Saturday, May 20, 2017

Some Thoughts On: Story Telling, the Novel and the Epic, Oral Traditions, and their Roles in TTRPGs

A Brief History of the Novel and Storytelling

Novels are a relatively modern form of storytelling. Since the inception of language stories had been told orally, then suddenly the story became fixed in written word by an author with a very small audience who was assumed to be reading it individually or listening to it being read. This presupposed audiences that could read, means of producing copies of a text, and the cultural onus to create them. The novel appears in a few different places and times: in 17th century Europe with the publishing of Don Quixote, in 11th century Japan with the writing of The Tale of Genji, and even some Greek and Roman prose narratives being called precursors to novels.

Don Quixote, by Scott Gustafson

This contrasts with the oral traditions that is inherently mutable from Teller to Listener, and between tellings from the same Teller. It was this tradition that gave us the Poetic and Prose Eddas, to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (though each of these works are of course know through the written incarnations, not an intact oral history). Works of similar tone or content or form where also composed as a piece of written narrative poetry, a good example is Dante's Divine Comedy (perhaps the first great trilogy). Many of these classic epics come in the form of verse, with the Prose Edda being the glaring exception.

Illustrations to The Elder Edda by Boris Zaborikhin

I listen to a podcast, Myths and Legends, and the host Jason Weiser made an interesting point in a recent episode about Paul Bunyan. He retells myths and legends (duh), but in his retelling he edits for clarity and elaborates as he sees fit. He asserts, rightly so I think, that this is very much a part of the traditions that these stories were forged in. The epics listed above would be very strange to the audience they were originally told to, sometimes written hundreds of years after they where being told and often with heavily editorializing by the transcriber to make them a cohesive narrative (for example the Iliad) or to sanitize and Christianize them ( for example the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda). These are bizarre static stories of a time and place far removed at the time of writing, not composed works like a novel.

Aren't we as roleplayers participating in a modern oral tradition through roleplaying? Right now I am running a two groups in the same setting with no over lap in players, and in the retelling of the aspects there is drift/editorial adjustment between the groups as the encounter similar situations/locations/challenges. These are exactly the kind of adjustments that a story teller would make to improve each retelling and to tailor it to their audiences.

Roleplaying Games as Story Telling

When describing D&D to people I usually fall back onto the analogy of a novel. The players are the main characters in the story, the DM/GM/Referee is everyone and everything else. "You get to play Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring!" I tell them.  Yes there are dice. Yes, some people use a board and little figurines. But those things aren't the point (not necessarily, there are beautiful and deep sub-hobbies around the crafting and enjoyment of gaming artifacts; just look at all of the gaming table or dice tower designs on the web, miniature painting, or novelty chocolate dice). The point is to get together with your friends and collaboratively tell a story.

***Thats at least what I tell people. I have seen mummers of contention about this explanation, though only second hand, that we can't play out stories, its only a story if we tell people about it after! I've never seen a convincing argument for this, so if you have some counter points I'd love to see see them.***

It seems to me that pretty damn near EVERY TTRPG game I have played or that I can think of the essential elements of the story. So I'll use some classic examples of D&D modules and other games to demonstrate:
  • Characters: Duh, we literally call them that most of the time. Whether they are Player Characters or Non-Player Characters, they are still characters. No example needed really, characters are ubiquitous
  • Setting: The place where the events of the game happen. People produce setting documents for their players to orient them to how weird their version of fantasy medieval Europe is. This can be exhaustive (I'm looking at you Greyhawk) or sparse (I'm looking at you Keep on the Borderlands). 
  • Plot: This is the arc of the narrative, with the beginning (Adventuring around the small hamlet of Hommlet) the middle (Delving into the Temple of Elemental Evil) and end (Visiting the Elemental Nodes to get the key to defeating Zuggtmoy). There is progression and escalating tensions
  • Conflict: The reason the characters are involved at all, the tension to be resolved (Delving into the Tomb of Horrors to destroy the demi-lich Acererak) (to stop the horde of Hobgoblins bearing the Red Hand of Doom). 
  • Resolution: Through playing resolution is achieved, even if that results in character death or unexpected outcomes, at least the game went somewhere.

To the Matter at Hand

So my question is this: do the stories generated through table top role playing games really most closely resemble novels? Can we play out other forms of narrative, like an epic poem? I've seen some very good arguments that the OSR school of thought encourages a more picaresque style of narrative with roguish motivations, so other genres and scales of narrative interest are obviously viable.

I suppose what I want to get at is this: can we explore wider genres with broader scopes of ambition than the novel? Can we play the heroes and gods of Myth and not just characters of Mythic Fantasy? Can we use these games as a vehicle for a modern oral tradition? Is D&D and its many children the system we want? Or is a more narrative focused system like Hillfolk or Skulduggery (both of which are well described here) better suited?

I don't know, but I sure think we should try. Let us set our sites on the horizons and venture into realms that we haven't been to yet. Let is push the limits. Let us engage in an ancient tradition and tell our own epics. D&D may not be the vehicle, though this does seem the realm of epic level play (something I have never seen done well). Let us look for an alternative because old stories deserve to be told, not just read and new stories deserve to be explored, not just dreamed.

Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens; don't you want to play in a game where you can eat your divine spawn to keep them from over throwing you?
Source, lets play more games with the Morrigan as a character!
Source, or Morgoth!


  1. I’m not going to say you can’t play out stories if you want. But I don’t call the way I play role-playing games collaborative story telling. Because I don’t enjoy approaching it that way. I don’t enjoy taking the role of author; I enjoy taking the role of a character.

    You may feel that that still falls completely within what you mean by collaborative story telling. But because there are so many people who present author stance as a superior evolution of role-playing games, distinguishing my style from that is an important part of getting on the same page with people I game with. To me, “collaborative story telling” tends to imply author stance, so I’m going to avoid that description.

    1. Robert, thanks for the comment. I see what you are getting at, some people talk about a DM power dynamic that is not healthy, and I agree that that is an undesirable outcome. Really the analogy is best used as a way to decode the game for new players.

  2. On genre: In my experience, there are two issues with genre and role-playing games.

    The first is reward systems. Classic D&D most heavily rewards acquiring treasure. So you can expect that is what the characters are going to be doing a lot of. If that isn’t a part of the genre you’re shooting for, it isn’t helping you get there.

    (Although my own group is pretty good at ignoring the system’s rewards in favor of their character’s personal goals. The reward system isn’t a deal-breaker, but better to have it work with you than potentially work against you.)

    But that is usually easy enough to fix. Just replace the system’s rewards with something that better fits the genre.

    The bigger issue is player agency. You can make the rewards follow genre conventions, but I am uncomfortable with telling players that their character can’t do something that goes against genre conventions. Indeed, one of the biggest things that appeals to me about role-playing games is that the players have the freedom to have their character do what makes sense rather than what fits the genre or the plot.

    For me, the answer is to try to get the players to buy into the genre as well and to be OK with missing the mark. And I think we manage to get close enough.

    1. Absolutely! Its rewarding to have your players "buy in" to the genre/mood/setting/etc, but that doesn't mean the onus should fall on them to conform to the genre. I think that the onus should fall on the DM to, as you say, tweak the reward system to encourage them to engage with it.

      I just ordered the "Hillfolk" book mentioned above and described in one of the links quite well, I'll be doing a review of them when I get a chance to test them out!

  3. Some more comments from Google+
    +Dave Sherohman:
    "OK. At the most basic level, I engage with RPGs as doing a thing rather than as telling a story about doing a thing. (The "thing" in this case being whatever imaginary actions my character might be involved in. There are also people who engage with RPGs as "doing a thing", where the "thing" is rolling dice and pushing miniatures around, or having pizza and making Monty Python jokes with their friends, but that's not my personal focus.)

    Which, I realize, is probably about as clear as mud, so how about a more conventional example?

    Case 1: Two chessmasters sit across a table pushing pieces around on a checkered board in silence.

    Case 2: Two chessmasters sit across a table pushing pieces around on a checkered board, announcing "Pawn to King 4" and so on as they make each move.

    Case 3: Two chessmasters stand beside each other, announcing "Pawn to King 4" and so on as they imagine moving pieces around a shared imaginary chess board.

    I would argue that, in all three cases, the chessmasters are doing the same thing: Playing chess. Even in the third case, where the board and the moves are entirely fictional, I have a hard time imagining that, when they finished, anyone would describe what they had done as "telling a story about playing chess" rather than as "playing chess".

    (I included case 2 not only to provide a more gradual progression, but also because, if you consider case 3 to be telling a story, then I'm curious what you think of case 2. Basically, if case 3 is a story, is it a story because they are describing actions or because the actions they describe are imaginary rather than physical?)

    Case 3 is essentially how I approach RPGs: Establish a shared imaginary space, imagine actions taking place there (mediated by dice and rules as appropriate), and describe those actions to keep the imaginary space synchronized between those sharing it. While the descriptions may be a narrative act (depending on how broadly you want to define "narration"), their purpose is to communicate what has (imaginarily) happened, rather than to build a story.

    Which is not to say that you can't approach RPGs as a form of storytelling, or with the primary purpose of building a narrative or feeling as if you're in a story. On the contrary, that seems to be a very popular way to approach them and there are a variety of RPG systems specifically designed to encourage a story-based experience. My position is only that RPG's don't have to be storytelling, not that they definitively aren't."

  4. Some more comments from Google+
    +Dave Sherohman:
    "Regarding "they might be telling the story of a battle", yes, they definitely could! Beyond that, one could just be playing chess while the other is using the game to inspire a story about a battle, all without either of them knowing that the other is doing it differently.

    Well, OK, "not knowing" is stretching it a bit in the case of the chess example, but, in an actual RPG, it's entirely possible for some people at the table to be story-focused while others are doing an imaginary thing with no thought of story, without it being obvious that they have different approaches to the imaginary world. The two approaches can coexist quite easily and transparently, at least in RPGs which don't contain narrative-control mechanics or other story-enforcing rules.

    I agree that there are common factors, such as the use of evocative description, which apply equally to both activities. I just object when someone asserts that all (or nearly all) storytelling techniques necessarily apply to RPGs - try a google search for "RPG three-act structure" and see how many people have written about that if you need an example of the kind of overgeneralization I'm thinking of. (And I don't mean to imply that you've made such an assertion. I don't recall your post having anything that set me off, and it's something I'm admittedly a little over-sensitive about. I only brought it up here because you seemed curious about non-story-based approaches to RPGs.)

    For introducing RPGs to new players, I used to use the common "collaborative storytelling" description too, but these days I'm more partial to describing it as "playing make-believe". I'm fairly certain that this change in preferred descriptor is primarily, if not entirely, because "playing make-believe" is thought of more as a "doing" activity rather than a "telling" activity. I make no claim to being unbiased. :)"

    1. “Playing make-believe with a referee” is the description that I have seemingly always come back to over the years.