Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"The Story's the Thing, Wherein We'll Catch the Conscience of" ...


I will admit that I am not the most savvy Facebook user, and don't even have an Instagram account. Recently my daughter tech-shamed me because I didn't know that my IPhone (I still have a 5) had a default flashlight function. I thought I needed a separate app for that. But, I would like it known I do _own_ an IPhone, I keep my computer up to date and protected. I am reasonably tech-wise, though I used to be much more so, I have begun to rely on my 18 year old for some things.

In gaming terms I am a decidedly old school guy in a new school world. I have been drug along with the new wave of gaming design and innovative mechanics all the while lamenting the good old days when we did everything with pencil and graph paper. But, I've come today to talk less about particulars and more about story.

The idea of story in roleplaying is not new or innovative. In fact most of us came to roleplaying for the chance to live out such stories we only read about in fantasy fiction or popular mythologies.  The chance to be the hero in shining armor, or swirling black cape, or with sizzling magical wand and facing the thrill of mortal combat with mighty dragons was what we all wanted. We wanted to be a part of that story. However, the idea that story was king in the game is a relatively new concept.

In old school D&D generally speaking we ran dungeons, sometimes hexcrawls, and dared our players to get through them alive. The few that did, and believe me it was few, grew into legends. Not only in the game world, but in our own minds as we replayed their triumphs and defeats again and again in our post game conversations. I still remember such heroes from my early gaming days. They were all the greater, it seems, in large part because it was so damn hard to survive in those early days. If you earned bragging rights in those days it really meant something!

The interesting thing is, that post Gygaxian gaming began to take a decidedly different turn storywise. If you take a look at product of the 2e period you see a much more story oriented focus in the game and the gaming products. Paradoxically this is, I believe, a result of Gygaxian Naturalism. People in the world have motives, purposes, schemes and plots. They don't always work out like we think, but they do. Combined with the obvious corollary that D&D was designed on the medium of literature, story became an increasingly expected part of the game.

And I do not decry this shift. I mean, one can choose or prefer one style over the other but I do not consider one better or worse than the other. And in fact many of us had already begun shifting in this way if we did any DMing for lengthy time periods. By that I mean running more than a couple of sessions and adventures connected by the same characters. We inevitably began to weave thew story around the PCs actions. Campaigns took on a decidedly epic feel as grand story arcs played out as players interacted with the world and the events therein.

Even if our story focus was no more than stringing together the relationships and happenings into one coherent weave or necklace to be appreciated for the narrative that it was. Our game style may be very un-driven by any story we wished to tell or "saw" happening as we DMed and our players reacted, but nonetheless a sort of organic story developed. Our job became the "seeing" of the story that had happened and beginning to make synchronicites and events occur in harmony with the story to give a greater sense of overall satisfaction.

The danger that arose about this same time was the anathema of the railroaded campaign where players began to feel they had no choice in the narrative at all, but were simply along for the ride while they DM told her own story and the PCs were given nominal choice if any at all. This kind of campaign arose for several reasons, but came about largely from the two play styles that ruled back in the day.

Sandbox play was quite common, especially once hexcrawls and topside adventures were more common. Essentially players had total freedom to spread about and investigate whatever they found interesting or appealing. Some DMs were literally blank slates, giving very little to their players in terms of hooks or hints as to where they might go, placing huge emphasis on the players to drive the action. And other DMS had planned out certain things and, not wanting to be caught unprepared, developed the quantum ogre to satisfy their need for the party to go to what they had planned regardless of what they thought they wanted to do.

The railroad story was very similar, in that the things the DM had prepped for the players revolved around an awesome story they so much wanted their players to participate in. So the railroad becomes plot points and clues and NPC interactions that simply have to occur if the players are to reach the next milestone in the story arc. When players frustrate their DM by not playing along or tugging against the direction of the story tracks, the DM gets frustrated and the railroading becomes stronger and stronger.

Of course, a lot of this can be resolved by the social contract at the start of the game and refined as the group grows in cohesion. The agreement we all sort of make when we sit down is that we are going to play together. We have to work together. But we also have to be at least in the same chapter if not on the same page. What do your players want and what do you want out of the game we are agreeing to play together? A consensus on such things helps avoids a lot of heartache later on. But I'm not telling you anything you don't know.



















Storytelling is something I think later editions of D&D have gotten right. Just comparing the recent Lost Mines of Phandelver to something like the Keep on the Borderlands is a great case in point. I love Keep, and it was certainly sandboxy. However, what was not so clear was how to get the PCs there, keep them there, and get them involved in the rest of the adventures set about the region. Lost Mines, spends as much time on the village and the NPCs there as they do on the mines themselves. That's because what you need for story to unfold is context, meaning and connection. Sure, a story can unfold in Keep, and many did in my early gaming days. And there are, admittedly, little hints about how to weave reason into the campaign. But Mines does a much better job of giving the context for such things to happen. I would even make the same claim for Keep on the Shadowfell, another somewhat sandboxy campaign from 4e that was much easier to weave a story around the Keep on the Borderlands ever thought of doing.

I would even say that these adventures Shadowfell and Mines were part of what allows me to be somewhat okay with the edition I am playing, since the stories flow so easily out of these adventures. Now, maybe my own creativity was lacking. Maybe I was also a very young and inexperienced GM who barely knew how the play the game, let alone make it story-rich--all of which is very true. However, I can't help but think that if I had Mines of Shadowfell back in the day our games would have been that much more fun.

One last parting shot to make my point and out of which this line of thought has grown. My players are just cresting 5th level in our current 5e campaign. I had planned for a long time to run them through the Slaver series, A1 to A4. The current campaign is cooking along rather nicely, and I was planning on having them make a run at the Slavers in Highport soon. However, perusing through the old adventures, I came across 2e's Scourge of the Slave Lords and the presentation of the slightly more challenging series of modules as an overarching campaign was much more of what I was looking for. I have been able to set up the transition from one phase of the campaign to the next with the help of this edition and am looking forward to how the story unfolds.

All of this may make me a more story driven GM than some of my other old school counterparts. Or maybe not, as I've made lots of assumptions--as always. Either way if you have an opinion feel free to weigh in. Where do you land on the story as old school vs story as new school spectrum?

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