[The Fifth World] The Structures of Oral Stories, and How to Model Them


What really defines story games comes from Ron Edwards’ essay, “System Matters.” Traditional RPG’s offer “physics engines” as their rules. If a story happens, great, but the rules don’t have much to do with that. Story games quite explicitly drive a story forward.

In Primetime Adventures, each character’s “screen presence” has a tangible effect of driving nested characters’ story arcs forward. In Dread, everything you do requires you to pull a block from a Jenga tower, and when it falls, the character who pulled that piece dies–which builds a palpable sense of impending doom perfect for the thriller and horror stories Dread focuses on. In Burning Empires, the three phases and scene economy likewise provide the beginning, middle and end of a sci-fi story.

For The Fifth World, I want a game that will help us rewild by giving us the tools to renew our oral traditions. I’ve made some progress codifying an animist ontology into the rules, but now I need to figure out the rules that propel the story forward. To do that, I need to figure out the principles of oral tradition the way literary theorists have figured out the principles of written stories. And then, I need to figure out clever rules to emulate that experience.

Picking from the other end, I think the post-colonial perspective of magical realism also presents some fertile ground. Spiking oral tradition with magical realism ought to get the perfect flavor of feral, as opposed to wild, storytelling.

Obviously, I’ll need some help here.

I’ll post my thoughts on this thread to keep you up to date, but if you think you can identify common characteristics of how oral stories flow, or how magical realist stories unfold, those observations can really help us out here. And if you think you know of some clever mechanics that would propel players down those paths, those would help, too.


There’s a book that is relatively recent called something like, “A Story as Sharp as a Knife”, Classic Haida Storytellers. I don’t remember the author’s name, but it’s got a really different approach to storytelling than classical anthropology. I guess most early work in collecting stories from Native North American stories involved eliminating as much of the personal elements as possible. This is one of the reasons why reading collections of them are so incredibly boring. This book actually goes that opposite route to present as many of the stories as possible with personalities overlaid and intermingled with them. It also looks at common themes and elements presented through out and how they truly formed epics. It might help…


Okay, I was just reading the article on oral storytelling and your previous comments on formulas in oral stories for another project, and I read this at AWE:

Then, I read your comment about oracles:

I was thinking, oral stories are told with big building blocks, like the oracles of in a wicked age, and these make the most sense to a literate mind in cards. For instance, Once Upon a Time really makes sense that way for me. However, like you said, that doesn’t work evocatively for the fifth world. To an oral mind, these big building blocks are often found in the world around them, as places and objects remind of stories about them. All this brought to me the idea that it might work for each person to bring to the table an object or set of objects or photos of places, or stories of incidents from the outside world that they feel have a story tell, and if they could incorporate that object in the story in a way that is central to the story, they would get some kind of bonus. Thus each person comes with some building blocks for the story, and these building blocks are inherently evocative of a world-view connected with the world around it, and people begin to create stories of their area. It may be too complicated, it just sort of came to me, just an idea, brainstorming sort of.


Thanks for the title, Pathfinder. To stand up a bit for what I spent all those years studying, you sound like you mean a lot of the older folktale collections. Particularly over the past generation or so, anthropology has put a huge emphasis on maintaining the personal context of storytelling. The common anthropological wisdom today says that stories have meaning only in that proper, interpersonal context. So even academics eventually learn. :slight_smile:

Matt, that sounds like a really awesome idea to try out–but it also sounds way too free-form to work as a game.

I neglected this thread far too much; I had so much in mind, but my ambition out-stripped my time. Fortunately, I’ve found some answers anyway, so I wanted to share them here.

I got a lot of influence on this from Harold Scheub’s Story. Scheub studied African storytellers, and took his examples from the African stories he’d heard told. In Story, he makes the case that stories, first and foremost, communicate emotions. They do that by dealing in images. Stories lay down images, one on top of another, until they start to form patterns. Rhythm plays an important part in storytelling, not only in the delivery, but in the rhythm of how the story invokes images. It reminded me a great deal of music. I’ve heard a theory that music exists primarily to create harmony: since two disparate melodies will tend to harmonize, really participating with music–singing it, playing it, dancing to it–first brings you into one of the melodies, and then as the melodies harmonize, your bodies harmonize, and then your minds. Music synchronizes us; not just us as humans, but our song will harmonize with the song that the winds play, the songs that the birds sing, the song that the streams dance to, and so on. From all those discordant melodies, we have a single harmony emerge that puts us all in step with one another, dancing together. Well, story works much the same way: story brings together disparate images and weaves them into a single story. It brings people together. The invocation of images, then layering them on top of one another, and developing a rhythm of images, weaves them together and makes them one. It unites teller and audience, the story to the people, and the people in the story to the people who hear it.

This made some sense to me as I pondered just how much universality we can assume of the three-act structure. Like music, we first have to introduce the melodies we’ll tie together. In a story, you have to introduce the images. There you have the first act. Then comes the rhythmic performance itself, as we repeat those elements and layer them on top of each other thickly, the second act. Finally, we need to achieve harmony and bring those elements together, the third act.