Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Perfect Melding of Game and Story

I really love roleplaying games. Here’s why:

I enjoy playing board games and card games. I talked about why in this article. I also enjoy telling stories. I like creating interesting characters and engaging scenarios. Roleplaying games (RPGs) allow me to combine both.

At their heart, RPGs are an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Generally, in most games there is a Game Master (Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Narrator, etc. The exact terminology varies depending on the game.) who creates a scenario. The rest of the players each create one protagonist. These players role-play their characters and decide how they act or react in the scenario devised by the Game Master. The Game Master then reacts to their action, role-playing antagonists, supporting characters and the environment.

There is usually some kind of conflict resolution system in an RPG. For example, most of the time a player can’t just say “I pilot the spaceship through the asteroid field to escape our pursuers.” If he wanted to do that, he would probably have to roll some dice to see if he succeeded at the attempt. His character’s training and natural ability at piloting would probably come into play as a modification to his die roll. Characters’ abilities are usually recorded on a character sheet, and their abilities will likely increase periodically as the game progresses. Some conflict resolution systems are very simple, while others are far more complex. This is where a RPG is similar to a board game.

I’ve tried collaborating on a written story at least twice, and with no success. I think collaborative storytelling in an RPG works for me, because the game provides a clear-cut structure to how each participant contributes, and it provides a system for resolving any conflicts of interest. When writing a story, an author is responsible for making a lot of different things come together. They have to create appealing protagonists, and portray them in a way that is believable. They also have to create an engaging plot, antagonists, and a variety of supporting cast. In an RPG, each person only has to do a portion of this work. Most players will just create one protagonist, and really focus on bringing that character to life. The Game Master creates the scenario and works to challenge the protagonists without crushing all hope of success.

This collaboration can create some truly cool experiences. For example, right now I’m Game Master for a campaign in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. The heroes have traveled to a planet in search of a criminal who stole artifacts from a Jedi library on another planet. I had a few events planned out in preparation for their investigation. I expected them to ask the right questions, follow a few clues, and end up confronting the thief as he was planning to board his ship and leave the planet. When they arrived at the planet, someone asked if there happened to be another Jedi library here, suspecting that the culprit might be planning another hit. That actually wasn’t my intention, but I thought “why not?” and told them there was indeed another library here. Some players proceeded to hatch a plot to catch the thief by luring him in with rumors that some of the treasures from the library here would be transported off-world. Meanwhile, another player decided to have his protagonist join a gang in hopes of getting hired by the thief and being able to work against him under cover. I had not anticipated any of this, but I went with it and it ended up making for a pretty cool turn of events.

So, that’s basically what I like about RPGs in a nutshell. What do you like about RPGs?


  1. For better of for worse, departure from reality helps me cope with stress and keep me sane. (Not that it's all that successful it seems, but at least if makes me feel happy when I'm doing it!)

    Between - the real life aspect of being able to spend an evening with good friends, and the imaginary aspect of spending 3 or 4 hours being someone else, somewhere else, *doing* something else - I find that I really treasure my time spent role-playing.

    I don't really feel like storytelling has ever been my strength, but I do enjoy immersing myself in the world of the game. Speaking of which, I think one reason reason it's so appealing is that sometimes, you're given a fictional world that you enjoy so much but you're just not really given enough to satisfy you. For instance the Serenity-verse. We were given half a season and a movie and yet there was so much created and so much more story-telling that could have been done, so of course it's too good an opportunity to pass up going back to that time and place and making new stories.

    So yeah that's what I like about RPG's. ^_^

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You touched on something I neglected to mention in my original post. One of the things I really enjoy about RPGs is being able to explore a setting. Like you mention, some fictional worlds just have so much untapped potential, it's fun to create your own characters and stories set in that universe. Like you say, the Serenity-verse is a great example of this. Another might be Tolkien's Middle-Earth. I think that, even though there have been a plethora of stories told in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes, those universes are just so expansive there is still plenty of room to fill in some gaps. Some RPGs also have their own original settings that could be just as engaging - such as Legend of the Five Rings.

  2. To me, RPGs are about story and creativity. The vast majority of games I play are digital in nature, and thus limit your freedom of expression. RPGs are different. If you want to escape a battle, you can attempt to do so however you want: Run, slip into the shadows, negotiate, cause a distraction, ect.
    To me, the challenge is: What would my character do in "X" situation, and HOW would he do it? Bringing creativity to the table is what I enjoy, simply because it's different from my usual experience with games. However, I feel that the GM is responsible for weaving the overall story, and I realize, from experience, that he/she has likely put a lot of thought into it. So I feel it is reasonable to concede to the GM's plot when it doesn't seem too out of place for my character to do so. Victory and defeat is not something that affects my enjoyment of RPGs, as long as it adds to the story.
    I enjoy entertaining the other players as well, whether by means of my character's past or actions and interactions. Because I greatly feel that actions speak louder than words, I find it difficult to break away from this in my characters. Thus, I am not casual about my character and his actions. Unfortunately though, you won't see my character do much talking or making many inspirational speeches.

    So, to sum up nicely: RPGs are a creative sandbox for me, where I vigorously attempt to take whatever may fall inside, mix it together in my own way, and present it to others in the hopes of a positive reaction.

    1. Yes. The reasons I prefer analog games over digital games could be the subject for an entire blog post, but like you mentioned, it does allow for a great deal more creativity. In most video game RPGs, for example, the story is pretty linear, with very little that the player can do to influence the events.