Lying For a Living: The GM as Storyteller

It's not really lying ... It's not. We are hard wired to tell stories. Think about the last time you tried to relate some funny anecdote to a group of friends. Or to relate some personal tragedy or triumph. Got it in your mind? Good, now think about not just the telling of the event, but how you told it. How honest were you really? How many superlatives did you employ? How much slang? How much overemphasis? How much metaphor? How much did you lie?

Yeah, lie. We rarely convey the truth when we communicate. Especially when we relate stories. Humans aren't hardwired to relate truth. At least not literally. We are hardwired to tell stories. And that's because we are geared towards creating meaning. Of drawing meaning out of our environment and our experiences. Each of us lives a tale, breathes a legend with us as the central character. This is why we engage in storytelling so avidly. Just look at our entertainment. We are built around storytelling--video games, movies, television, comedy, jokes in general, pictures, sports teams. Stories weave in the air all about us. Some might argue that they are devoid of meaning until observed, others that there is inherent truth in everything and humans tease out those threads. Either way it doesn't matter stories are still the medium of communication. And the important part isn't that we told the exact literal truth, but that we conveyed the meaning behind the event.

Errol Morris recently wrote a book about truth in photography in which he makes the point that every photograph is posed. No matter how spontaneous, every photo is taken with the idea of communicating some meaning or emotion by the photographer. Sometimes more overtly than others. Even something considered as nonfictional as an unedited, unaltered, spontaneous photo communicates meaning of some sort. And that meaning is interpreted, read if you will, by the taker of the picture. And often directed by those setting up the camera or the scene. There is no such thing as objective truth, all truth is subjective. Science itself is built on storytelling even when we tell ourselves we are being "objective describers" of the truth. The search for meaning is the search for story.

So, thank you for sticking with me this long. Because now we turn to the GameMasters role as storyteller. If meaning is so universal to us and the communication of meaning is the act of storytelling then of course GMs are storytellers. The question then becomes a matter of extent. When you communicate information to players you are communiacting meaning. Think about that. 10 foot wide corridor extends to the edge of your torchlight ahead. Think about the meaning and potential behind that statement. Noone would think much of the nature of that small description beyond a simple conveyance of the immediate surroundings. There seems to be little choice in the matter. Now add a small detail "there lingers the faint hint of methane in the air." And a whole new dimension is opened. Is the methane due to a natural gas leak that could spell their doom? Perhaps they won't know until they dare to venture forth and discover the methane smell emanates from the troll cave up ahead where he craps and urinates in a corner.

Such small details lead to the development of story. Where a ten foot corridor is quickly forgotten a stinky troll cave rarely is. But weaving such details together into a cohesive whole without sacrificing player agency is an art indeed. Just what qualities of a storyteller should a GM develop in order to increase this quality in their game? I would put forth several here today:
  • Improvisational ability--Opportunism
  • Immediacy--Immanence
  • Personal Relevance--Importance
  • Story Vocabulary--Descriptive Ability
Each of these factors will be an entry unto themselves over the next few days.


Thanks for sharing, Chris. I'm looking forward to the next several posts.

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