A roleplaying game is so much more than a strategic game, so much more than the models and the battle map. It entails stories, which are created by all the players at the table. All are equally responsible for the narrative. 

Few days ago this article by John Wick popped up in my social media news feed. I remember I read it shortly after it was written and shook my head for I didn’t agree with him. Still, I decided to read it again.

As I grow older my perception of roleplaying games has changed. I, as many roleplayers do, liked to test my characters’ mettle against whatever the game masters threw at them. I liked most of all roleplaying games where combat was the main focus of every session. System that awarded combat prowess were a favourite.

Today I like stories. Most of all, I like the stories that me and my fellow players co-create and I feel invested in.

A young game master

When I was younger and starting out as a game master I often spent many hours crafting encounters. I tried to make sure that they were balanced, offered at least two or three ways out for the players if things went south really fast and that the encounters were interesting and challenging. I read many articles and blogs about encounter-crafting and took many of them to heart, others I dismissed.

The story was not something I cared much for, it was simply a tool to move the PCs from one encounter to the next. As long as the PCs knew their objective and were willing to be lead on, I didn’t bother much with the story. After all, I game mastered the games I wanted to play.

As I got older and played more and game mastered more, this kind of roleplaying became tiresome and repetitive. Every session felt like the one before and I found it ever harder to get in touch with my characters. They felt one-dimensional and I didn’t see much difference between roleplaying or playing Ludo.

The stories that live with us

When I and most of the group that I played with, were fed up with roleplaying games, I decided to change my approach. The way we played was no different from any rpg computer game or a board game, just as John Wick describes in his blog post. It was almost soulless number crunching and power playing to the extreme.

I joined another group, which was more story oriented than the old one. We rotated the role of the game master and the other group members put way more emphasis on the story than I had experienced before. Of course, combat was still a big part of every session, but the story wasn’t just an excuse for slaying scores of orcs and goblins. It was an integral and important part of every session.

I still remember those first stories we played together. These stories matter a great deal to me, for through them I learned the difference between role-playing and roll-playing.

Make it count!

The first time I experienced a real sense of loss through roleplaying happened in one of these sessions. I was playing a 4th level half-elf bard and had just spent considerable time in rallying a group of villagers to help the party defend the village from a hobgoblin tribe, which was about to attack the village for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the party…

This was a character I really liked and had played through the earlier levels. When the hobgoblin tribe arrived the party took up their positions and managed to fight their way to the evil hobgoblin leader. My bard started singing his battle hymn to inspire his comrades and the villagers. The leader didn’t like the song and charged swinging his two handed falchion high. In a swift stroke he chopped my bard’s head off, scoring a critical hit and dealing way more damage than my poor bard could take.

After the session the game master, seeing me sulking over my character, said: “Hey, don’t feel sad, at least you got a good story out of it. And man, did you make it count for without the help from the villagers the party would’ve been overrun easily.”

And she was right. I did get a good story out of it and my bard’s non-combat actions actually made a difference.

A game of balance

I think that the best and the most important thing I’ve learned as game master is that balance matters. Not the balance of encounters or encounter difficulty level, or whatever name you would like to apply to it. Not the balance between characters or their power level. But the balance between story and system. That is what I feel game balance is all about and where I feel John Wick was wrong.

Today I have no qualms about a young red dragon showing up in a module for 1st-3rd level characters. If it suits the story. And, mind you, that IF is an important one. When I create stories today I try to make sure that the encounters enrich it, that the monsters, brigands and villains play a part in the story but first and foremost that the PCs play a pivotal role in the narrative, that their actions count and that they are held accountable.

When I focus on this balance I have found that my players seldom forget why their characters are doing whatever they are doing. For what cause they are fighting or why it is important. I try to reward clever thinking, especially if it is something that I didn’t think of or hadn’t foreseen and it might work. I try to make sure that players feel rewarded for non-combat solutions and for moving the story onwards.

I really want them to get a good story out of every session and that their actions counted. If they need huge guncharts or weapons tables, I don’t mind. As long as they follow the rules of the game and hold the Golden Rule close to heart, my only hope is that they have fun.

But John Wick was also right!

Though he has gotten a ton of negative feedback for his blog post he was in many ways right and pointed out some things that I couldn’t help but agree to. And to be honest I believe that many of those who read and commented on that blog post at the time probably weren’t in the mood to give him the satisfaction of admitting it, e.g. use whatever part of systems that fit your story or add new features to enrich it, that the story should dictate the system, not vice versa.

I’m a huge D&D fan but for years, as mentioned above, I played it the way that John would call it a board game. But that was my group’s playing style, we were playing a strategic board game with minimal story element and were content with it. It had nothing to do with the game itself or the system.

He was also right about the spotlight and I feel that is a part of the balance that the game master is responsible for. We need to make sure that every character gets a moment in the spotlight, that their actions count and that they get a good story out of it. If one character hogs the spotlight, the other players soon get bored.

The spotlight has nothing to do with game system. It’s a part of the story that you are collectively telling around the table. I think that this is solved in a brilliant way in the Swedish roleplaying game Tales from the Loop, make sure you check it out.

Human nature

You could say that humans have a natural desire for stories. We love a good story. Whether it is a story about an orphan in a galaxy far away trying to turn his father from the dark path he’s on, the story about a girl volunteering to take her sister’s place in a death arena game or simply the story about a couple who had to travel from their hometown to a nearby city and while they were there they had their child.

The reason for this desire is simple. We relate to them. These stories all have a human element to them, one we can relate to. And that human element is what make stories great. We understand Luke’s quest for bringing his father to the Light side, we feel Katniss’ terror when her sister’s number comes up and the humble beginnings of Jesus’ life.

All good roleplaying stories have that human element. All good roleplaying stories are more than a tool to move players from one encounter to the next. They help us feel what our characters feel and make it easier for us to invest and immerse ourselves in the story.

And that is what make roleplaying games, whether they’re called D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire or whatever system you’re using for your game, stand out.

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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn has for long sailed the Astral Sea, eager to broadcast his heretical gospel to the uninitiated.
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