How to Train your Warjack: RPGs as a Storytelling Medium

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For many weeks now, I’ve been talking about the ways in which your mind can get in the way of optimal play. I’ve documented cognitive biases, talked about mindfulness, about the way in which expertise develops and the pitfalls involved. And in many ways, the writing of this series has paralleled my own attempts to improve my “mind game” after a disappointing performance at the Irish masters earlier this year, particularly with regard to The Fear

Which leaves me with a problem – I think I’ve covered all of the basic psychological principles involved in learning to improve your game – Any issue I can think of right now would basically involve rehashing Deliberate Practice, Operant Conditioning, and Cognitive Bias with slightly different words. 

So, I’m going to be heading back into RPG territory for a while. This time, however, I probably won’t be talking quite as much psychology. Instead, I’m going to indulge my other passion – storytelling. 

Roleplaying Games” might have been of those unfortunate bits of nomenclature that has directed people’s attention to certain features of a thing rather than others and shaped the perception and development of them ever since. It’s  the “Game” bit that skews how you see it. Because of their classification as a game, people often end up focusing on questions of statistics, dice, and rules systems as the primary attributes of RPGs. Even the most story focused groups can get bogged down in the minutia of rules systems.

I enjoy playing around with the maths of the games rules quite a bit myself, but it has a downside. Rules jargon distracts from narrative language and limits players’ thinking in relation to what their characters can or should do in a given situation.

As time goes by, I’ve come to think that an RPG is less a game, and more a medium through which group of people can tell a story.

In many ways, the RPG medium (RPGM) resembles Improvised Drama. (RPGs also quite closely resemble oral storytelling – a small group gathered about a table (you could do it around a fire, but landlords frown on that sort of thing in the living room.), listening as a story is woven – except that once again, everyone is participating in the storytelling.) The GM presents a setting, a supporting cast, villains, and a situation, and the Players (as their characters) act against that backdrop. The target audience for the GMs story elements are the players. And just to make things more interesting, the target audience are in direct control of the actions of the protagonists. This creates a unique tension between the GM as a storyteller and the players are the characters driving said story. For an RPGM story to work, all these elements must be in synch.

And therein lies the challenge for everyone involved in telling the story. There are somewhere between 4 and 8 egos involved, and everyone wants their piece of the storytelling pie. And one of those egos is given more power than the others – The GM crafts the wider plot, plays several characters, and is responsible for managing the storytelling as a whole. And great power… well, you either get corruption or responsibility, and usually a little of both. This is one of the subtle effects that the “game” part ends up having on the storytelling aspect – The GM is usually the final arbiter of the rules of the game, which gives him even greater power, and creates a culture in which a GM’s “no” must mean “no” for the game to continue to run smoothly from a rules standpoint. This culture of “the GM’s word is law” leads us to the first place where RPG’s fail to make use of the medium to tell the best possible stories.

Anyone who’s played in a number of RPGs has seen or heard of it – when the GM sits in tells his story to the players, who participate in its creation only nominally. The GM stacks the situation very heavily in favour of driving the players down a particular path, and often uses Deus Ex Machina-esque events to prevent the players from deviating from that. In its worst incarnation, the GM-dictatorship story happens with the player characters as mere spectators to the GMs characters, who he has cast as the story’s protagonists. Oral storytelling could do with getting more respect than it does, but that’s not what you come to an RPG table to do.

The wider gaming culture supports the idea that each game “belongs” to the GM running it, and this is a poor assumption that hamstrings the unique attributes of the medium. However, there’s a good reason that you put the overarching story in the hands of one person – it allows the players to experience the twists and turns that make for good drama. Since the players present are the only target audience, it would be a terrible shame to deny them that.

And so the tension between storyteller and protagonists remains. To tell a story successfully, this is a tension that has to be carefully managed, but that can also be harnessed – The GM is part of the audience too, so he gets his drama from the unscripted actions of the Player Characters.

Ultimately, the draw of RPGs as storytelling is this co-operative element. It adds something no other medium can quite equal. Of course, many other artistic endeavours involve co-operation. Scriptwriters co-operate with actors to fine tune a characters dialogue, writers co-operate on a single story, but RPGs take this to a higher level, and further, the improvised nature lends the whole process a unique fluidity. One of the draws that theatre has for me (as a member of the audience) is that you “had to be there.” Each performance, and certainly each production, is unique, and you will never again get the chance to see its’ like. Even if they recorded the plays and released them on DVD six months later, it wouldn’t capture it. The presence of the rest of the audience and being in the actual physical space of the theatre are vital parts of the art. The same goes for RPGs – the specific circumstances in which the story is produced are as much a part of it as the words spoken. RPG’s are the ultimate in “you had to be there.” It’s why it’s difficult to articulate to those who haven’t been in an RPG why we enjoy them so much. It’s why when old groups get together they inevitably end up enjoying recounting the stories with others who experienced it. Simply retelling the story seems weak and limp beside our experience of the story as it was created.

I like to write stories, but I’m terrible at finishing them. RPGs are the medium through which I manage to complete stories (though the trials and tribulations of scheduling that final In Nomine session prove that even RPGs are determined to thwart me). The social aspect of the hobby has a lot to do with that –  a little bit of social pressure to show up to the weekly game or finish a convention game goes a long way to getting shit done. But there’s more to it than simply social pressure. Collaborating with others is a joy. Your own ideas multiply on contact with those of others, and together you produce something that couldn’t have happened with only one mind. I finish writing games because I know that at the end of it, the idea we’ve released into the wild will have taken on a form I could not possibly have predicted or achieved alone.

Next week, I’ll tell you about how that idea led to one of my favourite ensemble casts in any game I’ve played – The Right Honorable Men of Merin, the Mercenary group at the centre of my new IKRPG game.

Te Nosce




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2 thoughts on “How to Train your Warjack: RPGs as a Storytelling Medium

  1. Pingback: What Makes A Great Game : A Gentle Reminder for Programmers. | Computer Technology Reviews & Tips

  2. Sounds like we have similar ideas on roleplaying! I have been running games for many years, and this is right on the money with how I feel about the medium and a huge part of why I enjoy it so much. I’m a big believer in the “GM runs the game” philosophy, but I’ve always viewed it more as “director of an improv troupe” rather than “lord of all I survey and final arbitrator of the story,” though I think the role of “GM-as-rules-referee” keeps things moving smoothly when hinky rules get in the way of the awesomeness. I’m vehemently opposed to the concept of the antagonistic GM – I think it’s the GM’s job to help the players be awesome and guide the world in such a way as to provide that awesomeness, rather than to “beat” them somehow. On the other hand, I’ve never had much luck with straight “collaborative storytelling” games; perhaps a little too much control freak in me, but I really think it’s more of the “frustrated writer” in me. I feel like collaborative storytelling games can get disjointed and meandering if all the participants aren’t proactive in weaving a coherent plot thread. As the GM, I can manipulate the universe to provide connections behind the scenes, tie up disparate threads, and provide surprises and twists that I feel are difficult to pull off when everyone has equal sway on the world.

    Over the years I have constantly tried to improve my techniques to provide a better game for everyone and avoid the inherent pitfalls of a “GM and Players” game. The “NPC-as-star-player(s),” the “GM-vs-Players,” and the “Train-only-goes-one-way” scenarios are my boogeymen that I spend a lot of effort training out of myself so they don’t come creeping into my games. Your use of terms like “ensemble cast,” “target audience,” and “good drama” all speak to my personal philosophy on GMing that I have embraced wholeheartedly (some might say fanatically) in recent years. I see my role as director of an awesome improvisational TV show – my job is to put the camera lens on amazing events, provide cool set pieces and open scenarios with vibrant interactions that the players (through their characters) can use to tell some amazing stories. It’s a television world where the characters are the only stars (forever and always, no plot armor or super-NPCs here!) and my biggest task is to make the world live and breath in such a way that it inspires them to do great things. I try to be reactive rather than proactive – the NPCs have their plot direction and goals, the world/universe has its path it will follow by default, but everything is about reacting to the actions of the players’ characters, bending to their choices (for good and ill) and letting those consequences shift the world around them. They get to do awesome things and be the stars who make great stories, and I get to watch great stories unfold, none of us knowing how anything will turn out. Man, it is a ton of fun!

    Whoa, okay, enough of that! Good article, keep ’em coming!

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