Saturday, January 7, 2012

Games Don't Need Plots to Have Stories

I saw a prominent blogger (JB over at the Blackrazor blog: ranting in the new year) taking the game to task for being low-brow.  JB is fun to read because he brings a lot of passion to his blog and isn't afraid to step on the soapbox.  Going into dark holes, kicking down doors, and stabbing monsters in the face is dumb; it doesn't tell the kind of story you read about in fantasy novels.

It's true, you don't see much looting in fantasy novels.  But games shouldn't worry about emulating fiction; they should worry about being good games, first and foremost.  Dungeons & Dragons is a very good game.  There's a reason it's endured in a sea of forgettable RPGs, each trying to tell a story.  When a game is good, and you play it over and over again, excellent stories emerge after the fact.

Let’s talk about another game that's just a big dumb game - Pro Football.

Here we are on the verge of the NFL play offs, and the beloved Broncos are a day away from getting crushed by the Steelers in the play offs (again).  It's a good time to reflect on the NFL season and how things developed this year.  Football is just a dumb game - a bunch of big dudes, with helmets and cleats, trying to jam an odd shaped brown leather ball across a line in a field of grass.  It's got some funny rules, and a referee.  No novelist or screenwriter sits down to script out how the NFL season is going to unfold.

Denver Post:  Tebowing
This year, the big story with the beloved Broncos was Tim Tebow.  Who saw that one coming?  Tebow was the 3rd string quarterback coming out of Broncos camp, and the new coach considered him a wasted draft pick by the previous regime.  Kyle Orton was the starter.  And then Orton's Broncos started the season 1-4.  The fans were restless.  Colorado has a strong evangelical presence and folks clamored to see Tebow hit the field; they even bought billboard space across from the stadium to campaign for their guy.  It was Tebow's chance to pilot the team after the bye.

The Broncos went and ripped off a string of 7 straight victories, many of them in dramatic, 4th quarter come-from-behind fashion with Tebow's late game heroics.  People started to notice.  A story about the Broncos began to emerge.  I would imagine even those of you who dislike sports have seen some kind of mention of Tebow over the past month; there was even a Saturday Night Live sketch with Jesus in the Broncos locker room poking some fun at the phenomenon.

This particular story took a nosedive when the Broncos finished the season 0-3, getting killed by the Patriots and Bills, limping into the playoffs, and now facing the hard-nosed Steelers in tomorrow's game.  I don't have high hopes, but it's been a fun and memorable season nonetheless.  Real stories don't need endings like books.

The lesson here is simple.  Football is a simple game, a bunch of big dudes smashing into each other and running around.  But when you toss in the high drama elements of competition, rivalries, grudges, egos, strong personalities, amazing athleticism, tactics, strategy, dynasties, history, the media, the fans, then the stories become larger than life.  Every minute counts in the NFL and there is no tomorrow.  These emergent stories are much better than anything someone could have scripted, because no one predicted them.  Consider how often you're watching something and can tell where a movie plot is going to end up, or how a book is going to finish?  Why would you want to copy that in a game?

The confluence of factors that come together in Dungeons & Dragons make it an excellent campaign game and thus an excellent vehicle for emergent stories.  Lairs, dungeons, wilderness hex crawls, and landscapes filled with petty rulers for toppling, are fertile ground for a player-driven campaign.  The character class structure of D&D fosters team work and group planning.  The XP for gold structure provides a built-in overarching objective.  Compared to the motivations that drive literary characters, looting wherever you go is a bit shallow, but it's very very good for ongoing gaming.

I find that when I let go of the notion of genre emulation, and let the game do what it does best, we don't lack for amazing stories.  My campaign journal is full of them.

Note:  The idea that games should stop trying to tell stories and just focus on being good games is not new or original; I remember hearing a Microsoft video game designer talking about the football and story analogy on a podcast and it made a huge impact on me.  I've never played Minecraft, but I hear similar things about it as a plot-less game.  Video games with their cut scenes tell the designer's story, but fail when compared to the amazing and original stories that emerge from a good tabletop sandbox game.

Photo: Daniel Petty, The Denver Post


  1. Yeah, I thought John Tynes had a lot of good stuff to say on the subject in the Unspeakable podcast. While he was discussing the differences between video games and tabletop RPGs, I found that it applies to our hobby just as well.

  2. I think that's where I heard the football analogy as well. It's too bad he's no longer active with Pagan; my younger self couldn't fully appreciate what Pagan was doing back then (and how it was so qualitatively different from Chaosium) - I just thought Delta Green was "cool".

  3. I love your choice of the Tebow saga for your analogy. Us Broncos fans have to stick together although that boy is going to give me a heart attack as he tries to tie John's record for comeback wins.

    I will give him credit for one thing, however, in that he is the first Denver QB since John to not spend all his playing time in John's shadow. There will always be three ways to play football, the right way, the wrong way, and the Elway, but I liked what I saw this season and think he's earned a shot at leading the whole campaign next year.

    On your broader point, Ron Edwards asked about how story emerges in his article on simulationism at the Forge. When someone did the Forge glossary as their A-Z challenge last year I was inspired to write about how it does: Memoir is story.

  4. Great analogy and I'm with you on games trying emulate fiction. As for the game tomorrow, being a Steelers fan myself I have to say I am a little nervous, but just glad I still get to watch them for another week. Great blog Beedo.

  5. Herb - thanks for posting the link, the memoir analogy is right on and I'm going to start using that term myself. In sandbox gaming, things don't start, have a rising action, climax and denouement; but after the fact, you can certainly draw arbitrary distinctions calling this or that session part of this or that story arc, and analyzing the action in narrative terms.

    Good luck tomorrow, Tim - I just hope the Broncos don't get killed. (I have Big Ben and Antonio Brown on my dynasty fantasy football team, so I'm well aware how good the Steelers passing can be when Ben is healthy and mobile...)

  6. It comes down to the group one is playing with. If your doing RPGs with an old group of seasoned vets, who perhaps have been friends for years ... your going to have a much different experience than a game with a bunch of random kids and store trolls in the back of a game shop. An experienced group is going to bring something to the table and that is naturally going to flavor the game accordingly, sure that kind of group is going to have a great time and just ooze good story. A random mixed group ... in my opinion the 3.0-4e era D&D is going to produce big dumb WoW in pen and paper. Truth is stranger than fiction ... life happens ... all sorts of cliche come to mind. Sure good story can flow out of ... anything practically ... but you need a group to produce it, the best GM in the world is going to struggle (unless they are just railroading the group through their fantasy novel) without that. D&D doesn't require a good group to work, but it does require a good group to be more than a mindless hack and slash fest. There are other games which hold peoples hands and move them towards story more. Again ... its hard to argue that any game is going to be much fun without at least a decent crew so I don't want to try to oversell my point. Its more just an observation based on my own experience moving from a really good group of seasoned vets who'd known each other for years ... to a group that is not that and seeing the difference. All in all though I agree with your points, I don't think you need every game to flow the same way and I have by far come to prefer sandbox games generally over plot point or scripted games. Watching the story unfold in the game as it will whether as a player or a GM ... its damn entertaining (again with the right group).

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  8. XKCD touched on this. The mouseover is important.

  9. Many of the best sandbox players I know were brand new to RPGs BTW, it's not a difficult art. The worst players are those who've been ruined by story-paths before they were aware of an alternative.

    Bit like Morgoth's Orcs, really.. >:)

  10. And the Tebow story has another day at the table left at least.

  11. Isn't that the truth? I had pretty much closed the book on the Broncos and considered this story finished and done prior to the game, and once again, the twists and turns of the real world created a better narrative than I could have imagined. (With apologies to Steeler fans - we certainly know how it feels on the other side...)

    It strengthens the case for the simulationist sand box, letting events unfold naturalistically and not applying any kind of aesthetic notions of story to guide campaign events.