MUCH IS BEING WRITTEN ABOUT the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. One of the more interesting articles I read comes from Scientific America in their Observations blog online. Zeynep Tufekci writes, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones – It’s not just bad storytelling — it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.”
As Tufekci writes:
At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.
After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.
Bear with me here.
The connection hit me in part because I introduced the RockyMountainNavy Boys to the Cepheus Engine System recently. Like Classic Traveller, character generation in Cepheus Engine is a series of die rolls. There is some player agency in the process but for the most part the output of the character generation process is a very everyday character. The character is not a hero. There is little chance to min-max character stats – the player starts with the hand they are dealt (or restarts in the event of character death). In play the player must then respond “to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.”
In many other RPG systems character generation is much more personal (psychological). Start with a character concept, then build the character using the right tables. The result is often a heroic character – and that’s by design. After all, who wants to play an everyday drone in the world? They have to live, level up, get more spells, and become more powerful.
Let’s look at how Tufekci describes the best of GOT – character death:
One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.
The same applies to many RPGs and its why there is often a major reluctance to kill off characters in a campaign. Unless, of course, there is a “heroic” reason to do so.
The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.
In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.
Personal stories and agency…hallmarks of a good RPG. But how many GMs use institution and events – external forces – to shape player characters?
I now see that Traveller and Cepheus Engine have sociological storytelling baked-in at their core. This is what makes these systems so interesting to me. Like other RPG players, I want to be a hero but I derive more pleasure at achieving without a heroic character being given to me.