Dice Tales: RPGs as Storytelling

Roman twenty-sided dieI make no secret of the fact that role—playing games are one of my favorite hobbies. I’ve played them; I’ve run games of my own; I’ve written fiction inspired by games I’ve played in or run; I’ve done freelance writing for an RPG company; I even studied RPGs in graduate school, before I left to write full time. I love them because narrative is my favorite toy to play with, and RPGs are a fascinatingly different approach to the concept. Nor am I the only one: scratch the surface of any number of fantasy or SF writers and you’ll find a gamer underneath.

Because of this, I decided it would be interesting to start a blog series here on BVC about RPGs as a narrative medium. I’ll be talking primarily about two kinds of games: those referred to as “tabletop” or “pen-and-paper” games, of which Dungeons and Dragons is a foundational example, where the players describe their characters’ actions; and “live-action” role-playing games or LARPs, where the players perform their characters’ actions in a manner more akin to improv theatre. (Video games are also interesting, but because they’re pre-coded, they offer a different experience than the one I’m interested in exploring here.)

We’ll start off with the basics, for those who aren’t already familiar with them — how RPGs work on a practical level — but in time we’ll move on to finer-grained details about the kinds of stories people create with these tools, and how they are similar to or different from stories that writers create by more conventional means. There are even valuable lessons to be learned from the RPG side of the divide. I don’t have this planned for any set number of posts; I’ll just keep on babbling until I run out of things to say. Speak up in the comment threads if you play games, or if you don’t and have questions about them — and let me know if there are things you’d like me to discuss! It may take me a while to get there, since I’ll need to lay some groundwork first, but I’m happy to take suggestions for aspects I may not have thought of.

Before we get into any of that, though, we have to address the first, most basic question: what is an RPG?

Just about every RPG book ever answers this question in its own way, usually with a few paragraphs or a page explaining the concept to hypothetical newcomers who have picked the book up at random. As RPGs start to become a focus of academic study, we’re also getting more technical definitions. I’m not writing for academic purposes here, but I am drawing on my scholarly experience, so I’ll use that to put together a definition that will work for our purposes in this blog series:

A role-playing game is a form of collaborative, improvisational storytelling mediated by rules.

It’s a pretty simple definition, and deliberately on the broad side. After all, there are a lot of games out there these days, and elements you may think of as standard for the genre (such as dice) don’t appear in all of them. But this definition distinguishes an RPG from, say, a novel written collaboratively, where there are no rules and the authors can go back to revise; or a computer game, where the player can make decisions, but only within a pre-scripted framework that defines what actions are and are not possible. And each element of the definition is a pointer toward a larger and more complex set of ideas, each of which we’ll explore as we go along.

I phrase my definition the way I do because I think the most distinctive element of RPGs as a genre is the way they bridge the gap between narrative and gameplay. In fact, one of the things that sometimes confuses newcomers is the ways in which RPGs aren’t precisely “games” as they’re used to thinking of such things. You can win a game of basketball or a game of chess . . . but you can’t “win” Dungeons and Dragons. Battles within the game, sure. You can solve the mystery or defeat the bad guy. But you aren’t “beating” an opponent or the game itself, because Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t have an inherent, defined win condition the way more conventional games do.

On the other hand, it does have rules (sometimes also referred to as mechanics or the system; I’ll be using those terms interchangeably). As I see it, the purpose of the rules in an RPG is to create consensus. This is important in a collaborative story, as anybody who played Cops and Robbers as a kid can attest. “I shot you!” “No, you didn’t. I dodged.” “I shot you before you could dodge.” “Nuh-uh!” “Yuh-huh!” Rules in an RPG define what characters can and can’t do, and how likely they are to succeed at things that are within reach. As the words “how likely” suggest, this often involves an element of randomization, so that ability is defined in terms of probability rather than a binary yes/no. Dice are the most common method of randomization for RPGs — to the point where colorful dice with different numbers of sides are an iconic symbol of the genre — but they’re not the only option. For example, one popular system for live-action games uses rock-paper-scissors as its resolution mechanic. Other games have used cards. Some don’t use randomization at all; challenges are resolved entirely through negotiation among the participants. But even then, there’s usually a codified framework for how this should be done, rather than the designers just shrugging and saying “eh, work something out.” Without that framework, you may have a method of collaborative storytelling, but (in my opinion) you don’t really have a role-playing game. And if you have rules but no story — if there aren’t characters whose roles the participants play in a meaningful narrative fashion — then again, you don’t have an RPG. The genre sits on a fence, sometimes tipping in one direction, sometimes the other . . . but the fence makes it what it is.

How does all of this work? We’ll get into that in the next few posts!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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