Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Story vs. The Dice

I was listening to the Matt Coleville video about fudging dice rolls, and something he said got me to thinking. During the video, Matt posits that RPGs like D&D aren't story telling games - though you can tell stories in them - because it involves dice rolls. The idea is that the dice are random, which is different than fate. His argument boils down to we use dice because we're not story tellers, but game masters and it's our job to run the game. He then further says that we fudge dice rolls because we are story tellers, and it's our job to create drama. Today I want to talk about that a bit.

The Only Story Telling RPG I know
First, I agree with Matt. Dice rolls break the ability to tell a good story, because they have too much chance to make for unsatisfying endings. Yes, this adds tension to the game. The possibility of failure means success feels more real - more earned. At the same time, dice rolls can cause a random encounter that murders the whole party. And who wants to spend time with a story where half way through the narrative arc the heroes all die because they had the misfortune of sleeping near an owlbear nest. Even the edgiest and darkest of shows, books, and comics doesn't do that. But RPGs do.

Even more narrative focused games like FATE have you rolling for success and failure. Yeah, your character can't die without your consent for the most part, but that doesn't mean things like the whiff factor aren't present. FATE puts more story control in the player/GMs hands, but the dice are still random and so you still have that chance of failing even when all narrative beats and rationality says this is where a success should happen.

By contrast, and I know there are likely more than these two - the only games I know of  that are true story telling games - while still fitting in the confines of a more traditional RPG - are Blood and Honor and Houses of the Blooded from John Wick Presents. How are these games story telling games? Simple, you don't roll for success/failure in those games. You roll for narrative control. Instead of seeing if your character succeeds or fails, you determine whether the player or the GM tells the story from that point on, and the game is very clear that the GM is free to make you succeed just as the player is free to make themselves fail. You and your GM may disagree on where the story goes to make it interesting, but you're not bound by chance to a result, it just decides who wins this coin flip to direct the story.

D&D Is About Killing Monsters
On a twitch stream Matt Coleville commented that if he hired you to make you a story telling game and you gave him back D&D he would think you're a horrible game designer. Not because D&D is a bad game, but because it is not a story telling game, it is a game about killing monsters.

All of D&D's mechanics are about finding, getting to, or killing monsters. Killing monsters is the only thing that gives you XP - aside from some extra rules giving recommendations for bonuses for completing quests or exploration or beating traps. D&D is a game where players kill monsters, to get loot and XP to make them more powerful, so they can kill more monsters. You can spin a narrative around that - I'm doing it right now on Friday nights - but the mechanics of the game is just about how many and how powerful monsters can the PCs kill before they either hit Level 20 (can't become stronger and now fight gods) or they die.

What About Other Games?
So what about the games not in the D&D vein? They all give rewards for various things. Death Watch (Fantasy Flight, Warhammer 40k Space Marines) is about doing different mission types to get XP based on completing objectives. You can make those mini stories, but they also are basically the table top RPG of table top miniature games for low point forces. Other Fantasy Flight Games like Star Wars and L5R have their own things they're supposed to be about, but they reward you with XP for showing up and playing with "recommended XP per hour of play" mechanics.

In all these cases though the game is not about telling stories so much as it is about going through mini-missions in how things are set up. Yes, these adventures are given with a narrative flair, but simplified down to mechanics they boil down to "make skill challenges, beat combat encounters, receive reward or have the character die in the process. The story is dressing, but not part of the game itself. If anything, it's kind of like a videogame. Yes, the story can be there to explain why you have to shoot everyone in a level. Or you can just skip the story sections and do it.

There's Nothing Wrong With This
I want to be clear, this divorce between story and mechanics is not a bad thing. It's just good to know what the game is about. Human beings are natural story tellers. We add stories to things regardless of whether they have them or not. People tell stories about random mooks in RTS games. I find myself imagining stories for what is going on in Battle Royale games like PUBG and Ring of Elysium. Heck, notable streamer Dr. Disrespect specifically plays Battle Royales because of the built in emergent narrative that the game has just from how it works with going from many people to the last survivor.

However, you need to understand that difference. Everytime the dice come into play, the story is subject to random chance. This can make the experience more real, but it can also mean that your "story" is going to die because regardless of what you have planned the dice can make something else happens. There's nothing you can do when the dice decide the players will roll only failures and the monsters will roll only critical hits. Just like there's nothing you can do when the opposite happens.

Well, that's not entirely true, you can fudge the dice or not bring them into play. But at that point you're specifically overruling the game for drama. There's nothing wrong with that either. Just be aware that if you're committed to the game as a game, you're going to have to sacrifice story at some time. And if you're committed to the story, you're going to have to sacrifice game.

Like Matt Coleville said: We use dice because we're not story tellers we're game masters. We fudge dice because we're story tellers.

1 comment:

  1. What I learned from Spirit of the Century, and immediate ancestor to Fate is that when you roll the dice, you have to consider both success and failure. When one wants to run more of a story game, then success and failure of the story have to be considered.

    If dice could be rolled for a thing and there's an outcome they could generate that would wreck the story, then rolling the dice for that is foolishness. Find a way not to corner yourself into doing that.

    If a random encounter could kill the characters, then either don't have that encounter, or focus it around something other than killing. I had a lot of trouble with this thirty years ago: if there's a green dragon on the random encounter table and I roll that then there has to be a fight that will most likely kill the characters.

    Conversely, I never understood how I was going to make an interesting fight out of the 1d4 deer listed on the same table

    But I see that I was thinking about it wrong. If we can be flexible about what "encounter" means and the motives and behavior of monsters, then a fight almost never has to be the result of a "random encounter."

    The 1d4 deer, for example, is obviously (to me now) just some deer suddenly appearing and maybe serving as a quick opportunity to hunt.

    The green dragon might not be an encounter with the dragon itself, but with some sign of it, like droppings, or claw marks, or a poisoned farm. The dragon never has to appear until the GM and players decide that either beating it or losing to it would be enjoyable.

    If a fight is inevitable, then the fight just has to be part of the story. And story fights are always about something more than just the fight. Losing is almost never the same as dying.

    Attitude also has a lot to do with it. If one decides that the PCs are the heroes, while death is on the table, then that's just asking for disappointment. If one is open to it, then the PCs can be the group that dies in the prologue to drive home the threat, for instance. The issue is assuming a priori what they are.

    I agree that D&D isn't a "story game" but one can adjust a lot about one's approach to it (including taking concepts from actual story games) to boost its story-nature.