Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Story Within A Story Game

This is something I'd like to see or make for a game:

An inter-related set of story-worlds that are all stories that are being told within the other worlds. Or, at least, one story world that constantly refers to another story world. 

I'll elaborate: 

Players start with multiple character sheets. Each is designed for a different setting: one might take place in an ancient, mythical time, one during the Renaissance, another during the early 21st Century, and one in the distant future (I'm using different chronological periods of our own world, but this is not necessary). In fact, having this many different settings could end up being too chaotic. I'll focus on only two instead. For example, Renaissance and mythical time. 

Each of these settings is controlled by a different player. The players are all well aware in advance of the different worlds, who GMs which, and who the players play in each world.

So, say, the first story starts in the Renaissance. The Renaissance story continues for awhile - maybe a few hours, maybe a session or two, but at some point one of the characters says that a myth of the ancient world is relevant to their current situation, and so the player's jump to the ancient past and begin living out this myth. This might go on for awhile, and eventually either the GM of the mythic past turns back into the character in the Renaissance narrating - and then they once again start playing their game in the Renaissance. 

Obviously problems could happen: 
What if the ancient myth doesn't really tie into the current situation? - This would be a criticism against the literary merit of this particular chronicle, but still might be fun to play. 

What if the two GMs constantly try to force switching narrative roles when the other doesn't want to? This could be a more serious problem. Really, this kind of gaming would require two mature and diplomatic GMs to work properly. Related:

What if one GM doesn't want to relinquish control? Same answer as above.

This game would likely be far more situationalist than narrative or gamist based. If played at all, it would probably need to be played for the love of exploring different settings. This would both be a limitation and something to embrace. 

Another - not problem per se - but style the game would have to embrace is impromptu storytelling. Because each GM may not know much before a switch occurs they'd have to know how to continue their part of the game at anytime. 

Also, related to this style of game, or another form of it, is having characters who are virtually immortal: Highlanders, Vampires, et cetera and having them flashback to past centuries. With this, I've been wanting to do this with Requiem for Rome and Vampire: The Requiem to jump from the Roman eras with kindred who've recently awoken from torpor in modern nights. 

Thoughts on this? Anyone try any of these styles of play? Anyone recommend any games that are especially open to this style of play? 


Zach L said...

This is something that makes a lot more sense in the context of a video game, as opposed to a traditional pen-and-paper game (In fact, similar things have been done in video games -- Final Fantasy 8's Lacuna story, as an example).

The main problem you run into is the issue of relevance -- how to make each part of the story relevant to the other part. The only way to do that is to give your GM much greater control than in your typical game. The GM has to hit all the plot points, which in and of themselves have to be relevant, which means any side-quests have to have no bearing on the 'main quest,' which basically railroads the players anyways -- a hallmark of JRPGs.

Jack Phillips said...

I'm pretty much in agreement with you. Doing this kind of story in a pen and paper game would either force the game to have a very very linear plot which takes a lot of control away from players - to the point of it maybe not being worth playing

OR it makes the narrative so chaotic it's hardly a story anymore, BUT could still be fun roleplay. Players could just throw story out the window and just have one damn thing happen after another and just enjoy the experience.

Those are the extreme points. A game could utilize the story within a story device, still have some overall story, but this would be more reliant on accident than in a typical game.

Zach L said...

Actually, one thing that did happen in a campaign is -- not quite related -- but having the characters as themselves shunted back in time to relive stuff mentioned earlier.

alternately, you could have the two sets of characters as mentioned, and have the stories unrelated, but basically, whenever people start to get frustrated or the main plotline starts to get stale, have one character (the DM for the second part) say "let me continue what we were talking about last night..." and take over, kind of as a sub-game -- just make everyone aware that it's unrelated, and make sure it's short.

Tim said...

The excellent RPG 1001 Nights by Meguey Baker is about telling stories within a story game.

Jack Phillips said...

Thanks, Tim! That does look like an excellent game. I've added that to my list of stuff I'll buy after I pay next month's bills.

D said...

Wasowicz, Lane, and I once did some Co-ST'ed dream sessions for Mage. Two STs, one player, with the STs switching back and forth. They worked out really well, I think because we were all excited to see what we could do in the new system, we're all creative, and we knew what our characters were about.

Moreover, we were all just willing to go with it. I think that's the kind of thing that's most important with such an intrinsically flexible system like this. The other elements are important, too: as you mentioned, the players have to be willing to explore, but they also have to have some sort of personal investment to generate excitement.

I think one way to make it work could be to play a few sessions from one period, enough to develop those characters and feel "at home" with them, and then move on period by period. Then you can start drawing out how they're interrelated to each other, and basically get deeper and deeper once you've got everyone involved.

Designing it would be an absolute bitch, though.