Games of the Imagination

Earlier tonight, I interviewed Tracy Hickman for a future episode of the Dragonlance Canticle podcast. During the conversation, we talked about gaming, and an interesting topic came up. The basic gist is that role-playing games have become very good at being simulations in nature, but have gotten further away from narrative storytelling and creativity.

Is this the case?

There are those that say that story is independent of the rules. We as gamers bring the story to the table. There’s a lot to be said for that. I know that, no matter the game, I bring the same killer storytelling to the game table.

Can rules be a deterrent to storytelling?

Frankly, yes. Want proof? Look no further than 4th edition’s Character Builder. Don’t get me wrong, Character Builder is a wonderful tool. Yet at the same time, I find that Character Builder is not the most conducive to house rules.

Many rules systems have a mechanic like feats that show extra-special abilities characters can do. They’re faster, they have new powers, they’re great with a sword, etc. etc. If the ability is not listed on the character sheet, do we even try it? Probably not. Yet it may be more dramatic to the story of the game if you can at least try things not on the character sheet (within reason, of course!).

For example, let’s say that you’re playing a rogue. Your rogue is running from a local thug who is out for blood, and the alley dead-ends just ahead. There’s nowhere to run. As the thug comes in, the rogue jumps against the wall, bounces off and does a mid-air flip, landing on his feet on the other side. He’s then able to attack the thug.

Now, in this scenario, we could look up a bunch of rules and find that there isn’t a specific rule covering this. Perhaps you, as the player, were also recently frustrated when you discovered there were no rules for fighting on a tightrope.

Rules can not cover every possibility. They can serve as guidelines. We, as gamers, can easily be drawn into the idea that if the Rules As Written (RAW) doesn’t offer an option, then it can’t be done. Yet this is a restriction on creativity and storytelling. The game suffers in the process.

My advice is to find the rules you want to use, and then approach them in broad strokes. Sometimes, a simple skill check or ability check is all you need. Our rogue from up above may have made an Acrobatics or Dexterity check to pull off that amazing flip. The DM sets an appropriate target number. If the player makes it, then you’ve got Hollywood action in your game.

Allow for the player to be creative and loosen up on the rules. It will allow everyone to have more fun and be a creative boon to your world.

Comments (10)

JinxJuly 28th, 2010 at 6:48 am

If you make rules for everything, sooner or later you create an expectation that there are rules for everything, and find yourself in a situation where you need rules for everything.

Particulaly players who’ve come to RPGs from electronic entertainment/video games almost expect there to be “radial context menus” dictating their actions and almost seem to loose focus without them.

I make it a point to eliminate all of the “round cards” that discribe in detail what you can do in a “round” in order to encourage my players to get creative, so far, it’s worked.

Azhrei VepJuly 28th, 2010 at 7:00 am

I think that’s one of the reasons I like Savage Worlds. It has rules covering so few things, so ridiculously vaguely, that to do anything at all pretty much requires you to just wing it and go with whatever seems right.

And, call me crazy, but whatever seems right seems about right to me.

Aaron StackJuly 28th, 2010 at 7:49 am

I’m sure someone’s going to come along and say something about “balance” and/or “you can be plenty awesome within the limits of the rules if you bothered to read them”, but that person’s not going to be me. Especially since I’m almost sure Tracy Hickman has read a few rules in his life, not like he has made his living doing this or something ;)

To me, however, there is something of a slippery slope within this argument of ‘stretching the rules in favor of creative storytelling’. At what point do you start observing the rules as written, out of necessity for a fair and balanced ruling? At what point does it stop being a game, as such, and start simply being a thought exercise – or, relatedly, an argument? Sometimes you’ll run into someone who is some extra-special brainchild brimming with absurd amounts of creativity, and they can talk their way – the player, not the character, mind you – out of any situation. A properly motivated, super-creative wunderkind person will not let anything happen to their character, because you’ve opened the door to let them flout the rules rather than agree to adhere to them for the sake of – hopefully, ideally – having a neutral arbitration system vis a vis the dice and the rulebooks. Then you get the guy who wants to push the envelope of what you’ll let him get away with, and then you get into stupid favoritism arguments and the game disintegrates (seen it, many times). A little rules handwaving is great, and encouraged! But it can easily get out of hand and become just as much of a headache if you don’t make it clear where the lines are drawn.

More pragmatically, however, to the RPG industry’s interests is the fact that all these rule systems are what gives them income. Why encourage people to go against the products that keep them in business? If everyone could just have a set of dice and a story stick, no one would need to buy more stuff, and the industry would fold. It’s in their best interests to encourage people to use the rules and get feedback on them so they can make Rules 2.0, then 2.5, then 2.75, then 3.0, and so on. Sure, you can put out setting books, but all the hate I’ve heard about those lately could fill a damn ocean. So it strikes me as shooting yourself in the foot, from an economic perspective, to suggest people not use your products – which is to say, the rules systems.

It’s lots of fun to say “Rules Take Away Your Creative Freedom!” and “Just Be Creative!”, but there are drawbacks to not having a consistent, neutral arbitration system. I can see a game’s story slowing down because of rules arbitration, but there are much simpler ways of writing a collaborative story than whipping out D&D books and dice. I tend to be in favor of having something of a divide between the story and the game, if for no other reason than I like to have both the story – the intangible creative aspect – and the game – the tactical/strategic/chance-based aspect – when I sit down at a table. Skewing too far in either direction makes me miss the other side. I agree that no rules system is perfect, or can be perfect, which is why you have a Executive Branch (Rules) and a Judicial Branch (GM Interpretation), as it were, to split the power. I simply would advocate moderation between the two, rather than throw either side out with the bathwater.

My ranting aside, good article and interview! We need more Trampas on this blog!

DragonhelmJuly 28th, 2010 at 9:43 am

Aaron, thank you so much for your comments. That was very thoughtful. Believe it or not, I don’t really disagree with you.

Certainly, you need some sort of rules system to serve as arbiter and to keep players in check. Players will try to get by with murder if they can.

My point, though, is more along the lines that rules shouldn’t constrain you so much that you lose out on fun and storytelling. Rules should enhance that. The rules serve us; we do not serve them.

Aaron StackJuly 28th, 2010 at 10:10 am

I see that diplomatic streak’s still with you, haha.

I definately agree that rules should enhance storytelling, not constrain it. Everything about an RPG, ultimately, should work towards enhancing storytelling to one degree or another (provided of course there’s still a game there, and not just a thought exercise), and when you put it like that I certainly understand how too many (or not enough) rules can encourage people to Miss The Point. Frankly, though, the people who are going to Miss The Point probably will anyway.

Heine StickJuly 28th, 2010 at 10:39 am

“Now, in this scenario, we could look up a bunch of rules and find that there isn’t a specific rule covering this. Perhaps you, as the player, were also recently frustrated when you discovered there were no rules for fighting on a tightrope.”

Wrong. The GM asks for a Climb check, then an Acrobatics check. Next round you’ll be able to kick some ass. ;)

Tightrope? Acrobatics check, then an attack roll. ;)

DragonhelmJuly 28th, 2010 at 10:48 am

See, Heine has the right idea. He’s using broad strokes with rules. He’s using the rules to enhance the action of the game. He isn’t getting bogged down in the minutia of his chosen system.

So in this case, a few skill checks is all he requires, and if successful, the rogue has his Hollywood moment.

JarvisJuly 28th, 2010 at 12:44 pm

“The basic gist is that role-playing games have become very good at being simulations in nature, but have gotten further away from narrative storytelling and creativity.”

If we’re ignoring the entirety of the Indie Games / Story Games movement, then I suppose I can agree with that, sure! :-P Are we really just talking about 4E here though? Even if that’s the case, I’d argue that things like action points, skill challenges, and healing surges are far more narrative than they are actual simulation.

“Can rules be a deterrent to storytelling?”

Yes and no. Rules for MINUTIAE can deter storytelling, but rules for important shit can enhance it greatly.

Example: Encumbrance rules in any classic adventure game typically results in STOPPING our epic fantasy tale as we discuss whether or not one more sunrod is worth pushing the rogue into fatigue penalties. On the other hand, the story of the upcoming Dead Weight* rpg actually STARTS when a runner is forced to choose whether being slowed down by some extra medicine is worth the risk of possibly not making it back to the colony at all.

It’s very simple…
Rules that support, add to, or create the story being told = Good.
Rules that hinder, distract from, or stop the story being told = Bad.

*Dead Weight, by John Harper
“Survivors [of the zombie apocalypse] live in a literally stratified society in an impossibly tall tower. Runners go out to collect enough resources to buy their family’s passage into a higher, safer floor of the tower.”

DougJuly 29th, 2010 at 10:56 am

I think rules vs. storytelling is a false dichotomy, and it comes from the particular kinds of games one plays (and doesn’t play). If you play story games, the rules exist to drive storytelling and to resolve the conflicts that come out of a good story in interesting ways. If you play D&D or Savage Words, the rules exist to resolve whether your character succeeds at a given task, and they are basically mute where storytelling is concerned – story comes from setting fluff and from the work of the GM for the most part. These are not storytelling games, they are tactical simulation games – the more versatile ones tactically simulate more than squad-on-squad combats (simulating things like researching a spell or breaking into a building or an argument with an NPC), but that’s still what they are.

So I think the opposite of what Tracy Hickman said is true. I think that games have gotten better at achieving their design goals. D&D was never a storytelling game as it was written. Storytelling was ported in through hacks, house rules and the players playing a separate game among themselves that was not in the rules. The rules were about attacking and defending, movement, using skills and casting spells. Now we have great tactical games like D&D and Savage Worlds, and great storytelling games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Primetime Adventures to name a couple well-known examples. We also have some games, like Burning Wheel, that try to have rules for both storytelling and simulation.

If you want to use D&D as a storytelling game, you have to do a lot of your own work to make it happen, just like if you wanted to use Dogs in the Vineyard to be a tactical simulation game. This just means that games do what they are supposed to do. If you try to make a game do what it isn’t designed to do, I suppose the game’s rules might ‘get in the way’, sure.

KJuly 31st, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Exalted’s Stunt rules are even better: If the player describes his character doing something clearly awesome, he gets extra dice, or a bonus modifier. No roll involved, just a free extra for applying the rule of cool.

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