Story or Game? An Oncological Discourse

I was recently solicited for opinions on what I would do if given the opportunity to be the one to “make” D&D. My answer was I’d pretty much make B/X, use Holmes rules for scrolls and spell books, use 1e’s rule for acquiring new spells, and Star Frontiers’ order of battle. But that’s not what this post is about.

One guy replied to the initial question with the following:

To me, it’s not about making more complicated mechanics in an RPG, it’s about maintaining an Improv mentality between DM and players. When you put the story first, everyone wins. Improv and RPG can be ruined when someone tries to win, or be a star of the session.

Let’s take a look at those last two sentences. The first is the total opposite of correct, but the second had some merit (thought it springs directly from putting the first into practice), so let’s hear him out:

“If you say “my character is a badass”, you are already ruining it. You have to be open to what will happen, and let your guy interact/change”

This is true, but I often see it coming from players who emphasize “story first” gaming and enabled by “story first” DMs. Players become desperate for their characters to be relevant to the story rather than function as an integral part of the adventure-machine. Story focused games often marginalize particular characters because they remove the mechanical purposes for that character to be there. Fighters with nothing to fight, thieves with nothing to steal or no traps to disarm, wizards with no new magics to find and cast, etc. will lead to unhappy players.

I say “game first”. Story emerges from the party’s gameplay experience. Plus, that way you avoid a Key-man crisis where one character gets too important to the “story”, can’t die, or the “story” stalls out if that player isn’t able to play. The adventure is the “game” and completing that adventure successfully is the win state. The story is what happens during the game.

What about personal player/character goals?

Personal goals are icing on the cake, and they are critical variables in the emergence of narrative.

  • The DM handles world & setting
  • The Party has overarching goals based on DM’s content
  • The Players have individual goals based on their characters

Story emerges from the pursuit of individual and group goals within the framework that the DM provides. Games that focus on story, however, often impose a top-down structure:

  • The DM creates story and sets party goals.
  • The Party goals must conform to story
  • The Individual goals must jibe with the DM’s story goals, or they may go ignored and unfulfilled.

In this situation, players most willing to conform to the DM’s story will take the spotlight away from players who may have different or conflicting goals.

For example, in the con game I was in that Bruce Heard ran, the airship had:

  1. A murder mystery
  2. A haunted train
  3. A zoo full of magic animals

The top-down story, however, was the murder mystery, so it didn’t matter if some players wanted to ride the train or pet the animals. Players willing to conform to the top-down story imposed on the session got the most playtime and impact at the table.

A non-story game of the Dreams of Aerie module would be “Here is an airship, here are the things on the airship; what do you want to do?” The party could discuss and reach a group consensus based on both party and individual goals. The story then becomes what the party does.

Are individual/personal goals undesirable, a problem, or, at best, superfluous to the party’s goal? Of course not! Your thief’s desire to get rich could provide in-game justification for adventures as you’re offered hooks. A DM’s creative bandwidth is not unlimited, and being aware of players’ individual goals allows them to create content that will be of interest to them. Content is responsive to players’ goals.

But what about player’s attachments to characters? Won’t individual goals lead to players becoming over-invested in characters?

“Don’t go bonkers, but let people stay in the game somehow, no matter what.”

Yeah, because when someone’s character dies, we evict them from the table. This isn’t a Jack Chick tract and you’re not booting someone from the group when their character dies. They’re still in the game. And remember, I said “individuals'” and “players'” goals; a player’s goal can easily outlive any number of characters.

“A good DM will finesse the rules so that there can be consequences just shy of death for a character, just like GoT or other great shows.”

No. Just no.

While I don’t necessarily advocate that characters should be constantly dying, keeping characters alive by perpetual DM fiat destroys the game part of Dungeons & Dragons. Frequent character death at low levels can be a lot of fun, though, because you get to try a lot of new and different things.