Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Regarding “Story Now”

A few people have commented (and emailed me) that they have enjoyed my “session reports” and adventure write-ups, especially the recent White Plume Mountain game at the Baranof. My players have sometimes noted that the telling of the story is more interesting than the actual playing, as some of the challenges (like the ziggurat and the mud cave) have required a fairly boring amount of brain-storming on the parts of the players developing a strategy for circumvention.

Personally, I don’t see any sort of hypocrisy or “false advertising” …hell, any kind of disconnect at all!...between the actual playing and the later “story telling.” That’s how role-playing games are.

NOT that I feel RPGs are a vehicle for “telling stories.” I don’t really agree with this sentiment (or at least, I don’t support the idea that story telling is the main or prime objective of playing an RPG). Stories CAN come out of imaginary play, but the point of play is…let’s face it…PLAY. Play in an imaginary world, imagining yourself as a grim wizard or stalwart cleric of brawny fighter…or for that matter, pretending you’re a Jedi Knight or star-sailing smuggler.

Certainly, some players (including myself) have at least some nominal story-telling objective; a “narratavist creative agenda” to use the jargon of the Forge, and role-playing games can be designed with this objective in mind. But D&D is NOT a game that facilitates addressing a premise in play…at least not without a LOT of house rules and some fairly extreme tweaks.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t get something of a story from playing. No, it’s not Tolstoy; hell, it’s not even Howard usually (though it might be Lovecraft). The story you get is the same kind you bring back from a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ll explain what I mean by that.

When I was a kid, I was both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout (I was also a Catholic altar boy…and somehow I was never molested in all the years of my youth…go figure). As a Scout with an active/involved father, we went on a lot of Scout-sponsored camping trips. This would generally involve driving out into the middle of the wilds, hiking as a troop even farther into the wilds, setting up tents, and then toughing it out through icy, pouring rain for two or three days before hiking out again. Call me a sissy, “city boy,” but camping in the Northwest sucks. It is cold, it is wet, and it is miserable. Miserable! We’d have to sing these damn songs and try to find as much humor as we could while freezing our joints off and getting muddy as hell. I suppose it was designed to “build character,” but what it really did was give me an appreciation for my soft city life…kind of like being forced to eat Top Ramen for a couple years gives you an appreciation for having a job that puts real food on your table.

Anyway, while we certainly had some laughs (usually at the expense of our fellow scouts’ equal or worse suffering), I don’t think any of us would have said we had a “good time.” I know I would never have claimed that…and I enjoyed luke-warm beef stew cooked on a tiny propane stove. Even after we got home, we would not have claimed to have enjoyed ourselves…BUT, we always had a helluva’ good time telling the stories of our suffering!

Complaining and talking about how awful an experience was can be a lot of fun…much more so than the experience itself. What’s more, it can be downright entertaining to others when described with the proper attitude and (occasional) poetic exaggeration.
; )

I hope folks don’t take this to mean that a boring day at the gaming table should be considered entertainment because you can bitch about it later…that’s not the point. The point is, the kind of stories that get told are “war stories” about what happened in the game: “We went into White Plume Mountain, and Joe and Bob died, but at least we got this big pile of treasure, and look at this nasty scar from the giant crab, man, after we finished him off we were dipping his remains in butter…”

Regarding, “the telling being better than the playing:” that’s really not how I see it. Actual play takes time away from “what’s going on” in-game for referencing rules, kibitzing, and out-o-character strategizing. That’s the nature of the beast…and it happens in Story Now games as well (rules referencing, kibitzing, and strategizing or negotiating the story). The difference between D&D and a Story Now game is not that one tells stories and the other doesn’t. The difference is that one (D&D) tells pulpy, weird, serial adventure stories and the other (Story Now) has the ability (or potential) to tell more “meaningful” or “emotionally impactful” stories.

Not that they do, necessarily. InSpecters, for instance, has fantastic potential at facilitating the narrativist creative agenda (due to its shared narration and wide-open interpretation of dice rolls). In practice, any stories told are more loopy than anything that occurred in White Plume Mountain. That’s what it inspires: silliness. And it’s no more or less interesting than the stories that get told about a particular “dungeon delve.”

Now as I said, I don’t think “collaborative story telling” is the prime reason to play RPGs (even though it IS an objective of play for certain RPGs). Likewise (as I said), I personally have an interest in some story coming out of play…even if that story is simply a hair-raising tale of adventure and death. In fact, I find the serial adventure (i.e. the “long-term campaign”) to be the MOST rewarding because it gives you a chance to “fall in love with the characters” just like your favorite serial TV show or comic book or novel or movie trilogy.

[and I think that this love of the “on-going character” is as much the reason people want to play D&D as the ability to “pretend to be an elf or barbarian or spell-slinging sorcerer”]

Because of this (my own creative agenda), I have fairly specific design criteria for role-playing games. Not “rules light” necessarily, but “rules abstract.” And certainly NOT “rules heavy” (sorry Pathfinder/D20…you go too far in the wrong direction for my taste). B/X is just about perfect, aside from minor gripes (like the excessive treasure/XP thing). It gives the rules needed to set parameters of play (what is and is not possible and/or appropriate), but leaves a LOT to the imagination, giving ample space for creativity.

If my write-ups of White Plume Mountain were fun/interesting, it’s because the GAME was fun/interesting…at least from my perspective. No, no, we weren’t creating any chest-beating drama (that’s a different RPG, folks) but we were having a rip-roaring adventure with minimum fuss.

For a Thursday night social event over beer, that’s most of what I’m looking for anyway.
: )


  1. I agree that the playing should feel like playing, not being in the middle of the story, and usually it does. It's afterwards, when you see the notes about what actually happened that a story comes together in your mind. What took seconds to describe in the game could be hours or even weeks in a fictional recount. What took hours (ahem, combat) could be over in minutes. When I write up our group's games I often think when looking at the notes, sometimes even just a single line 'I don't remember that, that is so cool!' and extrapolate it, embellish it, pick out its finer details, explore what the PCs would have said and done. It's like getting twice the enjoyment out of the experience.

  2. I was a member of a gaming group, and the GM had the whole story played out in his mind to the point where he wanted to tell us what we were going to play for character classes...

    For me, that wasn't much fun. There was a lot of, "Well, given your character's history, he'd know better than to say that." ...Ok, who is playing this character, you or me?

    You wanna write a story, write a story, don't GM a game.

    While a story might be created during the game, it should never be the goal. Some of the most enjoyable games I've played had no real possibility of becoming a story.

    1. > "Well, given your character's history, he'd know better than to say that."

      I literally laughed out loud. But in reality, it must have been awful to play (or, rather, "play") in such a game. I would've walked out the second time I heard that.

  3. A story is created in ANY game: football, monopoly, even checkers. It might not be a good story, but it's still a story. "We thought we were going to win, but then they surprised us and we lost". See also: Life.

    Story Now games are about building structured narratives of a very particular style. Nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it, but it's not why most people sit down to play a tabletop RPG.

  4. Stuart have a good point. It might not be a good story, but it's still a story.

    BTW, I really like it when you combine your old scholl love with in depth knowledge on how to relate to indie style new school games. Quite interesting reads.

    Now I'd love to run the Mountain with T&T...

  5. Great post, really spot-on. And I too grew up as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout in Western WA, and I agree: camping in the Pacific NW SUCKS!

  6. Ok wait! you like B/X over d20. I for one am shocked by this part of your post!! =P

  7. @ Ronin: Huh? Is that sarcastic or something?

  8. This is, in totality, a very good post, and I tend to agree. I just wish I, too, had written down more about what went on in the games I played in or ran. I *know* I've seen and done a lot -- I just can't remember any of it. I bet this is how the Memento guy feels.

  9. Oh yeah, I meant to also comment on this:

    > I have fairly specific design criteria for role-playing games. Not “rules light” necessarily, but “rules abstract.” And certainly NOT “rules heavy” (sorry Pathfinder/D20…you go too far in the wrong direction for my taste).

    Wanna know what MY beef with 3.X & PF is? I'll tell you anyway! It's not just that the games are very crunchy and induce a lot of arguing about the rules and checking the books; it's that there's no real payoff, no REASON for them to being so clunky. They don't make what goes on in the game any more realistic or fun; it's like they're just heavy for the sake of being heavy.

    That, and being a bitch to DM after the characters reach fifth level or so, if not even sooner. When it starts taking 12 hours to prepare for a 6 hour game session it's just not fun anymore. It's hard work. I still shudder at the thought of having to calculate the CRs and ELs and treasure amounts and the dozens of bonuses and penalties (of various types, which may or may not stack!) to attack rolls and ACs and skill checks and this and that and FUCK YOU, D20, I'M DONE WITH YOU.

    1. Haha. I feel your pain. Back in my D20 days (and I'm sure I've posted this somewhere, so you'll probably find it as you go through my archives)...*AHEM*

      Back in my D20 days my buddy ran me from 1st level up to, oh about 6ish before he finally threw his hands up, claiming it was too tough keeping track of my stuff. THEN he decided to try running a "high level" (15th!) adventure for me, creating pre-gens going by the strict gear limits found in the D20 DMG...he gave up THAT game after one encounter!

      Besides the pain in the ass that is writing down giant stat blocks, double-checking math, and balancing encounters as per RAW, *my* main gripe with D20 was running into DMs (and ignorant players) who did NOT play the system as written. The D20 system is a finely tuned engine...once you start tweaking rules that you don't like, the wheels start coming off (and the ability to judge challenge and risk/reward starts to disintegrate).

      Makes it real tough to enjoy a system that simply becomes a DM-fiat free-for-all because the referee can't be bothered to learn the rules or play by the book. And that was most everyone I encountered in the hobby (my friend NOT included...he just wasn't up to the task; that's why he quit).