Tell me a Story.

Or, better yet, weave me a World.

A World where Stories unfold.

The dynamics of Storytelling were once clear to me; the Storyteller would bear the responsibility of Authoring and subsequently Telling a Story and so long as I actively Listened to it, the line was complete.

That all changed when interactivity was introduced: the neatly packaged, predefined sequence of events that was the Story, was now up for discussion: Who was its Author? Maybe both of us? Both being me and the person who wrote it, right? Who wrote.. what? A story or a system that generates them?

Though I still respect and enjoy non-interactive Stories, Interactive Storytelling had initially taken a hold of me first as Player, then as Designer (a decade later) and finally as Academic (a decade after that).

Somewhere along that timeline I began exploring other forms of role-play (from improvised monologues, to table-top games), and I started noticing the connections between them.

That inspired me to look at the topic from a more rigorous perspective, and document my findings in this thesis.

Section No. 1

The Framework

In order to transfer intermediate-level across Improv, DnD and Digital Open-World RPGs in a way that would be of use to designers and academics alike, I needed a trans-medial, theoretically grounded, multi-disciplinary framework.

To do so, I looked at certain domain-agnostic definitions from Chatman (1978), the notion of narrativity from Ryan (2007) and the distinction of real vs aesthetical object from Ingarden (1961).

The resulting framework supports any number of participants with layered roles (Author, Teller, Listener, Audience) that can shift over time, a single shared “real” object which is constantly produced by each participant’s Telling, and affords a look into narrativity and its burden.

An interesting edge case of this model was the notion of (Interactively) Telling (Interactive) Stories and the question of which axis “interactivity” refers to. Another, was the equivalence of the Interactive Telling of a non-Interactive Story with Interaction with the Telling of an Interactive Story.

Section No. 2

Guidelines from Improv

Improv was studied by a few academics and I drew from the works of Swartjes and Garret. Despite its fundamental differences from Digital Open World RPGs (episodic, small worlds, symmetry, lack of rules, physical), the following guidelines were transferrable from Improv ::

Treating each Mechanic as an Offer (the Narrative potential of every Ludic action, even ‘small’ ones), acknowledging that both Player and Program should be able to affect the pace and that the Program should react to Player Offers, at least acknowledging them.

I also drew on some high level concepts like building character consistency, believability of the scene, and dealing with inexperienced Players. The importance of Analytics, of being able to model (even qualitatively) player behavior, was emphasized.

Section No. 3

Guidelines from DnD

Not having access to many DnD peer-reviewed papers, and leveraging the vibrant community around its 5th edition, I performed a thematic analysis on data collected from online sources, and interpreted the results for Digital Open-World RPGs, where the DM’s role is handled by the Program.

Guidelines revolved around the trade-off between a tightly controllable versus an adaptable Story and the notion of a guided improvisation where the Program adapts to the Players while maintaining a structure to the produced Story.

Another subject of focus was the relation between Story and System, mainly the importance of affording diverse, even ‘crazy’ solutions, tailored to Player preferences (these ludic solutions give rise to memorable narratives) and the concept of ludo-narrative synergy – the timely switch of focus between gameplay and story moments to maintain engagement.

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