Sunday, March 19, 2017

GM Philosophy: Roleplaying Is Storytelling

So having talked at some length about why I play D&D, this post may seem somewhat repetitive,1 but it really is the linchpin of my GM philosophy.  See, the whole issue stems from the fact that, while almost all games that you’ve ever played before are competitive, D&D is not.  It’s cooperative.  This leads many people to wonder: so what is the point?  Every game—even a cooperative one—must have an object or goal.  That’s what tells you what to do in order to improve your performance.  You need some sort of yardstick to measure yourself against.  If you’re not striving to outdo your fellow players, then what exactly are you striving towards?

Different people have come up with different answers to that question, and, while none of those answers are wrong, it is true that the members of any given gaming group need to aim at the same target.  That is: it’s okay for different groups to have different goals, even though they’re all playing the same game, but within a single group, everybody needs to be on the same page, or the game doesn’t work (or at least doesn’t work very well).  So let’s look at a few of the options and see what the pros and cons are.

For some people, it’s simple escapism.  In this model, playing D&D is much like going to a movie: you get to step out of the real world for a bit and live in a more exciting place.  But the problem with that is that a movie is a passive experience.  If you’re doing it properly, you’re just absorbing the story that someone else has built for you.  D&D needs to be more active than that—you must be a participant, not merely an observer.

Other people take the view that D&D itself doesn’t have any one objective, but rather that it’s a game like Fluxx,2 where the objective for each game is different, and may even change mid-game.  And I’ll agree that each individual adventure or campaign should have a goal, and it’s good to recognize that, but I think this view misses the bigger picture.  D&D is not just a collection of various disconnected campaigns: there is a common thread that ties them all together.

Some people treat D&D like fantasy dinner theater, and use it to show off their acting chops.  This is a particularly tricky one to address, because it’s absolutely true that you need to inhabit another person.  And sometimes would-be actors can make excellent D&D players.  But the analogy is not perfect: acting is about taking an existing character and bringing it to life by the way you move and speak.  D&D is about inventing a character from scratch, and detailing their adventures.  It’s much closer to writing a play than it is to starring in one.  And players don’t have to act to do that, and shouldn’t be made to feel inferior if they can’t or don’t want to.

But the most insidious one of all is when people just can’t help themselves and try to inject an element of competition into it.  Sometimes this manifests as a competition among the players—my character can do more damage per hit than yours! oh, yeah, well my character can run faster, jump farther, and climb better than yours! yeah, but you both suck more than me, because my character can take the most damage without going down—and that’s what leads to min/max-ing and munchkinism.  Sometimes instead the game becomes a showdown between players and GM: the latter tries to kill everyone, while the former try to dispatch all enemies thrown at them so quickly that the GM goes “awwww.”  But neither of those strategies makes for a good story—the one is a pointless tragedy and the other lacks any tension or drama.

For me (and the many other roleplayers who share my views), roleplaying is storytelling.  The object of the game is to create a magnificient, shared story.  A story requires many things: an interesting setting, a plot filled with action and tension, and most of all great characters.  The players will each provide one character, who will be a co-protagonist, and the GM will provide the supporting cast, the background characters, and of course the antagonists.  Each person brings to the table a certain amount of shared experience—these days, it’s a safe bet that we’ve all seen or read The Lord of the Rings, and probably Game of Thrones, and probably experienced some form of Conan,3 and probably played some version of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy.  Each person will also bring some amount of idiosyncratic experience—some of us will have seen Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Willow, and others won’t; some of us will have read Imajica, or the Magic Kingdom of Landover series, and some won’t; some will have played one or more of the Elder Scrolls games, or one of the Zork games, and some won’t; some will have read The Sandman, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and some won’t.  All these influences will mesh, and cross-pollinate, and together we will forge a story that will be even more amazing than all of these others, because it will be our story.

And we will tell these stories.  We’ll tell them to each other, years from now, to remember the good times.  We’ll tell them to our friends and family, although for the most part they won’t appreciate them.  And, most amazing of all, we will tell them to utter strangers that we’re meeting for the first time, and who we just happened to discover also play, or used to play, pen-n-paper roleplaying games, and they will tell us their stories, and we will laugh, and we will gasp, and we will congratulate each other on the ingenuity of our characters, and the luck and the skill of our party, and the incredible nature of our stories.  Any person, of any age, from any culture: once you find that you both have roleplayed, the stories will begin to flow, like magic.

Which is appropriate, because D&D is a fantasy game, so if you happen to be playing D&D, as opposed to one of the many other fine PnP RPGs out there, you’re going to be building a fantasy story.  Oh, sure: there will probably be elements of sci-fi, and horror, and perhaps even historical drama, but primarily it’s a fantasy genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Fantasy traditionally has excellent villains, both of the blacker-than-black and decidedly-gray varieties, depending on your tastes.  It allows for physical heroism, quick wits, political maneuvering, camaraderie and romance and betrayal, the amassment of truly magnificent levels of power by some characters, and yet the saving of the day by perfectly ordinary folks with no aspirations to grandeur who just had the fortitude and the courage to step up and do the right thing.  Plus you get to stab things with your sword and sling magic spells around—what’s not to love?

So this will be an epic story, and all we have to do to make it so and keep it so is follow a few simple rules.  We build epic and interesting characters.  We make sure that those characters only die when it’s dramatically appropriate.  We make sure that everyone has an equal stake in the story so it doesn’t get sabotaged by pointless competition.  And we make sure that everything we do—everything we have our characters do, to be more precise—makes logical sense.  Simple example: some gaming groups will say, if player X can’t make it to the game tonight, we’ll just say their character disappears for this session and reappears next time.  I can’t go along with that.  Why not?  Simple: it borks the story.  If you were reading a book, and it was getting good, and then the author wrote:

When the party awoke the next morning, Hafnir was gone.  His animal companion and all his magical items were also missing, although his share of the food and supplies remained behind.  “Oh, well,” shrugged Delea.  “I guess we’ll see him later.  Now let’s finish tracking down those orcs!”

I think you would find this somewhat infuriating, because not only does it make no logical sense that a character simply disappeared right in the middle of things, but it makes even less sense that his beloved companions of lo these many months would simply ignore his absence.  It would ruin the story for you.  In my games, if a player can’t make it, they have to accept whatever fate befalls their character.  We might keep them around and let another player run the character, we might have them knocked unconscious the first chance we get and just lug their comatose body around, or I might have them kidnapped and held for ransom just to keep things interesting.  But, however we handle it, it will make sense in the context of the ongoing story.4

The other important mechanical consequence of treating roleplaying as storytelling is my attitude towards balance.  Some D&D players are obsessed with balance.  This class is overpowered, they’ll say.  This class is mechanically weak and no one will ever want to play it.  This multiclass combination could only possibly appeal to munchkins—in fact, I have read people online claiming that all multiclassing is a sign of powergaming.  This is bollocks.  As a player, I love multiclassing, because I have weird, atypical ideas for characters, and multiclassing is often the best (and sometimes only) way to achieve that.  As a GM, I cut way back on the chances that you will use multiclassing—or homebrew classes/races/weapons/whatever, or just plain special requests to bend the rules—to min/max by demanding more detailed backstories for the characters.  If your backstory supports your crazy combination of things, then your GM supports it too.  Everything has to make a certain amount of sense, yes, but let’s not ignore the Rule of Cool.  Remember: we’re trying to tell an awesome story here.  I’m not going to let you have massive amounts of HP at first level or anything, but if you want to have a magic weapon when you first start out, perhaps because it’s a bequest from your father, who was killed in the Great Goblin Wars, I’m not gonna say “no” to that.  I might give you a penalty to use it until the weapon “warms up” to you or somesuch, because balance should never be ignored entirely, but as a GM my general rule is “don’t say ‘no’; say ‘yes, but ...’”

In fact, nothing I ever tell you as a GM should ever be construed as meaning “no.”  If you say “my character will be a dwarven sailor,” and I say “in this world, all dwarves are terrified of water,” that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your character concept.  It just means you’re going to have to work extra hard to come up with a reason why they exist.  Perhaps they weren’t actually raised by dwarves.  Perhaps they were blessed as a baby by a naiad.  Perhaps, as a child, they fell into the ocean, and their family was sure they were lost forever, but then they were saved by a mermaid.  Go crazy: your creativity will be rewarded.  Likewise, if you say “my character will try to jump over the chasm,” and I say, “you don’t think that’s a good idea: it looks like it’s too far,” that also doesn’t mean you can’t make the attempt.  I’m just trying to gently talk you out of something which may get you killed.5  But, hey: if you really have to try it, that’s your business.  I’m not gonna stop you.  ‘Cause it will probably make the adventure more interesting, whether you succeed against all odds, or whether you fall and your companions have to figure out how to rescue your broken and battered body.

And, you know what?  Either way it goes, it’ll make a great story.


1 In fact, I’ve lifted whole sentences from that previous post.  Please forgive me for that, but I don’t want to rewrite something that sounded perfect the first time around just to avoid charges of self-plagiarism.

2 Or, to a lesser extent, like my other great passion: Heroscape.

3 Be it the original short stories by Robert E. Howard, the authorized fan-fiction of people like L. Sprague de Camp, the comics by Thomas and Buscema, the movies starring Schwarzenegger, or one of the many videogames.  Conan is truly a cross-media barbarian.

4 Also, the player will not be nervous about their character, because they are confident in the power of our shared story: everyone in the group wants the best—which generally means the most interesting—things for every character.

5 Okay, not permanently killed, since I don’t kill characters.  But really really messed up.

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