Every RPG rule book seems to have a chapter at the start that describes what a roleplaying game is and a huge number of them miss the point entirely by calling it in one way or another a ‘story telling game.’
Let’s look at some examples.
The 5E Players Guide;
“The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. “
Pathfinder’s Core Rulebook;
“Think of it as a cooperative storytelling game, where the players play the protagonists and the Game Master acts as the narrator, controlling the rest of the world.”
4e Player’s Handbook;
“A roleplaying game is a storytelling game that has elements of the games of make-believe that many of us played as children.”
It’s only when we go as far back as the AD&D 2nd Edition Rulebook that we get a definition of a roleplaying game I can actually get behind.
“This is the heart of role-playing. The player adopts the role of a character and then guides that character through an adventure. The player makes decisions, interacts with other characters and players, and, essentially, “pretends” to be his character during the course of the game. “
While I understand why the term ‘storytelling game‘ has been used and can agree that it’s not entirely inaccurate, you are sitting around with your friends and narrating out actions that when linked together will form some kind of narrative, it is not what playing a roleplaying game is about to me and I’m going to tell you why.
This is to all GM’s out there. Please stop trying to tell stories if you are playing a roleplaying game. It doesn’t benefit your players as all it does is force them down a narrow railroad where their actions ultimately don’t mean anything as they follow your narrative from one point to the next. Nor does it benefit you as a GM as you become stressed out when the players don’t do the exact thing you need them to do to progress and you see your plot slowly unraveling and fall apart. It’s a waste of effort and goes against the entire point of playing roleplaying games, which is roleplaying as individual characters and seeing the results of those characters actions manifest within the game world.
The term ‘storytelling game’ also strikes me as a ‘safe’ description of the game, it’s found in these opening chapters because it’s a way to describe the game to regular folk but I feel in doing so you’re almost admitting to being ashamed of enjoying the hobby. ‘We’re not playing something nerdy with dice and rules where we literally pretend to be a fire ball hurling Wizard, we’re just telling a story together, it’s like writing a novel or something…’
Storytelling games do exist as their own separate genre to roleplaying games. They include games like Fate, Dread, Dungeon World and Apocalypse World and are actually about the players and GM sitting together and crafting a story together. These games tend to include abstract, rules light mechanics that allow the players around the table to facilitate extreme levels of improvisation when deciding the direction of the story.
This differs from a roleplaying game, like D&D, Gurps or Rolemaster in that roleplaying games are far more about players creating a character and adopting the persona of the character within a game world constructed by the GM, which follows rules set out by the world itself as well as the rules of the game. Then acting as that character within the world and whatever challenges the GM presents.
There’s nothing wrong with dedicated storytelling games at all, they aren’t inferior or superior to roleplaying Games just different. There’s further no reason that a traditional roleplaying Game like D&D can’t be run in the style of a ‘storytelling game’ however I feel if doing so everybody involved needs to be heavily on board at the start that they’re playing a different game with a similar structure. When everybody isn’t on board issues arise as two entirely different genres of game clash.
In terms of actual play at the table, a storytelling game tends to be about creating various scenes and linking them together , players have a far larger control over this narrative but their individual actions as their characters are often less important than keeping the narrative flowing. The GM of the game can often hand wave the rules of the game if they benefit the story. For example there is the famous example in Dungeon World of a GM simply saying that a player loses an arm to a Dragon because he felt it fit the narrative of the game. A harsh result but one that in context could make sense.
Roleplaying games care more about the smaller details and enjoy using intricate rules as a way to link individual actions together. A wider narrative can eventually emerge from these little actions but that is never the exact goal. For a player to lose an arm in a roleplaying game they would have to have their arm specifically and severely attacked by an enemy and make multiple checks before losing it. It’s loss would be far more impact to them than in the storytelling because more rules exist that would give them detrimental effects from arm loss and could occur far more randomly as it is up to the luck of the dice rather than the GM simply deciding it happens, which means it could occur at any time just not when the narrative as outlined by the GM decided it felt right.
To look at the damage calling a roleplaying game a game about storytelling does let’s take an example of a neophyte DM overwhelmed by the fact that he is the master of both running and creating the world the players roleplay within. When he is presented with a rule book that says the game is about telling a story he thinks ‘yay’ it’s simple all he has to do is write out a story, slot in a certain amount of scenes in that story that link up and push the players through it. This is about the worst way to design an RPG imaginable as it entirely removes any sense of agency on the hands of the players and it forces them all down the GM’s railroad as their individual actions as characters are ultimately meaningless as the plot has been predetermined in advance.
Should the players go off the rails of the plot, by say ‘accidentally’ killing a key NPC who was meant to survive to the end, the GM has to either fudge it so that the NPC magically survives having his throat slit or abandon the story. This leads to either the original story falling apart or the GM just fudging his players through , leaving them bored and idle. I’d like to say this was a flaw that only new DM’s seem to suffer from but there’s plenty of die hard DM’s who run this style of game as well. I don’t like to say that perhaps they should be focusing their efforts on writing their novels instead of designing a game based on one but I think it rings true.
So what is the alternative then? If you can’t craft out a narrative for the players to follow what can you do? The answer is simply to present the players in the game with multiple interesting situations to tackle alongside creating various NPC’s with their own goals and motivations who will attempt to enact them in the world. Add an interesting and fleshed out setting and you are good to go. You aren’t creating a plot for your players to follow as that removes from them their agency but you can create at least a narrative arc for your NPC’s to follow, with the simple caveat that if the players meddle in their plans then they can come asunder, or succeed if the players fail at their meddling.
Some examples of interesting situations and NPC goals include;
- A young Black Dragon and his followers have taken root in an abandoned temple. They wish to raise the bones of a Dracolich buried under the temple grounds.
- Kulrax the Demon Lord is building a great spire to tear a rift into the planes itself and summon an army of demons.
- A group of rebels are fighting against a tyrannical king trying to bring order to a blackened, ruined city.
I think that risk of success and failure is at the heart of what makes roleplaying games fascinating to play. Take the example of Game of Thrones, people find that engaging to watch because it breaks narrative conventions , the bad guys win and the characters the audience are rooting for all fall horrendously. Roleplaying games are like that all of the time and you don’t even need to work hard at contriving it to happen, if you let the game flow naturally it will happen all of the time.
It will happen when your players kill the leader of the resistance movement with a lucky critical in the first round of combat, it will happen when the players fail to stop the cultists planar ritual and they summon a dread army of demon spawn , it will happen when your low level group somehow manages to kill a young dragon far beyond them and reap its treasure. None of these awesome moments can happen if you stick to a storytelling game as you are bound by that story and the narrative conventions it brings, the good guys need to triumph, the bad guys need to lose or see the errors of their ways, somebody needs to marry a princess and even if quirks do exist in the story they are pre-determined or fudged quirks that the players don’t take risks to achieve and therefore do not feel as though they earned.
Hopefully these few words encourage those out their to break from the shackles that writing out stories creates and ironically tell better stories as a result of letting fate and the players decide what happens in your games.