Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Storytelling Games?

(Most of this was posted over at Mr. Dancey’s blog in the comments to “Step1: Redefine The Hobby”.)

Ok, I’m still not entirely happy with “storytelling games”, but I think we need to keep in mind that Ryan Dancey hasn’t been called up to defend his right to exist. Roleplaying games have.

Why should people bother with these games? A lot of folks would contend that roleplayers don’t sit down at the table with the idea in their heads that they are about to create a story. That’s true, but the reasons they claim are not well served by pen-and-paper RPGs. You’ll get a lot more social interaction bang for your buck playing poker, Munchkin, or Settlers of Catan. It’s not just the expense of the game books versus a pack of cards or a board game. To learn how to play Settlers, it takes maybe a single half-hour to peruse the thin rule book. Before you can play D&D, the “gateway drug” of RPGs, you must first slog through the PHB, nearly 300 pages long. And you can’t just skim it. You must “approach these books as texts to be scoured and sections memorized like back in school.” Yes, you don’t need all of it at once. You can learn it over time. But you still need to know enough to create a character, and that process alone can easily take an experienced player an hour.

And even then, you’re still not ready to play. Most RPGs, including D&D, require one player to prepare the adventure in advance. If you want to play Settlers, you open the box, set up the board, and start playing. That takes less then five minutes. But with most RPGs, one poor player must spend hours in isolation, crafting the adventure. So no, the promise of social interaction will not bring people into our hobby.

What about the tactical challenge, the joy of digging into the rules and seeing what you can do with them? Like social interaction, that’s certainly there. But computers can do it better. They don’t, not yet, but they will soon, as MMORPG designers grow more bold, and take off the training wheels of “just like D&D, but on the computer”. A computer has no problem at all juggling a dozen different attack types at once, plus a swarm of modifiers. How often does your GM forget to give the gnome his defensive bonus for small stature? Computers never forget. All those dizzying charts and tables of games from the early ‘80s might be daunting to flesh-and-blood players, but a computer can juggle them all with ease, providing a much richer, and deeper, tactical experience.

Now, I’m not saying that people interested in socializing or in tactical play or the complex interactions of rules shouldn’t play pen-and-paper RPGs. Those are absolutely important aspects of the games we love. I’m only saying that there are other games out there that do those things, and many do them better than RPGs. What is it that pen-and-paper RPGs do better than any other sort of game? They create a cooperative and interactive process through which narrative emerges. Board and card games tend to be too simple; you can force narrative upon them, but most of them don’t help much. (Once Upon a Time is, of course, the exception, and it’s fun, but it’s not as good as RPGs in this regard, for various reasons.) Computer games are not interactive enough. If you don’t want to play through the story programmed into the game, you’re out of luck. Only pen-and-paper RPGs give us the flexibility, the interaction, and the forum where we, together, all at once, as a group, can shape our own story. As Nefandus says over at Mr. Dancey’s blog:

A good session of an RPG/storytelling game is often too tempting to last longer than it should, way into the night, past the point of physical comfort. Those people are not playing just for the company. They are enjoying the experience of being lost in a story.

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