Friday, August 20, 2010

RPGs as a Story Telling Medium

No, I'm not here to explain to you that RPGs are a wonderful way to tell a story. If you don't know that by now, you either haven't been reading or have never looked through an RPG book that wasn't based around minis. The fact that White Wolf, a major player in the RPG market, calls their GM the 'Story Teller' is all you should need to know to understand that RPGs are a medium for stories. What I want to do is talk about the strengths of the medium, and the weaknesses of it. Lensed through my own experience of course, because, well, I can't very well lens it through your experience until you share some more, now can I?

See, earlier in the week we talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the table top RPG as a game medium. There were some good comments on both. But strength as a game medium doesn't necessarily mean strength as a story telling medium. There are lots of games out there that don't tell stories, or only tell them in the barest sense after all.

So, what are some of the strengths of RPGs as a story telling medium?

Well, for one, it is a group made story. You get a number of people working together on telling the story, and in a way where they aren't as likely to butt heads as often as they might trying to write a book. If the players butt head, it is in character interaction. The group arguing over whether to go right or left, or whether the thief really should've lifted that watch off of the local count. Butting heads with the GM is likely to be about rules more than story, and the GM is in position to be the over-all guide and director for how the tale goes. This means you keep direction, but get creative input from 4-6 additional creative people in the telling of your tale.

For another, those multiple people help give you multiple voices. The characters are all distinct, and pull from a variety of life experiences both IC and with the Authors behind them. In a very real sense, each of the PCs (the main characters) has an author dedicated to deciding how that one character reacts and interacts with the world. This makes for significantly more believable stories and interactions with the world. Especially as you get different wants and needs from the players behind the characters, which shapes the way the story goes.

The episodic format of RPGs, with one multiple-hour session every week or so also helps. It gives time for the story to be refined and revised between sessions. Planning can occur between episodes, giving a more dynamic feel to the story and plot as everything adjusts to what the main characters have done between sessions. This sets the stage for the environment for the session, which the players then have to react to. It is a cyclical thing, with each feeding, and reacting, off of the other. Perpetual motion done right...almost.

So, what about the bad?

For one, RPGs are still games. This means that sometimes the mechanics of the game can get in the way of the story. A lot of RPGs spend a lot of time trying to mitigate the whiff factor, which is when the mechanics of the game (i.e. a bad roll) screws up a very important story element. Sometimes the dice just don't come down right, and someone dies where it would be better for the story for them to live. A good GM, a good group, can run with this. But it does weaken the story when suddenly, right near the end and for no reason, the thief people have grown to love randomly botches a pick pocket attempt and is killed for it. Realistic? Sure, but not very story like.

The multiple voices, wants, and needs can also get in the way. If someone just wants 'silly fun' they can really derail the story by spending excessive time in the bars, or constantly getting into fights. This makes it harder for the story to go on. Also, sometimes players will buck and fight going with the story, just because it is where they know the game wants them to go. They want to see how far they can get before hitting a rail or bumper - assuming there even is one - and this also can take the story very far off to the side.

There is more to both sides than what I've said, but those are the big and obvious ones to me that need to be discussed. Do you have more you want to share? Please do!

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