12 February 2012

My thoughts on RPGs and "Story Games"

There's been a lot of discussion recently around the blogosphere about "story games", and how they do or don't differ from normal role playing games. It seems to me that there are two "ideal" play styles among role players:
  1. Gamists - This playstyle emphasizes the mechanics of the game over everything else. Your character is a collection of rules stats that improve over time, allowing you to overcome more and more difficult challenges the game master presents. Character and setting backstory and plot are minimal.
  2. Storytellers - On the other hand, this style of play focuses on the story of the heroes' exploits, which rich, detailed backstory and setting development. Whether the story is crafted primarily by the game masters and the PCs are along for the ride, or the group as a whole collectively constructs the story as it develops, story is king and rules and dice results that get in the way can be overlooked.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either style of play. Whatever your group enjoys, the game can accommodate it. The early incarnations of OD&D, Basic D&D and AD&D 1e definitely lean, as written, toward gamism, but Gygax stated that he felt the story and plot could be handled by the DM and players as needed or desired. TSR included Appendix N and the suggested reading lists in some of the Basic sets to give you ideas for story, but you were basically on your own. "Modern" editions of the game claim to embrace story above all else, but honestly the focus is still on the rules of combat, traps, etc. To be totally fair, AD&D 2e has the most claim, among versions of D&D, to being a story telling game, as it had a good selection of materials dedicated to creating long term campaigns, detailing villains, and other very "rules light" things. 

Here's the point though, the two styles of play are not mutually exclusive! I think, in fact, that most of us play the game somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I personally enjoy the story aspect. As a DM, I'll come up with some interesting scenarios and see how the PCs react, and enjoy watching things unfold, and having something more interesting than just "remember that time I did 25 points of damage in one attack!" to talk about when reminiscing about the game. As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea. Heck, a failed dice roll, or even the death of a beloved PC or NPC can add just as much to the evolving story as letting the heroes win all the time.

I've enjoyed the discussion, but I really fail to see how people get hard feelings about it. I play the game a little different than someone else, so what?

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Hank the Ranger

It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.

Welcome to a land  like none other; where heroic fantasies clash their their opposite number in evil. It's like no world you've ever seen...

And yet, so much of it is hauntingly familiar. All our lives, we've heard tales of knighthood and heroism and sinister magic and epic adventure. And all of it, ever bit of it, in fact, is here. Someone took all these concept and combined them into an instant classic of a game, one played the world over by young and old alike as they live out this elusive dream of adventure.

But for six kids, misplaced in reality, this is no dream. At times, in fact, it is a full fledged nightmare. They are in this land, trapped with no conceivable way back to their safer, saner reality. There is no way, not unless it's served up by the maddening and mysterious game in which they find themselves trapped like pawns on a cosmic cheesboard. And spanning a seemingly infinite playing field is a land rife with eternal challenege; monsters, demons, swordsmen, blackguards, pirates, unknown civilizations, strange plants, impossible animals and, as a shroud hanging over their every step, the spell of unadorned evil, personified by one known as Venger.

An impossible place? Most assuredly. And you're the lucky one, for you can visit for one half hour, every saturday morning. You're not like the six young adventurers who find themselves swallowed up, perhaps forever, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons!

 - Mark Evanier, Dungeons & Dragons: An incredible adventure for saturday morning based on the game "Dungeons & Dragons" (Animated series development "bible") March, 1983

With those words, we're introduced to the heroes of the D&D Animated Series, and given a rough idea of their plight. As explained in the previous post about the Dungeon Master character, for the purpose of this series of blog posts, "the world of D&D" is assumed to be Mystara, and for cryptic reasons known only to himself, the Dungeon Master is responsible for bringing the heroes into the world from their own, and keeps an eye on them, ensuring their adventures never lead to any real harm.

This time, we'll meet the unofficial leader of the gang, Hank. As the Dungeon Master's magic transforms a fun roller coaster ride into a mystical portal to the world of Mystara, Hank, the handsome, likable kid everyone wants to hang around with, finds a bow crafted of glowing energy. Picking up this arcane totem, he is instantly transformed into the Ranger!

Hank the Ranger
7th Lvl Fighter, Lawful
Str 14
Con 15
Int 10
Wis 15
Cha 18
AC 2
HP 49
Aside from his +3 Leather Armor and the Longbow of Gleaming Energy, Hank carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a fighter type adventurer.

Hank's only 15, but he's developed early into a easy going, level headed sort of guy that becomes the natural leader of any group he's part of. He doesn't actively seek such a role or attention, but his realistic ego, understanding and admission of his limitations, and willingness to seek advice and help from others means that his friends are willing to put their trust in him.

Hank knows that the situation he and his friends are in is unfair and difficult, but rather than whine about, he tries to suck it up and trudge on, making the best of circumstances as they arise and hoping beyond hope that all this challenge and adversity will be rewarded with a path hope before too long.

Hank's a selfless type, always willing to help the needy and helpless, and unafraid to stand up to a bully picking on weaker people. He never thinks twice about putting himself in harm's way to help a friend, or a potential friend. While his armor and bow are gifts from the Dungeon Master to see him through this ordeal, Hank's bravery and his athletic skill are all his own.

The Longbow of Gleaming Energy (Totem of the Ranger; Minor Artifact)

While constructed of fine wood in the manner usual for a longbow, this item is no ordinary bow, and any attempt to string it will fail. When held in the hands of a worthy bearer, a "string" of glowing energy, accompanied by an arrow shaped form of the same energy form, and these energy arrows may be fired by mocking the motions of an archer. When one arrow is fired, the bow reloads itself with another immediately.

The arrows of this longbow are incapable of direct damage to an opponent, but they are capable of just about anything else the owner wishes. A line of arrows may be fired into a wall to create a makeshift ladder, the arrows may snag or scoop up a creature or item and then "boomerang" it back to the bow's position, ropes, ladders, bridges and other objects may be damaged to impede an enemy, etc. The owner's imagination is the only limitation.

When held by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class) of stout heart and lawful alignment, the bow imparts the HP, Saving Throws and Combat Abilities of a 7th level fighter. This boon does not apply to classed characters or those of non-lawful alignment.

Anyone stealing the bow, or killing Hank to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of his remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.