Storytelling and Roleplaying Games

All right, since I’m still new to this blogging thing this may ramble a bit. (And get long-winded, apparently.)

I was introduced to the concept of roleplaying games in college, and I’ve loved them ever since. I’ve played a number of different systems and settings, all of which have different levels of crunch and fluff. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, crunch refers to rules and how to play the game. Fluff is setting, flavor, and the little details that make up a world. Games which are setting agnostic or allow players to create their own worlds are low on fluff. Games which are flexible and have few rules can probably be said to be low on crunch – such games are often termed “rules light”, and I’ve seen them called storytelling games.

Storytelling games tend to try and invest the players with more direct control over the narrative flow of the game. I find the term “storytelling” interesting because all roleplaying games are, to a certain extent, about cooperatively telling a story. No two games will ever turn out the same, even if you have the same scenario and the same characters (different players, of course… I don’t know any GM that would run the same scenario twice with the same players). That’s part of the problem with prewritten scenarios that make assumptions about steps along the path from beginning to end, and expect the players to follow.

As I see it, there are a couple of ways to tell a story when you’re running a roleplaying game. There’s the prewritten way of doing things, where you have a definite idea of how the story should go and expect your players to follow the correct path. If they don’t, they fail. Whether this failure means they die, don’t get the macguffin, or don’t rescue the princess, they cannot accomplish their stated goal. Which is not to say they “lose” – players should never “lose”, even if all of their characters die. Some GMs seek to mitigate this by putting the game “on rails”, overtly guiding the players towards the correct path.

Games like this tend to be more like watching a movie or playing a game. Yes yes, RPGs are games – I mean more like video games. There is a predetermined end, and you’ll either get to it or you’ll fail. That’s not to say that this type of game is bad – as a friend of mine likes to say, being on rails is fine so long as the scenery is good and the train is going to awesome town. I mean, you enjoy movies and video games even though you’re only going to get to one place at the end (deliberately ignoring video games with multiple endings here).

In this type of game it’s all about the journey. It’s about character interaction, or those awesome moments where your character gets to do something cool and hog the spotlight, if only for a moment. You’re not really shaping the story so much as you’re unveiling it bit by bit. How you uncover it might change, but the bit uncovered is always the same. Storytelling in this sort of game is more combative – you have to overcome each obstacle in order to get to the next, and only then are you given the next bit of story. In a sense, it’s the group against the GM. It’s more frustrating for the GM to run when the players go off the rails, especially if the GM isn’t as flexible or able to think on their feet. That’s not to say that this sort of game can’t be fun, or that every game run with a non storytelling system must be played that way.

Which brings us to the other way of running a game, but it with a storytelling system or otherwise. This sort of game, as mentioned previously, attempts to give players more control over the narrative flow. The GM reacts to what the players do – if they decide the plot is going a certain way, the GM follows and builds a story around that. I like those sorts of games, and it’s how I usually run them when I’m GMing. This doesn’t mean that you don’t place obstacles that the players need to overcome. Those are still there – but in this mode of play, you can reward them for creatively bypassing those obstacles. There is no “wrong path”, and even if they fail to overcome an obstacle that failure still leads them onward in the story, albeit in a different branch. Sort of like a choose your own adventure.

The systems used to do this are varied, and I played one recently that sought to minimize the use of dice rolling. The idea behind this was that if the players had to roll, there was a chance they could fail that roll and thus fail to overcome the obstacle. I’m not sure what I think about that. A certain level of chance is necessary, the potential to fail needs to be real. In most good stories everything doesn’t go perfectly well for the antagonists – they face challenges, and sometimes they fail. It leads to tension and character building moments. I think maybe the game system was trying to make it easier for less adaptive GMs to go along with what the players were doing. As I was playing this particular game and not GMing it, I found that it provided a wealth of roleplaying and party interaction opportunities. But the GM was frustrated when it came to actual conflict, and I think the rest of us were as well. There was just no good way to do it without a certain level of crunch. Maybe we just weren’t used to that style of game.

I guess my point is even non “storytelling” systems can still be storytelling games. It’s all in how you handle it.


One comment

  1. Mike says:

    I used to run a game regularly and went with a hybrid of the “on rails” system. Where I would set up characters and plot points that would be encountered but the how and when those points were encountered were a lot more nebulous (owing to the PC’s being crazy people) it was pretty effective.

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