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.