Monday, October 26

On Games, and Storytelling


I am a firm believer that storytelling is a corner-stone of what defines culture. The story may be told as part of a song, or in a video game, but a story is told nonetheless.

Stories contain many things: morals, values, norms, shared assumptions. I’m currently reading my way through an amazing comic book (or graphic novel, for those of us who shy away from comics as something kids read) series called Fables, similar in many ways to Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman. Both bring together a variety of tales and stories, re-interpreted for modern audiences. They’re great, and I’d highly recommend them.

But shilling aside, there’s a lesson to be learnt there too: modern re-interpretations of classic stories occur because the root assumptions about culture and society have shifted. The lessons we need to learn (or teach our children) have changed, and “stay away from the woods where the big bad wolf lives” is no longer relevant – but teaching people that if you wander down dark alleyways at night, terrible things can happen is still important. Stories teach us their morals, whether they are Brothers Grimm’s, or Terry Pratchett’s.

What prompts this diatribe about storytelling is this: role playing games are a marriage between storytelling and gameplay. Corvys and I have had many debates around the balance between these two, to the point of stereotyping them as “RP vs. G” debates. Trying to balance story-telling and gameplay is a challenge for every gaming group and every DM to experience.

Translating Values into Fun

You see, the problem always comes in when you differing values meet across a table. Rule #0 is almost universal – fun comes before all other considerations – but that begs the question: how much fun do we have before we become serious? Fun is an ephemeral concept, and is generally not something you can have directly – it stems from doing something you enjoy, and enjoyment is very subjective.

I really enjoy number-crunching. I’ve been MMO’ing since before there were MMOs – I used to MUD (I totally owned The Run in Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld MUD – with only two “MY, MY, WE’VE BEEN A BIT CARELESS, HAVEN’T WE?”s). I used to build characters in D&D Basic and throw them up against monsters, well before I ever had a gaming group that I could tell stories with.

Conversely, Corvys was delving into fantasy literature much more and much deeper than I ever will when I was rolling up my first ever Elf to face that pesky Owlbear! He’s still trying to get me to read The Sword of Truth, and almost had to force me to read A Song of Ice and Fire (for which I’m very thankful). His first group only had a Player’s Handbook, so they never really had a strong set of rules.

And the reason I bring this up is because our roots show. I’ll build an NPC which will be just right for this encounter, but Corvys will ask “But why does it want to fight the party?!”. Not to say that we’re polar opposites – Corvys writes engaging mechanics, and I can weave a decent yarn – but the idea of generating fun from raw material for us is very different. Corvys has the most fun when he’s totally in-character. His tricks for having a good game are all about making players care about the world and seeing it through the character’s eyes – a common trick he’ll use is to threaten the most innocent characters: women, children, and so on.

I, on the other hand, naturally tend towards situations full of action. Tense combats where the environment is continually changing, death-defying risks, terrible adversaries, and mechanical RPG systems that have a good “feel” – the right quantity of mechanics. Too much maths or dice rolling and the game slows to a crawl, too little and you feel like you need to soliloquise when you really want to just stab something in the face.

And there are books and articles and many other things written on how different styles are okay, and you should maximize what people like, not try to change them. That’s not what this article is about.

What I’d like to talk about is this: there are two competing facets to RPGs: story, and mechanics. And as much as people may argue, they do compete: for time, for focus, for energy investment. Some players will tailor a character backstory for weeks before a game, but only draw up a character sheet when they arrive to play. Others will spend weeks poring over splat-books, only to arrive at the gametable and go “Um, Jaddis was orphaned, and grew up on the streets were he learned his trade and then began adventuring, and can we start playing now please?”.

Both investments above are valid and fine (especially because they show dedication to the hobby!), but they show the competition for your mindspace that mechanics and story vie for.

The Competition For Your Mindspace

I’ve had experiences with players on both sides of the screen, from both extremes. Players who will completely halt a fun game to flip through a book to clarify how grapple works in just this circumstance. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, players who will derail a good story or plot because it’s not deep or not fulfilling enough for them.

And, of course, both are valid points of view. Without the rules, RPGs are just sharing stories over snacks. Without storytelling, role-playing games are just rock-paper-scissors with randomized numbers added into the mix. But people in general tend towards moderation.

What is more worrying is when a player decides that one extreme or another is the answer to a great game, and won’t let go of the idea under any circumstances. In an upcoming blog entry, I discuss the applications of cargo-culting to RPGs, and I’ll dwell on it more in that article.

What I’m much more interesting in is not the extremes, but when the two competing paradigms come together into unity and result in an amazing game where they work in balance: when you enter the zone, and you combine quick mechanics and deep storytelling to appease everyone around the game table.

The Zone

You see, there is a “zone” that you can enter, like hyperfocus or Flow, or even Csíkszentmihályism (if you like to sound pretentious :) ). It’s a perfect marriage of story and mechanic. You no longer care for the mechanics as a thing that gets in the way of storytelling, and neither do you care if the story leads you into a place where your characters are in mechanical risk. Everyone is hyped, there’s an electricity around the table. In my gaming group, people stand and walk and get dangerously close to LARPing, swinging imaginary swords around the room, pacing and waving their hands as they discuss something with an important NPC or sneaking as they hide in the shadows. A d20 may be thrown, but the DM will often wave a hand and go “is it high or low?”, and go with that. Mechanics are fudged or made up on the spot, and the story becomes a whole bunch deeper.

Unless you’ve got an exceptional mix of players (and even then), it’s likely that getting into the zone is rare. It requires the right mix of attitude, energy and a combination of other factors. But when you get into it, there’s no questioning that this is what we role-play for.

But so often, getting into the zone is impossible to achieve. The most we can hope for is to provide some story, some mechanics, and help players translate that into fun as best they can.

What to Do When You Can’t Reach The Zone

So this is the crux of this article: When you’re having a normal session, and players aren’t clicking, how do you edge towards a better game? Sometimes you can inch towards the zone until it comes, but sometimes you just do the best you can. In those circumstances, here are a few tips that might help out your gaming:

  • If and when you can, take a short break. One of the most immediate things to wreck flow is tension – some people in the group aren’t getting along, or there’s been a misunderstanding. Get some coffee, take a smoke break, get some air. But if you’re truly having trouble getting the game to flow, and the problem isn’t in the group itself, chances are that a short break to assess and calm yourselves will help.
  • In the longer term, assess what each person in the group values and look into how your DMing caters for that. The old adage of tailoring the game to your player’s strong points holds true: if you have a party of rogues and rangers, then give players opportunities to solve problems with stealth. If you have a mixed group, give each person an opportunity to shine. And if the dice are hating them, then let the role-play take priority over a dice-roll. If they look in a library, let them pass the knowledge skill check for free.
  • While the game obviously has some aspects of realism, and some people are very well-read in fantasy and medieval history, correctness should take a backseat to flow. It doesn’t matter whether you understand that what you’re describing is a buttress or not (heh, buttress), you just want to set a scene.
    One problem that comes with the territory of storytelling is a love of correctness. I’m a geek by nature, and I like knowing stuff. I take pride in correcting people who are incorrect. But there’s a time and place for it. This falls into the category of things to discuss with your players post-game, where you draw a line between what is cool and what isn’t. Grabbing the spotlight for a correction isn’t cool. Neither is slowing the game. My personal system is to have players email after a game with any inaccuracies or rules problems that they want to point out.
  • Related to (and touched upon at the end of) the last point, rules. They can be jarring, but for some players they are very important. When you hit a point where you don’t know a rule, or dispute a point with your players, follow the Warhammer rule: d2 for it (roll a d6, evens are one person’s theory on the mechanic, odds are the others), or hand-wave a solution. I use playing cards, with values and suits to represent various things that make sense (probably only in my mind). But get out of the pause as fast as you can. The game, the mechanics, the story are all suffering when you are not getting more stuff done.
  • Always remember rule 0 – everyone is there to have fun. a
  • Encourage your players to share with you (during- or post-session, if they’re more comfortable discussing it one-on-one) their goals, and their preferences. If they have grievances with another player, discuss it first with the DM. If you have a problem with the game world, or the DMs style, then dialogue will solve the problem. Touch on what you’ve liked, and where you’ve felt drained during gameplay. What parts of the game made you want to carry on doing what you were doing, and what parts made you want to go and get snacks while the game continued without you?
  • Finally, sometimes you’re just drained. The DM is exhausted. Players have an out-of-game argument between them. Someone is just being an idiot and ruining the game for everyone. Maybe it’s not even a people-thing: there’s a noisy party going on next door, and your appeals for quiet fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, a great game is just not to be. Do your best, in those sessions, to generate hooks, plan plots, and set up your players for the next session to truly achieve some great goals.

So, in summary: Mechanics and Story – together, they make up an RPG. To have a truly great game, you need to have at least a little of one or the other, and cater for all the players at your table. If you can’t enter the zone and have a great session, then take a moment to think about why the group is not clicking, and find what triggers the game to move from “alright” to “amazing”.

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