Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Story's The Thing

What's all this bogus crap about old school not being about stories? I hear it everywhere from grognards far and wide. So much so that it makes me think I, as a relative grognard myself, need to address the issue and perhaps offer a tiny bit of perspective.

All role-playing is about story. Meeting a barkeep, investigating a forgotten tomb, searching for a lost magic item, hunting down a rogue troll. Whatever the hook there's a story behind it. And in my opinion the story should be pretty damn compelling, otherwise why waste your time on it? I think the problem people have with story is certain types of game that contain a prewritten story by the GM the players are "forced" into. That the introduction, buildup, climax and resolution are all predetermined by the GM and the players are just assigned parts in the drama. This is not RPG story it's crap of course, as players have free will. The story should be generated by the players, but in my opinion the GM has more responsibility than simply playing a neutral narrator.

It is the GMs job to know that the barkeep has a lame daughter he is dying to marry off, a mother-in-law that is trying to steal his tavern from him, and is secretly involved in an underground smuggling ring with the local thieves guild. That he has a habit of taking drugged snuff when he's nervous and to relieve his suffering from a rather vicious case of the gout. Spend very much time in his world and your pulled into a drama that extends far beyond trying to get information out of him from across the bar.

And that tomb hasn't just sat there waiting for you to loot it. It is currently serving as a goblin's lookout station for a coming excursion into the nearby farmlands. These goblins wan't nothing to do with the greater reaches of the tomb, but they know a way through all three levels to the caverns which allowed them access. Messing with these greenies might get you passage right through the tomb, and moreover allow an easy escape hatch should you need it. Or shadowing their doings, may uncover their intents to raid the surrounding farmlands. Farmlands currently under lien by a rather nasty and deviant lord who is having his way with the local teenage daughters of the populace. A lord who is placed nicely for the kingship should the king continue to take his evening meals in the company of his seneschal who is in the employ of the local assassin's guild.

And that magic item. Yep you guessed it. The magic item is being sought by the man at arms who is a son of one of the farmers. A magic item he hopes to use against said sicko-lord to protect his sister and the rest of her young friends from the lord's machinations.

There is no grand epic I'm planing here with these little examples. They are just life in a rather brutal fantasy realm that everyday people live and breath within. Get mixed up in all of this and you can't help but get involved in the lives of all those affected to a greater or lesser degree. These personal stories, some more or less important in the overall scheme of things, are the lifeblood of good adventure campaigns. They make things much more real and engaging. Old school philosophers are fond of referring to swords & sorcery fiction as the model for early gaming and that is a good reference indeed. But take any one of those stories and what you find is richly developed plot and undertones and an engrossing story in which our hero was swept up. Otherwise those stories would never have sold.

True, there is a difference between those kinds of stories and the sort of high fantasy save the world or universe type of thing. Maybe that's the kind of story that sticks in the old school craw. When you have invested in your heroes so much that if they die your whole world goes boom, well, then that's poor planning. The fact is the GM also controls the gods of the world. And those gods are smart. They can see the future. They know that people die and that they aren't always able to just bring them back to life, or deus ex machina their chosen heroes' butts out of danger. No, gods have a backup plan. That's the way real life works. And rarely if ever are we talking about the end of the world. We may be talking about a major world change, but that's good too. It just might make the players lives a little harder, but oh well--that's the price of failure.

Hitler might have won WW2 and then where would we be? Speaking German for one. Or maybe Japanese. The world would not have ended, but it would have been different. Sauron might have won the battle for the ring. And we'd have orc mayors and goblin lords to deal with on a daily basis. Middle Earth would have been a dark and malicious place. But it would have still been there. Just take the Shire as an example when Frodo and the guys got back home. Pretty nasty place, eh? But a good chance for another adventure! The fact is high fantasy just isn't realistic. And I mean beyond the magic and spells, and enchanted items and fantasy races and the like. I mean in basic human nature, basic politics, life itself. Just because we have all that magic and those fantastic beasties doesn't mean our essential nature changes much. Otherwise we have little to relate to in terms of a fantasy landscape. High fantasy goals and objectives are rarely carried out by one person or a small group of people. they are massive efforts that often climax in a spectacular bang. Sort of like Seal Team Six's role in killing Bin Laden. Never would have happened without alot of previous ground work.

So are there no stories in old school gaming? Of course there are stories. Gaming is full of stories and they make the game interesting and compelling. They are in fact essential. But it is never a GMs job to force a PC along a certain story arc. Sure, if you get involved with that barkeep you may end up having to deal with the thieves' guild and worse, the assassin's guild trying to kill off the king. At the least you are going to get mixed up with a lame daughter looking for an easy catch or an abusive mother in law. And those little factors may haunt you for some time, popping up again and again at the most inconvenient of times. But there's no forced storyline there. There's just unavoidable  everday reality happening to your character. And just like real life, sometimes reality sucks.

When I started gaming this sort of storytelling came naturally to me. Only once did I create a story driven campaign and though it was truly epic it never felt quite right. I sort of felt like everyone was running downhill on a railroad track just waiting till the train stopped. It was really the only game I've ever played that way. Noone died either. I'm not sure if I felt that everyone was too valuable to die, or I just wanted everyone to get to the end. But that didn't feel right either. But that's not even "story" so much as it is a script everyone has to follow. That kind of game is not what I mean when I say story. When I say story I'm talking about the backdrop, the setting with all its intricate details and goings on regardless of the PCs lives. The purposes of others and our own intersect on a daily basis. At times we are at the whim of forces greater than ourselves, and at others we steer the ship. And always we are immersed in the stories of everything going on around us. The GMs job is to give meaning and life to the world. And that, my friend, requires stories -- lots of them. Ultimately PCs have free will. They choose where they go and what they do. It is my job to be ready for whatever direction they head. For you can bet they are walking into a rich, story laden world wherever they go. And soon their story becomes an intertwined part of the greater fabric of that world. And whether their story lasts past a single day or not is up to the fates, not the GMs devices.
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