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Worlds of Design: Games vs. Novels - Part 2

Picking up where we left off in the first article in this series, we review how games differ from novels in points of view, climax and denouement, multiple related stories, "story machines," and the vagaries of chance.

gamesvsrpgs2.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
We previously discussed how opposed-game RPGs compare with novels in:
  • Character
  • Luck
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Setting
So let's focus on:
  • Point of View
  • Climax and Denouement
  • Games with Multiple Related Stories
  • “Story Machines”
  • The Vagaries of Chance

Point of View

There’s a lot of difference between a story with multiple points of view, and one with only one, And is it first person, or third person, or (rarely) something else?

RPGs are naturally about multiple points of view, given several players. And each player experiences it in first person (if they wish -“I do such-and-such”), though some prefer third (“my character does this”).

In RPGs the point of view is always multiple but very personal, whether it's expressed as first person or third. Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, writes the novels in first person (everything from Harry's point of view, as told by Harry). He wrote a six-novel series that's written in third person (with multiple views, if I recall correctly). He's started another series in the same third person with multiple viewpoints. I don't find them as entertaining as the Dresden Files. Is that because of the third person, or multiple viewpoints, or is it because of something else?

Climax and Denouement

Climax: something to conclude the main conflict. If there's a conflict, there's very likely a climax. On the other hand, denouement is “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved" - climax or not. Opposed games can have these, though not as well-controlled as in a novel.

Games with Multiple Related Stories

This isn’t unusual in video games, often deriving from use of a different character. Otherwise, the video game is “done” (“beaten”) after one play-through. It’s much more common in tabletop games, because each play of the game is different. It can also be explicit, as in 50 scenarios to play in Betrayal at House on the Hill.

"Story Machines"​

As a GM and game designer, I look for games that create unique stories through gameplay, in which players write their own stories using the hooks and constraints I’ve provided. They’re not the quality of professional stories, but they are very interesting to the participants. That’s where games succeed, after all, in their personal interest to the participants.

Vagaries of Chance

In the late 70s I took part in a D&D adventure being run for a person who wanted to turn a D&D adventure into a written short story. So we tried to help make it more exciting. But we ran into the vagaries of chance. The novelist completely controls chance, the GM (usually) does not. In a novel somebody can stand in plain sight and be shot at, yet somehow every shot misses (the enemy must be Star Wars stormtroopers!). But if you're rolling dice, that person is probably going to get hit. In this particular game I had a fourth level fighter who tried to do something heroic that he normally wouldn't do, and an ogre killed him (much easier to get killed back then, zero hit points and you were Dead). That doesn't make for much of a story.

Conclusion

There is a lot of difference between novels and tabletop games, which is why opposed games and stories don't mix well. In order to make a RPG much like a novel you remove it from the realm of game, which is something that you can fail at or lose, and put it into another realm. A realm of story, but not game.

Your Turn: How do you balance telling a good story with playing a good game?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

"Story Machines"​

As a GM and game designer, I look for games that create unique stories through gameplay, in which players write their own stories using the hooks and constraints I’ve provided. They’re not the quality of professional stories, but they are very interesting to the participants. That’s where games succeed, after all, in their personal interest to the participants.

Vagaries of Chance

In the late 70s I took part in a D&D adventure being run for a person who wanted to turn a D&D adventure into a written short story. So we tried to help make it more exciting. But we ran into the vagaries of chance. The novelist completely controls chance, the GM (usually) does not. In a novel somebody can stand in plain sight and be shot at, yet somehow every shot misses (the enemy must be Star Wars stormtroopers!). But if you're rolling dice, that person is probably going to get hit. In this particular game I had a fourth level fighter who tried to do something heroic that he normally wouldn't do, and an ogre killed him (much easier to get killed back then, zero hit points and you were Dead). That doesn't make for much of a story.

Conclusion

There is a lot of difference between novels and tabletop games, which is why opposed games and stories don't mix well. In order to make a RPG much like a novel you remove it from the realm of game, which is something that you can fail at or lose, and put it into another realm. A realm of story, but not game.

Your Turn: How do you balance telling a good story with playing a good game?
I'm curious as to which games you look at. Because the games I find inherently create excellent stories are ones like Apocalypse World, Leverage, and Blades in the Dark where a key driver is that things don't go smooth, the most likely result is success-with-consequences. To quote Trey Parker (one of the makers of Southpark):

“[I call it] the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens and then this happens and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, butthis happened; whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” or “therefores,” it makes for better writing.”​

A D&D skill check is very much "and" storytelling. "He started to climb the wall [roll] and he made it to the top/and he didn't make it and had to find another way." Meanwhile the all important success-with-consequences rolls (7-9 in AW, 4-5 in Blades, 1s in your dice pool in Leverage/Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) have consequences built in "He climbed the wall but he found he was right over the head of the guardsman". And even on a failed move you do something more interesting than just have to try again. Even "But it was the wrong wall and lead him to the barracks" is a perfectly good hard move which is much much more interesting than a failure that simply leads to either trying again or finding another route.

The other key aspect in storytelling I find is reincorporation - that is bringing what has come before back into the story. An excellent example of this was the final fight of Wandavision.
Agatha had earlier told and demonstrated to Wanda that within a space "Only the witch who controls the runes can cast her spells and within Agatha's runes Wanda was helpless. In the final fight Wanda was seemingly trying to blast Agatha, which Agatha was absorbing - and some of Wanda's shots were going wide. This was a bluff and Wanda was instead using the shots that "missed" to put runes on the walls of The Hex, rendering Agatha helpless because Wanda controlled those runes.
It would have been an utterly non-sensical fight if it wasn't a direct callback. But what does this have to do with success-with-consequences rolls? Any time you have an open ended roll and especially one with consequences rather than a simple pass-fail you have an opportunity to reincorporate and are frequently inspired to do so. So there is far more reincorporation, making events matter more and the world denser.

I therefore find success-with-consequences systems to produce much denser and more interesting stories, far more tightly centered on the PCs. And to take everything sideways - as opposed to a dungeon exploration where I've pre-written the dungeon. As GM I'm not the one storytelling - we all are and the system in these games is tightening everything.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think you have to start with embracing the chaos of it. I start with The Impossible Things Before Breakfast:

  • It is impossible for the GM to control the story while the other players control the main characters
  • It is impossible for the player characters to control the story while the GM controls the antagonists.
  • It is impossible for a given player to control what the other player characters will do
I say embrace these impossible things. Know that we can't plan how things will turn out. We can just do our best to provide room for compelling story to emerge. So that means dynamic scenario design that does not assume what the player characters will do, characters who have a stake in that situation, and honest adversity provided by the GM. The tension will feel real because it will be real.

Another alternative is to basically work in a cahoots to tell the best story, but I feel like it makes for a less satisfying gameplay experience.
 

Oh, I forgot to mention the other key story mechanic done best IME by Apocalypse World, pretty well by Fate and Sentinels Heroes... and terribly by D&D. Stories are about change - and character growth.

D&D is terrible here because the overwhelming majority of mechanical character growth is linear - you level up in your class from fighter 1 towards fighter 20 with almost all fighters on the same track, getting steadily more powerful in the same way. Yes you have more than cookie cutter character growth in D&D characters, but this comes from the players, almost entirely unsupported by the system. And there aren't even lingering wounds - just some pretty straight tracks that few veer off for narrative reasons. (3.X style builds with prestige classes are even worse as the straightjacket is tighter and planned in advance with far more specific twists - and yes I know multiclassing exists, although it's too big to feel organic)

Skill/point systems are better because you can spend your XP in response to what you do. A thief with a sideline as a mechanic might, to think of a recent PC, find themselves the only mechanic and end up as an expert in alien tech when that was something they only planned to do to get hired by the next suckers. Genuine character growth, mechanically reflected and supported and that happened point by point.

Better yet are Fate and other games including Sentinels Heroes. There you get skill style growth but also to change important things about yourself in, for example your aspects. You may be seeking revenge - what if you find it? Your character has changed and you need new aspects. And this has narrative weight meaning you are now no longer who you were.

Finally there is Apocalypse World in which your playbook (class) is your place in the game. And there are two ways you may change it mechanically; either levelling up enough to find a new place in the world or being left for dead.
 

Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
I feel that comparing PbtA games to D20 systems like D&D is a bit apples to oranges. Nothing you are doing in a PbtA game can't be done in D&D as a matter of narrative style and storytelling, but D&D does not impose mechanical restrictions to enforce a specific storytelling format. As a result, you get a greater range of potential versatility. PbtA games in contrast will give you a very directed and focused experience but it lacks legs for the long haul as the system of necessity eventually begins to look wide but shallow in the experience. Or put another way: I play PbtA games for short campaigns and one shots, but I apply the narrative chops to a game like D&D for long haul games over decades of diverse and interesting play that can run the gamut of styles of play with a wider range of creative potential (within some limits, driven my the core conceits).

This comparison reminds me of the time I picked up Trail of Cthulhu and realized the Gumshoe mechanic was an answer to a question I had never needed or asked because as a GM in Call of Cthulhu it was considered obvious to divulge information needed and allow for fail forward concepts in the die rolls. The problem was never in the mechanics but the advice.
 

Oh, I forgot to mention the other key story mechanic done best IME by Apocalypse World, pretty well by Fate and Sentinels Heroes... and terribly by D&D. Stories are about change - and character growth.

Skill/point systems are better because you can spend your XP in response to what you do. A thief with a sideline as a mechanic might, to think of a recent PC, find themselves the only mechanic and end up as an expert in alien tech when that was something they only planned to do to get hired by the next suckers. Genuine character growth, mechanically reflected and supported and that happened point by point.

Better yet are Fate and other games including Sentinels Heroes. There you get skill style growth but also to change important things about yourself in, for example your aspects. You may be seeking revenge - what if you find it? Your character has changed and you need new aspects. And this has narrative weight meaning you are now no longer who you were.

Finally there is Apocalypse World in which your playbook (class) is your place in the game. And there are two ways you may change it mechanically; either levelling up enough to find a new place in the world or being left for dead.
There is also the Basic Roleplaying game where you get better at the skills you use more often, but then your advancement tapers off as you get better and better. One off-shoot, Pendragon, also gave bonuses if you reached certain idealized behaviors for the story.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I feel that comparing PbtA games to D20 systems like D&D is a bit apples to oranges. Nothing you are doing in a PbtA game can't be done in D&D as a matter of narrative style and storytelling, but D&D does not impose mechanical restrictions to enforce a specific storytelling format. As a result, you get a greater range of potential versatility. PbtA games in contrast will give you a very directed and focused experience but it lacks legs for the long haul as the system of necessity eventually begins to look wide but shallow in the experience. Or put another way: I play PbtA games for short campaigns and one shots, but I apply the narrative chops to a game like D&D for long haul games over decades of diverse and interesting play that can run the gamut of styles of play with a wider range of creative potential (within some limits, driven my the core conceits).

This comparison reminds me of the time I picked up Trail of Cthulhu and realized the Gumshoe mechanic was an answer to a question I had never needed or asked because as a GM in Call of Cthulhu it was considered obvious to divulge information needed and allow for fail forward concepts in the die rolls. The problem was never in the mechanics but the advice.

The constraints and expectations of play are just different. One is not more flexible than the other. It's like comparing football to baseball and then declaring that baseball is more flexible.
 

TheSword

Legend
With George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, bad luck is too often a fate of the protagonists, courtesy of the author rather than the fickle dice.


If I was one of those characters, putting faith in dice was a safer bet than in the author.
I actually think a Song of Ice and Fire is really interesting because the bad stuff that happens to characters is usually a direct consequences of their own actions/choices/behaviour

Look at any really bad action
Neds execution, The Red Wedding, Jamie’s lost hand, The White Walkers massacring the Nights watch, Jon Snows murder, Stannis’s Defeat, Tyrion’s disfiguring, Tywin’s murder, Oberon killed by the Mountain after thinking he’d won, even the fall of Targaryen dynasty…
These all were direct consequences of the character’s - or their family’s - own actions.

This series is actually an excellent example for gamers to make the story respond to the actions of characters and not stick to the expected path… the opposite of railroad.

Luck very rarely comes into it. Can you think of any truly bad event came about because of bad luck rather than direct consequences of their actions?
 

Joe Pilkus

Villager
Dr. P.,

As always, it's a pleasure to read your articles. This is a conversation I've had on-and-off for the past several decades with friends with whom I've played or served as a DM (or GM) myriad RPGs, from D&D to Boot Hill; Star Frontiers; Traveller; Serenity; Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes; Top Secret, and others. Unlike a host of writers for a television program or a movie, an RPG certainly has those wonderful elements as you've described, but as soon as it becomes "scripted" it loses the magic of being an RPG.

Cheers,
Joe
 

Your Turn: How do you balance telling a good story with playing a good game?
A big way I do it is by picking my game with care. In particular I look towards post-Forge games like Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Leverage, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Smallville, Monsterhearts, Sentinels Comics RPG, and others. Oh, and Fiasco.

I think I've replied in past columns about how features of D&D that make it fun and entertaining (the linear growth and the lack of meaningful mechanical consequences other than death) undermine its storytelling - and how Apocalypse World with its huge changes in characters especially when they "die" and its success-with-consequences mechanics leads to fast twisty intense stories that are nowhere near where even the GM thought they would go. If not I could elaborate.
 

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