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Author Topic: Fighting is Storytelling  (Read 458 times)

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Online blingdenston

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Fighting is Storytelling
« on: 11/06/16, 11:19:41 AM »
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(By request from @Seraphie and @Imazi)

Roleplaying can be many things.  It can be therapeutic, providing an outlet for deep-seated feelings.  It can be garnish, adding spice and interest to a romantic encounter or a miniature wargame.  It can be an avenue for comedians to crack jokes (see the Campaign podcast for more on this: http://oneshotpodcast.com/category/campaign/).  But one thing that it almost always is is, in some way, telling a story.

You have characters who have lives and goals, beliefs and neuroses; you've got an imaginary world of entities, polities places and histories that, inevitably, those characters must deal with in some way.  And, quite often, you have conflict between the characters that can erupt into violence.

Violence, combat, disaster and adventure are all potent storytelling tools that can jazz up a languid scene, add shock and devastation to a peaceful one, or form the backbone of a break-neck action piece.  However, in situations like the one we have here, you run into some problems: firstly, the backbone of our community roleplay, like it or not, is a combat-based MMORPG where everyone, ostensibly, is playing a powerful warrior of some sort.  In the base game, we get used to a small handful of powerful characters cutting their way through masses of faceless, nameless opponents until getting into larger, more difficult battles with more important foes.

That said, not everyone WANTS to be an exactly-equivalent world-beater.  Some folks want to be smaller, more humble characters.  Others want to notably powerful and important figures.  Our solution, often, is to avoid the in-game dueling system and use a similar approach in combat as we do in conversations and negotiations: free-form, descriptive battles with no 'hand of the rules' tabulating hits and misses, or with a simplistic system to append victory or loss to characters based on some element or random chance.

Often, though, (and I acknowledge a bit of stereotyping, and apologize for any offense), you can get into the mindset of wanting to 'win', wanting your character to stand tall at the end of the fight and be the victor.  I, myself, have found myself grumbling after an encounter and tallying my win/loss ratio like some TF2 fireteam leader.  This is not 'wrong'...there are very few ways to play a freeform storytelling game incorrectly...but I DO think it misses an important point: the 'victor' of a fight in a story isn't the characters...it's the readers.

We take on the role of author and audience in each interaction we have...usually taking the role of a single character and playing them as though we WERE the character; sometimes playing a hostile force, or environment, or 'villain'.  But our responsibility in this mutual storytelling isn't, really, to put notches on an imaginary gunbelt, but to tell an interesting story where conflict erupts and the characters beliefs are tested, well-being is risked, and goals are moved towards.

It's the difference between a mass-market potboiler where some generic avenger savages a generic criminal cartel to get revenge for his generic lost family, and a truly gripping thriller or fantasy story, where the characters become 'real' to us and the risk has effect.  Would you care what happened to Ned Stark if he'd wandered into King's Landing and started swordfighting some orcs?  Would you worry for Harry Potter's safety if he was a polymath ninja who beat up Crabbe and Goyle and fist-fought the troll in the bathroom?  Would you care about Obi-Wan if you saw The Phantom Menace first, and knew him as a dopey extra-robe-guy who gets vengeance for Rob Roy at the end?]

More than that, in the genre of adventure stories, in the oeuvre of Star Wars, and through the medium of free-form text-based give-and-take interaction, a more cinematic form of combat-storytelling can be evinced to turn a fight from a scrap to figure out which character is the toughest to a proper scene, wherein every character's personality can be expressed, they can make progress towards fulfilling their needs, and the story can be progressed through emotive, exciting action.

If we're both author and audience, we win a fight scene by expressing our character and setting in stimulating, interesting manners and satisfying interest in each other by showing how our character's go after their interests, what they're willing to give to achieve them, and how the way they react to danger expresses their nature and desires. 

Weapons, fighting styles, super-powers, set pieces...these are all special effects used to illustrate something about our characters.  Han Solo's big, black blaster, carried in his gunslinger's holster tells us he's a man who's always ready for a fight; Captain America's shield tells us that he's more interested in protecting others than winning fights, and that he's so incredibly skilled that he can use a tool for defense as a weapon at range; Hannibal Lecter's slithering nature, vicious linoleum knife attacks, and evil intentions demonstrate his demoniac, inhuman nature; Korra's rough-and-tumble, overwhelming 'bending attacks show her confidence, her arrogance and, when threatened, her fear of inadequacy and loss.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'd like to share a few scenes with you from various movies.  Pay attention not merely to the fighting, but to the way they're staged...how the actors use their bodies, the frames the shots and follows the action, and how the music and sound effects impart the movement with a second level of interface that 'activates' the scene in your mind's eye.

First, from Wheels on Meals, pay attention to how Jackie Chan and Benny Urquidez let their fighting prowess, their facial expressions, and the entire set to describe their characters' personalities, their relationship, and the constantly shifting momentum of the fight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6eC-BAsVdQ  Pay close attention to how Jackie's demeanor shifts from cocky and dancing to frightening and dodging as his powerful opponent lays in, and how the momentum changes and shifts, the music swelling and dancing along to the fight's rhythm.

Next, from Batman Begins, our first REAL look at the titular character in action.  Watch how, rather than a superhero, the scene treats him more like a horror movie monster...more like Ridley Scott's alien than Tim Burton's wadding, rubbery Frankenstein: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mq85kxJfcLA

Third, from Die Hard, watch how John McClane, alone and outmatched, lets loose his anger and desperation to survive an ambush by the 'terrorist' Karl, who blames him for the death of his brother Tony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wykwob6IL-Y Pay especial attention to how the setting, which has been meticulously laid out throughout the course of the film thus far, becomes part of the resolution of the fight.  See how the tide sways based upon who has the advantage in position; who has the guns; and how clever and brutal use of the setting and its pieces complicate and resolve the brawl.

Finally, observe the final, devastating action beat from 'Sanjuro' (the sequel to 'Yojimbo').  Hanbei (on the right), the right-hand man fooled again and again by Sanjuro, demands satisfaction.  Sanjuro (on the left), reluctant to fight, tries to beg off, claiming to fear dying at Hanbei's hands and pointing out the uselessness of their combat.  When Hanbei refuses...watch the sudden and irreversible display of violence and how it ends a life, shocks a crowd of young samurai, and defines a swordsman in a single, breathless moment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NNaj5YUxco

Fighting IS storytelling.  Even in a dice-based, random-chance, stats-versus-stats game, a narrative forms of devastating rejoinders, one-in-a-hundred shots, and tragic and devastating losses.  Just like you'd use a cool costume to demonstrate your character's position and personality...just like you'd use a funny accent to indicate a character's origin and education...use a fight to flesh out your character.  You may never have another opportunity like a battle to demonstrate who your character truly is...a hero, a coward, a sneak, a fool, a technician, a brute, a person.
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Offline Imazi

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Re: Fighting is Storytelling
« Reply #1 on: 11/06/16, 12:27:45 PM »
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We take on the role of author and audience in each interaction we have...usually taking the role of a single character and playing them as though we WERE the character; sometimes playing a hostile force, or environment, or 'villain'. But our responsibility in this mutual storytelling isn't, really, to put notches on an imaginary gunbelt, but to tell an interesting story where conflict erupts and the characters beliefs are tested, well-being is risked, and goals are moved towards.

I think this is the essence of both this specific topic and of RPing in general. Not everyone seems to realize this, though. What makes RP fun is not taking actions as your character but taking meaningful actions. That is, advancing your character's narrative. I tend to avoid violent conflict and focus on other forms of conflict. However, I do recognize violent conflict's power as a means of meaningful story advancement.

However, I think part of the problem is that many RPers are split into two camps which can be thought of as Authors and Actors. Authors tend to take a narrative perspective from the top down. Actors tend to take an individual character perspective from the bottom up. Authors are more likely to RP in a way that deliberately moves character narratives. Actors are often more concerned with their own character's role than the general story, and I think that's where the rub can come from.

Many RPers with an actor perspective, that I've run into, don't like to think on the story level because it's just shy of godmodding to them. It comes off as trying to force an outcome to them. They would rather let the story do what it will, and focus on their own "role", even if it makes for a bad story later. Also, it often breaks their immersion to RP their character's in a way that deliberately moves a larger story, even though they will often enjoy RPs with good narratives just as much as the next person.

I don't mean to point fingers here and say that any group is doing it wrong. However, I do think that in order to get the most out of RP, the player has to think more like an author than an individual actor. I think not tapping into the best story potential will put the player that focuses on their own character to the exclusion of the larger story at a disadvantage and give them less fun.
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Offline Niarra

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Re: Fighting is Storytelling
« Reply #2 on: 11/20/16, 07:09:36 PM »
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Bling, ever since you put this post up, I've wanted to respond. Life has been full lately but I finally have a window of time, and I want to seize it. My reply here won't be as thoughtful as your initial post, but I couldn't let another opportunity pass to tell you how much I loved it. You did a great job laying out your argument, and the way you articulated your feelings on the issue jives exactly with my own. 

I wanted to quote a few of my favorite bits from your post:

Often, though, (and I acknowledge a bit of stereotyping, and apologize for any offense), you can get into the mindset of wanting to 'win', wanting your character to stand tall at the end of the fight and be the victor.  I, myself, have found myself grumbling after an encounter and tallying my win/loss ratio like some TF2 fireteam leader.

This reaction is very human, and possibly a little inevitable when almost all of us come to RP through some sort of game, whether that be a tabletop RPG with all its rules, or a video game setting like SWTOR or WoW that RPers use as a stage. When one has also created a character who is meant to be more heroic or larger-than-life than we ourselves are in our own day-to-day, the desire to see them triumph can be strong, because triumph of the sort we get in stories is almost always more dramatic and interesting than our day-to-day. As you mentioned, we RP for all sorts of different reasons, but when escapism is one of the strongest then this desire to see only a trend of atypical triumphs can be even greater.

This is not 'wrong'...there are very few ways to play a freeform storytelling game incorrectly...but I DO think it misses an important point: the 'victor' of a fight in a story isn't the characters...it's the readers.

Completely right and spot on. And as readers, we are almost never interested in stories about the easy win. In fact, if you take the traditional, formulaic story arc of almost any heroic story ever told, what defines those stories are the failures as much, if not more, than the triumphs. As story-tellers, embracing failure as the heart of powerful story is a great lesson to learn. Repeated, easy, predictable victory is almost never interesting. It's the struggle for victory that makes a compelling story.

More than that, in the genre of adventure stories, in the oeuvre of Star Wars, and through the medium of free-form text-based give-and-take interaction, a more cinematic form of combat-storytelling can be evinced to turn a fight from a scrap to figure out which character is the toughest to a proper scene, wherein every character's personality can be expressed, they can make progress towards fulfilling their needs, and the story can be progressed through emotive, exciting action.

If we're both author and audience, we win a fight scene by expressing our character and setting in stimulating, interesting manners and satisfying interest in each other by showing how our character's go after their interests, what they're willing to give to achieve them, and how the way they react to danger expresses their nature and desires. 

Yes, yes! Absolutely! I don't really have anything to add, here. You said it all.

Fighting IS storytelling.  Even in a dice-based, random-chance, stats-versus-stats game, a narrative forms of devastating rejoinders, one-in-a-hundred shots, and tragic and devastating losses.  Just like you'd use a cool costume to demonstrate your character's position and personality...just like you'd use a funny accent to indicate a character's origin and education...use a fight to flesh out your character.  You may never have another opportunity like a battle to demonstrate who your character truly is...a hero, a coward, a sneak, a fool, a technician, a brute, a person.

I would add: and remember that story thrives most when all of those personalities are present. Take Game of Thrones, or Tolkien, or Star Wars, or any huge, popular, genre-defining story of the sort. We love those stories because they have heroes, villains, cowards, sneaks, cheats, dreamers, innocents, cynics, sages and fools. Without the presence of other personalities, forces, and stories to surround your stereotypical hero, you don't actually have much of a story at all. A hero without antagonists, allies, teachers, lovers, friends and rivals to interact with and be inspired and motivated by isn't actually a hero at all; they are just standing alone on a stage monologuing. Remember that only villains destined to fall monologue. ;-) But the hero knows they only triumph because their friends helped them get there. Likewise, a story only shines when a variety of elements go into its crafting - and that includes failure, and loss, and striving, and seizing every opportunity to let those moments illustrate what a character is truly made of.
Niarra Reymark, Jedi Master and Diplomat // Derrad Reymark, Starfighter Ace and Softie // Jheva, Padawan and Potential Seer // Yatei, Jedi Pilot and ex-Ronin
Sivala, Sith Academy Overseer // Rannayel, Sith Lord and Museum Curator
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