Monday, February 09, 2009

Ale Break: Immediacy in Storytelling

Here is a problem that plagues many role playing campaigns. The story isn't driven enough by the need to move. Think of many classic fantasy stories that inspired the creation of dnd and have been written since then - Lord of the Rings, Golden Compass, the novels of Jack Vance, etc. time and time again, these stories move from location to location because the protagonists aren't allowed to idle. There are no two-month periods where they sit around spending loot in bars and brothels. Sadly, too many dnd games devolve into this, with players playing out their adolescent fantasies in the campaign world. This is also the pacing of games like World of Warcraft, where the goal is to level your characters without ever actually role playing. This too has become too often the norm. Sure, players love shouting one-liners across the table, and this should be encouraged, especially when it's done in character. But in too many games, real role playing is often the afterthought.

Unfortunately, World of Warcraft has made its snickering (and highly profitable) way into the latest edition of the rules, which are written to entice players to want to level up to get that next encounter power, and making that the focus, rather than actual role playing. This perversion of the rules (huh... why's everyone able to heal themselves fully ~10 times a day?!?! and where's spellcasting gone?!? it feels like fighters wield as much magic as mages...) More reasons why 4th ed is subpar compared to other, more realistic, though perhaps more loop-hole-ridden systems to follow in a later opinion post.

Back to the topic at hand. One thing I've noticed (remember that this is an opinion piece) is that so many decent fantasies come from Britain, and so few from the U.S. It's not to say that Americans (and I'm one of them) can't create them, but why are we as a culture so stunted when it comes to deep storytelling? Maybe because there's not much of an oral tradition anymore, or really any sense of history at all. More people my age can name all the thundercats and transformers than can name all the U.S. state capitals or the 44 presidents. And don't dare utter the term Magna Carta unless you want to face blank stares.

In role playing sessions (and outside them as well), this bugs me, for without knowing your history you have no context for what you're doing. History (though often confined to thick tomes and a certain not-so-aptly-named cable channel that shows more infomercials than actual history) is living... history provides context... history provides immediacy. And it's this immediacy that makes role playing fun and exciting. Not all campaigns feature short people who travel the land to deliver an evil ring to its maker, but certainly any epic-scale campaign should include some reason for the characters doing what they're doing.

Otherwise they're just floundering around the world, a drunk gambler with a penchant for whores, like a gamer with no opposing alignment. And thus, no need to move!

So if you're a DM, keep reading up on history (or make some up!), and introduce or maintain a sense of immediacy in your storytelling. Your players will thank you... maybe not today, but when they look back on your campaign through the lens of their future's past.

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