Keep Your Filthy Narrative Out of My Roleplaying

My friend Russell writes

I think this is exactly right, at least as far as my tastes go.  Broadly speaking, there are three commonly found attitudes towards what you’re trying to accomplish when you play a roleplaying game.  I don’t want to resurrect the taxonomy wars, so I won’t label them, but the basic breakdown is:

  • Roleplaying games are about experiencing what it’s like to X
  • Roleplaying  games are about constructing stories that are like X
  • Roleplaying games are about playing a game (often a war-game) that draws elements from X

The problem is that these modes are largely incompatible.  If you’re trying to experience what it might be like to be faced with situations and making decisions in the game world, the last thing you want is to have narrative control over the game that the character doesn’t have; how can you face any uncertainty over whether your arrow will strike true when you can just declare that it does?  If you’re trying to play a game to exercise your tactical judgment and formulate clever strategies, it’s damn well cheating when the referee just overrules them in the name of plot.  If you are collaboratively writing a story in your favorite genre, it’s madness to allow that story to be warped or even ended prematurely by something as arbitrary as a bad die-roll.

This isn’t just idle speculation or caricature, these are genuine and deeply felt objections by people who are looking for a certain kind of entertainment from RPGs.  Take this guy gal, for example:

    • In addition, I challenge the entire premise [that “Character death should be a normal part of a well balanced but challenging adventure with natural consequences for poor choices.”]. Books and movies are excellent examples of my point of view. The main character isn’t going to die and you know it the entire time. No matter how steep the cliff, how deadly the bullets, how invasive the poison, the hero lives and we still have engaging blockbuster films and New York Times Bestseller novels. Why? Because the Story is Just That Good.

Leaving aside  the question of whether blockbuster films and bestselling novels really are Just That Good, or whether they’d be even better if there was some actual uncertainty as to the outcome, this is clearly a guy gal who is not only looking for a way to construct stories, but doesn’t even have a glimmer that there might be people looking for other things, people who would therefor find the justification that something happens in films and novels to be unpersuasive, if not a complete non sequitur. (Or maybe I’m just reading to much into his her “challenging” the premise rather than simply disagreeing with it.)

What bothers me is not that the folks who are primarily about constructing narratives exist (de gustibus),  but the blithe assumption that everybody else who plays RPGs shares their tastes, even if they don’t know it yet. (BTW, I don’t intend to single out Viriatha above as an example of that.  I’m talking more about an attitude I perceive all over the place in posts on how to structure your roleplaying session as if it were scenes from a movie, how to design your villains to play up the themes of the story, how to drop detail and consistency from the setting if it doesn’t feed into the main narrative, and so on.) What I miss is any sense that “Your mileage may vary.”  It’s not that I want to see every blog post or forum comment come with a disclaimer “only suitable for certain tastes in roleplaying”, but that I think the advice would be sharper and more on-point if the authors kept in mind that they’re talking about a specific approach to RPGs.  For one thing, they’d spend less time running down the alleged flaws in other styles of RPGing, which should give them more time to devote to their particular style.  More than that, though, I think that the recognition that they are aiming to accomplish one particular kind of thing by playing RPGs would help them separate the wheat from the chaff for their approach; there are a lot of things that are carried over from game system to game system in our hobby because that’s what people are used to, but are irrelevant if not counter-productive for certain styles of gaming.  The result, it seems to me, is a lot of patching of things that get in the way when they should be jettisoned instead.

Take, for instance, Fate or Hero Points.  Such things are often added to systems that have important things, like character life or death, decided by a random die roll, to give players a measure of narrative control; the justification is almost always along the lines offered above, to make the game more like a blockbuster movie or bestselling novel.  The problem is that this is a band-aid.  If what you’re aiming for is a properly-constructed, satisfying story, having a limited number of times you can overrule a story-killing die roll makes no sense.  An unsatisfying end to the story doesn’t become more satisfying because at least you managed to avoid derailing it the first three times it happened before you ran out of Fate points.  You shouldn’t be rolling dice if you don’t want a random outcome.

On the other hand, and this gets back to my original point and the title of this post, if having a limited pot of Fate Points is insufficient to satisfy the legitimate desires of those who are playing for narrative, the existence of such things in the system screws up the legitimate desire of those who are playing for the experience of it to not be forced to confront profound game decisions that can’t be made in character.  I don’t want narrative control when I’m trying to imagine the experience of the character, because it screws it all up; if the character actually had that control, the story would turn into simple wish-fulfillment, if not an outright Mary Sue (as well as breaking a lot of settings where there’s no conceivable reason that a character would have that kind of power).  The more important and the more fraught with consequence the moment is, the less I want to be jerked out of it by meta-game considerations.

Similarly, from the other direction, there are those who think that “something must be done” to prevent the horrifying possibility that some logical, perfectly consistent feature of the game world (such as encountering something unexpected when crossing the dangerous wilderness) could screw up the game balance, so that the set-piece encounter at the end of the journey is no longer a fair contest or the wealth-per-level guidelines get thrown out of whack.  Again, it’s not that they’re wrong to want the game the way they want it, but a greater recognition of what their particular desires are would probably help them narrow the focus of the game to what they actually enjoy.  If you’re going to remove the random encounters as being a pointless and potentially unbalancing distraction from the encounters in the dungeon, you should probably go ahead and remove the travel to the dungeon as well.  Why should there even be a situation “The PC’s are heading to the dungeon and will eventually get to the dungeon, but not this session, and they need a combat to get them moving.”  Just wave your hands and say “Three weeks later you arrive at the dungeon.”

You want a laser-like focus on what you and your players actually find fun, and you want to ruthlessly trim the things that get in the way of that.  But to do that, you need to understand what it is that your players actually want to accomplish by playing RPGs, and to do that you have to keep in mind that what they’re after might not be the “obvious” point of roleplaying to you.  Otherwise you might find that you’re trimming the reason that they enjoy playing, and focusing straight on what they are trying to ignore.

10 thoughts on “Keep Your Filthy Narrative Out of My Roleplaying

  1. Extremely well written! You’re absolutely correct, you do need to know what your players want – since if the whole group isn’t having a good time, you’re doing it wrong. although you can’t please all of the people all of the time, you can do your best to please most of them most of the time.

    “his is clearly a guy who is not only looking for a way to construct stories, but doesn’t even have a glimmer that there might be people looking for other things”

    Two things. First and most importantly, the word challenge was just that, a challenge to discussion. This does not mean I don’t think other points of view aren’t valid or interesting.

    I actually play in other types of games most of the time. Your mileage may indeed vary, mine does most of the time 🙂

    Second, I’m a girl 😛

    “these are genuine and deeply felt objections by people who are looking for a certain kind of entertainment from RPGs.” Yes, they are. I play in the other types of games so often, I usually feel something is missing and instead of hating my other GMs for not giving it to me, I’m creating it myself. The beauty of roleplaing games is that you can literally do anything – if you just choose to go out and create it.

  2. Oops. Fixed that “guy” thing.

    It’s a good point that you can want different things at different times.

  3. Insightful!

    In theater, we are always pressed to be aware of our audience. I guess the difference is that in this business we are constantly aware that not only are there other audiences (and, therefore, other things to cater to) but we have to understand that members of other audiences might spill over into ours. Therefore, we always need to focus the kind of experience we provide: If we do “A,” then we need to be really good at A, because people who like A will keep coming back and someone who likes B will either appreciate the amount of skill involved in doing A or never come back (and thus open up a seat for another A-audience).

    I think that’s sort of the same thing, but it’s something we are always taught; a lot of game groups do the same thing for a long time (becoming really good at A) but forget, or were never aware, that others like B and even C.

    I also think Russell is onto something.

  4. Some abstract mechanics take me out of the experience more than others. Savage World chits, for example, aren’t so bad, because I can view them as my character giving their all when they are really committed. (This may not be a strategic way to play SW, but that’s how I usually decide.) Narrative control when I am not really “in character” is also fine. When we are glossing over a month of downtime, I’m not really thinking in-character much. So it doesn’t bother me, if, say, I get to choose which spells my sorcerer learns when they are supposed to be innate self-emerging powers from the character’s point of view.

    There’s also a positive side to giving players certain narrative control, however, for staying in-character. There’s a jolt when I need to go through a process to learn the “right” answer to information that would be readily available to my character. So mechanics that allow me to make up the answers directly related to my character allow me to stay in character. For example, Liz played a Dragon going to a fancy ball in Crystal Palace. What do Dragons wear for formal occasions? Since she had the only Dragon PC at the time, I decided it was better to delegate that to her, rather than imposing an arbitrary correct answer. (She chose colorful body paints.)

  5. I agree, some mechanics are much worse than others. Bennies in Savage Worlds tie pretty tightly into the character’s desires and effort–you’re not allowed to spend a Bennie to change an enemy’s roll, for instance, or rewrite some back-story or force some dramatic event to occur.

    And I’m pretty open to getting to decide things about the game world in author mode when it occurs outside of play. During play it screws me up. I can see deciding something trivial like what’s traditional to wear to a fancy ball; I’d be far more leery of, e.g., having to do something like decide whether the culture has the death penalty for a particular crime when my character is on trial for that crime. It doesn’t really matter to me then that my character would certainly know. And having the ability to spend a Plot Point or something to overrule the GM on that would just irritate me.

  6. Excellent post.

    Further point: Character immersion is not a key feature of roleplaying for all players. See, for example, many game masters.

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