23 May 2015

Story versus Action

I was unable to post an entry last week. I apologise. It has been a crazy spring season. Although it's not technically summer yet, my 'summer season' began today, so I expect fewer obstacles for a while.

Today, I want to talk about an exchange I had on Tuesday. I was at the weekly meeting of the local board game club, when two young men walked into the building and said that they were hoping to get to attend, but would need to ensure that they had a ride home. I offered my services. So they stayed, and games were played by everyone present, and at the end of the night, I ferryed them to their residence.

As we were driving, we the conversation turned to role-playing games. They asked me if I had ever played Dungeons and Dragons. I informed them that yes, I had, but that I was not a fan of the game, because it emphasised hack-and-slash over storytelling. They attempted to defend their beloved game, saying the usual things like 'It's not the game that determines the story's structure, it's the GM,' and 'We've played in games that have great stories.'

Which is true, to an extent, but what they don't seem to notice is that the game's mechanics have a distinct effect on the types of stories being told. I've talked about this before, but only in passing.

Don't get me wrong. There's a place for hack-and-slash gaming. Some players prefer it, and despise elements such as characterisation and emotional realism getting in the way of vicarious violence. That's fine! If you prefer that style of play, then more power to you!

However, not all players are drawn to that style of gaming. I am an example; I've mentioned many times here that I am a storyteller player type. For me, the draw of RPGs is directly linked to the personalities of the characters, the interactions between them, their emotional involvement with each other and their environment, the events that happen between combats.

Combat is nice, and in most cases, essential to the game. But it's not the only thing that makes the game interesting. I don't care how many XP I gain by killing monsters.

And that's one area in which a game can have a significant impact on the types of campaigns being run: experience.
  • In D&D, you gain a certain amount of XP for each monster you defeat, and also for the treasure you collect. I haven't played 4th or 5th editions, so I don't know if that's changed, and I am aware that many groups use house rules to enable XP accrual for other activities as well, but that's the main source. And if that's the way that players earn XP, that's what they're going to focus on doing.
  • In the original World of Darkness (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, etc), you gain experience for a short list of possible criteria: did you learn something? Did you play in character? Did you roleplay in an entertaining way? Did you display heroism? Were you successful in your mission? Did you overcome challenges and obstacles in your story?
  • In the original Call of Cthulhu, there were no experience points at all. Instead, for each skill you used in the course of a game session, you rolled that skill, and if the roll fails, you gain one point in that skill.
These are just a couple of examples. There are many many more systems out there.

But it's not just the experience system that affects a game's tone. The mechanics have a lot to do with it as well. For example, in D&D, the vast majority of the rules (including spell casting) focus on things that you can do in combat. There are not a lot of rules for events such as seduction. Usually, when such occurrences do arise, they toss a single skill roll at it and consider it good.

GURPS has a lot more rules covering non-combat situations like seduction, sex appeal, performing arts, and so forth. The Storyteller System was perhaps the best of the mainstream games to tackle such non-standard scenarios.

All of these mechanics influence what gamers are capable of trying in a session, and resultantly, what they will try.

To sum up, let me describe a character I once tried to play. Some friends were playing D&D, and I was invited to join. I wanted to explore the limits of what was possible with this system, so I created a monk whose weapon proficiencies were all of a non-lethal variety, such as 'net' and 'lasso.' It was difficult to do, and although I only ended up playing in one session with this group, I had looked ahead to see what abilities I would pick up as I gained levels. Sadly, it soon became apparent that I would have quickly gained more weapon speciality slots than there were non-lethal weapons available to fill them.

In the end, the point I'm trying to make is that, while the GM and players do have a significant effect on the tone of the game being played, the game itself really focusses the sort of games that can be played using that system (and, more importantly, the stories being told). As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with playing whatever kind of game most appeals to you. To each his own. However, just be aware that different systems lend themselves to different play styles, and not all players will like specific games.

That's it for this week. I will see you again here in another week's time. Until then,

Game on!

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