Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Story Beyond Conflict

"Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing."

Ursula LeGuin wrote that. It seems fitting to have such a stark revelation come from one of the great grandmothers of ecotopian fiction, and one of the great inspirations for The Fifth World. Who else would you expect it from, right?

I read this in a thread on Story Games from the beginning of the month, a thread I would have missed entirely had Mike Sugarbaker not posted a quick note at the end.

I have fallen prey to this conflation; I've heard "story is conflict," repeated over and over again, like a mantra. At first, I balked at the suggestion, and thought, "Surely, stories can go beyond that," but eventually gave in to the idea. Now, I look at our recent playtests and what I've started calling the game's "immersion problem," and see it all stemming from this basic mis-step.

Of his own game, Jason Morningstar wrote, "Fiasco, which started out as a very conflict-oriented game, evolved into an outcome-oriented game. Once I made this decision the experience of play improved a lot. It allows scenes where you beat a guy to death with a hammer if that's what is required, but also accommodates pretty subtle, introspective color scenes as well. Not relentlessly 'searching for the conflict' feels pretty good." I've felt that problem in The Fifth World, too. We "search for the conflict." Worse, we rush to the conflict, because the rules all deal with how to handle conflict, because they start from that premise that conflict means story. But that has led me astray; it's given me a game that seems, at best, like a tool for planning a story you might one day write, though frankly, it doesn't even seem like a good tool for that.

As I often do, I find wisdom in Jonathan Walton's words. He suggests:
  • Have interesting stuff happen in freeplay too, instead of just where the mechanics are.
  • Have the non-conflict stuff have mechanical significance (if there are mechanics).
  • Have resolution mechanics that don't frame things as inter-player (or player-GM) conflicts.

Right now, I think you could fairly describe The Fifth World as very heavily inspired by Primetime Adventures. This has me thinking of pulling more from Polaris, perhaps even to the extent of cutting out the Prisoner's Dilemma mechanic in favor of negotiations with ritual phrases, a la Polaris, with a map to drive the arc forward, rather than that game's drive towards a tragic end.

I always come up with ideas like this right before a con, too.


Willem said...

This has also begun to sound a lot like Archipelago...in a good way!

Jason Godesky said...

Having just read the rules, I see what you mean. It seems almost too minimalist from just reading through—I'll have to play it and see how it feels then.

Willem said...

I wonder if you could characterize 5W relationships through Ursula Leguin's non-conflict descriptors:

finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Another way to think of relationships, rather than trust/no-trust. Then paths and places become intersections of relational experiences. Changing from a strong relationship to one's sister (and her place), to one with one's brother (and the elk who bed there).

Bearing the loss of a father the same as hunting a particular paternal wolf.

Finding community in a feast between tribes, the same as finding community in the river that runs between them.

I think, in the end, so much of the "rules" of 5w could come down to that strong setting splatbook and some rather minimalist, but cunningly chosen procedural mechanics. "Just enough" and "just the right ones" to drive stories of the kind you want.

I've thought about it the past couple of days, and the dreamy quality of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books stands out to me. Does gold await in making the 5W more dreamy, exploratory, and less of an IAWA-style relationship dust-up?

Can 5W create more folky, dreamy stories, rather than modeling life in the 5W, they model the dreamspace that feeds the 5W?

M. A. G. L. said...

Hi Jason, so long time... I've been trying to keep following you, but it hadn't been easy. I have to confess I'm almost beginning to catch the sense of all of this; myth weavers, 5th World, storyjamming, etc. And what I have to say is just Congratulations, great stuff.

May be I'm too civilized, so, wrong at your eyes, but... for me all of those other supposed non-conflicted themes, for me are only another kind and level of conflicts.. you may find, lose, discover, party, change, etc.. as a kind of a conflict. I mean, conflict not only describes man to man differences so you dont have to understand conflict always as a competitive, agressive stuff.
For me is just an attitude man had had to adopt in a finite world since its beggining (sorry for my english)

Jason Godesky said...

Willem--I hope so. Therein lies my ambition. So, what kinds of mechanics could lead even the most civilized player to experience that world?

M.A.G.L.--I would have said much the same not so long ago, but this has made me think of it differently. It seems to me that applying the metaphor of conflict to discovering or changing says more about us than those activities. After all, we could just as easily do the reverse: couldn't we describe a physical conflict as, say, discovery. I discover your weak points and your strong points, as you discover mine. I think most martial artists would actually recognize this even more than the typical conception of conflict.

I do agree, seeing everything as a type of conflict does tell us a great deal about our attitude, but did we have to adopt that attitude? As you say, "in a finite world," it fits well; in a world defined by scarcity, it seems natural to see everything in terms of conflict. But in a world of abundance, conflict has little place. In fact, the natural world looks more like a world of abundance than one of scarcity. See "Idle Theory," or Sahlin's old essay, "The Original Affluent Society." The age of scarcity began with the re-definition of food as "what we grow" with the Agricultural Revolution. In The Fifth World, that strategy has reached its end, and anyone who stuck with it to the bitter end starved to death. Humans survive precisely because they abandoned that notion, so now they live in a world of abundance again, a world where the metaphor of conflict has astonishingly little to say. Instead, I think metaphors like relating and discovering have a lot more salience. So finding a way to interpret discovery as a kind of conflict would have a lot of meaning for someone living, say, today; for The Fifth World, I think I need to embark on the more difficult (only because so few other people have set off trying to do it) task of, say, interpreting conflict as a kind of discovery. Or relationship. Or something else that makes sense for a post-scarcity world. Does that make any sense?

M. A. G. L. said...

Ok, I think I got it. I guess there must be a lot of literature samples about that. I wonder, in my -too civilized- adopted attitude, how interesting I have found those kind of stories. Makes me remember how when I was a child I enjoy a story at the beggining and suffer it at the moment conflict begans.. I think I can imagine. I will look at small stories and make of this a story of discovering non-conflict interesting literature.

Byron said...

Just got to this site via link from JoePub. Love it. I've been asking that question, too, glad i'm not alone.