Wednesday, April 11, 2012

RPG Theory: Story and Storytelling -- Part II

In the first part of this series of posts on Story and Storytelling in RPGs, I talked a little bit about the difference between the two terms, and how they might be tackled in RPGs.

Moving forward, I wanted to talk about how I perceive RPGs are used in creating a story (which I'll term Story Creation) and then how RPGs are used in telling a story (Storytelling). Hopefully, my exploratory ramblings will make sense to other folks reading this mess.

Story Creation

I'm going to start off by positing that in traditional RPGs (which is a dangerous term, but hey), there are three major pillars that define or create the elements of a story. Those pillars are the Game Master (GM), the Players, and the Game Mechanics.

The short list of two major elements of story that I'm tackling here (which I'm sure I'll be taken to task for by real literary academic types) are the following: plot and character.

As for the contribution of the pillars to each of the elements, I'll use qualitative terms to explain my perceived 'percentage contribution' of each pillar.


The plot of any game story is generated by the pillars I mentioned above, but the contribution of each varies with the preferences of the GM and the Players, and to some extent the Game Mechanics of the game system used.

For example, in a sandbox style game with a very impartial GM, the determination of the plot might breakdown as follows:
  • Players - 45% (in true sandbox play, the players decide where they go, what they fight, etc.)
  • Game Mechanics - 45% (the rules are applied, and dice are rolled impartially; wandering monster tables contribute to the 'fairness' of encounters)
  • GM - 10% (not everything is covered by module, setting, notes or rules, so the impartial GM makes up for that portion of the plot with judgement calls)

In an adventure path style game, still with an impartial GM, the plot might breakdown as follows:
  • Players - 33% (player agency still in effect, with PCs able to throw monkeywrenches into the path given sound GM judgment)
  • GM - 34% (without a sandboxy setup, the tendency is to follow the various contingencies allowed for in the adventure path, or fudge a few rolls, or to make up stuff; once the PCs have deviated too much from the adventure path, it essentially ceases following the path and either becomes another 'path' or transforms into sandboxiness)
  • Game Mechanics -33% (still used to determine of PCs successfully jump through the hoops given to them, or succeed in their game-wrecking 'alternative option' thinking)
There are more than these two approaches of course, but they're the ones that easily come to mind and are easy fodder for this thought experiment.

I'll return to this when I start tackling different game systems in the future.


Players tend to define their Player Characters (PCs). They either roll up their characters and then give personality and backstory before the game starts or as they play, or they create their character by making choices and assigning points, and again refine personality and backstory as they play.

GMs tend to define the NPCs -- either creating them from scratch or fleshing out/modifying NPCs from available game source material, and then solidifying the characters during play.

In traditional RPG play, the GMs have the ability to affect the character of PCs indirectly (and occasionally directly).

An example of indirect characterization of PCs by GMs is when the GM modifies a certain part of a PCs backstory (your childhood friends remember you being nicer than you make yourself out to be, your entire past is a lie, you are secret royalty). It may have no bearing on how the PC is played in game by the Player, but from a literary perspective (and from the perspective of players into roleplaying) this is part of characterization -- actions, formative experiences, consequences, etc. The fact that it takes place in the past makes it indirect, at least by my definition.

An example of direct characterization of PCs by GMs falls under the banner of really bad railroading. It is when significant PC choices or actions are made by the GM as the PC. For example:
When you return from the dragon's dungeon, you run into a priest with a bunch of orphans attacked by a paladin for some strange reason. After killing the paladin, you realize that the orphans will starve and task the priest to take care of them, and you leave most of the dragon's hoard with them as aid. Happy with your good deed, you set off to the nearest town...
... and the players cry bloody murder. These are character-defining actions that were taken from players by the GM.

Non-traditional RPG play (some of it anyway) seems to mess around with this formula by allowing both indirect and direct characterization of NPCs by any Player. It sometimes allows Players to affect other Players' PCs as well, essentially taking from what is traditionally the GM's fiat basket (though usually this is part of the RPG rules and therefore technically part of Game Mechanics -- but the decisions are clearly made by the Players).

Now it should be said that almost anything that messes with a PC, from changing their backstory, to modifying their abilities, to stealing their gear, to changing their personality, to killing them is a traditional hot button in RPGs. Appeals to 'better story' often fall on deaf ears when a Player disagrees with what happens to their PC. Then again, appeals to 'that's the way the dice came up' don't always work either -- even if those are the rules that everyone agreed to at the beginning of the game.

However, unlike cries about how someone's favorite character was killed (justly or unjustly, plausibly or implausibly) in a novel -- theses PCs are considered the 'property' of the Players. They can be modified to an extent given perceived fairness and the agreed upon rules of the game, but if it goes beyond that hazy threshold, then the experience of the RPG is broken for that Player (and perhaps for others too).

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