Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Am Not a Storyteller

My monthly AD&D campaign has confirmed something I suspected after observing my two 4e campaigns.

I am not a storyteller. I do not like establishing plots or events before we sit down to start playing. I like drawing maps and making notes about what lives where and why. I like sketching out NPCs. I like putting together fictional environments with all sorts of events on the verge of kicking off. But I don't actually like writing about those events, and I'll gleefully hack things to pieces and rearrange them to suit whatever idea pops into my head.

I am the god of this tiny, virtual universe, and if I decide at moment the characters enter the dungeon that there are three-headed kobolds there instead of the cyborgs I wrote about in my notes, there's no power in all the cosmos that can contradict me.

I DM because I want to see what will happen next, maybe as much as the players. Hell, probably even more than them. That interplay around the table, the unraveling of plans, the sudden bursts of inspiration, all of those things are what keep me coming back to the table.

That probably also explains why my #1 pet peeve is a player who quotes rules to me. Think the rulebook has all the answers? Then let's see that rulebook run a campaign!

The AD&D game really brought this all home to me. It's been a lot of fun, in part because I didn't take it all too seriously. It also helps that I have some great players. Erik Mona is a roleplaying MVP in my book. He's exactly the kind of player I like having at my table. His character is always doing something interesting, even if Stephen's character keeps murdering the NPCs he tries to interact with.

On another note, playing AD&D has been an interesting experience. I've found that I run it much like I did back in the day. The players use the character options from the Player's Handbook, I use the monsters and magic items from the DMG, but the rules I use behind the screen are basically OD&D/BD&D and lots of fiat.


Simon Forster said...

I think I've half-and-half when it comes to campaign design. I like having multiple plot hooks I can lure my players with, interesting back stories, but I then just throw them all into a big pot of sandbox-type locations and see what happens and what leads to where.

I'm always fudging rules and making things up to fit the scene, mood, whatever. Thankfully my players are less rules-lawyer-y that others I've played with.

I play my games (4th and 3.5) very much like I played AD&D (specifically 2nd ed, since that's the one I mostly grew-up with) and that 'old-school' nostalgia is something I'm aiming for on my next campaign.

Question: are you still running your Greyhawk game? How's that coming along?

Unknown said...

This is, seriously, the fourth or fifth time in the past week that I've seen "plot" or "storytelling" used in a way that makes me scratch my head, so I'm getting this off my chest. :)

To paraphrase something, stories are "[CHARACTERS] encounter [PROBLEM] and resolve it despite [DIFFICULTIES]" and that holds up pretty well for me. Nothing in that demands fidelity to an imaginary setting design document that no one but the GM ever sees or some sort of grand, predetermined outcome. It just demands that a) the characters be interesting enough for you to give a crap, b) the problem is compelling enough to drive action and c) that the difficulties are interesting and make sense.

As far as I'm concerned, those are all the same criteria for a good adventure. If the characters are flat, the threat isn't compelling and the dangers are dull and stupid, then the adventure's going to suck. If they're interesting, then the adventure will rock, and when you look at it in retrospect, there will be a story.

I think the problem lies with the assumption that a story requires that you know anything more about it than what's happening right this minute. That's a misapprehension, even in writing. You might have some ideas, but as the cursor moves along, you might discard them entirely. Whatever decisions you make, it's not a story until it's done.

By the same token, you might have some ideas for the game (and some GMs will cling to those ideas more tightly than others, sure) but its final form isn't set until its played.

Good play -creates- stories. Story doesn't create good play.

-Rob D.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason you're scratching your head is that while you are correct in a dictionary sense, you're not understanding (or perhaps just ignoring) the way the term plot/story is used by many in the context of an RPG.

In this context plot/story refer to the overarching predetermined type of thing. It's more having a script for the entire show and less doing improve theater based on a rough outline of the starting scenario.

So, I get what you mean when you say you make the story as you go... but that's not what he is getting at.

Callan S. said...

Well, if you write a game that doesn't actually have any mechanics for running the structure of a campaign, of course it doesn't run a campaign.

Daen Ral Worldbuilder said...

I think I'm with you - I'm not, at heart, a storyteller DM, either. I like to have a few big events going on in the background, but I have always played off the actions of the players. Not that I wouldn't mind doing some kind of linear plot driven series at some point (GDQ I'm looking at you - though the "plot" is pretty thin, I think) - but that's not how I've operated in the past...

Gregor Vuga said...

I think it was Jordan Mechner who said, regarding design of (video)games, something along the lines of: "story is what the player does, not the cutscene he watches".

If I may drag some of the proverbial GNS mud all over this carpet: the "N" as in Narrativism is commonly misunderstood precisely because people assume it's all about sacrificing everything else for the sake of the (GM's) story. The very opposite is true, Narrativism or "Story Now" is about "playing to find out what happens", "not having a solution in mind", but also driving play towards "meaningful" conflict (that's why it's not "story before" -with a pre-planned plot, or "story after" -with a random sequence of events that get latter interpreted in the context of a narrative, like telling a story about what happened to you with the banana and the chocolate fish the other day). Pretty much as Rob describes.

Personally, I blame the different understanding of "story" and "plot" in RPGs on the late 80's-90's obsession with metaplot and large settings with existing NPC heroes, histories etc. in published material.

Gregor Vuga said...

Oh, and sorry about super-late to the party. I know this is five months old, I just had to get it off my chest.

Ron said...

I call this Situation-based gaming - you set up the situation, and the let the PCs run around it in, having everything react to their actions. I run things almost as you describe and agree, it's a blast to do as a GM. I love it when the players do something that totally makes things go in an unexpected direction, especially when *they* are excited about their idea. It's actually given me an appreciation for many old modules that do exactly what I describe. They are dull to read, which is why I never ran them, but if you dig in you see all these great interactions waiting to happen.