Long Form TV, Sorcerer, Story and Structure

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This morning I dove into the chapter about the concept of “story” in Play Sorcerer. (This is, of course, a complicated, moist and slippery topic. Imagine opening the hood of your car and finding it filled not with a clean, metal engine block, but some sort of early David Cronenberg thing of flesh and internal organs…. That’s what writing about story is like. But it must be done!)

I had just finished describing all the formats of storytelling that exist (comic books, movies, novels, multi-volume novels, plays and so on..) which I stumbled across this statement from Josh Roby over at Cultures of Play:

…I’d contend that ‘nar’ games require abandoning a recognizable format; they aren’t stories in any formal sense, but moral encounters shrouded in theater ephemera.

To which my first thought was, “You mean like, Dexter? Or Battlestar Galactica? Or The Shield? Or the granddaddy of them all, Twin Peaks?

The point isn’t that Josh is wrong, it’s that he’s thinking too narrowly. I think most of us fall into this trap, by the way, since the minute you start thinking about one format, and really puzzling out how to do it well, other formats seem troublesome, if not sometimes wrong. The needs of an episode of Law & Order are very different from, say, the needs for Rosanne, and the brain is going to pick and choose whatever helps it sink into the puzzle it’s trying to solve. But the key is, no single format has a monopoly on a story format, as there are dozens upon dozens of formats for story-like-things, each with formats or techniques or tools of construction that either make viewing/reading/hearing the story effective or not.

We all value different aspects of these formats and techniques over others. There’s nothing strange or wrong about that. If you sit down to paint a painting you need to make some decisions about what you consider to be a “good” painting. Even if you don’t think about it much, you’re still making a lot of decisions along these lines. Everyone must, in no matter what medium. There is no “right” way to write a screenplay. But you must put a lot of thought into what makes a good screenplay for you.

If you walk into the Norton-Simon museum in Pasadena you’ll find a gallery with a Picasso, a Van Gogh and a Cezanne — and each of them is very different. They’re all great paintings, but each man chose what he valued as to what makes a “good” painting to create very different effects.

So, there are lots of formats for what makes story. I like lots of them, myself.

I would agree with Josh that Sorcerer (as a Nar game) might be less like other format than we are used to. But I think it fascinating that there is a whole new genre of long form TV now that is actually the closest thing we’ve ever had to long form RPG play in the “popular” popular culture. (As opposed to, say, comic books or serialized comic strips.)

When Sorcerer first hit print Ron Edwards couldn’t reference story structures like Lost, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos or Damages because such shows didn’t exist. But now we have plenty of multi-character, multi-plot thread, long form serialized content that rises to a climax each season, and heads for a climax for the series run.

It’s an accident of history, of course. But these days when I’m describing the structure of Sorcerer to people I just point at the long form shows on AMC, HBO, SHOWTIME, F/X and the networks and say, “Like that.”

But, to be clear, that’s a great thing to point to. But any RPG is going to be, ultimately, it’s own thing. What will matter is if play delivers what the players who are looking for “story” most value about story.

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2 Responses to “Long Form TV, Sorcerer, Story and Structure”

  1. Per Fischer Says:

    That’s an absolutely wonderful post. Thx.

  2. abkajud Says:

    Hey, Chris!

    I found this blog of yours, and it’s exciting to see something concrete in that “make a Forge textbook” project I heard about ^_^

    I’ve just started playtesting a Nar RPG of my own design, “Mask of the Emperor”, and it’s weird to actually experience all these concepts I’ve lovingly struggled over for so long – conflict resolution, Fortune in the Middle, etc.

    A bit of awesomeness – after three or four years of trying to convince a mainstream RPGer friend of mine that Forge theory has merit, she up and gave me a perfect example of CR:

    me: i spose i just want the story-related rules to have more teeth
    [her]: how do you do that, though?
    do you want crucial plot moments to come down to dice rolling on the table?
    like “can i convince the clan elder’s wife to support our cause?”

    To which I responded, YES! But then I said – see, before you roll, you set the stakes: what am I trying to do, and what happens if I fail? And then:

    [her]: doesn’t it take the fun out of the interaction?
    me: not at all
    we did that the other night
    [her]: “no matter what I say, the dice will decide how it goes.”
    me: nope
    the dice don’t decide it
    the dice give an injection of authority,
    but then you keep going with it, with the dice as a guide to how that particular conflict went

    After that, I gave her an example of these concepts (I mentioned Conflict Rez and FitM) from one of my playtesting sessions! Augh, it was beautiful. Earlier in the day, she sent me a text about it, when I explained the film “Dark Knight” in terms of Nar. She said, “So the Joker sets up the situation, and then leads you to the Question?” I said yep, except it’s the players that take you there. The GM just keeps you on track and helps you out; it’s not his party.

    This book of yours will provide an excellent service divorced from the thousands of posts at the Forge; the gaming world has been waiting for your book, not to put too fine a point on it! Convos like this one above will happen more, and more people will go “Oh! I get it now” when things are in a more conducive format.

    Awesome.

    – Abby

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