A definition of terms, and a discussion accordingly
I started a reply to my new new friend, Matt Harris, and I realized that I was going to end up spamming his comment with several hundred words. And given that he was commenting with useful, interesting stuff that might otherwise be lost in the comment threads (I know I don’t always read them on other people’s blogs), I figured to work through them in a slightly more public area.
In my post dealing with OSR gaming and philosophy, I made the note that D&D, at its core, is not a story game. And as if to prove my opening point that gamers are tribal, Matt posted a comment defending D&D as being a story game. For him, D&D is all about the story that’s being created. His blog backs this up.
For what it’s worth, when I talk about story games, I’m talking about the sub-genre of RPG’s and not the way in which people play their various games of choice. I should probably differentiate by noting them as Story Games, but I’ve taken to using weird capitalization as little as possible, if I can do it.
For my part, story games are those that eschew dice in favor of collaborative storytelling, minimized combat and expanded social interaction options that are encoded into the rules themselves. For my purposes and the basic definition that I will continue to use, D&D is not a story game. Or if it is, it’s way, way down on the list. A story game, by definition, is one whose rules framework is crafted in order to de-emphasize the role of the GM to give narrative control over to the players themselves. The extreme end of that scale includes the card game Once Upon A Time and RPG systems like Burning Wheel, where everything is collaborative.
In comparison, the pamphlet that I was referencing made a specific point to do the exact opposite of what is needed to happen in a game to make it a ‘story game,’ by definition. When the rules are kept away from the players in favor of the GM arbitrating every action, that’s not collaborative. When the personal knowledge and role of the character is minimized in favor of what the player knows out of character, it’s not focusing on the personal narrative woven for the character in question. When the illustrative example in the pamphlet goes out of its way to punish the player for thinking creatively, this is not a case of working together to make a story.
And this is what is supposed to sell an OSR rules set as being more narrative driven.
As an aside, I want to make it fairly clear that I’m not dogging on D&D in general. I’m not actually a huge fan of story games as a genre. They’re not actually something that I make a point of running, and I would cross the street to avoid a game like Burning Wheel. And despite that amount of time that I’m taking in what appears to be a rebuttal to Matt’s comments, I don’t actually disagree with him on the way that he runs games. They sound awesome. I would dearly love to be able to sit at his table.
But story games are fairly specific in my mind, and most flavors of D&D are simply unable to fit that definition. Or to state it better, they can tell stories despite the rules they’ve been written with. Mainly because they focus on combat to an exclusion of much else. The very structure and system of D&D, especially OSR, makes a point to reward killing monsters and stealing their shit. If there’s an expectation of being rewarded for actually talking to NPC’s and trying to solve a problem without simply running it through, it’s up to the GM to actually come up with some system to hand out experience points on this basis. Because it definitely isn’t coded into the rules themselves.
Imagine, for a moment, a D&D session where the entire four to six hours were spent discussing the current political situation in the far provinces with the king and his advisers, where the only time dice were ever picked up were to roll some Knowledge checks that firmed up a character’s memory. Would this allow the characters to go up a level?
I’m thinking not. In all blunt honesty, there’s really no way to calculate this in a system where the cornerstone of all advancement is bought with the edge of your sword. Yeah, it’s great for story and role-playing, but a session like that isn’t covered by the rules.
The closest we ever came to that was in D&D 3.x, where the concept of Ad Hoc Experience was coded into the rules, allowing EL Rewards for getting through encounters in creative ways. And the fact that it’s termed as ‘Ad Hoc’ should be noted, since the very definition is ‘makeshift’. (D&D 4e went sideways on this, offering experience for the ‘Skill Challenge’ sections of their adventures, but that term always grated on me, since it was obviously segregating the weird and unnecessary parts of the adventure that weren’t pure and beautiful Combat.)
I know from experience that there are some amazing stories that play out in D&D games. I know that I’ve been lucky enough to play out some truly phenomenal plots in games that use the Masterbook System, the Storyteller System, and Roll and Keep. And I’ve also been in my share of absolutely awful games that use these same rules systems. In neither case did the rules have anything to do with how good the game was. Instead, it had everything to do with who I was playing in the game with and the particular skill set of the GM that was running things. Great plots and stories are system agnostic. (Although, Fiasco is held up as an example of a system that is great for building quick and immersive stories.)
So to sum up, a Story Game is a very specific thing for me. When I get all fiery about how OSR or D&D do not fit this definition, it’s because they’re not built for that sort of tack, not because a skilled GM can’t make it work. But at the end of the day, my main gripe is with the game companies that try their damnedest to sell a game as being something that it really and truly is not.
You know, like calling D&D 4e something other than a very well-written set of miniatures rules.