Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Is D&D About Storytelling?

I think it clearly is.

Now, I know that "story," "story game," "storytelling" and so on are almost trigger words for some people (they are for me). People who use these terms are often intentionally telegraphing that they are on a particular side, sometimes in the edition wars or roleplaying philosophy wars, or sometimes even on a particular political side - "It's about storytelling, not killing things and taking their gold, you violent and greedy fascist!" But still, the basic fact that Dungeons & Dragons is about storytelling seems undeniable. That doesn't mean that D&D is only about storytelling; it's about a lot of other things, as well. But story is a big part of it.

Story often conjures up touchy-feely images of Native American shamans telling tales of the Earth Mother around the fire, or teenage girls discussing their EMO Drow crushes or whatever. But, of course, it doesn't have to be anything like that.

Actually, I think many non-RPG games are in part about telling stories, especially games with a lot of "realistic" detail. When I had the time and a willing partner who had the time (my father), I used to love playing World in Flames. That's the WWII monster game that involves multiple card tables covered with maps and chits. It took weeks to play. I always preferred strategic WWII games to tactical games, partly because I felt that the war was  a fascinating story (as horrible as it was for the actual people involved). And "alternative" WWII stories were just as fascinating to me. I remember to this day the story that my father and I simulated about the invasion of Britain. It started with paratroop drops in Wales and Northern Scotland and went from there. (My father was a great competitor, but if he had a weakness, it was for failing to anticipate weird things that never actually happened. He never thought the Germans would be so bold or - to him - foolhardy as to create a beachhead in the Scottish highlands.) The alternative history Battle of Britain was still raging two years later when the Americans entered the war, but it was so hot that the Yanks had to land in Ireland.

It's the story that I remember. I don't remember the actual rules much at all.

In some ways, even abstract games create stories. Think back to the most exciting Little League game you ever played.

But I digress. What also seems undeniable to me is that every D&D game that was ever played has featured a story being told or acted out by a combination of the DM and the players. It's never one or the other. Indeed, I'm not sure the degree to which it's told by one or the other has ever varied that much.

So, to me, the interesting question is not about who tells the story, but about who creates the story, or how it is created.

Previously, I made fun of Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio for implying that in our "liberated" times, it's the players telling the story (as opposed to a Gygaxian DM), or as she put it, "many voices are greater than one." I was harsh on her, for, as I argued, getting the history of D&D exactly wrong. To be fair to her, she never said that the "many voices" were creating the story, though I think she implied it. But the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel. The way I see it, her "many voices" are all in a sense jointly telling the same story, but it's a story that has largely already been created for them by the scenario author (in the contemporary published modules she seems to favor). I actually think that's a bit creepy. Many voices singing the same tune, imposed upon them by someone else. Whatever that is, it's not liberation, nor is really a game anymore. Nor, to paraphrase an AD&D Gygaxianism, is it really D&D.

It sounds like that dystopian scene from A Wrinkle in Time.

I exaggerate, of course. Players (and DM's) still have a fair amount of freedom to come up with their own mini-stories, even in the most railroady of adventures. But the general point stands. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about players as puppets. Even though it was clear where my preferences were, I tried to be somewhat neutral on the issue. One commenter wrote that sitting back and merely participating in a story (without really creating it) could sometimes be fun, at least for short sessions. I mostly agree with that.

Another commented that when he was a DM in school (I'm not sure of the era), his players didn't really want to drive the story, but preferred to be more passive. They didn't really want to think, or at least think in ways that would change the game (the thinking thing is me interpreting it, not the commenter). Without condemning those players or their attitude as wrong, I'm still going to take a "kids these days" line. Kids these days don't want to think. They don't know how not to be passive. They must be spoon-fed everything.

Kids these days.

When I was a a kid (back in other days) and a DM, my fellow kid players were never passive. Indeed, it often was positively annoying. You put all of this thought and planning into creating a fun adventure experience just for them, and then they went tramping off in another direction just to be ornery and difficult. How ungrateful.

I ran my share of quasi-railroady adventures. For example, I read and reread In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords - that's the one where your players all wake up with no weapons, armor, magic items or spells in a completely dark cave. (Obviously, you probably have to railroad them into that). Earth tremors are going off at increasing intervals, and the players have to find their way out by combating disgusting giant bugs and fungi creatures. I couldn't wait to play it, or, rather, I couldn't wait to run my players through it.

My players. Run them.

Okay, player-characters, but still.

Finally, I did. And I think we all had fun. But here's the thing. I remember a bit of the scenario (through reading it), but I don't remember a damn thing about what my players did in the scenario. They got out, but I don't remember how.

The main things by far that I remember about my campaign were not the times where I ran the players through an adventure, but all the quirky goofy things that my players did to create their own adventures.

Once, they were in a city, trying to see a high-level wizard so that he could identify a magic item, or some such. The wizard's assistant was being obnoxious. He would stick his hand out the little window of the door in the wizard's tower and demand money, "promising" to fetch the wizard. But he never did. Rather, he would just open the window again, stick his hand out, demand more money and shut the window. The players would knock yet again. Out went the hand for more money. And so on. I can't remember whether I rolled that or just made it up or whatever. But that irritating little man just kept sticking his hand out.

At a certain point, the fighter said, "I've had enough of this." He took out his axe and chopped the man's hand off.

The next two sessions revolved around the players trying to figure out how to escape the city without getting spelled to death. Or, rather, they pretended they were trying to escape, but were in fact taking it to the wizard by coming up with an ingenious plan to kill him. In the end they succeeded, barely. If I forget everything else about the overall campaign, I will never forget that little mini-adventure. If I forget everything else about the mini-adventure, I'll never forget the look on the other players' faces when the fighter (I imagined) put the bloody axe back in his belt.

I can't speak for all the players, but it was the most fun I ever had as a DM.

And I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Most of the time I just sat back and watched them plan.

I know, reading my DM stories is a bit like being forced to watch home movies. I'll stop now. But I hope you get the point.

You have those stories, too.

I understand when people complain about players bickering among themselves or arguing for an hour about which turn to take or whatever, but I actually think even that can often be fun, in moderation, of course. At least they're creating their own story.

Another commenter wrote that we in the OSR tend to romanticize early D&D as being more player-driven and sandboxy than it really was. I think that's true to a point. I guess I had a much more railroady philosophy (though I wouldn't have called it that or didn't realize it) back in the day. I've grown up (or so I'd like to think).

But maybe many DM's have the control impulse inside us, at least a little. We need the OSR to "cure" us, even though we can never be completely cured. It's like that other thing with the three-letter acronym that starts and ends with "A."

"My name is Oakes Spalding, and I'm a story-creating DM." 

The first D&D campaigns were all built around megadungeons. My first campaign started with my own megadungeon. It's easy for critics like D'Anastasio to imply that these were symbols of DM control. They were dungeons, after all, designed and administered by the DM. There were only a few entrances and exits. And once you got out, there was only a little village, or whatever, at least at first.

But while the DM created the dungeon, he didn't create the story. In the beginning, there was no story, just a map and a room key.

In a sense, the very term "Dungeon Master" created a misunderstanding. Men & Magic didn't use the term, going with "referee" instead. (The first use of "Dungeon Master" or "DM" in a rule set was, ironically, in the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls.)

"Dungeon Master" would soon conjure up images of an immature sadist in a bad Tom Hanks movie, getting his jollies out of killing the characters of his players or putting them into bizarre and uncomfortable situations just to mess with their heads. I'm sure that sort of thing was not unknown. But I never encountered anyone who played that way. 

I think "referee" gets it exactly right.

Why do you even need a referee? One reason is that the level of detail in D&D is so high that you couldn't possibly simulate it all with unambiguous rules. Someone has to interpret them or make rulings on the fly. Another is that part of the fun of D&D is exploration and surprise. You need someone outside and above the game who knows things that the players do not, or do not know yet.

But the role of the referee is not that of a story teller (although partly due to that unknown element, he will end up doing a fair amount of telling), nor, more importantly, is it to create a story. Rather, the referee designs the environment (or studies one designed by others). The story is created by the players interacting with the environment, with the referee there to, well, to referee.

Or, at least, that's the ideal.


  1. If the game doesn't have a story, I don't play it. Mere Hack & Slash has never been my thing.

    1. How do you know whether is has a story before you play it, before you interact with elements you encounter in the game? If the absebce of a prefab story before the game makes you not play it or revert to hack and slash the absent of a story in the game, or the absent of game at all isn't the games fault at that point.

  2. Heh ... I'm certainly taking your "kids these days" line with what I presume is the intended amount of tongue-in-cheek old-fogery. Happily, it isn't the case of course. I've run games for several hundred middle schoolers (blogging about their misadventures for the last few years) and they are just as capable of mad-leaps, distractions, brilliance, and sheer stupidity as we were at the same age, provided that the DM sets a climate where such nonsense is encouraged. Fear not. The good old days are still with us :)

  3. D&D is not about story-telling. It's about doing those things which we will someday tell stories about. It's about adventure.
    Good post!

  4. You don't start with a story. You start with some guys who want stuff and try to go get it. Story is what happens next. Story is the thing you tell when you're remembering the awesome time you and your friends had imagining your little men blundering around in their world.

    You can start with a story and then feed it to the players if you are sitting around with a bunch of content tourists, but they would probably have more fun playing video games.

  5. "Roleplaying philosophy wars"... haha!

    I agree that a story is created. Sometimes, it's more GM than players, but there's usually an opening, hook, conflict, action, and denouement in every adventure.

    To me, the OSR is better than just plain old school because our renaissance contains the seeds of innovation, borrowing as much as 15% from alternative styles like "story-gaming."

  6. Even if we avoid all generic uses of the term "story" (including "setting information in the rulebook", "prepared sequence of scenes" or "what we tell about the game afterwards" - and even "the text of play") and focus on the relationship between story and play, there will still remain at least two legitimate understandings of story as emergent through play.

    One refers to story as collaborative, intentional and open-ended (improvisational) storytelling in the narrativist design framework. The procedures of play strongly focus on handling the conflict between players' interests regarding further development of the story. There are often dissociated mechanics that regulate these "story-related rights" such as fate points, cards with narrative input or limitations to the number of times a roll can be made within a scene. Key question (the "cultural code" or "system logic" if you will) is "what makes up for a dramatic/interesting/character challenging scene?" - visible in particular in the setting of stakes in conflict resolution. The role of the GM is democratized and partially dissolved into that of the players (player empowerment), he/she is often just another input giver. The story as result often has specific characteristics such as reincorporation of motives, character development through testing how much he/she is willing to pay to achieve what he/she does, skipping through "boring" parts, strong drama between player characters with historical roots (narrated through flashbacks) etc.

    Then there is the story as a picaresque (see Grognardia or Zak S.'s blog). This is very well related to the OSR style of play. You describe most of its attributes in your blog.

    I think what Cecilia D'Anastasio values is the narrativist framework without being aware that the tools provided by WotC would never be able to produce such a story, while misrepresenting OSR as the style of play that developed around these TSR/WotC tools (going back to Ravenloft and Dragonlance in the early 1980s) and which therefore can be encountered in mass until today - and which can easily be misrepresented as the historical legacy of D&D.

  7. "...the role of the referee is not that of a story teller... nor, more importantly, is it to create a story."

    When I started the post, I felt the urge to respond with the usual violence I experience when confronted by this question. Your ending clears up a lot and I agree with the sentiment.

    D&D, however, is not "about" storytelling. It's a game where the purpose is to create a character, go on adventures, kill things and take their stuff. Any other purpose or goal is determined by the players. Story does not enter into the picture until after events have taken place.

    Is it advantageous to think about the game in terms of story elements? Does the game benefit from things like pacing or dramatic tension? Yes, clearly, but these things are not unique to storytelling. You can have them in your game without ever thinking about story.

    Why should we cut story out from the game altogether? To avoid confusion. To separate the game distinctly from other forms of entertainment and media. To recognize it for what it is - an interactive, cooperative and uniquely distinct game experience.

  8. There are two kinds of stories people tell.
    1. A retelling of events that happened to them or another.
    2. A fictional story created according to the rules of some media (book, film, comic, short story, seminar speech, etc)

    All of us generate historical events all day every day by living life. Some of these are interesting enough or we're talented enough to make good stories. These are the types of events that a roleplaying game creates. When you retell them later, THAT is the story.

    Some people think RPGs create the second type of story, to the point where they prefer to go OOC and have some form of metagame mechanics they can interact with to help author that story outside their character.

    RPGs do not create "stories" unless you think living life creates stories. RPGs and life create events. The retelling of the events is where the act of memory and skill come in, that's where the "story" is created.