The Storyteller: Observations on Walter Benjamin and Roleplaying Games

I

“The art of storytelling is coming to an end. One meets with fewer and fewer people who know how to tell a tale properly.”[i]

So starts Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” To Benjamin, who lived through the first World War, the art (or “craft” as he likes to call it) of storytelling was dying out due to the impoverishment of experience. Veterans who came back had experienced that which was too terrible to speak of. At home, work lacked the artisanship and personal element that allowed for a knowledge of local stories and history: in modern life nobody talks while working or incorporates their work and their stories. Travelers no longer engage in trade in the way that seafaring merchants used to, there is no longer the need to swap stories and news. The story, it seemed, was losing to modernity and the new form of the Novel was rising up to take its place. While we now use the term “story” to indicate any sort of narrative, Benjamin is referring to “story” as its own unique genre. First, for Benjamin, the Story is something that is told. It has an explicit oral element that allows it to spread and be incorporated into an individual’s life in a way that the novel cannot. However, this isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it seems. In the essay, Benjamin is actually talking about the writings of Nikolai Leskov, but he considers these written works to be some of the last examples of storytelling. Part of this comes from the presence of a narrator inside the text who tells the story to another character. In this way, it is like the written piece is being told to us word-of-mouth by the author: a kind of “let me tell you a story that someone else once told me.” It’s impossible to try and tell most novels as stories in this way, and not simply because of their length. The way that dialogue, scenic description, and the internal life of characters functions in novels is foreign to storytelling. It should also be clarified that Benjamin identifies a difference between the Story and the Myth. Myth, says Benjamin, is tied to the idea of Fate and Tragedy. Myth is something that is inescapable, a series of events that one cannot control or overcome. Story, on the other hand, is largely about human agency and cunning: “The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest…The wisest thing – so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day – is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits.”[ii] Where, then, does the form of the performed role-playing game fall? It is told word-of-mouth, it is shared as something personal, but ongoing games have a narrative structure that is more akin to the structure of the novel.

II
The Roleplaying Game has, as an integral part of its structure, the fact that it can go on, which ties it closely to storytelling: “There is no story for which the question ‘how does it continue?’ would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond the limit at which he writes ‘finis,’ and in so doing invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life.”[iii] There can be, even after the resolution of an adventure, a “story for another day.” But this, naturally, supposes an immortality of the characters. In stories, it is always known how the protagonist escapes or wins (tragedy is not traditionally the realm of the story, Benjamin ties tragedy generally to the Myth because that is the narrative of inevitability). This sets up a conflict between the story element and the “novelistic” element of the characters in roleplaying games. The story character encounters a moral or a lesson, but in their next story everything is reset: they are always what they are, even if they’ve “learned their lesson.” This is especially poignant in Fool/Clown types of Story characters. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is a wonderful example: The Tramp undergoes many situations through the films, but he always remains the Tramp. He comes to America on an immigrant ship, he goes to war, he becomes a factory worker, but he is what he is and he never seems to learn anything new: “The righteous man has the main role in the theatrum mundi [the world stage]. But because no one is actually up to this role, it keeps shifting from figure to figure. Now it is the tramp, now the haggling Jewish peddler, now the man of limited intelligence who steps in to play this part. In every single case it is a guest performance, a moral improvisation…”[iv] There is no use in asking how The Tramp got from The Kid to City Lights, or from The Gold Rush to Modern Times. There isn’t even a means of looking for a real chronology to the films together as a narrative. He was always there, in the story, and always present in the here-and-now: in the telling of it. While it seems like the novelistic form can express the same type of character, there is a structural difference. Let’s look at Don Quixote, generally considered the first true protagonist of a Novel. Quixote seems like a Fool from a Story: each chapter has an adventure with its own elements and encounters, (they can be repetitive and structurally similar, Quixote never seems to learn anything new and continues on as he would anyway after the (often painful) “lesson” of each encounter. The difference is that Quixote is, in fact, mortal: he does reach an end to his story as a character. And it is because of this mortality that the events of the novel have a chronology that escapes the story: the reader needs to know how Quixote goes “mad,” where he comes from, how he meets Pancho, how he decides Dulcinea is his Fair Lady, and so on. This is what allows for the novel to become metatextual in a very unique way: in the second book of Don Quixote, the protagonists are recognized because people have learned about him from reading the first book![v] This is a kind of interaction that cannot really occur in a story proper. There are some moments that are similar: a story’s hero may encounter those who know of them (a Knight who appears in many tales may have an encounter in a particular tale where they are recognized “are you the good Sir Knight who really did defeat the Evil Dragon?” but while this cements the identity of the character, it doesn’t play out in any important fashion in the story. Recognition is just recognition. Characters that are recognized can be recognized in any story told about them. Only novelistic or mythical characters start out with no recognition and are then recognized after a series of events. Again, this is because they are mortal or fated. This, I think, creates the distinction between Legend and Myth, with the former being closer the Story than the latter). Benjamin says this creates a separation between the lessons/meanings of stories and novels. Stories are about practical lessons. They are not so limited as to be only applicable in one situation (Benjamin says this is the realm of the Proverb) but aren’t purely universal. They give a clear indication of some kind of Morality (what is good, what is bad) or a kind of cunning (how to overcome problems). For Benjamin, the Novel is about exploring the Meaning of Life, not practical matters. Don Quixote doesn’t really teach us how to deal with others in any practical way; instead, it is about the meaning of Quixote’s quest and its place in a world that doesn’t understand his Knightly logic anymore. Hence, Don Quixote is incredibly ambiguous in a way that most stories never can be. I think tabletop roleplaying games are unique in the way that they bridge these forms, they have a tension all their own.

III

It is important for the tension of story and novelistic structures to be acknowledged in the relationship between Game Master and Player Character. It is a well-known fact that “railroading” on the part of the GM is one of the easiest ways to rob a game of its fun. What is fun, however, is when the Players can feel like their abilities, their “cunning” so to speak, allow them to overcome the challenges that are, in the big picture, predetermined by the GM. Imposing a Mythic structure onto play doesn’t function very well, but offering a Story – the opportunity to overcome Fate – utilizes some of the essential essences of play: chance and cunning.

The creation of community through such a game necessitates Story since it allows for the inclusion of personal experience. Including the personal in a roleplaying game can occur through the player’s contribution of their own thoughts and knowledge, or through the player character’s own explanations. At the same time, the Players can interact in a way that gives their characters a deeper internal life that is Novelistic. Characters are capable of growing and changing.

Some stories are interconnected by a framework: The Thousand and One Nights, for example. Or even the Conan the Barbarian series (these can be novelistic, yes, but they play with the notion of the story being told by someone within the narrative). Perhaps we can explore more closely how this could be applied to tabletop narrative games to explore the relationship between the playing of the game, the telling by the players, the telling of the characters, and the events as they play out). Instead of the framework given by some Burning Wheel games (talk with everyone to decide what your character’s goals are, the outcomes of their arcs, whether they will succeed or not in the end) which is Mythic in its fatalism.

Perhaps it is better to reverse the concept: each game, the characters are telling a story about a previous adventure, but the playing of the game is structured like flash-forwards instead of flash-backs. The “present” action is the story. As the events play out, then you move forward and the character narrating restates what has happened as a part of a story (not as a summary, therefore something must be elaborated or changed) that moves events forwards, then you go back into playing what happens in the story itself. The interaction between telling a Story is then confronted simultaneously with the acknolwedgement of change and variation: of how we got from point A to point B. The events played out are stories, but the characters are novelistic when they are given the opportunity to reflect on the events and “unpack” them with one another. Characters can even through the Story into doubt since they’re being told communally. Character 1 may have a way of telling events that are very different from Character 2. The characters grow in telling stories and act in the stories they tell: these intertwine into the opportunity for simultaneous action and reflection in the communal interactions of those who play the game.

This is only one way of examining the Story/Novel interplay that drives the Roleplaying Game. I’m certain there are other effects of this tension that can be, and should be, explored. As a relatively new method of play and communication, the Roleplaying Game offers untold potential to be uncovered in its continued critical analysis.

____________________________

[i] “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” In Selected Writings: Vol. 3, 143.

[ii] Ibid 157

[iii]Ibid 155

[iv] Ibid 160

[v] For those who have not read Don Quixote, Cervantes wrote Part Two in 1615, ten years after the first book, partially as a reaction to an unauthorized sequel being published by another author. Today these are not usually published or talked about as separate books. When someone refers to Don Quixote they usually mean the whole work as both books since it is now published as a single volume with two parts inside it.

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