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When the Story’s Not Just Yours: RPG’s as a Storytelling Medium

November 24, 2010

“Roleplaying Games” might have been of those unfortunate bits of nomenclature that has directed people’s attention to certain features of a thing rather than others and shaped the perception and development of them ever since. It’s  the “Game” bit that skews how you see it. Because of their classification as a game, people often end up focusing on questions of statistics, dice, and rules systems as the primary attributes of RPGs. Even the most story focused groups can get bogged down in the minutia of rules systems.

I enjoy playing around with the maths of the games rules quite a bit myself, but it has a downside. Rules jargon distracts from narrative language and limits players’ thinking in relation to what their characters can or should do in a given situation.

As time goes by, I’ve come to think that an RPG is less a game, and more a medium through which group of people can tell a story.

Taken as a narrative medium rather than a game, an RPG has several features that make it appealing. The basic structure of an RPG session is this: Players narrate the actions of their characters, using a combination of third person speaking and “in character” dialogue. The protagonists are controlled by the Players (usually 4-6) while everybody else’s actions are dictated by the Game Master (or Storyteller, or Director, or Dungeon Master- the appellations vary but the role remains the same. GM is the “generic” one, so I’m sticking with that despite the “Game” part). The GM also has the task of writing the outline of the plot, setting the scenes and managing the action.

In many ways, the RPG medium (RPGM) resembles Improvised Drama. (RPGs also quite closely resemble oral storytelling – a small group gathered about a table (you could do it around a fire, but landlords frown on that sort of thing in the living room.), listening as a story is woven – except that once again, everyone is participating in the storytelling.) The GM presents a setting, a supporting cast, villains, and a situation, and the Players (as their characters) act against that backdrop. The target audience for the GMs story elements are the players. And just to make things more interesting, the target audience are in direct control of the actions of the protagonists. This creates a unique tension between the GM as a storyteller and the players are the characters driving said story. For an RPGM story to work, all these elements must be in synch.

And therein lies the challenge for everyone involved in telling the story. There are somewhere between 4 and 8 egos involved, and everyone wants their piece of the storytelling pie. And one of those egos is given more power than the others – The GM crafts the wider plot, plays several characters, and is responsible for managing the storytelling as a whole. And great power… well, you either get corruption or responsibility, and usually a little of both. This is one of the subtle effects that the “game” part ends up having on the storytelling aspect – The GM is usually the final arbiter of the rules of the game, which gives him even greater power, and creates a culture in which a GM’s “no” must mean “no” for the game to continue to run smoothly from a rules standpoint. This culture of “the GM’s word is law” leads us to the first place where RPG’s fail to make use of the medium to tell the best possible stories.

Anyone who’s played in a number of RPGs has seen or heard of it – when the GM sits in tells his story to the players, who participate in its creation only nominally. The GM stacks the situation very heavily in favour of driving the players down a particular path, and often uses Deus Ex Machina-esque events to prevent the players from deviating from that. In its worst incarnation, the GM-dictatorship story happens with the player characters as mere spectators to the GMs characters, who he has cast as the story’s protagonists. Oral storytelling could do with getting more respect than it does, but that’s not what you come to an RPG table to do.

The wider gaming culture supports the idea that each game “belongs” to the GM running it, and this is a poor assumption that hamstrings the unique attributes of the medium. However, there’s a good reason that you put the overarching story in the hands of one person – it allows the players to experience the twists and turns that make for good drama. Since the players present are the only target audience, it would be a terrible shame to deny them that.

And so the tension between storyteller and protagonists remains. To tell a story successfully, this is a tension that has to be carefully managed, but that can also be harnessed – The GM is part of the audience too, so he gets his drama from the unscripted actions of the Player Characters.

Ultimately, the draw of RPGs as storytelling is this co-operative element. It adds something no other medium can quite equal. Of course, many other artistic endeavours involve co-operation. Scriptwriters co-operate with actors to fine tune a characters dialogue, writers co-operate on a single story, but RPGs take this to a higher level, and further, the improvised nature lends the whole process a unique fluidity. One of the draws that theatre has for me (as a member of the audience) is that you “had to be there.” Each performance, and certainly each production, is unique, and you will never again get the chance to see its’ like. Even if they recorded the plays and released them on DVD six months later, it wouldn’t capture it. The presence of the rest of the audience and being in the actual physical space of the theatre are vital parts of the art. The same goes for RPGs – the specific circumstances in which the story is produced are as much a part of it as the words spoken. RPG’s are the ultimate in “you had to be there.” It’s why it’s difficult to articulate to those who haven’t been in an RPG why we enjoy them so much. It’s why when old groups get together they inevitably end up enjoying recounting the stories with others who experienced it. Simply retelling the story seems weak and limp beside our experience of the story as it was created.

On reflection, there is one reason more than any other that I’ve chosen to (re)open the blog with this post. I love to tell stories, but other concerns tend to get in the way of me telling them to completion. I have plenty of stories started in a folder on my laptop, and scribbled in notepads, but I’m not great at getting them done. RPGs are the medium through which I manage to complete stories. The social aspect of the hobby has a lot to do with that –  a little bit of social pressure to show up to the weekly game or finish a convention game goes a long way to getting shit done. But there’s more to it than simply social pressure. Collaborating with others is a joy. Your own ideas multiply on contact with those of others, and together you produce something that couldn’t have happened with only one mind. I finish writing games because I know that at the end of it, the idea we’ve released into the wild will have taken on a form I could not possibly have predicted or achieved alone.

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