September 16th, 2005

RPGs and Stories

Most roleplaying game systems are not supportive of creating stories.

Before I explain what I mean, let me emphasize that I am not talking about you personally, how your group plays, whether anyone playing any particular style is playing "right" or not, whether you're having the "wrong kind of fun," or any of that nonsense. I mean to make a point about game systems and their relationship to what I consider to be stories.

Here's my simple and quick, jargon-free definition of "story": The kind of narrative you find in novels or movies. That's it, for the purposes here.

In those stories, things happen for a reason. Protagonists don't die for no reason, for example. Frodo does not get killed by a goblin, or a cave troll, or the wraiths. When major characters die, it's either to a) raise the stakes at issue in the story, and/or b) to make a final statement (I owe the specific formulation of this observation to lumpley).

Now, in my RPG experience of about 15 years, I've played a vast variety of roleplaying games. They include Das Schwarze Auge, D&D, oWoD, KULT, Palladium, Shatterzone, etc. I've also played freeform for the past 10 years, during which I had total control over anything that happens to my characters, including injury and death.

In all those games (except freeform), characters died for no good reason. I've lost D&D characters to minor encounters due to bad rolls. I've seen KULT characters die in a gunfight that was of not much importance to the story (didn't raise the stakes, didn't make a statement). Sure, you can make an argument that in some stories (such as war stories), random death IS a statement. But that's not true for most stories, including LotR, and it wastes your complex character and cuts off all stories and relationships that they were involved in. Boromir dies making a statement about redemption and his death shows the severity of the situation (raises the stakes).

What do you do in order to keep stories going, then? You fudge. That's what GMs have done ever since RPGs developed out of tactical wargames, at least if they wanted to have story-driven games. Or, you can avoid fights altogether, but then I still can't play a story like LotR, because combat is a part of most fantasy stories. Either way you're ignoring the actual game system.

I am not trying to point fingers and say "this game is bad." I am merely saying that when story happened and continued in those games I played, it was not because of the rules, but in spite of it. In fact, I've played the best stories in freeform play, because I can decide when my character gets hurt or even killed. I can make it meaningful.

So, in the future, when I point out that a specific game does not support storytelling, this is an example of what I mean. I am not even beginning to talk about player-empowerment, character issues, meta-input, reward cycles, or any of that stuff. Simply the fact that if you use most RPGs the way they are written, your character might die for no good reason, makes them unsuitable for creating the kind of stories that we read and see all the time.