Monday, February 11, 2013

The Story-Talectomy

These past few months I have found myself struggling with the 'story-telling' element, who insist that for there to be a 'good' game, there must be a good story.

Without condoning the practice, we should talk about why the practice works.  After all, there are a number of fairly bright individuals out there who have been running 'story campaigns' for decades, and they are understandably displeased at being told they've been doing it wrong for twenty or thirty years.  This isn't to say these people are right.  I do think they're wrong - however, not wrong in the black-and-white sense, where something works or something doesn't.

It has to be realized when discussing anything complex that wrong and right have very little to do with 'works' and 'doesn't work.'  If I may venture an example from the medical field.

When I was 15, our family doctor retired and directed my mother - who had a number of chronic medical problems, and who was therefore the arbiter in such things - to a very young, fresh-faced fellow who had begun his practice all of three months before.  Because he was recently trained and because there had been many developments leading up to 1979, he was full of new ideas.

Point in fact, this is not to say that his generation reinvented medicine.  Only that ALL the doctors who had gone before were doing things in a particular way, and that way 'worked' ... or appeared to.  New doctors were doing things differently ... and in fact, better.

In my particular case, when I contracted tonsillitis at 15, our new doctor refused to take them out.  "We don't do that anymore," he said.  Fact is, some doctors were still doing it, but our young doctor had read the newest literature and did not agree with that.  He gave me some antibiotics, sent me home and after a rather unpleasant week my tonsillitis went away.

Only to come back six months later.  More pills from the doctor, more unpleasantness, healed.  Then, six months later, I got tonsillitis again.

In fact, between the age of 15 and 26, I contracted tonsillitis 23 times.  I got it so many times that I could tell it was coming on within its first hour.  I became so familiar with it that the principle difficulty became trying to convince doctors that it was in fact that, and could I have pills so I could go home now.  I really began to HATE tonsillitis, with a deep and burning passion.

Now, was our young family doctor wrong?  No, he wasn't, though the debate still rages.  Whatever the discomfort I experienced, the facts are that I am a healthier person despite something like 23-39 weeks of unpleasant unhealthiness.  The tonsillectomy is slowly, but surely, becoming a thing of the past.  But many continue to fight the trend.

Obviously the problem is that tonsillectomies work.  That is, in the sense that they deal with the immediate problem, while possibly leaving the body open to infections later in life that will kill the patient.  And where it comes to opinion, if something appears to work, we can count on that thing lasting and lasting, even if it doesn't work in the best way possible.

Why does it work?  Well, story lines in D&D work because, to begin with, players understand non-interactive games and entertainment.  We spend dozens of hours a week in passive contemplation of television and various other activities, from watching the world around us to the experience of dreaming - which has the benefit of seeming interactive, though it is not.

So we are programmed to be passive.  The greater portion of your player's time that's spent participating in non or minimally interactive activities, the more likely they will be to accept, even crave, a game in which their participation is minimal.  This doesn't mean they're stupid.  It is merely the logical extension of their daily lives.

Most of us participate in jobs where the expectations are clearly described, where the participation in said job is repetitive and linear.  We spend hundreds of hours a year doing these jobs, and at no time are we challenged to 'think' through any problem or to redesign any of the actual process we're doing.  At the same time, we follow proscribed pathways that bring us from home to our jobs, eating up more of our time, and upon arriving home we fill our time with music or television, even sexual participation, which can again be performed upon set lines of expectation.

Eventually, we come to a point where we are FAR more comfortable with having the guidelines clearly fixed, in order to maintain our highest comfort level.  We may play football, but we don't like to change the rules.  There are very definite principles by which we play.  We go to the bar, but there are definitely some subjects we don't like to talk about, and if some stranger brings one of them up the participation of the group is very much opposed to that stranger.  Our lives, for the most part, are fixed ... and from habit we WANT them to be fixed.  So long as there's enough steak, beer, sports, friends and sex in the offing, we can get along with all the parts of our lives that do not bring us a lot of joy.

So where a DM struts and preens upon the principle that his or her players prefer to run in a world that is heavily railroaded, try to remember that they are not necessarily inaccurate.  In fact, it may be very much true.

A second reason why the storyline ideal works is because along with the players, most DMs have not had a lot of experience with breaking from the habituated path, either.  They may be a bit more adventurous than most ... and many of them may have tried to deliver an experience that was considerably less than a railroad.  However, the process of waking up a number of habituated players is not an easy task - nor is it something one does with a minimum in constructive gaming experience.  Remember that a considerable number of present DMs in the 30s and 40s who play the story way had their first experiences while teenagers.  Very rarely do teenagers have a strong grasp of things like personal psychology, motivation, idealism, constructivism or disestablishmentarianism.

In other words, they tried to run open, creative games when they were 18 and they sucked at it.

But they did want to DM, and they had players who did respond when they introduced storyline campaigns.  So they adopted those stories and ran with them, and in turn habituated themselves to running the game in just that way.  Even if they broke the mold now, the lack of expected response from their habituated players would be very, very uncomfortable.  Take the testament of a few DMs who recount the time they tried a world without any story ... and found the players sitting around with nothing to do!  This is seen - and believed to be - a disaster.  Particularly when compared to all those terrific, fun games where stuff is being done and everyone is having a good time.  This is clear evidence that sandbox games just do not work.

And there it is again, the measure of the game on the basis of its working success.  The tonsillectomy, that immediately solves the problem and guarantees the patient will never have trouble with their tonsils again.  We tried the sandbox on this one occasion and it did not work.  Therefore, in principle, it can never work.  And those who say a sandbox works are in fact deceiving themselves, because the only thing that can possibly work is the story-driven campaign.

So said all the doctors who had been patiently ripping out tonsils for decades, up until the late 70s when they began to stop.  Can you suppose all the resistance they received?

Thus, understand.  There are reasons why people fundamentally believe in the story.  Remember that those reasons have less to do with choice than they have to do with ability and personal comfort.  And remember that even if something works, it does not mean that a thing working is the final word on the value of a thing.

Sometimes, something else works better.  Even if it isn't quite as easy.


  1. This makes me think about the previews I avoid watching before movies in the theater. Some previews try not to spoil the story -- whereas others will give away the whole plot and all the "best" moments in an attempt to drum up interest.

    I think there is a false dichotomy here twixt "Story-First" and "Sandbox-ish" games. Granted, there are games that heavily emphasize one or the other, which I will I illustrate by returning to my "Movie Preview" metaphor.

    The "Sandbox-ish" game is akin to the preview that almost tells you nothing about the movie. I am thinking here of some of M. Night Shyamalan's movies where there was the title of the movie (which revealed little of its contents) and a very brief teaser of the movie's first moments.

    This is akin, in my opinion, to the location-based, unpresumed-plot-orientated game, I.E.: the "Sandbox." The Players have an idea of the setting and its tropes going into the session/s, but its direction is not known. I am including the Referee as one of the Players as the course of the game may not even be known to him.

    Contrast this with the heavily-plotted game that is akin to the movie previews I hate: "Here's the whole freaking movie in 2-3 minutes" preview. . .

    The preview reveals the major players (NPCs) and reveals a great deal of major themes. The major conflicts are spelled out in large crayon for the viewer. The climax is often hinted and in a lot of cases freaking spelled out again for the viewer. The worst kinds of previews even take the ending of the movie away from the realm of the viewer's imagination -- at which point the viewer is left only with wanting to watch the movie for "the Kewl Speshul FX."

    I would liken the "Plot Rodded" game as the latter. The Players and Referee know, going in, that there will be a linear (or pseudo-non-linear) plot. There will be major players that will drive most of the action (that the Players will passively observe or respond to). And there will definitely be a Climax (E.G.: "My Previous Encounter") to the "Story."

    Again, I believe games and games-as-operationalized-by-its-players will contain degrees of both. But, I hate those "Great Reveal Movie Previews" with a passion. . .

  2. I will confess, Reverend, that I was on the wrong side of you until you wrote that you were including the DM as one of the players - though I don't think the DM necessarily is "a player," I am in full agreement that the DM should not know the eventual course of the game.

    Well stated.

  3. Thank you, Alexis. As I was writing my comment I thought some about that portion of my response -- in what way does the game change when the Referee knows the plot of the game?

    I have read much of what you have said about that concept and I am in agreement with you about it. In returning to my metaphor about movie previews and movies (I believe that the Society for the Prevention of the Abusive Elongation of Metaphors will be giving me a call after this post). . .

    When there is a schism between the Players engaging in a seemingly-Sandboxy game and the Referee running a railroaded game in-fact this is like that one guy who, having seen the movie dozens of times already, sits there commenting and telegraphing on the movie while you watch.

  4. Very thought-provoking commentary, Alexis. I hadn't considered such societal changes since we were children to be the cause behind the huge change in gaming styles, but of course, now that you've pointed it out, it's obvious!

  5. I think the reason many people fail to run good sandbox games when they're used to story games is that they imagine sandbox games as story games minus the story. I used to try to run games like that, and they involved a lot of incredibly boring loitering around town, and were rarely at all enjoyable.

    I think a successful sandbox campaign feels more like a hundred stories happening at once. Orcs are attacking caravans, and the baron might be a changeling, and there are tariffs on imported wine, and the country is being invaded, and giant rats are infesting the sewers, and so on.

    I see the story game as a very small, limited slice of the real, full game. It shows one particular path that might be fully adequate if it's exactly what the players want to do, but is completely insufficient if they go off the rails.

    A sandbox game, to me, is still a story game, just one where players choose the story themselves. So transitioning from story to sandbox is less like dropping what you've planned, and more like starting to actually sufficiently plan for the first time.

  6. Thank you Dave,

    But you know, it only just occurred to me a few days ago.

    I don't think you're wrong, Harlo. I play that way. However, the word 'stories' is misleading, and I'm not anxious to redefine the word. In the past I've used 'narratives.' All the same, perhaps we should just view it as TEXTURE.

  7. The mentality of "good is good enough" is something I've run into quite a bit discussing D&D with people. The familiar is a very persuasive voice in the back of one's mind. It is comforting. It is safe. It spreads vicious lies about new ideas and new ways of thinking.

    I prefer to think that good is never enough. If I do as well DMing today as I did yesterday I have failed myself because I try to improve at least a bit with every day even if that improvement is realizing something I've done wrong or could improve on. I found that little Imp familiar on my shoulder, stabbed him and flensed him to make a dice bag. I've never been happier.

    I think the distinction between games where the DM "knows" what is to occur in the long-term versus a DM having pretty much no idea is a very important one. People underestimate just how much presupposition and expectation colors and biases our decision making as human beings. I do not like my decisions as a supposedly impartial referee (a DMs role) being prejudiced by what I may have predetermined regarding the game. It is why I resolve campaign world events using a die system rather than simply deciding what would happen. In this way even I do not know how things will play out much less my players.

    Excellent post.

  8. The game is no fun when the DM knows what happens next.

    Unless, of course, you happen to be some kind of sadist. Or a masochist, for that matter.

  9. I think that there are a couple of salient points here: 1. That most people prefer the "easy" path, in life and in their gaming. 2. That initial biases (or even the results of the initial attempt at something "new") will strongly influence that person's reaction to that activity. In all, I agree with everything here.

  10. So what you're trying to say is, "people are lazy, we need to cater to laziness."? Sorry, but just because people have been programmed to be fed entertainment on their couches, doesn't mean that RPGs need to follow suit.

    There's a giant reason why I play RPGs: they are interactive. I don't get it, I really don't. If you're coming to a game to be spoon-fed a pre-fab story then why the hell are you there at all? Go play an MMO, a board game, go watch a movie, a CRPG. There are a metric ton of media sources to go to, to find linear stories, but there's really only ONE place that exists (until we get Holodecks) where we get fully interactive ones. And that's P&P RPGs.

    So to those who would tell me that I should just accept laziness, I say, get the hell out of my gaming group. RPG = Sandbox gaming, period. That's the way it's meant to be played, if you're not playing it that way, you're not playing an RPG, you're telling bedtime stories.


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