Posts Tagged ‘story’

I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect 2 – late, as I usually am with computer games – and I’ve also just fired up Skyrim, the latest offering in the Elder Scrolls series. (Not late on this one!) They’re both great representations of the typical RPG styles of their developers – Bioware and Bethesda respectively – and I’m enjoying them both a lot. But their styles are very different, so I’ve been enjoying them for very different reasons – and it occurred to me that something similar applies to my enjoyment of tabletop RPGs as well. (Possibly to LARPs too – I don’t play many so I’m not sure!)

Before we move on to the contrasts, let’s point out the big similarity: combat. Don’t get me wrong, combat is handled very differently in both games, but the basic challenges of combat – can you pick the right tactic for this fight? can you execute it effectively? – are the same.

Between combats, though, the gameplay is markedly different. Bioware’s games are generally fairly linear in plot, but allow considerable flexibility in how the player’s character reacts to that plot. The player is encouraged to judge how they feel about each situation, and can choose how they react to it – which has a small, but not insignificant, effect on the progression of the story. As Chuck Wendig put it on Twitter, “Our Story, Your Way”. They also tend to have a very tight narrative – something that I think can only be achieved (currently!) by enforcing a linear plotline.

Bethesda, on the other hand, focusses much more on flexibility and exploration. The philosophy behind Bethesda games seems to be “go anywhere, do anything”, and they build huge game-worlds populated with numerous NPCs, quests and locations to explore – of which the “main” plotline is just a small, optional, fraction. This is fascinating and exciting, but as a result the narrative is a lot less tight, and in general the player/character’s input is less critical – they pick up quests and do them, and aren’t generally encouraged to think about their reactions to what’s going on. Chuck’s summary of this style was “Our World, Your Story”, but to me it’s not “story” enough for that – I prefer the “Our World, Your Gamesuggested by Rick Carroll.

There are exceptions to both patterns, of course. In Bioware games, the focus is on the story and the character interactions, but that doesn’t mean exploration isn’t possible – usually it is, but the exploratory side-quests never feel particularly meaningful. In Bethesda games, the focus is on “here’s a world, what do you do in it?” but that doesn’t mean none of the quests provoke judgements or difficult decisions – some do, but again they often feel a bit shallow.

So. The point is that, in my experience, tabletop RPGs often tend towards one or other of these game types too. Sometimes the focus is on the characters as they are pushed into difficult situations and make difficult choices to get out. Other times, there’s a whole lot of content to explore, ready for the players/characters to go and prod and poke at their discretion. Usually there’s a bit of both, but often one dominates.

In general, my preference is for the former – the “Bioware style”, if you like. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I think it’s at least partly because it is something that’s much more satisfying in tabletop than it is on a computer. Computer games necessarily restrict “the story” to whatever it is the game designers have written, whereas pen-n-paper games can write the story as play develops – but still keep that tight narrative and pacing that I like about Bioware’s games. Exploration-style games, on the other hand, I find similarly satisfying in both tabletop and computer formats (albeit in slightly different ways).

Thoughts welcome! Have you played any of these games? Do you think the parallel is valid?

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…