Storytelling Approaches in Tabletop RPGs

While I didn’t plan for my first post here to be a response to anything, the blog posts in question happen to discuss something that’s been much on my mind, lately. It’s interesting how the minds of a whole community seem to converge on similar topics from many angles.

John Wick (of 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings fame) wrote this post about the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) module, Tomb of Horrors, and Alex Karaczun rebutted here. Where Wick simply complains about the module based on his childhood experience running it, Karaczun makes a point that gets to the heart of the RPG experience: it’s all a question of design emphasis and personality.

In the world of tabletop roleplaying games, there’s been something of a split in philosophy for as long as I’ve been in that world (since the mid-’90s). Some like to call this the old school/new school divide, but that’s the sort of “my generation is better” simplification that makes substantive discussion impossible out of the gate. It’s not about old versus new (or old versus young, if you like), but about literary versus cinematic. Think in terms of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A lot of die-hard LotR fans really hated the film adaptations, while other equally die-hard fans loved them; who’s right and who’s wrong? Nobody. Both populations need to acknowledge that, yes, obvious and significant changes were made in translating the story from novel to film, but both also need to acknowledge that most of those changes were inevitable. A straight, scene-by-scene translation would be impossible without far more time than a trilogy of movies will allow, and even then you can’t perfectly reproduce a lot of the feel Tolkien was going for in a cinematic setting; the two media are just too different in the way things have to be presented. There’s no more wrong with loving the movies than there is with loving the books, but they’re too distinct to allow for equivalency. And, frankly, that’s as it should be. Movies mimicking the books would have just shredded what was good about the books without bringing anything worthwhile of their own to the table; what is entertaining in a novel is a boring slog in a film because film doesn’t engage on the same levels that a novel can, and vice versa.

Karaczun’s strongest point is that

I hold very firmly with the design perspective that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game is about exploration. The fun of the game comes largely from what a lot of contemporary gamers call “the boring stuff.” I can recall as a young man, of (then) 14 years old, how vividly I imagined the “boring stuff.” I imagined far off shrieks, or moans. The skittering of vermin just around the corner ahead, or an imagined sound of soft footsteps following the party just out of range of the torchlight. And given the way exploration was handled within the rules, far more in-game time was spent between encounters than encountering them.

Modern game design, for the most part, is about the encounters. Exploration is often secondary, if not entirely overlooked.

“Modern game design” remark aside, I do see that very distinction at the heart of RPG debates. Wick’s games themselves make for great examples, here. 7th Sea, the one with which I am most familiar, is an extremely cinematic game: It’s all about swashbuckling and swinging from ropes and fighting sea monsters with canons, and it very deliberately gives the players a lot of agency in the game world. This is all great fun, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such design choices. But it isn’t the only way to do things, and it isn’t the best. The cinematic route has its exemplars that do what they do wonderfully, one of my favorites being Fate Core, with its collaborative ethic, but that game is designed to encourage a totally different type of storytelling from the game I am currently running: Dungeon Crawl Classics (or DCC for short).

These two systems happen to serve as a great illustration of the contrast I’m talking about. DCC isn’t the crunchiest game engine out there, but it’s definitely all about letting the dice fall where they may and living with the results. The designers themselves made note in the book that they intentionally left a lot of possible rules out of the book to leave room for the groups using the game to fill those holes in if they wanted to or leave them open to ad hoc ruling—the exact design philosophy of Gygax and Arneson in OD&D and, shortly thereafter, AD&D (first edition, anyway). But other than those holes, the dice say what the dice say. The Judge (to use DCC terminology) is neither there to make the game strictly “balanced”, nor to punish the player characters, but to give the players a world to explore. Adventure arises not just from tearing through monsters and snagging treasure, but from tracking down leads to the next dungeon, questing to learn new spells and find exotic magic items, or even just fill in the map of what’s through that next mountain pass. Much as any feudal peasant, the PCs only know the land of maybe a five mile radius from their homes; what distinguishes the PC from the run of the mill is a desire to see more than that before they die, knowing full well that there’s a good chance of dying during that very quest of discovery. This type of game thrives on a sense of luck, whims of the gods, and hidden information, and any players in this sort of game ought to know what they’re in for. If death isn’t a very real possibility hiding around every corner, the sense of discovery gets reduced to a sense of tourism; the PCs may as well be on an air-conditioned bus tour through Bavaria rather than marching through a fantasy kingdom toward an ancient crypt haunted by the restless dead. The overland slog, mapping out dungeons, questing for even scraps of useful information, is a decidedly literary tack; it takes longer to develop the setting, but the players get the sense that they’re actually learning about an organic place which doesn’t necessarily exist just to entertain them but entertains them because it exists.

Fate is far more cinematic. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s very different. In Fate, the players and GM collaborate from the beginning on the sort of game everyone wants to play. The GM may or may not have devised the setting itself in advance, but the players and GM create the game, in terms of tone, starting point and beginning story objectives, in the same way that they create their characters: by discussing them, writing them all down, and then hashing out what was written down in terms of game mechanics. Game creation and character creation alone take up the entire first session of any given campaign, and it is designed into the game that the PCs and setting are inextricably interwoven from the start. The mechanics of the game reinforce all of this, producing a game in which the setting overtly exists specifically for the PCs—and, by proxy, the players. The whole thing is structured around their characters, rather than (as in the last paragraph) their characters existing to explore a larger world.

Calling someone else’s deliberate, and valid, design choices “pig vomit” is not very helpful. Instead, an open discussion of those design choices, when and where to make one rather than another, can improve all of our games. Sharing a bad experience can be helpful because it shows us how a design choice which works very well for one group may not be the best for another—after all, both blog posts linked above detail how ample warning was given to the players, both in-game and out, so we can’t say that anybody went in uninformed. Admittedly, back in the ’80s and up through the mid-’90s, there were fewer system choices so a lot of these conversations were harder to have, but today, we have ample opportunity to explore various design possibilities and game ethics and, just as importantly, for not making it personal when someone else prefers a different tone or emphasis.