Story Isn’t Roleplay

By | July 18, 2015

Movies, novels and folklore can inspire wonderful RPG rulesets and horrible roleplaying sessions. That’s because a good gamescape, homebrew or licensed, gives players an idea of what could be in store and what might be achieved. But applying the elements of a story to an actual gaming session also imposes the limitations of a story’s structure on players.

People tells stories to convey specific information that’s already known. The structures in a story narrow down possible outcomes until the audience reaches a final, singular conclusion. Story elements are like building blocks, a few common shapes can form many different stories. So many, in fact, that people often accept rather than question story structure’s inclusion in adventures.

These elements are a bad fit for roleplaying games because they encourage gamemasters to prioritize the structure of a story over the plans of the players.

Consider the assumption that an adventure must include a Big Bad Evil Guy. There are plenty that don’t do that. Many older adventures would outright destroy a party that fought the toughest creature in a dungeon. But those adventures aren’t designed to push a particular narrative outcome on the players.

So, why would an adventure designer feel the need to include a BBEG? To make things exciting, of course! So let’s make sure that NPC is tougher than everyone else to make it more entertaining. And the players will need to go through a certain number of fights and traps first because that will make their victory more dramatic. And also, we don’t want them to unleash their full abilities on the boss because then he won’t seem so tough.

Already, the decision to include a BBEG is imposing a number of restrictions on the adventure:

  • A BBEG must be a boss fight.
  • A boss fight must be difficult.
  • A boss fight cannot occur too early because it must be the conclusion.
  • The PCs must be partially drained of resources before the fight.
  • The BBEG should be placed out-of-the-way or otherwise be difficult to reach.
  • The BBEG cannot be reasoned with or avoided because that wouldn’t be an exciting conclusion.

These assumptions circle back on each other, leaving very little room for the players to improvise or come up with alternative plans. Some products include advice on how players can subvert these structures through clever play, but the sheer weight of repetition has taught many gamers that it’s a waste of time to try.

All this manipulation is eliminated by replacing the “boss” with a simple leader of the opposition forces. The players can negotiate with a leader, challenge him to a one-on-one duel or assassinate him on the toilet. These are just a few viable and interesting options available because there’s no artificial difficulty included to ensure a dramatic outcome.

The urge to make sessions dramatic instead of interesting is at the heart of many limitations placed on players. The story structures that impose these limitations continue to be found in products because they fit the generic “exciting adventure” formula associated with roleplaying games. Fortunately, there are many alternatives available.

Here’s one of my favorites: Tell the players about a situation. Figure out what individual NPCs want and how far they will go to get it. Don’t spend any time thinking about solutions or outcomes or conclusions. Let success and failure be determined by character interactions and dice together, not just one or the other.

There are numerous advantages to this. There isn’t a need to come up with elaborate excuses on why certain abilities or ideas don’t work. Players can tackle the adventure on their own terms. There’s no reason to fudge die rolls because there is no overarching story structure that must be followed to make the adventure work. Solutions come from the players, which gives them multiple ways to shape the gamescape. The consequences of those decisions help create other situations that can be explored in future adventures.

The end result is less planning by the GM and more freedom for the players. And that’s a story I don’t mind telling.