A lot of my gaming friends and I are into gaming as a storytelling experience. I tend to talk about improving games and focusing on the story at the table. That is how a lot of my games go. However, some of the recent books I’ve been reading, some of the movies I’ve recently seen, and some of the games I’ve run in and played in highlighted something that bounces around my head from time to time: Good stories do not always make good game experiences.
A great example of this is Shamus Young’s take on Lord Of The Rings versus “Standard Gaming Group", DM of the Rings . Following the story to the letter the group has no fun . Sure Shamus intentionally creates friction and plays up gaming stereotypes for the sake of humor but he makes the good stories do not always make good games point in a great way.
Reflection On Story In Two Sessions
Two of my recent games illustrated the Good Story vs Good Game concept in a very big way. One of the games drug a bit, despite being full of action scenes, and was not getting a lot of love from the players. However, looking at the session from an outside perspective, it came together like a well composed plot with a fleshed out story structure. Another game I ran made no sense from an outside perspective, but the players were involved in every aspect of the game. Pieces of the plot didn’t flow together correctly, the characters stepped over major plot points, the discovery phase had information that was too easily obtained. It would have made a terrible movie, but was a great game experience.
So, was the sub-par game a result of the story being too central to the session? Was the good game good because of the story being disjointed and the focus being on the gameplay itself? Correlation does not equal to causation. I don’t think the good story negated a good game, and I don’t think the bad game didn’t leave room for a good story. The relative failure and success, being the fun the group had, were the result of many different pieces of the gameplay experience.
Role-playing games are narratives. If they weren’t then they would be board games that focus solely on the mechanics. However, they are not solely narratives. Role-playing games are too interactive. Most forms of traditional storytelling, such as books, movies, and spoken-word stories, are created and disseminated by one person. The story structure is laid out beforehand and does not alter as it is being told. Interactive stories, like choose your own adventure type books, video games with open options, and of course role-playing games, are malleable and alter with the experience. The people participating in the experience change the way the experience occurs.
Many of the same narrative structures are used in traditional and interactive stories, but when talking about interactive stories the narrative structures have to become malleable to the interaction of everyone participating in the story or the enjoyment of the experience is lost. The same exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement that so many stories are based on does not inherently create enjoyment at the gaming table.
A Good Story And A Good Game
So what can be done to make good stories and good games?
- Keep The Narrative Tight But Not Forced – Since role-playing games are narratives as well as games, they require there to be a narrative element that flows in some fashion. It has to make sense as a story, otherwise the players will look back and go what was that about? The gameplay itself might be fun, but the players might question the meaning behind any of their character actions. A good way to keep a tight but not forced narrative is to change it in response to the players’ actions. Don’t setup the story as it will be, just the motivations of the antagonists and the likely tools they put into use or that could be used against them. Fill in the rest as the players create it. Once the players are done, reveal anything that occurred “off-camera” for the players if it won’t impact future games .
- Earning The Story – Players like a good story, but being players in a game they tend to like to earn it. Story pieces that progress the plot forward are generally better received when they are part of a challenge that the players overcome. Getting a piece of information necessary to the story should be something the players work for or receive because of a good idea.
- Challenge, Loss, Redirection – In most traditional stories it is assumed that the protagonist will win. In role-playing games it is also assumed that the players will win, but that isn’t always the case. Many different things will challenge the players and they won’t always overcome those challenges. In order to earn the story the players should be challenged, but if they fail a challenge  this should not end the progression of the story. Redirect the situation  so that the players can overcome the challenge in a new way.
- Know What To Play Out At The Table – Many mundane things that happen in a story are not worthy of time at the table. They can be short-formed or hand-waved away. However, mundane things can be used to build the story and the action. A trip to resupply is not always exciting or relevant enough to be played out, unless it is integral to the plot of the game. Deciding what element should be played out and what ones should not is a matter of determining their relevance to the game and the level of fun that can be had by playing them out.
What tends to be more important in your games, the execution of the story or the playing of the game? When do you have the most fun, when focusing on the story or when playing out the game? What do you do to make story and game intertwine?