But it's (kind of) important.
So, Adam (Barking Alien, for those in the know) posted a comment on my last post (Boring Old D&D) saying:
"It's posts like this that confuse me in regards to what it is you enjoy and why you enjoy it. You don't go in for the Story, Narrative driven games but 'it's not just about killing monster and taking stuff'. How does that work?"How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with paper and dice?"
For the record, this is (perhaps) the thousandth time BA and I have danced this little dance. He is very much of the (now old) New School of RPG game play...the kind that came out of Dragonlance and 2E-era D&D, the kind that in the '90s led to White Wolf games like Vampire and all its many imitators. Games that wanted to explore story and genre until birthing (and being killed by) the rise of the indie, Story Now (or Narrativist-oriented) games. For those of us who've been around since 1981 (and followed the evolution of the hobby), its pretty easy to recognize the foibles of 5E D&D as the second coming (and rebranding/marketing) of 2E AD&D.
[that's probably a whole 'nother post. What'd I say? Too many topics these days. However, here's a hint: WotC/Hasbro's quest to "more monetize" the D&D brand has direct parallels with post-1985 TSR]
ANYway. Adam is no 'spring chicken.' He's been playing RPGs nearly as long (or perhaps longer) than I have. He came in with Basic...Holmes, if I remember correctly...long before Dragonlance. Certainly long before 2E. One might jump to the question, "Hey, why isn't this guy on the same page as JB? He's an old geezer...doesn't he have the same sensibilities?" Just remember: the story-centric "role playing" that followed Wargamers Gygax/Arneson initial creation was created by folks OLDER than us. The Hickmans are OLDER than me...they were married adults in their 20s when they were writing epic Dragonlance modules. This is not an issue of age, generation, or "wargamer background."
[in case anyone's wondering, I don't have a wargaming background]
The way I see it, the problem here is one of confusion and misunderstanding. There is a (LARGE) segment of the hobby that sees RPGs as vehicles for "telling stories." That "telling stories" is the OBJECTIVE of play. "This game [insert name] allows you and your friends to tell stories, just like [insert favorite book, film, or genre one wishes to emulate]."
Before going any further, in this post you need to BREAK that presumption. Even if the game instructions SAY that's the objective of play, you need to nip that right in the bud because there's a good chance that A) the game writer had a poor understanding of what was going on, AND/OR B) was simply emulating prior games description of 'what an RPG is' when they wrote it.
BREAK THAT PRESUMPTION. DO NOT PRESUME THE GAME IS DESIGNED TO TELL STORIES.
Okay. Are we clear? Blank slate everyone? Now we can advance.
There ARE games on the market that are specifically designed to tell stories. Once Upon A Time is a good example. Story Cubes are another. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is yet another and also includes some elements of 'role-playing' in it.
There are ALSO many RPGs (and pseudo-RPGs...like Fiasco) that have been published over the years that have the objective of telling stories, using recognizable RPG elements, that can somewhat succeed presuming everyone is on board with genre emulation. The Dying Earth RPG. My Life With Master. New Fire: Temikamatl. OrkWorld (maybe). Dust Devils. Prince Valiant. Maybe Amber Diceless. Christian Aldridge's Maelstrom (i.e. Story Engine) The degree to which the telling stories is supported by the game's mechanics (rules/systems) varies between games, but they are GENERALLY supportive of creating stories...in their particular genre...and they don't do much else.
[there are other examples...really, too many to list]
Then there are...the other games. Games that are based on D&D concepts, mechanics, and play dynamics. "Role-playing games" they are called...games run and moderated by a game master while the other participants play the role of a single character. Games with explicitly stated (or else assumed) objectives of "telling a story." Of creating a narrative with a point to it. Because OTHERWISE the act of play is deemed to have no point or reason to play.
Or, to use Adam's words, "How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with dice?"
This is coming at the game from the wrong angle. It is starting with the presumption that playing the game must be about something (it is), about something meaningful (it is), like creating a narrative with a plot a climax and heroic...or at least worthy...protagonists (it is not).
Dungeons & Dragons was...originally...never about creating stories in the way an actual story telling game is designed. That doesn't mean stories didn't result from the antics of the players, stories that might emulate much of the genre books that inspired D&D (i.e. the infamous Appendix N). But any story creation was the by-product of play, not the point of play. The point of playing Dungeons & Dragons was playing Dungeons & Dragons. And any textual statements to the contrary should be chalked up as either:
- a failure to understand/grasp the appeal of a very new, very unusual game by the original authors, AND/OR
- blatant lies and/or terrible attempts at marketing a game that was poorly understood even by its own publishers.
Later RPGs tried to take the "magic" of D&D into their own genres, settings, with tweaks to the system (as TSR did with Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, etc.). But for a number of reasons (which I might get to in a later post) these were LESS successful...and not just because people prefer elves and swords and magic.
[like I said...needs its own post]
But SOME folks really still wanted elves and swords and magic but with something MORE. For the Hickmans, they had very specific design goals: they wanted objectives that weren't limited to pillaging and looting, they wanted an "intriguing story" that was "intricately woven into play itself," and they wanted scenarios that could be finished in an evening's play. When the Hickmans were hired by TSR, they incorporated these design priorities into their adventures and when those adventures were successful, the design priorities of the (for profit) company shifted to match.
And all the imitators of D&D followed suit.
Again, realize that creating a story was NEVER the "point of play" for the D&D game. The systems (i.e. rules) it has are there to facilitate playing D&D, not to facilitate "telling stories." People like playing D&D (it's why the game is so successful...and will be explained in that later post), just like people enjoy playing baseball or soccer despite there being no real "point" to the game. The point of play is the play of the game. You are not creating stories...you ARE the story.
Some of the biggest name designers in the story-oriented RPG industry never understood this. Here's Mark Rein-Hagen, designer of Vampire: The Masquerade:
"I have always been in love with roleplaying. Slap-happy mad over it. Ever since that first Sunday afternoon when my father and I sat down with the church intern and played Dungeons & Dragons, it has been my passion...."In short order we'd created our characters and begun our adventure. I rolled up a Dwarf and my father made a Cleric...we were prepared to encounter all manner of fell beasts and sinister mysteries, but not to be caught up by it the way we were. The adventure was called In Search of the Unknown. How apropos that title was I was not to realize until much later."After a few hours of play we found ourselves hopelessly lost due to a magical portal...(description of adventure follows)...I was so excited that I couldn't sit still whenever the gamemaster rolled the dice...and when we finally got out of the dungeon with our treasure and our lives intact, I raced around the house screaming with relief and exaltation."It was wonderful. It was exhausting. It was miles beyond any other experience I've ever had."In that afternoon I was transformed, elevated to a new plane. I had a profound, almost spiritual experience. My entire goal in roleplaying has been to once again visit that mystical garden in which I so enjoyed myself, and discover a means by which I might remain there...it is the sort of thing that changes a life."But the trouble is, it didn't happen every time I played. In fact, it didn't happen for a very long time...(long description of seven years of gaming, going from dungeon crawling to wilderness crawling to PVP to min-maximing munchkinism)...sure we had fun, but it wasn't exhilarating, it wasn't transforming, and it wasn't what I really wanted...."Eventually, it grew altogether too wearisome, and I began to roleplay less and less. Roleplaying became a hollow experience, a sad reenactment of the rites of youth."Then it suddenly happened again, while playing Runequest and exploring the ruins of Parvis. An experience just as intense and transforming as the first. All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic."These two experiences are what, for me at least, define what roleplaying is about. Is is what attracts me, and continues to compel me."
[all excerpt taken from The Players Guide for V:TM, essay: "A Once Forgotten Dream," copyright 1991]
That's not the end of Rein-Hagen's essay, as he goes on to explain his thoughts about how to create that exciting, transformative experience in your own games. He arrives at the wrong (practical) conclusion despite having the right answers. He gives four simple points to follow, none of which require one to play a "deeply personal," "intense," "story focused game" like Vampire: The Masquerade:
- Make you mind as open and receptive as you possibly can
- Believe in the world and scenario created by the game master
- Identify with your character (the character is your avatar for interacting with the world)
- Exercise (grow/develop) your imagination
Of course, all that is just player-facing advice (this is the advice section in the PLAYERS Guide, after all). The part that he glossed over...or ignored/forgot/discarded...was the most important revelation of his essay: All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic.
It's not about creating a story...it's about experiencing the fantasy. And to do that requires a skilled, intense, and committed GM...and players who are open, receptive, and committed to operating in the GM's world. When THAT happens...whether you're playing D&D, RuneQuest, Vampire, whatever...THEN you're getting the point of play. The point of play is the experience of playing. YOU are the story.