom from the spirit world, and bring that back to their community in the form of healing stories.   I read a great book on this named “Coyote Wisdom”, and highly recommend it for Gamesmasters to read and consider.  Spend some time reading the classics and contemplating the stories of the ancient world.  In them you may find hints of Shamanistic experiences from the long forgotten swell springs of inspiration.

Now back to my questions:  How can Gamesmasters and Players create truly literary quality stories via their games?  And really, is it legitimate for the Gamesmaster to show up with the Deus Ex Machina, and for the Players to follow certain pathways pro-forma?  Well yes, sure, of course – it all depends on the timing, the mood, the Players, the phase of the moon, and how many butterfly wings flapped along the beach on the coast of Hawaii in the year 1200 BC.

But I also think that Gamesmasters who have insight, who have through their life experiences obtained a certain wisdom, can, and indeed do, foster Worlds from which Great RPG Stories can emanate.   I am seeking that path, and encourage my friends to do the same, as I believe in that direction Great Story is to be found.   Many say "it is impossible", and "Games can never be art" and other such nonsense.   I don't believe them.   And so I will continue my search, alone, perhaps, but happy in the delusion of my Great Story Dream.

If you care to read the outcome of my latest effort in this direction you may find links to my 2009-2010 Elthos Game Story here.   Enjoy.


Mark Cunningham said...

Excellent post. Came across it via the RPGBlogAlliance.

In principal I agree, RPG Theory will not per say generate Art. But I do think it's a necessary component. There are two types of genius in the world, those that are natural genius and those that work at it.

My feeling is that you must first learn how to GM. Once you can GM without having to understand RPG theory and it's digressions then you can bring in your life experiences. An artist who is not a natural genius must first master their craft and once they have they can then use it express freely their vision.

And I think mechanics can provide tools to allow such Literary Quality stories to appear.

Or, as seems to happen in my group, purposely choose to take a more mundane "fun" path. :)

vbwyrde said...

I actually agree with you, Mark. There is the whole question of GMing Technique, which has to do with the Craft (or what I call Technical) side of the thing. It's like an artist who must learn what kinds of paints, canvases and brushes are available, and how to use them. Once he has mastered the basic techniques and can paint competently from a technical point of view, he is then ready to go on and create Art. This is the point at which I'm picking up and saying, Ok, from there, how do I create RPG Worlds that have literary qualities, and how do I make GMing my Art form? I want to create masterpieces of story through my world. It is very tricky because, as you allude, you need to also have Players who are willing to immerse themselves into their Characters and the World, and not just behave silly for the fun of it, though there is nothing "wrong" what playing that way, and in fact that can add quite a lot of charm to a Great Story, too, if done in moderation. Immersion, I think requires a Great World, as well as Great GMing Technique. When you have both, then you really have something!