I just got back from a weekend at Origins game fair, an experience where I was booked to run two three-hour sessions for different RPGs. It was an intensive experience. Half the time I was running different stories, different sessions, every time. The players were learning and reacting. In many ways, it is almost a more traditional form of storytelling, standing in front of an audience and gauging their reactions. You’re shifting and tweaking the story around the basic skeleton to be able to meet their expectations. Instead of just putting words to the page, as though that is a thing we can “just” do, there’s a sense of it being alive and changing. The players at the table are chiming in, adding their pieces, altering the cadence and pacing of the story with their own additions.
I’ve come away from this intensive, working with a wider cross-section of player styles and people than I’ve ever worked with in the past, with a lot to think about. There’s a lot to take from there about tastes, about what people want and expect from a story. There’s things about the difficulty of keeping people engaged, about performance. It isn’t the same as normally telling a story, but it is also a great way to iterate on ideas, to change them, to get such an immediate sense of feedback on the work that you’re dealing with. The same ideas, the same themes, the same concepts kept coming back up again, and each time they could be iterated, developed upon.
The other benefit, though this is less a matter of communal storytelling, was the exhaustion. Being exhausted changes how your brain operates, often leaving it trying to simplify things. This can be a helpful part of the process. Trying to remain simple, trying to keep things as easy as possible, there can be a value there.
You also get players showing you what they want to see in the story. When they are playing in that space with you, they’re trying to add what they want. Maybe it is more action, more humour, more granularity. You can react to that, giving you feedback and making it a game again.
I’ve been engaged in communal storytelling elsewhere as well. Working with other writers and creatives is the nature of a lot of the projects I work on. Each of these is a communal effort. Different parties are bringing their own aesthetics, the things that they want to see, to work on, to the process. As long as everyone is working in a way that’s productive and respectful, you can end up with some products that are so different from others. Movies so often work based upon this sense – there are writers and directors and more all working, all bringing their pieces to the project. Videogames are the same way. The list can go on and on and on.
Writing can so often be a solitary exercise. We craft worlds within our heads, create stories and work them through. It can be easy to lose the sense of play, the sense of excitement. I think that authors often don’t necessarily develop the skills to work with other creators. That can definitely lead to an exciting and great career, but I’m not sure if that’s the kind of limitation I want to see on myself.
Who else here is engaged in regular communal story telling? What are you working on? Or, even, what are some awesome games you’ve been playing?