But you aren't composing a novel or reading a script. (Not during an RPG session, anyway.)
This is a long blog post about pervasive mistakes and miscommunication in the debate about "storytelling" in RPGs.
"D&D is storytelling, so it needs a plot."
You can find plentiful resources on the internet today offering advice for Dungeon Masters on how to prepare a D&D campaign plot so the players will have a good story. Even though they are not the same thing, the words campaign and plot and story seem almost interchangeable in these discussions. The advice suggests that DMs begin by deciding how the campaign will end, typically with a "boss battle." You should devise a story arc before play. The DM is supposed to write a campaign before it happens. The advice can be personal or highly generic:
Devise your plot. [...] Plot can roughly be defined as the action that will occur no matter what the player characters do.
The models for these DM-devised campaigns seem to be official D&D campaign products in which all or most of the major events are pre-plotted in a sequence. Player characters who diverge from the plot will soon find themselves back on track, one way or another.
The advice to design a plot in advance is widespread, so I won't attempt to document it further. There is a good chance that anybody reading this will have encountered it already.
What matters here is that this advice is offered in the name of story-telling. The assumption seems to be that to create a story, you need a plot in advance. It's important for the entire entry here to understand that that is not true. The telling of a story does not assume the preexistence of its plot. People make stories up all the time, and that's a specialty of RPG players.
For what it's worth, in the '80s and '90s I ran a lot of commercially-produced adventures, and many of them were, in effect, plotted-out stories. Some were fun for us, some weren't. But I don't believe that story-telling requires a pre-planned plot. If you read enough of this, you'll find out why.
"No, it's not a story!"
You'll also hear other gamers today insisting in particularly spirited ways that playing D&D (or other role-playing games) is not telling a story! These are usually partisans of "old-school" gaming (a twenty-first-century movement). This advice seems to be catching on in broader circles. It's intended to contradict the advice for DMs to design a story in advance, which I just mentioned.
I'm calling these gamers "anti-story" gamers for short, not because they don't like stories, but because they say that role-playing games are not story telling. (They do this in slightly different ways, to be discussed.)
The "anti-story" gamers are a lot more interesting to me, as you'll see, than the ones who suggest we need to have a plot designed before we run our fantasy games.
I was going to give links to examples "anti-story" scolds, but, while some of them are playful in their admonitions not to tell stories, some of them are pretty unpleasant and hostile. You can easily find such well-meaning correctives and angry diatribes on your own. They come up a lot among the D&D YouTubers.
If you don't believe me that this is a widespread position, you can just go and search it up for yourself.
Okay, I will give one influential example of this, a nicely-delivered piece of advice, from fifteen years ago. This entry of the Alexandrian blog gives the advice not to prepare plots, but to prepare situations in your RPGs. Along the way, though, it says,
A plot is the sequence of events in a story.
And that's correct. But then it says,
Your gaming session is not a story — it is a happening.
And that's... misleading. Sure, gaming sessions are happenings. So are readings of novels and scripted plays. But all of these present stories, even though they do so in different ways. The Alexandrian writes further,
If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it’s far more efficient and effective to simply write a story.
Again, this is misleading. Plot-based design does entail telling a story, more or less, but story telling does not boil down to, or even require, plot-based design. And that's critical.
You can find a lot of other examples of this argument. What all the "anti-story" gamers have in common today is that they allowed other people to define the term "story" for them as "pre-designed plot," even though that's not what story means.
There are two main versions of the "anti-story" argument.
In one version, the argument is about the nature of RPGs. Are we playing a game, or telling a story? Apparently it can't be both, so we have to decide that it's one or the other. The answer, therefore, seems easy: We roll dice to determine the outcomes of critical junctures and we have game rules. Therefore, we are playing a game, and since a game can't be anything else, you're not telling a story.
A factor that animates this version of the "anti-story" argument is that some players have publicly whined that bad stuff happened to their characters in RPGs. "This is supposed to be collaborative storytelling!" the player objects. "I can't die just like that! Don't I have agency in telling my own character's story?" The issue here is not about story telling, though. It's about the nature of collaboration in play, and the relative authority in the game of the DM and the players. But the grumpy "anti-story" gamers take the bait. Instead of saying, "It's more fun for us if the game is risky and uncertain, and we rely on the GM to be an impartial referee, and we like to know that the player characters really could even die," they say instead, "Dang it, this is a game! You aren't supposed to be telling stories!" That's both an irrelevant and an incorrect response, because all RPG players are telling stories. The complaint is about the nature of the collaboration.
In the other version, the focus is on the GM. "The Gamemaster is not a story teller!" The real meaning is that the GM should not assume total executive control over the course of events represented in the game, but should let the players' choices and impartial dice rolls dictate the course of events (within the elaborate constraints of genre, setting, scenario, and rules). As it's articulated, then, this position is an exaggeration. Every gamer has heard GMs narrating sequences of events, so, as a matter of fact, GMs do tell stories in the game sessions. Many of them do it spontaneously, without a plot. They narrate events in sequence. The quibble is actually directed against the generic gamer advice I mentioned at the outset, which says a campaign should be pre-plotted. These "anti-story" gamers say it shouldn't be pre-plotted.
You can probably already see that neither version of the "anti-story" argument is saying directly what they intend. They have, apparently unwittingly, accepted the false idea that RPGs would need plots designed in advance to have stories in a story-telling game. Their objections are therefore confusing for many people who are aware that they experience stories arising spontaneously in RPGs. Such players are evidently put off when told they're not doing what they know they are doing or that they shouldn't be doing that. They have been quite sure they are telling stories in social, collaborative ways when they play RPGs. They experience stories as they are presented on the spot through their own shared participation.
For all the people giving the arguments and advice outlined so far, story doesn't mean just "story," but it's a shorthand for pre-designed, pre-planned plot. This holds for both the people who recommend that DMs plan a plot and also for those who follow either version of the "anti-story" argument.
Both "anti-story" groups recognize the limitations of their objections, because every time that I've heard or read either version, the argument is accompanied by immediate explanatory hedging. It always goes something like this: "Well, a story does come out of playing RPGs, but that's not what it's for or what it's inherently supposed to do," or, "Well, stories emerge from play anyway, but only after the fact, because it's not pre-planned," and words like these. Story, they allege, is not the play itself but it is "emergent." In other words, both groups immediately concede that RPGs do make stories... so, in fact, both groups see stories as a byproduct of the game. But they definitely don't want you to think you are a story teller. That would mean plotting everything ahead of time, or letting players off the hook when they make unwise or non-strategic choices. So they split hairs about what story is in this way, and paint themselves into a corner.
Before you get into arguments about these things, you should notice the distinction between the two versions of the "anti-story" take. They are different claims. One is about the nature of RPGs, sometimes surreptitiously hinging on preferences about GM authority. The other is about the role of the GM. People talking about "storytelling" in RPGs confuse the two all the time (whether they want to say RPGs involve story telling or not), so one argument seems to support the other. But they are different.
Most of the remainder of this blog entry is about what scholars say "story" is, and how and why all these misleading arguments about "story" came about, and how they are misleading. In particular, I'm interested in how the "anti-story" people have made a mistake in a seemingly minor but actually important way that undermines what they are really trying to achieve.
For the moment, though, I'll just make my basic argument. I consider it obvious that RPGs are social activities that do a lot of things simultaneously, not just one thing. This is a trivial concept to grasp, but it seems that it must be said because some people appear to deny it. In doing more than one thing at once, RPGs are like other activities, including other kinds of games. One of the most salient things that RPGs do, for players actively playing, is spontaneously to present new stories in unexpected ways in play. That play is mostly conversation, or "telling." That is, the core activity of RPGs is, in fact, quite literally, a peculiar form of story telling. It's not sole-authored story telling because there are usually multiple participants, as well as specific constraints that make it collaborative and also make it a game. For the same reason, it need not be pre-plotted. And also for that very same reason, pre-plotting by one participant (the GM) can generate friction with the other participants. Nevertheless, RPGs are story-telling games by any reasonable, ordinary sense of those words. How we distribute authority in decisions about the story's outcomes is the point of contention.
Let me be clear that I'm not arguing against a play-style here. It's not that the preferences of the "anti-story" game theorists are wrong. In fact, I want the same kinds of games that they want. I'm in their play style camp, and that's partly why I want them to get this right.
I think they mean, essentially, that the GM shouldn't try to be a novelist.
When I run games as a referee, I'm collaborating in story telling, but I'm not a novelist, writing a sole-authored long work of prose about special characters who experience things more or less just as I planned it. I'm not doing what Stephen King or J.K. Rowling do. I'm not handing out scripts for a staged reading of something I already wrote. I think that even pre-plotted RPG sessions don't work like that, in fact. But I also don't design specific plots in advance and I don't control the sequence of events by myself. I prepare and present situations giving rise to conflict and I describe mysterious, dangerous locations for the PCs to interact with. Today, more than when I played as a youth, I use different devices to randomize situations and events: more impersonal procedures for dice, cards, and tables of random things that, once determined, immediately enter our shared narrative. The players explain to the group what their characters do in their changing circumstances. They explore. They investigate. They seek conflict or avoid it. They face moral quandaries. They try to accomplish goals that they themselves decide. I genuinely have no specific idea about what the players will choose or what the dice will dictate, so what happens in the game surprises me every single time. I can't even predict the ending. For me, the unpredictability is most of why I have a lot of fun with these games.
You can call my method of GMing "trad" or something like that, even though I think the term "trad" is a historical mistake to apply, another sloppy and misleading label (like "old-school"). But that isn't important here. What I want to mention is that there are other ways of managing RPGs that are not the way I do things usually (though I've tried some of the other ways). There are RPGs people play all by themselves: solo games. There are RPGs without a GM or referee, in which all the participants collaborate in crafting a tale within a world with nobody "in charge." There are RPGs in which the role of GM rotates. Examples of all of these go back to RPGs in the 1970s, more noticeable in the '80s. There are also other variations. I'm not talking about those games here, even though I think they all entail story telling, too.
Unfortunately, the "anti-story" game theorists haven't thought enough about what story is or what story telling is. They simply heard the advice of the other gamers who said, "If we are storytelling, then we need a plot," and then countered them saying, "No, we don't do that; we don't write plots in advance, so we must not be story telling." That's missing the point. They should have answered, "No, story telling doesn't require a pre-planned plot." Insisting that RPGs are "not (about) story/story telling" is a losing argument, even though I like their kind of fun. I wish they would get it right.
I can already hear "anti-story" gamers protesting: "That's not what we meant when
we said RPGs aren't story telling and that GMs aren't story-tellers!" If you are thinking that, then I say you should say what you mean. You don't need to accept the terms of the pre-plotters.
There's one thing that everybody agrees
about that always gets drawn into the discussion. Let's cover this
common ground. Everybody knows that we can also re-present the stories
presented spontaneously through RPGs afterwards through verbal retelling.
I'd bet most of you readers have stumbled on play reports or heard
other gamers regaling you with tales of that time they rolled a critical
hit and narrated its memorable effects. This is something the "anti-story" people
like to bring up when they hedge on their claims. They say that
story is what happens when the game session is over: you can narrate what happened, after it has been determined. While that is true (and nobody ever argued that you can't tell people what happened), it is not the whole account. The story is first presented, and I'd say devised, during the game, spontaneously. The feeling of discovering a
story that didn't exist before, a tale without a sole mastermind, while
immersed in the roles of the main characters, is a big part of the fun
of RPGs. That's not after the fact. The story is immanent in play.
This is demonstrated by the popularity of actual play recordings. The audience of recorded game sessions witness a story unfolding through live play, not merely in the retelling after the fact (though they enjoy that, too). There would be no audience if story narration was not immanent in play. If RPG play didn't entail presenting a story spontaneously, nobody would watch it as a non-participant. Me, I have not enjoyed watching "actual plays" of RPGs, but it is evident that a lot of people do enjoy them and the suspense they convey as a narrative medium. When I was at university, one of my groups had a friend who simply enjoyed watching us as we played in four-hour sessions, sitting near our table in one of the university buildings. He observed us for some months before he gave in to my invitation to join as a player. If the story only emerged after the game, what was he watching all that time? It wasn't the way our hands moved when we rolled dice that fascinated him. It was the story he witnessed being told collaboratively on the spot.
And... well, if you're still reading, you already got my point. You could just stop reading here.
If you want to read about some of the historical background to this debate, though, read on. And if you want to read what professional scholars who study narrative have to say about this, some of that is below, too. Also there's a bit about "railroading."
Story is narrative and vice versa
To me, as a returnee to games after a
long period of not playing, the emotional and political charge about
story telling is bizarre. Once upon a time, it was normal to talk about story telling in RPGs. It
was automatic and uncontroversial to recognize, "Hey, these cool new RPGs create stories!" When
the debate about whether RPGs are or include story telling shows up now,
however, I see that it's often haunted by the ghosts of the late '90s
and early '00s, when tribes of gamers found each other on the internet
and waged internet wars publicly for the first time. But before going into the older historical baggage, let's talk about definitions.
There are thousands of professional
scholars in the world whose job it is to understand and explain literature, film,
visual arts, and other products of culture who take narrative as
their special object. These are not bullshitters. They are not "mere
academics." As a PhD-holder and a professor in the humanities who must analyze texts every day in my research and teaching, I know such people, and they are all intelligent and
typically quite proficient at the analysis of narrative. The most
devoted to studying narrative specifically are called narratologists.
If you want to know some of the basic things they say, I suggest reading H. Porter Abbott's book, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative
(3rd ed. 2020). It's quite good and, despite the name Cambridge in the
title, accessible for readers without prior background. It does assume you've read some novels. This Introduction conveys
the basics that most scholars agree about when it comes to narrative,
and explains some of the big issues about which they disagree. It uses a lot of examples, which I find helpful.
As Abbott explains (p. 12), "narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events." This is the part that the Alexandrian blog, cited above, gets right. Notice that narrative is not defined as one person relating events in sequential words. Narrative can take all kinds of forms. Narratives can be conveyed through movement, for example. Ballet is a perfect illustration. The same goes for comics and other kinds of visual media: it doesn't have to be prose fiction to narrate a story. Story telling has never meant solely literary story telling.
Narratives are, basically, stories. Some ambiguity about the term story comes from plain English usage. "Most speakers of English grow up using story to mean what we are referring to here as narrative" (Abbott p. 17).
Note, however, that scholars who specialize in narrative make a nice distinction: story is the sequence of the events narrated, but the narrative discourse is the story as represented. You can tell the same story twice in different moods, manners, or styles: different narrative discourses. You can tell a story in a funny voice or a sad voice, and that will change the meaning. You can tell the same story through different media, for example: dance, epic poetry, hip hop... and, yes, games.
By these basic, introductory considerations alone ("narrative, colloquially known as story, is the representation of
an event or a series of events"), we can see immediately that playing
RPGs is a form of narration, or, in non-scholarly terms, story telling,
through a peculiar kind of narrative discourse involving several
creative participants who collaborate in the story telling. This kind of
narration is regulated (has rules), requiring the consultation of dice (usually), which provide numerical outputs that are immediately interpreted as narrative,
but that doesn't make it less narrative. The collaboration and
randomization is part of the fun, because nobody is sure what will
happen. Nobody can predict exactly what will be said or how the dice
will fall. Nevertheless all the actions taken during play present a
narrative, a story.
RPGs are a form of narrative discourse that, through play, present a series of events about entities including characters. So, again: a kind of story telling.
Note that I'm not saying that RPGs are only
a narrative discourse. To drive the point home: they are also commercial products, they are also the
subjects of lore and analysis, they are also social activities... and many
other things besides. Compare football (any variety). Football is not
just two teams strenuously competing over the transport of a rubbery ball to opposite ends of a green field, with rules. There is
a fan culture, there are politics, there is commercial buy-in, people
build identities around favorite teams, and so on. RPGs are
many things at once, too, including story telling.
In fact, a lot of games besides role-playing games tell stories, too. The game of chess tells a story: two equivalent armies with equivalent constraints are at war, each seeking to capture the other's king, who is protected by court officials, officers, and foot-soldiers. Although most of the attention devoted to chess is about the technicalities of complex chess strategy, the goal of the game is expressed in terms of story. How much more so for role-playing games!
Do scholars who specialize in narrative say, along with me, that D&D is story telling? I think they mostly don't know enough to say, and the ones who know are not concerned with fairly trivial games. Abbott, the senior narratologist whose book I've been referring to, acknowledges that there are "gamers" (a term he puts in quotation marks, holding them at arm's length) who play RPGs, who make a kind of hybrid narrative, but he lumps computer- and text-based RPGs together with table-top RPGs, and he relies on what gamers have reported to him. I don't think he's ever played a tabletop RPG. In his attempt to explain this reported, strange phenomenon, he resorts, quite tentatively, to the obscure jargon invented by textual theorist Espen Aarseth in the book Cybertext, from 1998, to suggest that we might see RPGs as "ergodic actions" rather than straightforward stories. The idea of the "ergodic" text (an expression I don't endorse) is that it's a kind of text for which you have to make "nontrivial effort" (work, the erg- part of the neologism) to go through the narrative, like the I Ching or hyperlinked texts (!?). The problem here is that Aarseth's analysis was about text-based media, not table-top role-playing games which are mostly performed spontaneously, not read. Specialists in the analysis of written literary narrative are apparently not very good (yet) at analyzing the narrative presented by RPG practice, and that's not a surprise, considering that it's a different medium and a different narrative discourse. Abbott, who has to say "gamers tell me" that the fun of theater improv has something in common with the fun of RPGs (p. 109), seems stumped by the narrative effect of simultaneous flipping of frames of reference in RPGs, from the player to the imaginary character, from the real world to the fantasy world. We can forgive Abbott, who is a specialist in written narrative fiction, and a very good one at that, and not a gamer. We can steer clear of Cybertext's dead end for tabletop RPGs. As it happens, most actual game theorists seem to accept that story telling is inherent in RPGs of all kinds. For many examples, browse the book Role-Playing Game Studies (2018) edited by Zagal and Deterding. At the core of their analysis of story telling in RPGs, the scholars contributing to this volume are citing gamers who say they're telling stories. Go figure.
About pre-plotting, even that has limits. Although
people who write novels and create other kinds of narrative may have
planned some of them in advance, it is a fact that not all novels' plots
are pre-planned. Some novelists, like Dostoevsky, have written their
novels (telling stories) without a plan at all after a certain point.
They feel as if the stories are telling themselves through them. Not just novelists: some
story tellers invent stories on the spot without a plan. Sometimes their
stories are shaped by audience responses. A
narrator may change directions because of the audience's reactions.
Sometimes narrations are retellings of stories they know, but the
retelling differs each time, with varying plots.
In the end, we don't really need scholars to know that RPGs are, among other things, spontaneous, collaborative story telling. Really, folks, it should be obvious, once you acknowledge that pre-plotting is not a necessary basis for telling a story, given the rules of RPGs and the distribution of contributions between participants.
Gary Gygax knew what I'm saying. In his post-TSR book Advanced Game Mastery (1987), using his typical overly-complicated prose, he wrote (p. 54).
The campaign is constantly undergoing modification through game master and player interaction. When the principal characters in a story (the campaign) are free-willed and have a multitude of choices regarding how to proceed, it is counterproductive -- and, in fact, impossible -- to preordain just how the events in the campaign will unfold.
In plainer English, Gygax was stating the obvious, that campaigns are stories, and advising that pre-plotting of those stories/campaigns was counterproductive. Counterproductive to what? He doesn't say, but I think he meant counterproductive to enjoyment by the whole group.
Historical baggage (lots of it)
"Sometimes I forget that D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I'm reading or a movie I'm watching." --Tom Moldvay, December 3, 1980, Foreword to his D&D Basic Set
The idea that RPGs are specifically not story telling at all, or that the GM, at least, is not a story-teller, seems to go back to the late '90s. I'll bet you could find some earlier examples, but they weren't normal previously because it wasn't a big issue. And it wasn't an issue because the argument that you aren't telling stories was a reaction against an earlier trend.
That earlier trend was not just to recognize the obvious fact that RPGs like D&D were specifically a new form of story telling, a new kind of narrative-making art. It went further to apply that insight by taking features from the analysis of stories in other narrative modes and other contexts, such as novels and mythology, and importing those features into planning RPG sessions and campaigns to heighten the experience. Acknowledging that this was story telling was meant to improve your game.
This sentiment was embedded in many RPG game products, meaning explicitly in the texts, already in the 1980s, but became particularly prominent throughout the late '80s and '90s.
You can just read about the roots of this kind of thing in Jon Peterson's book The Elusive Shift. (My review of it here.) Peterson describes the questions of mature gamers in the '70s about the new kind of game (p. 218):
Was fantasy role playing a ritual, or a psychodrama, or a teaching tool, or an art form, or just a game?
Players today may find it hard to believe that people were asking those questions within six years of the appearance of D&D in 1974. But, yes, some gamers felt profound experiences through their RPGs, whether by deep immersion in characters leading to powerful emotions or through well-developed tales and epics that achieved sublime beauty as they unfolded. Some gamer nerds learned truths about themselves through immersive play. They wanted these kinds of meaningfulness and artfulness to elevate the whole hobby. Could that kind of experience be engineered? Gamers looked to other media, especially written fiction and analysis of fiction, for inspiration and guidance. How could they go deeper?
This should be understood in the context of widespread stigmatization of the hobby that grew in the late '70s and stayed throughout the '80s and beyond. The strength of the stigma associated with RPGs early in the hobby is something that younger gamers today seem not to recognize. The stigma on RPGs had powerful ramifications for the evolution of the hobby and for the demography of gamers. RPGs were in those days regarded generally as a suspicious, deviant activity. Some thought they were harmful or even counter to religion (see, e.g., here; yes, I had this up well before Stranger Things included it). Because of these associations, RPGs were something people were much more embarrassed to admit publicly to playing then than they are now. Gamers who wanted RPGs to be considered as an art hoped, implicitly, that elevating the meaning of RPGs to a profound new kind of story telling might endow the stigmatized hobby with dignity, and that sharing those intentions would win other RPG players into the ranks of the experimental artists. RPGs might even be therapeutic. But, again, how to achieve that?
At the same time, many gamers were bored of the dungeon-crawling formulae, sick of "hack-and-slash" games (as they were widely known then), tired of power-tripping at high levels with vorpal swords. If you look into the game literature of this time, you will find many examples. They wanted to discover ways of adding depth and maturity to their favorite pastime. If you could study Lovecraft to find patterns and techniques that would enhance your Call of Cthulhu game and make your players really scared, if the Deities and Demigods tome prompted players to hit the library for books on comparative mythology, if studying AD&D's Appendix N (Gary Gygax's bibliography of fantasy fiction) was a path to inspiration through the study of stories, why shouldn't the games themselves aim for the same kind of joy or even sophistication? The "Forward" (sic) of the first D&D book, in 1974, encourages players to take inspiration from the literary fiction of Borroughs, de Camp, Pratt, and Leiber, and the game is filled with obvious nods to Tolkien's fantasy. What could Gygax's game be about, with its explicit references to literary narrative, if not story telling, and living the story for yourself? And that's what Gygax said it was: a game in which you become a hero.
Some of the earliest D&D players explicitly stated that the game was designed to tell stories. It was obvious to them. They said they were bored of the game if there was no story. Dave Arneson, the other original author of D&D, said in 2009 (just before his death) that the heart of a good game is story, that it "can make or break" a game.
They wanted to enhance the effect of their games. For example, in August 1980, an article by Douglas Bachmann appeared in Dragon magazine (#40)
about adopting Joseph Campbell's structuralist analysis of "the hero's
journey" for fantasy role-playing game scenarios. (Peterson also discusses this article.) If it had (apparently) worked for
George Lucas twice in a row by that time, why not for D&D? Maybe there were powerful models or plans for a game that would be more effective for the players' enjoyment. Maybe there were more effective plots that could be extracted from other media and deployed in your game.
If you have read blogs about how to make your RPG sessions more fun, then you have done the very same kinds of things these gamers were doing. They were looking for techniques to enhance their games.
In the fantasy subculture of the late '70s and early '80s, the period selectively idealized by "old-school" RPG agenda today, the concept of story telling was part of a utopian ideal in which fantasy could help participants to feel connected with a pre-modern, kinda-medieval world (part of the complex now called medievalism by scholars today) which was somehow more authentic than our world in its preindustrial honest simplicity inflected by magic and wonder. Story-telling games might turn out to be a primal art making fantasy more than mere daydreams. Participatory medievalism might unlock the birthright of all people, opening a way to be connected with universal human myths, feelings shared in a collective unconscious! Although I exaggerate, some RPG theorists really did wax optimistic in these ways about a new form of art.
Although some gamers saw D&D and other early RPGs as story-telling tools right from the start, in the 1980s story telling became an explicit priority for some game designers who thought that they could elevate the sophistication and meaningfulness of their role-playing games by taking lessons from the study of myth and literature. They wanted more grown-up games, more moving games, games that might reveal something profound. Sometimes they did create more sophisticated tales.
I would love to give dozens if not hundreds of examples of this kind of thing, but this article is already very long. Another effort would be needed to document the rise of the "story telling" agenda in RPGs. Frankly, probably nobody would care, either, so I'll keep myself to just two that I think are especially interesting.
Example. The innovative game Ars Magica (1e 1987, revised 2e 1989), by Mark Rein-Hagen and Jonathan Tweet, was built explicitly on the idea that RPGs are a new kind of "storytelling." I think of the early Ars Magica "Jump Start Kit" called The Stormrider (1989), which I owned but never ran (despite my participation in two separate Ars Magica 2e campaigns with two different groups). The Stormrider is an early example of a non-D&D module designed to teach GMs and players alike how to play a new game. From the first page, we are told that the Storyguide (the name here for the GM) has to learn the "art" of "guid[ing] a group of role-players through a story." The first tools the Storyguide needs are a Plot Synopsis (i.e., it's all pre-plotted, folks) and instructions on the Theme of the adventure (a literary concern). Here, the theme is "the question of what rage is. It deals with the futility of anger..." Ten years before, Gary Gygax was advising DMs how to act out the part of monsters, funny noises and all, and to bring the fantasy to life. The Ars Magica guys wanted to go to what they saw as the next level. They'd been to college and taken courses on literary analysis. A story needed a theme that has a message. A story needed a coherent plot. Players need to be guided through this by a skilled artist. At the end of The Stormrider, the authors tell the reader, "We hope you enjoyed reading our story as much as we enjoyed writing it -- for us it was a completely different kind of adventure." That is, they hoped their story-telling concerns would pay off with a more profound and meaningful game. No more of that D&D hack-and-slash!
It's worth noting that Mark Rein-Hagen went on to design Vampire: The Masquerade, the basis of the soon-widespread "storyteller system," basically just another rule system but with rhetoric, often seen as pretentious, about activating storytelling agenda more. Jonathan Tweet later designed some truly innovative games, but had the biggest impact in co-designing D&D 3e. The Dungeonmaster's Guide 3e introduces a spectrum of play-styles with "Kick in the door" at one end and "Deep immersion storytelling" at the other. Subsequent editions of D&D (4e and 5e) both would retain language about "storytelling games," teaching the idea that they are storytellers to the biggest demographic band of fantasy gamers today.
Another example. It wasn't just small game companies like Lion Rampant in the '80s and '90s that were explicitly creating story-telling agenda. TSR was all in, too. Jaquays and Connors wrote TSR's Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide for AD&D 2e, published in 1990. Full of advice on creating dungeons and developing your DM techniques, it provides an overview of different "play styles." One of those is "Novel Style Play," in which the DM has plotted everything in advance like a novel. "The danger with this style," the authors write, "is that the DM may be tempted to manipulate the players in favor of a better story (or the DM's predetermined outcome)." Wise. But while trying to warn DMs off from pre-plotted campaigns in the mode of a novel, it gives explicit advice for DMs to hone their "storytelling skills," dealing with topics like improvisation, pace, foreshadowing, theatrics, and mood.
A DM's goal as storyteller and game moderator should be to consistently give his players wondrous, dazzling, and above all, thrilling adventures. (p. 17)
If the DM can imagine his adventure as a story, then he should continue the analogy and make each play session into a chapter of that story. (p. 20)
When people use "gamespeak,"
The DM forgets that he is a storyteller and becomes a rules judge. (p. 28)
There is a lot more of this in the book. This was quite typical of RPG products in the '80s and '90s. The cutting-edge effort was to elevate your game into an art form. The craft of the story teller was studied for techniques.
Those two examples alone should make it clear that the proponents of artful storytelling had a mixed basket of goals. They all wanted more fun and meaningful games. Their advice ranged from how to do voices to pacing and timing to designing end-goals for campaigns to writing plots in advance. This is simply better-developed versions of the advice given in '70s role-playing games, devised with the benefit of another decade of game experience. Remember, it was Gary Gygax who advised DMs and players to be "artful thespians" who would become their characters. The story-telling agenda were merely pushing that sentiment further.
One negative aspect of this push for narrative sophistication is that explicit artistic manifestos (rather than just making art) can turn into pretentious nonsense. Claims to tap into something profound through a seemingly nerdy, socially deviant game about imaginary battles easily appear maudlin. As public sarcasm and automatic cynicism, once considered simply rude, became widespread cultural norms, sincere sentiments about deep self-expression took a beating. Sometimes the effort to enhance the psychological profundity of role-playing games through story telling methods were delivered with thick snobbery, looking down on mere "hack-and-slash" games that lacked deeper meaning. Meaningful games with swollen hearts and moral lessons in your face would distinguish sophisticated artistes from the munchkins and power-gamers.
This was part of the bigger context I've described above. And who am I to say that RPGs can't work psychological wonders? I've participated in some seriously profound and sublime games, and if you haven't, you may be skeptical, but you may also be missing out. Still, explicit efforts to engineer life-changing experiences through RPGs as a story telling art could backfire. Not only are the efforts sometimes hollow, but trying too hard may undermine the outcome because the substance isn't there. Just look at how Vampire: The Masquerade (1991), explicitly a "storytelling game" (that I both GMed and played in when it came out), eventually aroused heated backlash for being a just another game about power-tripping--here as an edgy nocturnal superhero trapped in a convoluted story arc, sold in supplement after supplement, about still more powerful nocturnal superheroes--while posing as deep storytelling.
But the snobbery went both ways. It still does. Some gamers see themselves as hard core. They'd never give in to pansy "story telling" and mushy feelings. And they cringe when they see total nerds like themselves getting too into their roles. The question then is, which nerds will out-snob the others?
The idea that RPGs were a form of story telling emerged out of all this background. The backlash came when the telling of stories became explicit, pretentious, admonitory agenda tied to the advocacy of pre-fabricated plots, even though story does not necessitate pre-fabricated plots.
There's a lot more to say about this, and the waves of online flame wars in web fora between then and now... but I'll stop with the historical stuff. You can dig into that for yourself, if you want to ruin your day.
Don't blame Dragonlance. It was Gary.
Well, one more historical thing.
Some of the "old-school" gamers who pose as purists and decry commercially produced adventures that have pre-planned plots blame the Dragonlance modules,
beginning in 1984, for introducing this trend. Although this argument is common, it is also factually wrong. There
are plenty of older examples of pre-planned plots in adventures and campaigns that came with pre-generated characters. Just look at Gary Gygax's
famous six-module series: "Against the Giants" G1-G2-G3 > "Descent into the Depths of the Earth" D1-D2 > "Queen of the Demonweb Pits" Q1,
published from 1978 to 1980. These modules, intended to be played in sequence, are considered classics, but
they are basically (mostly, not entirely) a pre-programmed story path culminating at the end of
each chapter, or module, with a boss battle.
A lot of the
old guys who light incense in honor of Gary Gygax today and
boast about their old-school open-ended "sandbox" games used to be
munchkins who dreamed of a campaign going through all six of those
Gygax in glorious order, or making it through
all four of the "Slave Lords"
modules, A1-A2-A3-A4 (by various old-time TSR authors). Those grognards
used to love prescribed stories for high-level characters when they were kids, but today, those classics don't get as
much fond reminiscence as modules like B1, B2, X1, T1, and other more obviously
open-ended modules based on locations not plots for low-level adventurers.
Note that the TSR modules that Gygax and company wrote, which introduced a "plot" in the form of a sequence of pre-planned combat encounters, began as tournament modules, one-shots linked together in a story arc after the fact so that they could be sold together. As tournament modules, they were originally supposed to provide a sufficiently uniform experience so that groups of players, and individual players, at a gaming convention could be ranked against each other. Solidly in the tradition of wargaming, you could have winners and losers at D&D. That was, for a time, one of Gygax's explicit goals for D&D. It was one of the motivations for his publication of AD&D as a rule system intended not to need house rules.
When TSR and other game companies learned that gamers would gladly buy their pre-packaged, sloppy pamphlets with maps and cool art, rather than use the official rules provided to make their own settings and worlds and dungeons and wildernesses, they found a hobby full of consumers ready to purchase homogenized experiences. Gamers comprised a market eager for prescription and pre-planned fantasy plots. They still do.
What about railroading?
Adding to the confusion of pre-plotting with story telling, pre-plotted adventures are often called "railroads," a term of derogation, but their usage here is imprecise, too. As we have been reminded recently, railroading is best understood as a technique: invalidating player choices. (The term has a history, further here.)
Railroading is different from a linear adventure structure or a linear plot. You may dislike both, but let's keep the distinction.
As seen, what the "anti-story" people are objecting to is not just railroading but also pre-plotted adventures in which events are going to happen in a certain order and a certain way regardless of player character actions and without adequate choices on their part to contribute to the outcome.
Pre-plotted adventures do potentially encourage GMs to use railroading because that will keep the PCs in their prefabricated plots. (This is what Connors and Jaquays wrote, cited above.) For this reason, pre-plotted adventures and railroading may easily occur together. That's why they get confused with each other. Still, it's important to distinguish the two. They are different things. Railroading is a technique for invalidating player choices. It's overriding player choices. Pre-plotting is a plan to ensure that specific events happen in order, a linear adventure model with no branches, regardless of player choices. You can see how easy it is to confuse the two, but also how they are different.
Actually, the "anti-story" gamers love pre-plotting, provided it's of a specific kind.
At a basic level, the "anti-story" gamers are really not that different from those who insist that RPGs tell stories. If you are an "anti-story" gamer (and I'm not saying you are, reader at this moment), arguing that RPGs are not story telling, the chances are nevertheless good that you get excited talking about genre emulation. Maybe it's about the essence of sword & sorcery somewhere between Conan and Elric. Maybe you get worked up about what counts as pulp fantasy versus high fantasy. If you are trying to emulate Indian epic or the weird world of Nehwon or the ineffable wonder of Arthurian miracles, or just excited about gonzo whimsy, you too are getting off on important literary story material that serves as a template for your fantasies. It's absurd for "anti-story" gamers to strive for literary emulation, copying as many elements of published fiction as is feasible, while insisting that they're not telling stories. You would never emulate a literary genre in a role-playing game if you did not have specific narrative goals.
In fact, all gamers truly want a specific kind of pre-plotted adventure. They just don't want the details to be defined. What I mean is that the premise of almost every role-playing game includes a masterplot (see Abbott, pp. 52-56), a predefined story pattern that will recur in innumerable variations that are all structurally more or less the same. Gamers love this stuff:
A band of unique individuals, adventurers whose abilities are mutually complementary, each filling one of a handful of genre-determined character types, will explore underground tunnels and chambers to defeat or circumvent deadly traps and monsters, capture treasures behind these threats, and return alive richer and more powerful than they were before. Each successful expedition furthermore results in their accumulation of more personal power within their respective specialized type of abilities.
A band of unique individuals, adventurers whose abilities are mutually complementary, each filling one of a handful of genre-determined character types, will respond to occult threats that they alone recognize, while people in general are unaware of the secret dangers lurking just beyond their ordinary awareness. Each successful investigation can save people from a new and specific horrific threat, for which the heroes, whose nerves are progressively frayed, never receive public recognition.
These are plots determined beforehand in skeleton form. They are pre-determined masterplots. Nobody is objecting to them, not even the guys who say, "Your game shouldn't have a plot!"
All gamers like
such masterplots. Such pre-plotted story patterns allow them to play together because they represent shared expectations. We agree to this much together before playing. "This game is about [i.e. creates a shared fantasy narrative about] [state the masterplot]." We agree to this so we can make sense of characters according to stock types and events according to common expectations. To this extent, it is obvious that gamers, even the ones who claim that RPGs are not story telling, want stories. They need stories. That is why they play. If they just wanted to play games that had no story telling, they'd play football or parcheesi. (Even then, people find ways to make stories out of those games.)
What the "anti-story" people really want, however, is for players to make a difference in their stories through their own choices. That is their real point, and it's a valid one. They want something loosely pre-plotted, pre-packaged in a general way. They want images that inspire them to imagine the stories in this game as the designer commissioned them. They want modules written for them and packaged for them neatly with everything set up, and if it's not set up just to their tastes, they will be annoyed. But they also like the specifics and the details of the generic tale to be different each time, to be unknown beforehand, and for themselves to play a role in deciding the outcomes of events narrated. They want the same story template to be refreshed again and again through the collective effect of their interactions in imaginary stock-type roles. They want to be surprised within the confines of the masterplot and genre. They want uncertainty within a known and pre-plotted framework. Uncertainty about how the narrative will go creates suspense. Suspense is a fun feeling when it carries no real-world risk. They're trying to have fun in this specific way.
RPG players want uncertainty of different kinds. (Read Costikyan's excellent little book Uncertainty in Games, from 2015.) They want the uncertainty of the imaginary fantasy world that they can't see but discover through play. They want there to be a hidden map with keyed contents, a location to explore planned before the adventure. This creates suspense culminating in surprises. Gamers love surprises within the confines of a well-defined genre. The pre-planning of a site for exploration or investigation is a guarantee of realness, a "hard setting" that is "real" even if players don't explore all of it. (E.g., this idea.) A prepared site is a promise that the referee is not manipulating the world's contents throughout, but it remains unknown to the players at the start.
Gamers want the uncertainty and suspense of gambling on randomly determined outcomes to risky actions, with odds based on predetermined figures and defined rules.
They want the uncertainty and suspense arising from social interactions between friends who are creating a shared fantasy spontaneously within the confines of predetermined rules and pre-planned masterplots. You never know for sure what the other players or the referee will say or do.
Along these lines, when players realize that they have no meaningful choices to make, their feeling of uncertainty and suspense diminishes. This takes away some of the fun for players. That's why they don't want complete and absolute pre-plotting.
Somehow or other, though, they got sloppy with their arguments. Instead of saying what they really wanted, they said they didn't want story telling. Not only that: some have even said that RPGs don't tell stories during play. That's just bizarre.
So, cranky gamers, say what you mean. You love stories, too. You love narration. You even love macro-level pre-plotting to the extent that it constitutes the genre of your games. But emergent stories are still stories as they happen. You are the audience and the participant simultaneously. That's the surprise of it. You come up with these stories in the telling, by performing them collaboratively. You like immersion in a suspenseful story as it happens. You present stories and then, after the fact, if they are worth it, you can re-present them in retelling if you want.
some GMs and game designers confused story telling with pre-designed
plotting, coming to a head in the '90s and '00s, the "anti-story" gamers have done exactly the same thing
in their protestation. In fact, people can narrate, or tell, stories spontaneously. They can tell stories as a group, with individuals contributing in different ways. That's part of the fun of RPGs. Why insist that it's not story telling? All you need to say instead is that you don't want everything scripted in advance, if that's what you mean. It's not hard. You can ignore anybody who says your games are not good if they lack pre-designed plots. If such people exist, they don't know what they are talking about. Tell them you're not writing a novel, with a pre-planned plot; you're telling a story spontaneously, together, a story in which you don't know what will happen because it's designed to be played as a game.