John Henry's that is
RPGs: Story vs Life
Subscriber John Henry―I think he’s a subscriber―asked me to expand on my thinking regarding story, life, and RPGs in a G+ post. So here it is. But first a few definitions, according to Alan Kellogg
The belief that the Earth is at the center of the Universe, and that everything orbits around her.
After Claudius Ptolomaeus, a 2nd century AD Greco-Roman astronomer who formulated a model of the geocentric universe. In the Ptolomaic system the Universe as a whole revolves around the Earth, as observed by early astronomers who had only their own eyes with which to observe with. My identification of him with one of the Pharonic Ptolomies of Egypt was a mistake.
Early observations gave a simple model, but later models added complications such as the appearance of the planets in their orbits halting in their motions, then going backwards. A so called retrograde motion or epicycle which complicated geocentrism.
In addition, it was observed that the planets didn’t exactly orbit the Earth, but a location outside it. For as they orbited there would be periods when the planet would be in the constellation associated with one season for a shorter period of time than in those associated with another.
And Ron Edwards: I compare the industry figure Ron Edwards with Ptolomy because like Ptolomy he formalized
In so far as RPGs involve the make believe, the imaginary, in that sense it would make sense to see RPGs as involving story. Which they do to be honest with you, but I submit that it does not make them story. I’ll explain later.
A model of the universe in which the Sun is in the center and all else orbits around it.
A Polish astronomer of the 15th-16th century who formulated an astronomical model in which the Earth orbited the Sun.
A Danish astronomer who lived in the 16th century. Brahe adhered to geocentrism at first, but through his observations apparently came to accept that the geocentric model was inaccurate. Near the end of his life he presented a model that apparently presented a compromise between geo and heliocentrism. But his model had problems, so he started on correcting them. Unfortunately, being of advanced age at this time he died.
German astronomer and in his early days one of Tycho Brahe’s assistants. After Brahe’s death Kepler absconded with his work, fearing to see that work getting stashed away in a vault somewhere by the Brahe family where no one could access it.
Using his mentor’s work Kepler made additional observations and performed a series of calculations. Thanks to his work he came to the conclusion that the orbits are not perfectly spherical as Copernicus and Galileo had said, but rather eccentric. More like ovals, though in some cases―Earth’s orbit for example―closer to a perfect circle than most people can produce free hand. Later work by his contemporaries and successors demonstrated that the Keplerian model better represented the Solar System than any others. The work done up to today has pretty much demonstrated that Kepler is right, and by using his conclusions we are able to successfully navigate to bodies outside of Earth.
My Main Thrust
I know, I am being pretentious, but still… The thing to understand here is that the Ptolomaic system was derived from observations made by competent observers using what they had to use as tools and observing what there was to observe. The Heliocentric System was derived by Copernicus and others using observation taken over a long period of time, and paying attention to what those observations said.
In addition new tools became available which served to make observations more accurate, and to point out where observations contradicted assumptions. The latest set of tools―interplanetary probes―have pretty much proven the Heliocentric Model correct.
Well, let us admit right up front that the idea that RPGs involve story is correct. But not as you think they do. As I understand it, a story is an account of things which have occurred. Stories also include a number of factors such as events being imaginary in many tales, and stories by and large including a narrative, or sequence of events.
But, not all stories involve the imaginary, many are accounts of events that have occurred. Being fictional is no sign that one is dealing with story.
With his narrativism model Ron Edwards presented a vision of RPGs in which they are stories. Or, as others have modified his thinking, events in which the participants tell stories. That is not how I see matters.
From my observations I have come to the conclusion that what RPGs involve is a sort of life. Not real life, nothing in the sense of events in play being actual, but rather in that the events occurring during play are happening―my emphasis. That is, when Bob tells the party his Witch Doctor is shaking a gourd as part of casting, said Witch Doctor Is shaking said gourd as part of performing a casting. An event that can not occur in real life, but which can occur in an imaginary one. It is all make believe, but when it occurs in a realm of the imagination where it is presented is if it were real, it can happen.
What Gygax Wrought
To get right down to it, E. Gary Gygax presented us with situations in which imaginary events can happen is if they were happening in real life. Successors such as Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, and Edward Simbalist among others took what he presented and took off with it. Later came Ron Edwards and his proposal that RPGs had to be story, largely I suspect because they do include elements of story. I submit that just because narwhals have tusks doesn’t make them elephants.
Story is about things that have happened. Life is a series of events that are happening. Insofar as RPGs are about events as they happen they can’t be stories even though elements of story appear within them. In short, a narwhal can’t be an elephant. Play in an RPG is an occasion where events can occur, much as in life, even when the events in question are imaginary.
Now Gygax didn’t actually invent this, for make believe has been a part of children’s play for a rather long time. What he did was formalize it, though I rather doubt he really understood what he had done. In fact, I rather doubt some people this very day understand what it is they are doing.
So observe, instead of taking the word of another. Observe how play in an RPG does include elements of story, and how they include elements of life. And note just how much play resembles how life happens rather than how stories happen.
What this could mean to you I haven’t thought about yet, so it looks like I have another post to think about and compose. Be aware though that it most likely will complicate how you approach the running and play of an RPG, for life is a complicated bitch. Patience please, this could take awhile.