Wednesday, 21 January 2009

So it looks like we might have made it, yes it looks like we made it to the end...

I think role playing games are all about the adventures. You can call adventures different things depending on the genre - missions, runs, whatever - but that's just nomenclature. All you're doing, at the end of the day, is heading off into the unknown and seeing what happens.

This makes role playing games and 'story' a bad fit, in my book. Good stories and heading off into the unknown only rarely go well together: for every Stephen King who just sits down with an idea and sees where it goes during the writing progress, there are 10 million frustrated authors writing utter bollocks with the same method. Unplanned story requires a lot of talent to make it work. And this goes for role playing adventures too: for every unplanned campaign that you can look back on and say "that could be a novel", there are 10 million which were a lot of fun but which you know could never mean anything to anybody who wasn't directly involved. Try telling somebody about your gaming session last Sunday; they'll get the same look in their eyes that you get when somebody starts telling you about the dream they had last night, or when somebody at work is going on about how many shots he did at the club on Saturday. The last thing they'll say is, "Ooh, tell me more!" Unless they're very polite. That doesn't mean it was a bad session - it's just, really, who gives one about what Gwenda the Paladin said to the white dragon if they weren't there?

I was thinking about this last night when I sat down to watch No Country for Old Men. In many ways, it reminded me of a Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Deadlands or Unknown Armies game: there was a lot of tension, a nice set up planned by a good DM, some interesting characters, and a good mixture of violence, action and role playing. But in the end the whole thing kind of stumbled out of rhythm when it came to the narrative. People died due to unfortunate dice rolls when it would have been better if they hadn't, some random encounter checks came up with crazy results and the DM didn't quite know how to deal with them, and in the end as a 'story' it just didn't work out. I'm sure it was a lot of fun for the players, but to a neutral observer it seemed fundamentally unsatisfactory. A lot of the Cyberpunk or Shadowrun games I've been involved with could be described like that.

Those games weren't any the worse for it, of course. I don't play for the story; I play for the adventure - because that's where the fun is.


  1. All you're doing, at the end of the day, is heading off into the unknown and seeing what happens.

    It sounds good on some level, but it isn't accurate. Oftentimes, you have a goal. You may be heading off toward and end, hoping to overcome whatever obstacles lie in your way.

    If that's the case, story may well not be a bad fit.

  2. It's interesting, isn't it? No Country For Old Men is the anti-action movie. Like life, a D&D campaign, and a Simpson's episode, it's just a bunch of stuff that happened.

  3. I'll quibble semantically for a moment.

    I've no problem with "story" being a part of D&D. Story is the kind of thing that is what we actually look for, especially when it's the past tense kind of story. Story is what comes from the Players' actions.

    What I have a problem with is Plot. Plot is pre-planned and scripted and invariably screws things up when the PC's go off the rails. Going off the plot makes things chaotic and frustrating for the DM that likes that kind of thing while staying on the rails makes the PC's merely witnesses to what's going on rather than actors and determinators.

    Otherwise, yeah, good post.

  4. I stopped doing the explicit game recaps for exactly that reason. I'm going to post lessons learned from a DM or player perspective and huge highlights or something that made it awesomely fun, but the hesaid/shesaid, it was just too much.

    I've not had a chance to see that movie, but now I think I will.

  5. Although I agree with your main point, I'm surprised at your opinion of "No Country for Old Men". But then, I think a lot of people mistakenly believe the movie's about the guy running from the assassin.

  6. Szilard: I should really have expanded on what I meant by that. When I say "head into the unknown" I just mean that you don't know what's going to happen. There might be a goal, but how and if you get there is unknown, if you see what I mean.

    Fitzerman: Exactly. Although I can accept that with D&D, life and a Simpson's episode, but I was kind of frustrated by the movie. I was expecting plot and a story, dammit! ;)

    Michael: That's a fair quibble. Story is retrospective while plot comes before, perhaps.

    Chgowiz: It's definitely worth seeing if only for the first hour and a half, which is some of the best cinema I think I've ever seen. Then it runs into problems, in my view.

    Talysman: I think he is what the movie should have been about if we were going to have an effective resolution. As it stands I was left very unsatisfied at the end. There are no resolutions in life or D&D, I know, but novels and films should have them.

  7. Michael got it, I think. Stories are retrospective; they're written after the fact (yeah, I know more modern/experimental fiction uses present tense, but most efforts are yawn-worthy) and attempt to organize the chaotic nature of "what happens" into something coherent and (on some level) meaningful.

    "The Tale of Old Venn" by Samuel R. Delany has a beautiful illustration of this when the title character relates a tale of an encounter with a sea serpent, and realizes how, with each retelling, the story itself changes to better match the expectations of her audience.

  8. It's a good observation, and I agree (although I'd also swap "plot" in for "story", since story tends to arise naturally from play, even if that's not what was expected or intended), but I'm not sure it applies across the board, as you suggest; I'm finding it difficult to fit my game of choice, Call of Cthulhu, into your scheme, for example.

  9. KenHR: I'll have to give that a read. I've never actually read any Delaney.

    Kelvin: Call of Cthulu is all about the unknown! And how it's going to drive you insane and/or eat you.

    James: Thanks.

  10. I usually play for story, but more precisely, I play for story created in play. As a GM, I'd be utterly bored if I already knew what was going to happen; hence, I try to GM in such a way that players determine where the story is going, my role being to poke their characters (by creating conflicts or other interesting material) if the gameplay slows down.

    (I am also running a simple dungeoncrawl with little in the way of story creation, except what happens to emerge from dungeon expeditions. Both styles have their charm.)

  11. Thanuir: That's pretty much the way I approach it too. 'Story' is just what happens in the game, and it isn't really a story in the same sense that a novel is.

  12. Yes, CoC is indeed all about the unknown, but it's not about setting off to discover it; rather it seems more to be about accidentally discovering the unknown while doing something else, and wishing you'd stayed at home!

    That's why I'm having trouble fitting the game into your model. CoC pcs aren't setting out on a journey of discovery, at least not deliberately. It's only a slight difference, but I think it might be significant.