(This is the seventh installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I talked in my last post about the moments where a game narrative comes together perfectly, without the benefit of the hindsight and control that assist novelists and other fiction writers in creating a good shape. I want to dig into that some more.
Previously I’ve used the word “improvisational” to describe RPGs, which is accurate so far as it goes. But when we look at the product of an RPG — the story it creates — there is another term I find applicable, which is “emergent.” I’ll let Wikipedia help me out with this one:
Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.
The “smaller or simpler entities” here are the players and their ideas. The “larger entity” is the story that actually gets created. You can find elements of the result in the raw material, and on rare occasions a scene plays out exactly as one person intended . . . but on the whole, the result is the alchemical product of many ingredients, more than merely the sum of its parts.
This can be a good thing or a bad one, depending. After all, I have ideas of what constitutes a Good Story, which may or may not match what my fellow gamers think is a Good Story. Maybe I’m running a game, and I’ve introduced an NPC who is meant to be an untrustworthy ally, somebody who will lure the PCs into making a deal with the devil. The players see him differently, or just don’t like that idea, so they kill him. I talked about “railroading” before: a GM who falls prey to that tendency will prevent the NPC’s death, and try to force the players into a situation where they have no alternative but to accept the NPC’s offer. But even then, you’re not really ending up with the story you wanted, are you? It was supposed to be the tale of how the PCs were tempted into doing something unwise. Backing them into a corner where they don’t have any other options takes away the element of choice. So one way or another, you have to accept that the story won’t be what you hoped.
But as a writer, I value the flexibility this teaches me. I played a character once whose various incarnations always repeated a fairy-tale pattern based in large part on “Donkeyskin.” Her true love, who in every lifetime failed to save her from her monstrous father, was determined to change the story. At one point during this process, he used magic to make himself look just like her father. My thought at that moment: Jesus Christ, dude, what are you thinking? That’s the worst thing you could possibly do. But then a moment later he turned it around: his idea was that, rather than trying to convince my character that he was angelic and perfect, he wanted to acknowledge that he, too, had the potential for monstrousness within him. The difference was that he could and would choose not to be that person. It took what initially looked like a trainwreck and turned it into an important philosophical statement within the context of that story.
I would never have thought to write something like that into the story, if I were the one in charge of it. My fellow player’s creativity made the narrative richer.
And in a way, emergence is its own kind of beauty. Which do you admire more: a painting of a rosebud with a drop of dew poised just at the edge of one petal, or that same rosebud and dewdrop in reality? One is artifice; the other is serendipity. Artifice can be pretty, but the same effect happening of its own accord strikes a chord in a way the engineered version can’t.
The perfect comeback that a player thought up on the spot, rather than brainstorming a good line of dialogue for later use. The inadvertent revelation, perfectly timed for maximum comedic value. Two plots colliding in a way that alters them both for the better. I won’t say these happen 100% spontaneously; players spend time thinking about what their character might say, keep secrets in the hope that they can be spilled at a more entertaining moment, look for opportunities to slam plots together if it looks like the result could be entertaining. But when you have half a dozen cooks all stirring the pot, most of those plans are, at best, practice for the decision you’ll actually make when the time comes. And sometimes there’s no planning — just sheer bloody luck.
My novelette “False Colours” is based (with permission of the other players) on the experience I had in a one-shot LARP. My character was a young woman masquerading as her twin brother, serving in the Navy as a lieutenant during the Napoleonic Wars. During the game, she finally admitted her true identity to her fellow lieutenant, with whom she was in love, and took steps to ruin the man who was blackmailing her over the secret of her sex. Circumstances near the end of the game were such that she expected the “happiest” future she might have was to desert from the Navy and never see anyone she cared for again, to prevent the disgrace of her captain and the revenge of her nemesis. Completely unbeknownst to me, my love interest and best friend were off in a side room, plotting how to fake my death to get me away from my nemesis and set things up for my love interest and me to get married.
Plot happened, involving about two dozen other players doing things I had no comprehension of, because LARPs are big (usually much bigger than tabletop games) and you never know everything that’s going on in them. A whole mass of people came stampeding toward me, chasing an invisible spy — a player I-the-player could see, but my character could not. My captain, who could see through the invisibility, tried to shoot the guy and missed. I looked at the angle of his arm and asked the GM, “If that missed the spy, does it hit me instead?”
My love interest and best friend came back out into the main room just in time to see me get shot by my own captain.
It couldn’t have gone better if we had orchestrated it. Purely by chance, my part of the story got a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, with me “dying” very publicly and then getting proposed to while bleeding onto my friend’s couch. I would have enjoyed it if I’d known of their plan, and had made the out-of-character decision to look for ways to risk my life . . . but getting swept up in events was far more exciting. As I said before, game narratives are generally untidy things, with loose ends and less-than-ideal pacing. But the perfect moments more than make up for it.