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Incremental Storytelling: A Collaborative Approach to Building Speculative Worlds

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Trent Hergenrader

on 3 July 2017

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Transcript of Incremental Storytelling: A Collaborative Approach to Building Speculative Worlds

The other, more nebulous, but very strong influence of RPGs was the weird fetish for systematization, the way everything is reduced to “game stats.” If you take something like Cthulhu in Lovecraft, for example, it is completely incomprehensible and beyond all human categorization. But in the game Call of Cthulhu, you see Cthulhu’s “strength,” “dexterity,” and so on, carefully expressed numerically. There’s something superheroically banalifying about that approach to the fantastic. On one level it misses the point entirely, but I must admit it appeals to me in its application of some weirdly misplaced rigor onto the fantastic: it’s a kind of exaggeratedly precise approach to secondary world creation.
Probably one of the most enduring influences on me was a childhood playing RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] and others. I’ve not played for sixteen years and have absolutely no intention of starting again, but I still buy and read the manuals occasionally. There were two things about them that particularly influenced me. One was the mania for cataloguing the fantastic: if you play them for any length of time, you get to know pretty much all the mythological beasts of all pantheons out there, along with a fair bit of the theology. I still love all that—I collect fantastic bestiaries, and one of the main spurs to write a secondary-world fantasy was to invent a bunch of monsters, half of which I’m sure I’ll never be able to fit into any books.
Dungeons & Dragons (1974)
Boot Hill (1975)
Gamma World (1978)
Top Secret (1980)
Star Frontiers (1982)
Conan the Barbarian (1984)
Indiana Jones (1984)
Marvel Super Heroes (1984)
Role-Playing Games... What are they?
Where'd they come from?
Kriegspiel = war game
Player interest moves from this...
...to this.
Rooted in tactics and statistics
Player-character central concern
Origins of the RPG
Members of the
Lake Geneva
Tactical Studies Association
with "fantasy supplement"
which in turn becomes Dungeons & Dragons
Connection to fantasy literature
Genre explosion
Transmedia Storytelling


White Wolf's "World of Darkness"
Shift from "hack n' slash"
Greater emphasis on character
through game mechanics
Narrative Experience of RPGs
"Imaginary entertainment environment"
What makes RPG narratives unique?
"fictive blocks"
we restore
through play
from mere consumers
to active producers
of popular culture
"Digital Storytelling & Role-Playing"
Spring 2013, M/W 9:30 - 10:45
Role-Playing Game Definition
episodic and participatory story-creation system that includes a set of quantified rules that assist a group of players and a gamemaster in determining how their fictional characters’ spontaneous interactions are resolved. These performed interactions between the players’ and the gamemaster’s characters take place during individual sessions that, together, form episodes or adventures in the lives of the fictional characters.
Doppelganger self
Devoid self
Augmented self
Fragmented self
Repressed self
Idealized self
Oppositional self
Experimental self
Taboo self
A Collaborative Approach to Building Speculative Worlds
Trent Hergenrader
Thurs, Jan 24
Myths, legends, and folklore
This is science fiction.
This is fantasy.
The trappings of science fiction and fantasy.
"Science fiction in general — through its long history in different contexts — can be defined as 'a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment.'"
Darko Suvin
Definition of Science Fiction
Rhetorics of Fantasy
Farah Mendlesohn
Categories of the fantastic:
"Where are we asked to stand in relation to the fantastic?"
"The Hodag" as Intrusion Fantasy
McHale's Postmodernist Fiction
Brian McHale
"Ontologically dominant" works of fiction
What is a world? What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ? What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated? What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects? How is a projected world structured?
Internal Consistency to Speculative Worlds
Broadening the Scope of Creative Writing
collaborative writing
digital and multimedia production
Internet publishing
decentered classroom
Experimental Approaches
de-emphasizing plot and meaning
focusing on character and setting
vignette-length work
historical and material conditions
Craft Concerns
"Gaming, World Building, and Narrative"
Intro Topics in Creative Writing | UW-Milwaukee, Spring 2011
Part I - Narrative across short stories, films, and games
Part II - Wiki world building
Part III - Role-playing and fiction writing
Post-course wish list: more role-playing, more structured world building
"Incremental Storytelling"
A methodology by which students learn the craft of fiction writing in small, discrete bits that, in aggregate, create something much greater than their constituent parts. This progressive approach puts students in immediate contact with each others’ writing throughout the entire creative process and opens space for critical discussions about the fictional characters and the shared world they create.
"Incremental Storytelling"
From macro elements to micro elements
Art of Fiction
I would begin, then, with something real--smaller than a short story, tale, yarn, sketch--and something primary, not secondary (not parody, for example, but the thing itself). I would begin with some one of those necessary parts of larger forms, some single element that, if brilliantly done, might naturally become the trigger of a larger work--some small exercise in technique, if you like, as long as it's remembered that we do not really mean it as an exercise but mean it as a possible beginning of some magnificent work of art. A one-page passage of description, for example; description keyed to some particular genre-since description in a short story does not work in the same way description works in the traditional tale. And I would make the chief concern of this small exercise the writer's discovery of the full meaning of fiction's elements.
John Gardner
Drawing Story from the Catalog
Intro Topics in Creative Writing | UW-Milwaukee
Part I - Games and narratives
Part II - Critical world building
Part III - Role-playing and fiction writing
"Digital Storytelling & Role-Playing"
Majors of enrolled students
Art BFA x 2
Art History
Biological Sciences
Computer Science
Criminal Justice
Education x 2
English x 5
Film BFA x 3
Undecided x 4
- Enrollment filled faster than any
other 200-level English course

- 25 students, 14 different majors

- 1/3rd of students are female

- 88% have previous tabletop RPG
experience; 100% previous digital
RPG experience
"Critical World Building"
Character Creation
Tabletop Role-Playing Sessions
Fiction Writing & Critique
Incremental Storytelling
Collaborative writing
Complex worlds
Character development
Focus on detail
Critical sensibilities
Potential for interdisciplinary collaboration and MOOC
Begin with detailed maps of characters including their:
Physical traits
Psychological traits
Skills and abilities
Personal histories
The craft of fiction broken into individual units of meaning.
Using RPGs to Build Speculative Worlds
Students write 1k-word vignettes after each session
Weekly critique sessions held in-person and online
Focused discussion of craft issues
- Careful use of language
- Inclusion of specific details
- Imagery
- Evoking all five senses
Macro reportage
Micro experiences
"Indexical Storytelling"
Clara Fernández-Vara
Leaving permanent "traces" on the game world
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