Let me start off with a disclaimer: I have never played an RPG, at least not in the traditional style. The closest I’ve come is something called the “mind games” that a friend introduced our small group to. There were no stats, no dice. It was pretty much a Death Battle style one-on-one turn-based combat where we created a character, listed his or her abilities, powers, and weapons on the page (we drew our characters–naturally mine were mostly superhero based though my second team were a sort of Star Wars/Masters Of The Universe hybrid concept), and did battle until someone had properly defeated the other. Naturally it was honor based but we were all honorable people, and while I didn’t have a perfect record I am proud to say I won the majority of my fights. Death wasn’t required to win, which is to my non-lethal benefit (though I think one of my characters were among the ex-living) but as I’ll get into that was the limit of my RPG experience outside of video games. And even those I don’t play a lot of. I mostly chose this topic because it bookends nicely with the BattleTech novel review for Chapter By Chapter.
So don’t look at this as advice from a critic/creator so much as observations of someone who enjoys listening or reading stories about other people’s RPG campaign. Not watching them play; I tried watching Power Rangers Hyperforce and just couldn’t get into it though I know broadcasting gaming sessions is pretty popular on the web. I do enjoy the stories of people who played, where I don’t have to sit there as they roll their extra-sided dice and try to decide what to do next. I have picked up on a few things about the RPG as storyteller and this is one situation where everyone involved is the storyteller.
I think that’s why I never got into it. My storyteller instincts drive me to want to control the narrative. It’s why when I’d play with other kids anything that required roles meant I got frustrated because (for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who isn’t a stage director an a-hole) every kid wants to do their own thing. That’s the case with an RPG. While there is someone allegedly controlling the game (usually referred to as the Dungeon Master thanks to Dungeons And Dragons–though games in other genres and settings have used a different name the person running the campaign and coming up with the basic plot for it is still referred to as the DM) the players’ actions can influence the game. Here are two of my favorite stories. The first one comes from Tumblr and I can’t really link to it because finding anything on Tumblr, even on my own site, is a near impossible task. However, going from memory it goes a bit like this.
A character is kidnapped by a group of cultists and brought before the dragon they…I don’t remember, worship I guess. “Hail great dragon. We bring you this man in tribute.” The dragon asks “do you have any last words?”.
Thinking quickly the player has his character say “Hail great dragon, I bring you these cultists as tribute.” Now even I know common sense says this likely isn’t going to work, but the player and the DM do their rolls (and we are assuming this is from an actual play session and not something made up) and sure enough the roll is so far in the player’s character that the dragon congratulates the character for his moxie, accepts HIS tribute and burns the cultists before flying off. Not only was the DM surprised but even the player was shocked. It sounds better in the post but I’m trying to fit a full article in here.
The other is from the currently controversial Noah “The Spoony One” Anwiler. I’ll link to part one and part two of his video but the summary is this. A non-player character (NPC) famous in the game for being immortal and being a jerk hires this party to get some kind of treasure for him. While Spoony, who was the DM of this particular campaign, was planning to have the character actually be impressed enough to keep his word, one player decided to get paranoid and have his character attack first, which led to the whole party ending up fugitives until they formed an army, rose up, and took over his palace. Spoony was not ready for that and his whole plan was scuttled, but if you watch the two plus hour tale (which took six months of play time) what you’ll see is a campaign that led to the players really working hard for their final victory and quite possibly a better story that was planned. It’s kind of amazing and I don’t even know what Thieves World is. Is it the full game? An area in the game? I haven’t watch the videos in years and I’m kind of against the clock.
From what I do remember of the various tales there are things to remember when coming up with, running, or taking part in these campaigns. On the DM’s side you have to accept and prepare for your intended tale to go off the rails if a player or players do something unexpected. While RPGs are a form of storytelling and the DM essentially plays every character not created by the players his or her job is to create exciting and fun challenges for the players. Don’t make the quest too difficult but don’t make it too easy. In the end the “game” is still the most important part of the role-play game.
For the players, if you’re going to try to control the game, try to make the other players do what you want without playing the role properly or just want to make sure you don’t die…just go write a book or fanfic or something. TJOmega, in his new TJabletop series, posted a story about numerous attempts to play the same character and having to accept with each “dimension” that he would have to start over and lose some of his story ideas for his character’s progress in the process. If you can’t accept that will happen, try that book idea instead. (Can you write fanfic of your own character?)
A role-playing game is a story by committee, which is why I really couldn’t see myself playing it given my personality, but some great stories can be told about these campaigns. It may be a game first but it’s still storytelling, and games as storytelling tools are a good thing. Not every game needs to be a story, but an RPG has no choice. Enjoy being part storyteller or enjoy listening to these tales of high adventure. That last one works for me. Maybe some of these sessions will be turned into or inspire a “regular” story in a different format someday. I’d read a Power Rangers Hyperforce comic adapting the sessions, but the sessions themselves aren’t all that interesting. And considering how many books, comics, video games, and even TV shows have been based on Dungeons And Dragons, BattleTech, and a host of other franchises I’m not the only one.