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My RPG Sessions Do Not Generate Fiction

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Amazing Magazine Cover from 1927My RPG sessions do not generate fiction, at least not in any meaningful sense for the more common meanings of fiction. As I run sandbox campaigns, they don't even play out pre-written stories as (railroaded) adventures. I mention this because there are a fair number of people in the RPG community who see roleplaying games as a form of fiction. Perhaps when these folks play, their games do generate stories that the average person would consider decent fiction. Mine, however, do not and never have. I have not considered "generating fiction" to be a goal of any RPG I've ran or played in since the mid-1970s when I thought it would be possible to take the events of my campaign and turn them into a novel. It did not work -- and not just because it turns out I'm terrible at writing good fiction.

My games simply do not generate "fiction" any more than my life generates a "biography." My life does generate an ordered series of events that someone could use to write a biography from, but simply living my life does not produce a biography, just that chronological list of (mostly very boring) events.

Likewise, my games do generate a series of imaginary (and hence "fictional") events that someone with skill at writing fiction (e.g. short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, radio plays, etc.) might be able to turn into something the average person would consider "fiction." However, it would be a lot of work because, like the series of real world events that make up my life, the events that happen in my campaigns seldom come with anything like the standard plot structure used in fiction (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc.) and they have all sorts of events that don't go anywhere useful, are never resolved, or even aren't connected to anything else that happens in any meaningful way. Characters appear and disappear without rhyme or reason and often do not develop in useful for fiction ways.

Therefore, I'm sorry to disappoint those who believe that simply playing a tabletop RPG generates fiction. In my campaigns, it does not generate anything more than a list of (often not very connected or complete) fictional events that even a great author would probably have trouble turning into anything but a poor story. I have no interest in restructuring my campaigns and style of play to make it easier to turn that series of fictional events into good fiction any more than I would want to restructure my life to produce a series of events that a biographer could easily turn into an interesting biography.

What about your campaigns?

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ravencrowking said...
June 2, 2013 at 2:18 PM  

Can your players tell tales of their experiences in your campaign milieu? That's what I refer to as generating fiction....just the ability to tell a story about what happened after the fact.

Randall said...
June 2, 2013 at 8:54 PM  

Sure, my players can tell stories about what happened in the campaign, but those stories are created by the player telling them, not by the campaign itself. This is especially true when you consider that to be a good story, the player is probably going to have to embellish things, just as a fisherman does telling the story of the "one that got away."

instantapathy said...
June 3, 2013 at 9:32 AM  

Reading this I feel like you are being a bit overly semantic here. I mean, I agree that a straight retelling of most campaigns would make for a horrible book. Maybe it's me, but I never really took it that way when people say they are making stories. They are making stories in the same way brain storming, stream of consciousness writing, etc. are a part of the story process. I mean... all fiction requires someone to put it together, even if that someone is a coke-head with ADHD. I mean books, movies and oral stories don;t just leap into existence wholesale, right?

Philo Pharynx said...
June 3, 2013 at 10:52 AM  

That's one issue with sandbox games. They "seldom come with anything like the standard plot structure used in fiction (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc.)"
Both as a player and a GM, I am willing to give up a little autonomy for the increased drama inherent in a more structured story. That's the general feeling of my group.
Now, there's a group that's crying "railroad" right here. I don't believe this is an either/or category. It's a spectrum. Yes we do have some plot elements, but we plan for a lot of freedom around those elements. We do talk about the general feel and theme of the campaign before we start to make sure it's a type of story everybody is interested in - the whole group buys in to the amount of structure and the ideas behind it. We use this information to make characters that are inclined to look into the type of story being offered.

Randall said...
June 3, 2013 at 8:53 PM  

@Philo: I think it's simply a point of view. Some see sandbox play as lacking because it does not provide a structured story. Others see RPGs with structured stories as lacking in PC autonomy at best (or as railroads at worst). I have no problem with groups choosing wherever they want to be on this spectrum. I just object to people who claim all RPGs produce (or should produce) fiction/story.

Kid Groovey said...
June 5, 2013 at 3:14 PM  

Well, this is how the Oxford dictionary defines fiction - a base point I think we can both work from:

Definition of fiction
literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.
invention or fabrication as opposed to fact:
he dismissed the allegation as absolute fiction
[in singular] a belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so:
the notion of that country being a democracy is a polite fiction

Now, I think I can grok what retrogamers are saying - "This stuff isn't planned. It's immediate and authentic." But it isn't fact - players and GMs have authorial control and choose what their characters say or do, so that does make it fiction. Also, this isn't depicting real orcs and gnolls battling spell and blade wielding adventurers - this is a specific narrative set up (by way of random encounter tables, monsters in set locations on maps, and so on), and I don't think any retrogamer has the same headspace as an Otakukin does and thinks their Swords and Wizardry game is taking place in some paralell dimension. Retrogamers *know* that what they do is imaginary, they just say that it's not *constructed* fiction.

I think that the most respectful term is *emergent fiction* or *emergent narrative*. It's certainly story telling, but it's a kind of tale telling that's done with a vibrant immediacy and a refusal to hold to the forms of narrative structure found in conventional literature. Does that make sense?

Philo Pharynx said...
June 7, 2013 at 10:25 AM  

@Randall, very true. In fact some of the DM's I've had issues with have been fiction writers. For some of them it's hard not to project what the characters will do and base all of their prep around what they've built in their heads. When players make different choices (as players are wont to do), these kinds of DM's have difficulty adapting.

Joshua L. Lyle said...
June 12, 2013 at 12:08 PM  

I think the game:fiction::life:biography analogy doesn't serve as stated.

Your life is not a biography. However, in the course of that life you generate written artifacts that are non-fictional primary sources (like this blog post) that could be used to construct a biography.

Similarly, in gaming, you produce artifacts of the fictional situation in the form of notes, character records, etc. These could be used to construct a narrative But fiction that maintains the illusion of being a primary source is still just fiction, just fiction of different type than conventional narrative fiction.

So, I think you can claim game:novel::life:biography, or game:fiction::life:non-fiction, but you're making a category error with the original analogy.

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