Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fundamentals of Story Logic

I'm beginning a new scholarly project that involves reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson for its philosophy of science. My initial investigations have got me reading A.J. Greimas, the French semiotician who is mentioned by one of the characters in the novel. It's dense, dense stuff, but one of the things that Greimas does is reconstruct Vladimir Propp's morphology of the folktale in order to develop a mode of narrative analysis. Greimas's "structural semantics" seem to me to have a nifty application to role-playing games.

Characters (Actants)

Characters are defined in terms of the roles they fulfill; these include Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, and Opponent. Notice that these roles aren't absolute; they are defined in terms of their relations to other character-roles. So every Subject has an Object (of Desire), a Helper, and an Opponent; and every Sender has an Object (of Communication) and a Receiver.

So in the story of Luke Skywalker, the helper is Obi-Wan Kenobi and the opponent is Darth Vader. The Object (both of communication and of desire) is the Force, whose sender is Ben and whose receiver is Luke. Or else its Princess Leia, whose sender is the Rebellion and whose receiver is Luke. Or it could be R2-D2, sent by Leia and received by Ben Kenobi.

Or is Luke the Object of Communication between Kenobi and Vader?

What this suggests to me at least initially is that there can be a lot of overlap, and a lot of contestation, in terms of what character gets assigned which actantial role. Which means that a game is possible around those contests.

It's also true that "actants" aren't necessarily characters in the traditional sense; an actantial role can be fulfilled by some attribute of a character, so that for instance the Sender role for a particular set of relations is the Subject-character's own ambition.

So any given character can be defined in terms of his or her relations to some set of other characters and attributes (e.g., Han Solo: Subject [Object = Leia; Helper = romantic chemistry; Opponent = Luke], Subject [Object = make a living as a smuggler; Helpers = Chewbacca, Millenium Falcon; Opponent = Jabba the Hutt]).

The Object though is always doubly articulated, so that any Object is simultaneously a Subject's object-of-desire as well as the object-of-communication between a Sender and Receiver. There are a couple of ways that that can manifest itself.

Subject/Sender <--> Object/Receiver [When my longing for you is fulfilled, you are transformed]

Subject/Receiver <--> Object/Sender [When my longing for you is fulfilled, I am transformed]

Subject/Receiver <--> Opponent/Sender [When our contest is resolved, I am transformed]

and so forth.

So my read of the "object-of-communication" is that its receipt is somehow transformational. I am relying on a notion of communication that emphasizes communion rather than transmission, but I suppose a more prosaic interpretation is possible, e.g.

Death Star Plans [Object: Subject (Darth Vader); Sender (Princess Leia); Receiver (Rebellion)]


Functions assign attributes to actants in a verb-like way. When I say "Peter hits Paul," I'm distributing the attributes "hits" and "is hit" to Peter and Paul respectively. In most cases, there is that sort of complementary action/process relationship: one actant does something while another undergoes something. The answer to "What did Peter do?" is "He hit Paul," and the answer to "What happened to Paul?"is "He got hit."

The interesting thing that Greimas did was to systematize Vladimir Propp's morphological functions of the fairy tale to show how they fit into a larger pattern. Any given narrative event can be described as a configuration of one of several "metafunctions" whose precise manifestation depends on its placement within a character's heroic arc. So, for example, an object-of-communication may initially be that which enables a villain to identify the hero as a threat, but eventually it becomes that which allows the hero to be recognized as a hero. Think Harry Potter's scar.

So imagine a game where a "move" is to establish characters as actants in relation to other actants, and the point of narration is to use functions in such a way as to move the action in such a way as to get your hero to his desired end first.

An important aspect of the game will be that character attributes will largely be a product of antithetical comparisons to other characters. More on this later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent piece; just what I was looking for. Is there anywhere on the internet that I can find more information in plan language? Or can you give more details?

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.