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