(This is the forty-second installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
Given that RPGs can be seen as a form of storytelling, you would think they’d make for great anecdotes. And they can . . . but stereotypically, they fall instead into the category of “you had to be there.” The teller is super-excited about the incident they’re relating, but the audience, not so much.
Why is this?
I imagine it depends a lot on the teller, of course. Some people tell thunderously boring gaming anecdotes because they’re busy recreating the exact mechanics of the rolls that felled the bad guy, rather than the thrilling battle those rolls are supposed to represent. (I’ve mentioned this DM of the Rings strip before, which points out that RPG combat usually winds up sounding like a game of bingo, with people calling out numbers and then getting really excited about them.) But of course that example points us toward the flip side of the storytelling coin, which is the audience; there are probably gamers out there for whom the saga of how you rolled a 1 but then used a special ability that let you add your blah-de-blah rating to your reroll and that time you got a crit and . . . is actually a really cool tale. Good storytelling isn’t an absolute thing; it’s contextual, a matter of telling the right story in the right way for the audience in front of you.
But it’s hard to discuss these things in the abstract. So let’s take a specific anecdote, one I’ve told multiple times to audiences of both gamers and non-gamers, with good results, and see if we can figure out what makes this one work.
It concerns a D&D game I was in, where one of the PCs, a wild elf ranger named Thyss, had wound up in a politically-arranged marriage with a elven wizard princess named Amaliace. The GM asked me to play Amaliace, and when I came into the game, their relationship was . . . not going well. As in, they were barely on speaking terms with one another, and hadn’t even consummated their marriage. So we’re hiking through the jungles of Chult, and Thyss is chatting with our hairy, wild-dwarf guide — we referred to him as “Captain Caveman.” The dwarf is unimpressed with my flimsy-looking elf wizard princess, and asks Thyss what she’s good for. Thyss, meaning it as a joke, says “bearing children.”
Me to the GM: “I can hear what my familiar hears. Can I say it’s flying overhead just as Thyss says that?”
GM, with an evil grin: “Sure.”
For plot reasons Thyss and Amaliace share an empathic bond (which you would think would help them get along, but not really). I tell Thyss’ player that he suddenly feels like there’s a glacier behind him on the path.
So Thyss decides that he needs to apologize, and the best way to do this is to pick some flowers and leave them next to my PC while she’s meditating. Since we’re in a jungle, the GM tells him to make a Survival check to find suitable flowers. He’s a ranger; this should be easy for him . . . except the player is the type where his dice are out to get him.
He rolls a 1.
The player knows he botched, but of course Thyss doesn’t. He picks the flowers and sets them next to Amaliace. And the GM, without missing a beat, turns to me and says, “Make a Fortitude save.”
Which I fail, because I’m an elf wizard princess, and I’m not exactly robust. So I stop breathing, and Captain Caveman leaps to the rescue, which means that Amaliace wakes up to find a wild jungle dwarf doing CPR on her.
As you might imagine, this does not exactly improve the state of Thyss and Amaliace’s marriage.
To begin with, it helps that this is a funny anecdote. Those usually work better than drama, not just in gaming anecdotes, but in verbal storytelling generally; when I have to read something at a con or a bookstore signing, I’ll often choose a humorous story or selection rather than a dramatic one, because it’s easier to get the audience to engage. I suspect this has partly to do with the fact that humor is contagious — if you hear other people laughing, you’re more likely to find a joke funny yourself, which is why sitcom laugh tracks are a thing — and partly to do with the fact that humor frequently needs less context than drama to deliver its payload. My L5R game recently had a very dramatic admission of love, but trying to explain what made that moment satisfying would require so much backstory that by the time I’m done with it, the listener would have forgotten what the point of all that explication was. (Especially since game narratives are often sprawling, untidy things.)
So that’s my second rule of gaming anecdotes: whatever story you’re telling needs to be relatively self-contained. (The same is true of readings at cons and bookstores.) If you have to explain who seventeen characters are and how they interrelate before you can actually tell the story, all but the most devoted of audiences are going to tune out. The anecdote above needs a little bit of context, but I can dispose of that in couple of sentences. Which leads naturally to rule #3: know what is necessary.
This is honestly where people most often fall down, not just with gaming anecdotes, but with any kind of story. From the novice writer who thinks they have to explain the whole history of their setting in Chapter One to the person telling the world’s most aimless and wandering joke, too much irrelevant information is deadly to a good tale. Learning what to include and what to leave out is a vital skill for any kind of story. I mention that Thyss is a wild elf to contrast him with Amaliace being a princess and give a sense of the gulf between them; the fact that she’s a sun elf, and the precise situation of the different elven races in the Forgotten Realms, aren’t important here. Why are they in an arranged marriage? Doesn’t matter, not for this story. What they’re doing in Chult, why there’s a wild dwarf leading them, even the fact that there were three other people in the party at the time — leave it out. Zoe and Roderick and Grektar were just bystanders to this scene, though they were doing other things at the same time, so I don’t even mention them.
But then you get rule #4, which is maybe just the corollary to rule #3: make sure you explain the stuff that needs explanation! If I don’t say where the PCs are when this happens, the whole poisonous-flower thing is confusing. It needs to be clear that they’re in a jungle, the sort of place where the flora might actually be trying to kill you. I have to make it clear why Thyss wound up picking something dangerous, and that becomes funnier when I make it clear that he’s a ranger, the sort of person who ought to be able to clear that minor hurdle with flying colors. If I’m talking to non-gamers, I don’t say that he rolled a 1, because they won’t know that’s bad; I just say that he botched, which is comprehensible even if you don’t know the game system. I may or may not use the phrase “Fortitude save;” it’s a technical term, but one whose meaning will become clear pretty quickly. Etc.
And then rule #5, which is really rule #1: remember the story. What’s the point of this anecdote? That two characters who were on bad terms got on even worse terms, and when one tried to apologize to the other, he compounded the problem yet again, due to an excellently-timed bad roll. If your point is more complicated or diffuse than that, save it for a listener who’s invested in the story already, one knows the setting or the characters or otherwise has a reason to follow a longer and more intricate tale. Such a listener is, in a sense, already “there.” For everybody else, stick to the things that don’t require them to have been there.