I recently joined a tabletop roleplaying group lead by the wife of one of my grad students using the GURPS system. We ran one campaign, and then half the group moved away, and I took off for summer travels. Nonetheless, we decided to try and persist with what I call our “remote tabletop roleplaying goup.” Our second campaign took place online via skype chat. There is something both ironic and deeply insightful about playing a traditional tabletop roleplaying game in a mediated fashion. The end user experience is not unlike a MUD, one supposes, except that the “narrator” is a live game master who is customizing the storyline to the participants on the fly.
In the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to see Gloriana Davenport give a highly inspiring talk at the MIT Media Lab entitled “My Storyteller Knows Me.” In it, she described a Native American community that had been given a TV, which they later returned citing the title of the talk as their reason. The experience of this roleplaying game has caused this quote to resonate once again. Here is a case where the game-maker literally knows who is playing, knows the characters we have all designed, and designs the story around both the real-life personalities and the customized characters.
Our GM, Audrey Whitman, has a genius for wielding elaborate plots that fuse historical scenarios with fantasy plotlines. Our characters, which we each create ourselves, generally have psionic powers, which we are forced to hide from the non-player characters in the story. Our most recent adventure was set in 12th Century Europe at the time of warring claims to the papacy. We were a team sent by the Anti-Pope Innocent II to investigate an alleged miracle, which turned out to be the product of psychic abilities.
Two things happened in the game that caught my attention. The first was that the climax of the story actually integrated aspects of one particular player-created character: namely, mine. My character had a secret that was ultimately used to bribe the antagonist of the story and eventually bring him to his defeat. This was a secret that I had actually come up with myself, and which was meant to be only incidental to the storyline; but Audrey craftily found a way to integrate it into the narrative’s riveting conclusion in a significant and meaningful way. My character’s backstory thus became fore-grounded as part of the endgame.
The second thing that happened, which was related, had to do with roleplay. The character I invented was a nineteen-year-old novice nun who had been sexually abused by a cleric. One of the elements of the plot was the manipulation of another young girls’ psychic powers to benefit the power ambitions of an older npc character, a priest. As the story reached its conclusion, I found my character becoming very violent towards this npc. This was surprising to me because ordinarily in games I tend not to lean towards violence, and in fact it’s often hard for me to get past my lack of interest in violence when I play MMOGs. But what happened here was fascinating: my character took over. She had a compelling reason to channel her rage towards this character, displaced as it might be, based on her own internal makeup. What was thrilling about this was that it stood in stark contrast to the general motivations for violence we are often handed as players, usually a sort of operatic plotline having to do with honor or freedom or history or racial rivalries that to me always seems contrived and uncompelling. But here the violence was deeply rooted in my character’s psychology, and it emerged naturally from the story and the situation.
It really got me to thinking about how far we have to go to create compelling participatory narrative. It also made me realize that maybe the secret is really in Davenport’s conveyance of the Native Americans’ complaint about their television. Maybe where we are going wrong is that we expect the computer to be a good storyteller, when in fact storytelling is the purview of people, not of machines. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree when we try to automate this process, or write an algorithm for it. Ultimately, a real person, with a real brain, is the best storyteller there is, and to put such a person at the controls of a story engine might ultimately be the secret weapon, the killer app we’ve all been waiting for.