Can An RPG Tell A Story?

Four key reasons why story telling in RPGs is fundamentally different from other media.

RPGs Are A Collective & Social Activity

The great story telling media – oral, prose, verse, stage and screen – all have one thing in common. The final output is a product of one person’s vision. In media such as screen and stage where there are multiple, sometimes thousands, of people involved, there is always director or show runner who is the final arbitrator of the story. Individuals may add their own spin on aspects of it, e.g. the actor’s portrayal of a character, but those ideas can be discarded or changed the director.

In a tabletop RPG there is no final arbitrator. The Game Master is a major force in the story telling and the rules place limits on a character’s actions but each player is free to push the story in one direction or another as they see fit. As games are a social activity people partake by choice and co-operate with each other for the collective good of the game which leaves no one with final a say on story direction. It is when co-operation breaks down or one player’s ideas for the story are too different from the rest that gaming groups implode.

Where’s the Audience?

In books and films, the consumers of the story are distinct from the creators but with RPGs there is no difference. The audience for a RPG session are the people creating it and this immersion of creators into the audience has impacts on the ability of players to tell stories. Game sessions are live event with no way of doing a retake or rewrite in the way creators working in other mediums have at their disposal.

Immersion also places a significant cognitive demand on a player. A writer can focus on finding the best words to tell a story but a player is juggling many competing demands for their attention. Players must follow what everyone else around the table is doing, interpret the GM’s descriptions of events, think about how the rules restrict or enable certain actions and be sociable to other players (e.g. passing the snacks when asked) before they can even think about charactisation and story telling.

The Dice Do Not Care About Story Telling

What other medium requires story tellers to rely on chance? When G.R.R.Martin kills off a character it is because he believes it makes a better story not because the roll of a dice tells him to [though sometimes… – Ed]. Players of tabletop games do not have the luxury of choice and cannot claim a character survives a fatal fall simply because it is an anti-climatic end to a story. The flip-side to this is that a character cannot be arbitrarily killed just to make another player’s story better. The degree of randomness in a particular RPG system dictates how much control a player has over their story but randomness is always a factor. Randomness and rules define tabletop role-playing. An RPG without rules or randomness is not an RPG, or even a game. It may be a story telling circle or improv theatre but it is not the hobby of role-playing.

What randomness does is restrict the ability of players to tell stories. Good stories may be spoilt and conversely bad stories may be improved by factors out of the hands of players or a GM. To a degree the rules and randomness in a game averages out the players’ story telling skills, lifting poor story tellers and limiting good story tellers.

Stories Are Output Not Input

Any long-term player of RPGs will experience a GM who attempts to force a story on their group. The results are disappointing for all concerned because the collective, immersive and random nature of gaming sessions transforms everything placed into it. Forcing a story on a gaming group is like feeding prime steak into a mincing machine and expecting to get to get prime steak out of the machine. The quality of ingredients going into a game session – the game world, the players’ characters, the rule system etc – effect the quality of what comes out but the story which emerges is an amalgamation of all its parts.

This is where the skill of playing RPGs is critical. Good players and GM’s understand how the different ingredients will interact and adjust their actions to get the best results possible from the system / setting.

But Is It A Story?

Yes RPGs are a story telling medium because any game (in fact any series of events) can produce a story but there are limits to the quality of a story which can be intentionally created. RPGs are not the optimal medium for story telling because that is not their purpose. The goal of an RPG is the collective enjoyment of those playing the game and that trumps any attempt at story telling.

Photo Credit: Magenta Rose