Dice Tales: Ephemerality

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the forty-third installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


When I was studying RPGs in graduate school, I assembled a list of terms to describe the narratives they create. We already talked about them being emergent way back at the beginning of this series; now let’s talk about them being ephemeral.

You see, the story told by a novel is right there on the page. The story told by a movie is right there on the screen. You can get into some higher-end discussion about how storytelling, as an act of communication, is only completed by the audience, and so the story also consists partly of how it is received and interpreted in the reader/viewer’s mind . . . but fundamentally, the narrative as it was told is all there, in a fixed medium, available for you to read it or watch it again and again.

Not so with a game. RPG narratives are oral; they’re performed and then they’re gone. Even if you write up a summary afterward, the summary isn’t the story, any more than the map is the territory. It’s going to be missing countless little details of what actually happened in the moment. No, if you want to properly nail down a game story — well, that gets complicated, very fast. (Believe me, I know; I spent a lot of time contemplating how to do this when I was in grad school, because I figured I would need to do it at some point for my work.)

You need to record the game. Break out the microphone, put it in the center of the table, and start the digital tape rolling. Then, if you want to do anything useful with that afterward, you’re probably going to need to transcribe it — which creates three new problems. The first and most pragmatic is that transcribing from tape is a MASSIVE PAIN IN THE NECK. We have programs nowadays that help with it, but anybody who’s ever used dictation software or seen their phone’s best attempt at transcribing a voicemail knows it is still, shall we say, less than perfect. So the software can get you started, but you’re still going to spend enormous amounts of time cleaning up the result.

Which brings you to your second problem: any oral narrative consists of more than just the words used to tell it. This is a performance; as such, it is also a matter of pacing, intonation, and all the other nuances of how those words are said. Various anthropologists have tried to create systems for putting text on the page in a fashion that will convey that information at the same time — I even took a class from one of them, Dennis Tedlock — but just as reading the score for a Bach symphony isn’t quite the same as hearing that symphony performed, so reading one of these “text scores” isn’t the same as listening to the original. And third, even if you record the game, even if you transcribe it according to some ethnopoetic system that tries to capture all the vocal nuance . . . you’re still missing body language, posture, gestures, etc. For that you’d need a video recording, and even then, the best you can do with transcribing the physical cues is to record them like stage directions —

— and speaking of the stage, let’s talk about LARPs.

Recording these is exponentially more complicated, because they involve so many people and are by nature so decentralized. An audio recording won’t be nearly enough; you’d definitely need video for this. But where do you put your camera? At least in a tabletop game, everybody stays more or less put. In a LARP they wander all over the place, colonizing every corner of the room, standing in the hallways, wandering off in search of a quiet place to have a private scene. You’d have to carpet the place with cameras, and even then, you might wind up missing something, because players are like cats and will find some unexpected place to hide. Or they’ll be near a camera, but standing in such a fashion that the lens can’t pick up most of what they’re doing. Or the camera picks it up, but there are multiple players running multiple scenes and the ones nearer to the mic drown out the ones farther away. When I was pondering this for real, the best solution I could think up was to mount a personal camera on every single player in the game — and the GM(s), too.

Which, apart from being just a wee bit expensive, leads us toward the underlying problem. I figured I’d have to mount a camera on every participant because when you get down to it, a game, especially a LARP, doesn’t tell a story. They tell multiple stories at once. Every PC is the protagonist of their own tale. To full capture the narrative tapestry of the game, you have to capture all those different angles, not just a single external viewpoint.

In fact, the external viewpoint is going to miss out on something crucial. I’ve said before that a game narrative is a shared delusion, a mental construct held in multiple people’s heads at once. In a book or a movie or what have you, we assume that all the characters have interiority, that they have thoughts and feelings about what’s happening even if the text doesn’t make those explicit to the audience. But that assumed interiority is not actually part of the text. In a game, it arguably is, because everybody participating is creating their own narrative text, and it consists not just of what happens visibly, but what’s going on in their own minds. At the start of this post I mentioned higher-end discussions about the audience completing the narrative; here the participants are simultaneously audience and storyteller. If you don’t capture at least some portion of their interior state, I think the text of the game is incomplete.

This is true whether you’re talking about a live-action game or a tabletop one, and it means that if I had reached the point where I tried to record an entire game, I would have needed to recruit the players to help create that record. In addition to the audio or video, I would have asked them to each write up their own take on the story: what happened, why it happened, what they were thinking while it happened. Because there’s a third adjective I used to trot out when describing game narratives, and that’s “polyvocal” — told by many voices. Without all those voices in there (or at least as many as you can capture), you are doing a fundamental disservice to your text.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Ephemerality — 8 Comments

  1. But on a more serious note, I think this idea is one of the reasons that studying games can be a powerful tool for understanding storytelling:

    “…that assumed interiority is not actually part of the text. In a game, it arguably is, because everybody participating is creating their own narrative text, and it consists not just of what happens visibly, but what’s going on in their own minds.”

    This gets into what I often tell aspiring writers about why you can’t tell if an idea is a good one until you write it out. The idea changes when it comes into contact with reality, so to speak. The writer is the first audience to their own story; they are telling the story to themselves, and their own interiority on coming into contact with that story, externalized, changes the execution and meaning.

    That’s a difficult idea to wrap one’s head around, but I think using the similar processes of LARP as an example of this in another milieu can help to pry it apart and maybe better understand it. I dunno. Now I’m doing the same thing in writing this response.

  2. Pingback: Dice Tales this week - Swan Tower

  3. Also, when I know there’s a recording being made I close down completely. (And when I find out a recording was made that I didn’t know about, I don’t ever play with that group again because they’ve violated my trust)

    • Recording without obtaining prior consent would be a MASSIVE violation of not only anthropological ethics but common decency.

      And yeah, a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with having a camera pointed at them, even with consent.

  4. Do you read the webcomic Weregeek? The author does some interesting things depicting the different levels of reality at LARPs. http://www.weregeek.com/
    The recent sequence involving a Vampire LARP has some fun level shifts.