(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)
Imagine for a moment that you were unexpectedly handed the reins to your favorite television show of all time. A business exec knocks on your door and tells you – doesn’t ask you – that you’re now responsible for writing and producing the show from week to week. You’ll need to carry the existing plot to a logical and satisfying conclusion, tie all the characters into the main arc, make sure everyone gets enough screen time, hit all of the emotionally resonant notes of the show’s identity, and maintain its current level of quality, all on a strict weekly deadline.
Could you do it? No, honestly: could you really do it? Could you fill the shoes of the writer of your favorite show? All the DMs out there probably noticed that the job description sounds a lot like running a weekly roleplaying group, but remember: this is the big leagues. There is a built-in audience of millions, and all their expectations ride on your back. This isn’t just about you and your own opinion of the show anymore. You will be ruthlessly judged by many other people based on your ability to produce top quality television week after week after week. Could you do it?
I think it’s fair to say that unless you’re already a professional writer, the answer is no. There’s no shame in that. Writing is hard to do. It takes a lot of practice, and if you practice the wrong way, you might still be bad at it. No one would expect you to be able to just leap into that role.
But now imagine the same scenario, and this time the original writer of the show stayed on to help. Ultimately it’s your call how the show is run week to week, but now you have the guiding hand of a successful industry professional to give you advice and pointers. Now you have someone in the know to offer critique and give you the tricks of the trade, the secrets to churning out great show material on a regular basis.
I bet that changes things considerably. It’s probably still a little intimidating, but now at least you don’t have to flail in the dark on your own. In fact, this sounds like fun! You get to take over your favorite show, see it go all the places that you find most interesting. And just in case, you have a safety net, a sanity check, to ensure that you don’t run it into the ground. When can you start?
How about right now? Because that last scenario is not that far off from what it’s like to play a well-designed RPG. Like any RPG, you as a player are still in control of the story. But a clever designer who understands good stories can put whispers in your ear through the very rules of play. As the game plays out, the system shapes the narrative, even as you fill in all the details. You still get to be writer, producer, and actor all in one, but you also get a professional mentor to help you get the story right. That’s what it’s like to play a great RPG.
Rules for Stories
What do I even mean by “narrative shaping?” It’s an understandable question since many RPG players don’t stray much outside of D&D and have probably never seen a game with story-focused rules. A good number of RPG players even seem wary of such things. They don’t want something as crass as rules getting in the way of story and stymieing their creativity, which should definitely tell you something about the rules of D&D if players are so wary of them.
But in reality, there’s all kinds of rules and guidelines to good storytelling. You probably already know a good number of them. You apply them in stories you tell without thinking about it. When you hear them, they resonate with you. These are things like Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit,” which means keep it simple and don’t waste time with irrelevant aspects of the story. Another one is “show, don’t tell,” which just means it’s a lot more powerful if your story demonstrates your premise rather than simply stating it.
There are even formats for specific genres of stories. In a horror story, there’s an establishment of an object of dread, a build-up of tension surrounding that dread, and a horrific payoff in the form of a character death before the tension resets to do it all over again. There are rules for mystery stories, rules for romance novels – any popular genre has an established pattern or scheme that enables its success.
Games also have rules, and those rules inevitably push players into patterns of behavior whether they realize it or not. If a game is about telling stories, its rules should put players in a place where telling a good story is the logical outcome. Not all stories work the same way, and not all story games will have the same rules. But they all need to have rules that drive the kind of story they’re trying to tell, even if they can only tell just one. All rules shape play, it’s just a question of how.
The D&D Story
What does D&D do with its rules? To answer that, just look at what the rules govern. The domain of the rules imply the values of the system, so the more a game stipulates on a particular thing, the more the game becomes about that thing. Rules are suggestive of the game’s expectations of its players. While players theoretically have unlimited freedom, in the practical case the rules have a way of pointing players at particular solutions to their problems.
So it should come as no surprise that the most important thing in a D&D game is fighting. It’s readily apparent just from the content of the books. Over half of the page count of the Player’s Handbook from any edition is dedicated to class abilities and spells. Add in skills and feats (just more abilities, really), equipment (modifiers to abilities), and the general rules of combat itself, and you’ve easily got three quarters of the book or more. Now take into account the sections on adventuring, a Dungeon Master’s Guide that talks about making dungeons or other suitable locales, huge sections on magic items and other loot (often the largest part of a Dungeon Master’s Guide), and rules that dictate how much stuff your character can realistically carry with them, and it’s crystal clear what D&D wants you to do. The game is most at home when players are killing things and taking their stuff.
More importantly, the more you aren’t telling that story, the more you really aren’t playing D&D. If some kind of fighting isn’t happening, the game falls away almost entirely. Occasionally the game might call for a single dice roll to resolve a minor contest, but often the game books try to talk you out of it. Anything involving social interaction is frequently glossed over, left to free-form roleplaying – play you could’ve done all on your own without the help of any books at all. The only time the game system itself really gets going is when swords come out.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing if all you wanted to do was play a series of wargames as a team. But what about telling good stories? If we want a gripping narrative, we’ve got to have more than just fighting going on. The motivations and the stakes behind the fighting need to matter, or else the conflict is little more than a sporting event played for fun.
Let’s return to Harry Plinkett. Click here to watch another section of his review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that I talked about last article. At the climax of the story, we have three space wizards with four laser swords between them in a glowing purple generator room fighting to the death. That sounds for all the world like it should be a pretty gripping moment. But the lack of meaning behind the fight causes it to fall flat. We don’t really know anything about the three characters involved or why they specifically need to fight. The stakes are ambiguous (what will killing each other in the city’s basement achieve exactly?), the characters are forgettable (I still know basically nothing about the silent automaton that is Darth Maul), so the scene ends up as boring despite the exotic locale and the highly choreographed fight scene.
Fight scenes aren’t memorable or emotionally compelling just because they’re fight scenes. We have to care about the motivations and the feelings of the characters involved. Conflicts are about people and how their humanity clashes with other people – without that it’s just a meaningless spectacle.
Contrast The Phantom Menace with The Empire Strikes Back. The climax features a lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. The plot has led both characters inexorably to this point. Luke is facing the man who killed his mentor while Vader is testing his own son’s competence in hopes to recruit him. There’s a lot of nuance to the relationship that grows more complex every time they meet. We care about the fight because of what it means to both characters and the competing stakes involved. The individual moments of attack add color and detail to the conflict – for instance, the way that Vader toys with Luke not only implies their difference in skill but also hints at Vader’s intentions. But these details of the fight are done in service to the overarching interpersonal conflict. The fight itself rests upon the greater foundation of the plot.
D&D doesn’t have anything like this codified into the rules. Characters are bundles of combat stats with hair and eye color. Conflicts are framed as hit point piles comparing their damage per round until one dwindles to nothing. From the perspective of the system, there’s no such thing as a “plot” or a “theme,” only an “encounter.” On a mechanical level, the D&D story looks more like The Phantom Menace instead of The Empire Strikes Back. By putting all emphasis on the fight scene itself rather than the surrounding plot structure it serves, D&D offers precarious foundations for good storytelling. That’s your job.
The Realism Story
But it’s hard to fault D&D for being so bad at stories – that’s not what it’s trying to be. All of its rules, even the ones not specifically about combat, all swirl into a single, larger trend: the rules aren’t meant to be about stories, themes, and plots at all. Rather, they’re all about world simulation.
The assumption of the quintessential D&D campaign is that the players are dumped in a world where they can do anything they want. The game heavily suggests fighting by expressing the vast majority of player actions in terms of combat, but many players also carry the expectation that the world is open-ended and anything goes. Whatever the players decide to do, the game system will come up with a way to resolve it, even if the DM has to spontaneously create a frankenrule to cover it.
In other words the game doesn’t steer – it only reacts. When a character swings a sword, the game tells the player if they hit. When they ride a horse, the game tells them if they fell off. Drinking booze? Let’s roll fortitude to see if you pass out. Hunting? Roll survival to see if you got anything. Some versions even dwell on some pretty esoteric stuff like whether or not a character knows the answers to trivia questions or can sing well.
The answers to all these questions are based on the physical or mental abilities of the character as documented on the sheet, which seems innocent enough. But that forces the system to resolve player actions purely on an axis of “realism.” The game is designed in such a way that success or failure is determined solely by its plausibility. Yes, we want our stories to be believable, but using realism alone as the ultimate guide for story decisions is questionable at best and randomly catastrophic at worst.
Remember your favorite show’s author or screen-writer from the beginning? Well, the way that they commonly make story decisions is on the level of “Should this happen?” There are many, many, many dimensions to that question. What would an event add to the story in terms of excitement or emotional investment? Does it contribute to a character arc or deliver on an overarching theme? Is it a good use of time in the story? Is it in keeping with the tone? Does it call forward to future events while not invalidating all the previous ones? All these and many more are things a story-writer needs to consider and weigh against each other when deciding on even the simplest happening.
D&D bypasses this entire thought-process, and instead of stacking the question with storytelling concerns, it stacks the question with pure realism. It replaces “Should this happen?” with “Did this happen?” This is a very subtle difference, but one that makes all the difference. There are many reasons why the most believable thing might not be the best thing for the story, and I can all but guarantee that your DM not only knows this, but has changed many a dice result for exactly that reason.
But again, remember what I said in Part One: we’re operating under the assumption that we’re playing this game straight and just going where the rule system takes us. So any instance of cheating by the DM, even if the system is technically empowering them to cheat, is still a Rule Zero violation, and is a deviation from the impact the game would otherwise have. So that forces us to comply with a game system that isn’t created with an eye toward storycraft decision-making. Instead it’s “whatever happens happens” no matter how random.
In that way, D&D is not so much of a story engine as it is a physics engine. Things happen because that’s how the world works, storytelling be damned. There are no rules to guide or even document character arcs, themes, or plot, so the system trundles along oblivious to any kind of story concerns. A few bad rolls will make characters die at inappropriate times in inappropriate ways, interrupting an otherwise compelling arc. A few good rolls will dissolve away the tension of an otherwise climactic conflict. A roll on the random encounter table will throw in senseless filler, and possibly throw a red herring at the players to derail the plot entirely for weeks. It’s no wonder that the writers of the D&D source books lean so heavily on Rule Zero in the text. The rules-as-written system has no sense of storycraft, so rather than a system guiding players toward a good story, it’s the players who need to guide the system.
Shaping the Narrative
This simulationist trait has seeped out to many other RPGs. There’s been a long-standing trend in the RPG space that the selling point of of an RPG is the campaign setting – histories, maps, alt-tech, and lore. Too often, however, the actual rules of the game are some timid iteration on the status quo, firmly retaining their purpose as being nothing more than a realism referee. Second edition Vampire: The Masquerade feels it necessary to quantify and differentiate no fewer than fifty-eight models and makes of firearms. And since no part of the system ever forces guns to appear in the story at all, we can infer that the game doesn’t value the guns themselves so much as the anal-retentive portrayal of an ultra-realistic world. That’s the sort of tool the game offers its “storytellers:” a big pile of guns.
It can be hard to find an RPG that forsakes the tradition of being a pure mechanical simulator, and it’s even harder to understand how one might work without ever seeing one. But a game about storytelling needs to break that tradition. The job of a storytelling game isn’t to coldly calculate the world state. It’s to shape the narrative, offer character frameworks, and influence player behavior to put the story first.
The simplest, most straightforward example of a system that shapes a narrative has to be Dread. Designed by Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore, Dread is a game about the horror stories I described further above. The experience playing the game is meant to evoke tales of supernatural creepies, suspenseful and deadly sci-fi, murderers driven by madness, and all other manner of unsettling drama. And it does all this without a single page dedicated to world-building, setting, or lore.
And yet players get the story right every time. How? With a deceptively simple mechanism: instead of resolving actions with pass/fail dice rolls, it’s done with a Jenga tower. When players take consequential actions, they are invited to make pulls on the Jenga tower. A successful pull means a successful result – and a more unstable tower.
As it happens, the format of a game of Jenga is exactly the same as the format of a horror story, where tension slowly builds up to a catastrophic climax before starting all over. So as players make pulls on the tower to get what they want, they also systematically ratchet up the tension of the game. The tower sways unnervingly, and players know a collapse is imminent. Their sense of dread sharpens when it’s their turn to make a pull. Suddenly and only half-unexpectedly, an unlucky pull knocks it all over, and that character dies, goes mad, or is otherwise removed from the story.
The format works brilliantly. You never really know when the tower could fall, so every action carries a lot of risk. Even the constant stream of successful actions made by successful pulls only serves to highlight the sense of dread, since each success only makes the next pull that much scarier. The mechanical aspect of the game is a self-regulating system that drives an accumulation of minor victories accentuated by one crushing tragedy.
Note also that Dread respects player input to the story. The narrative rules are loose enough to accommodate players’ interpretation of the resolution. A tower fall doesn’t specify the cause of death, like simulator D&D would – Dread leaves that to the narrators to work out as appropriate. It’s usually abundantly clear from the circumstances how to remove that character from the story, and even when it isn’t, the game has provisional rules for that (e.g. “walking dead” characters who could die any moment). Dread doesn’t worry about stipulating on the exact details of the story, allowing players to still make the game their own.
It’s the structure of the story that’s important, and that’s where the game takes unequivocal control. Deviate from the structure of the game at your peril – the format of the tower and the threat that it poses are fundamental to the experience promised by Dread. By choosing to tell only one kind of story, Dread hones that story to a bloody razor’s edge whose intensity makes it quite unforgettable. And it does so with a design so simple, it’s fair to call it the most elegant RPG of its time, possibly ever.
But maybe you’re not sure about all this. Is it really as simple as playing a game of Jenga? Maybe you really hate the idea of the game taking that kind of authority in the story. Maybe it’s bothering you that characters die in Dread based on some game outside your control instead of when it’s logical. You might not trust something as inhuman as a system enough to give up the reins of something so personal.
If so, you’re not alone. It’s not always easy to see the impact that a few rules in a book can have. But take it from a fellow skeptic, Adam Dray, who wrote the foreword to Annalise, the game I mentioned last article:
“Nathan writes sneaky games. I had read [his game] ‘carry’ before playing it with him, and I totally didn’t understand how it was special. I had the same experience when I read Annalise for the first time – while editing it, in fact. I didn’t see how the rules you’re reading now could produce anything special in play. Later, when I watched while he and some friends played for a few hours, I realized there was something very interesting going on. I had to play it myself to finally get it. I understand it a little better every time I play.
…There’s something about how the Claims work that can make everyday things downright creepy.
…You develop characters – rather, you discover them – through play and you never really have full control over your character. There’s a sort of spooky Ouija board action as the hands of every player pull the story in different directions.
…Whether you play the game about a literal, blood-sucking vampire that stalks the characters or more figuratively about some terrifying horror that the characters must confront, Annalise provides a solid framework for creating dark and suspenseful stories.”
Sometimes it’s not obvious how a game’s rules will play out until you play it straight. Sometimes you won’t know why something is made the way that it is until it shows you. This is doubly true for systems that don’t work the way you’re used to. For as many flavors of RPG that exist, a large number of them play almost identically to D&D, in large part because they’re designed as passive simulators. It can be kind of mind-bending the first time you play something that takes an active role in shaping the plot.
But sometimes you need to let go of how you think a game “ought” to play. One of the big lies that D&D-likes have sold us is that the ultimate purpose of the rules is to promote a sense of “realism.” But realism doesn’t drive narrative. Realism doesn’t inherently create tension or play with emotion. Realism is the story of a world simply existing, of causality dutifully tracking the internal logic of all its events. Dread doesn’t care about any of that. Does it matter what the odds of a particular character death are in some specific situation? Dread says “Fuck, no! Can’t you see I’ve got their emotions wound up absolutely tight? Time to let it snap!”
Sometimes you need to just trust the designer to know what they’re doing. Someone made this game just the way they thought it should be, and that means there’s something very human about any system. Maybe folks only think systems are inhuman because the ones they’re used to playing are soulless simulators that too often stomp all over the story if you let them. But there’s so much more to the design space of RPGs. There’s so many ways to infuse a game with the human experience.
So if you find yourself pulling against an unfamiliar RPG, resist the urge to load it down with house rules and tweaks to make it more recognizable. Let go of your expectations, and let it speak. You might be surprised by what you hear.