I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, March 31, 2019


This is a brainstorming post. I am discussing ideas that I've just had and, honestly, are pretty contrary to things I wrote in the past (and use in my games). However, they seem like an interesting change of focus and I'd like to  think about them in public and hear other people's opinions.

Is D&D - and, by extension, RPGs in general - a type of game that is focused on telling a story?

Well, no, at least not for me. The whole "telling a story" idea detracts from the experience I want from RPGs (which is, basically, LIVING a story).

However, this week after my Curse of Strahd weekly game one idea crossed my head... what if we think of some RPG campaigns as a game of competitive storytelling? Or maybe a game of competing stories?

The whole idea sounds strange - not only because RPGs are not "storytelling games" IMO, but also because I do not usually think of them as "competitive".

But this makes sense to me for some reason:

- Every player has a story planned for their characters. Maybe they are "meant" to become kings, make their deities proud, or slay an old nemesis.
- The GM - or the NPCs - have their own story planned out - Strahd destroys his enemies or captures his unwilling bride, etc.
- Players and GM compete to see which story becomes "real".
- However, the competition between these stories necessarily change them - mostly because no one has a complete picture in the beginning.

[This makes sense MOSTLY on long campaigns with a single "story-line", like Curse of Sthrad; the GM can hardly think in terms of "story" if each game is a different one-page dungeon with no connecting themes]

With these foundations, the players and GM compete to set the details of the story. Notice that this is not necessarily more or less important than the ending of the story; sometimes the journey is literally more important than the destination.

How do they compete? With arguments. And mechanics, of course. For example:

- "This goblin cannot survive, because he is sleeping and I cut his throath".
- "I hit this NPC with my sword, because I rolled a 17 and her AC is only 14".
- "My character did not die, because I still have 3 HP left".

There is one common thread in all these arguments: they all rely on the idea that "the story must make sense". The mechanics are just a way to enforce this fact - i.e., it makes sense that someone in heavy armor would be more protected than someone without armor (unless it doesn't - for example, if the guy without armor is more nimble, he might avoid incoming attacks, etc.).

There seems to be an enormous hole in this idea: the GM could say "rock falls, everyone dies". However, this is the same as a player saying "well, my character isn't really into slaying dragons, I'll just become an honest baker instead". More realistically, the GM might say "Sthrad sends an army of undead against you while you sleep, even before you defy him. When you wake up there are 100 zombies around you".

The problem is these stories are obviously boring. How popular would "The Lord of the Rings" be if Sauron appeared in Elrond's council and simply killed everybody, with no hope escaping? If the PCs have no chance, or no challenge, there is no fun. So, in addition to making sense, the story must be fun; if you do not think the stories created by GM and players are fun, you'll probably look for other groups.

Also, if the GM's story simply overrules the player's stories, there is no "competition". For this reason, the GM should always be fair. In a competitive environment, "fixing" the dice is cheating.

This indicates another obvious problem: the GM has to be a player/competitor and referee at the same time, which would be impossible in most games. 

Games without a referee have explicit rules that all players must follow; likewise, players in a RPG should agree on a set of rules, even if these include "the GM may change the rules when deferring to common sense", etc.

Still, most RPGs give so many tools to the GM that he must put his role of referee above his role of competing story-teller.

Notice also that the GM does not need to come up with a story of his own; Curse of Strahd, for example, contains (the outline of) a story, for example. But the GM must move his pieces in order to move the campaign story forward, in the way it is intended in the book.

On a micro level, the "story" can be defined scene by scene, without an overarching plot. The PCs enter a room; in the room, there is a troll. The module says the troll wants to eat the PCs, but also wants to acquire jewelry. The PCs have their own "story" planned: they do not want to be eaten, but they also want to acquire treasure. Maybe one of the PCs is a troll-slayer or a pacifistic; the player must "defend" his PC's story against the troll and the other PCs.

Even the most disinterested player has an idea about the story that will unfold. At the bare minimum, she wants her character to stay alive, and the story to be cool (a disinterested player might decide what "cool" is scene by scene).

In the end, through playing the game, everyone reaches a consensus on what the story will become. The story needn't be the coolest story each player could come up with, but it must be cool enough that the players are inclined to play again and contribute to new stories in this manner.

"Consensus" does not seem to mesh with "competition". However, think of friendly sparring or any kind of competitive and you'll realize there must be consensus in order to compete. Competition is not, after all, synonymous with war. We must agree on the rules before playing, and must have fun in order to play again.

The main argument against this view seems to be, IMO, that players and GMs do not have a pre-planned story, but instead PCs and NPCs have goals

However, this doesn't seem as compelling because:

- When role-playing, PCs can take actions that go against the characters "goals". A bloodthirsty PC may start a fight with a potential ally even if her goals are hindered. The reason is that the story must make sense. 
- While GMing, I cannot think of all NPCs in the world. I must choose whatever NPC is nearest, etc. I'm more concerned with making the story make sense than with each individuals NPC's goals. I cannot make Sthrad appear all of a sudden unless circumstances (or the dice)

That is all I've got for now. I'm very interested on hearing your opinion; if you ahve something to add, disagree, etc,. please leave a comment below .


  1. The competition is diegetic and seated in the fiction - that is, the PCs and NPCs and monsters are all aware of the stakes and acting accordingly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diegetic_music

  2. I like it. Matches what I feel is important: the referee must provide adversity (i.e. a competing story).

  3. As someone who has been DM'ing a very long-running and slow burn campaign, I must laud you for laying out so well essentially the paradigm in which I and my players go about things.

    While there is naturally a great deal of cooperation that must go on in any such game, when one treats characters as actual people, it is extremely natural for things to essentially develop such that everyone has their own narrative working around their interests. Not only, in that situation, must the players work to balance their stories against one another-- deciding whether or not the needs of one person's plot/character arc outweigh the demands of whatever circumstances and contingencies are in play with regards to other players, but if you are playing as a DM that really allows your players to have agency in the campaign, you must think very carefully about the plots of each of your NPCs and how they have to work around what's going on with the players in order to get *their* narrative fulfillment.

    This perspective also gives you a way to grapple with larger plot concerns, as well: if your players are not working to derail the stories of background characters (read: if they are not dealing with whatever threat is on the horizon or political game happens to be going on around them as they go about doing whatever they want), you can simply write out what would happen if the player characters were not involved-- which can force them to deal with the consequences, whether it's pushing them back into the larger plot, or simply working around whatever fallout comes with their inaction.

    What happens when the players want to become bakers instead of dragon slayers? Maybe the village one of their customers comes from burns down, or the dragon takes over the city they are plying their trade in, and they have to try to impress their new liege with the best darn meat pie s/he's ever had.

    In my experience, taking this sort of mindset into play really helps smooth out the friction that can come between player and GM, if you can negotiate it well. Of course, there's issues of potential disappointment, frustration that your player can't do or get what they want right away, maybe, and there can *definitely* be friction between the players, still; regardless, however, the long term satisfaction can be really great, and the paradigm can really help with player involvement in the setting, too.

    1. Thanks for the in-depth comment! I essentially wrote this out of experience, and I'm glad to see you can see it in your experience too.