For RPGs, storytelling will win

Role-playing games were initially an offshoot of wargames. What made them different was first a question of scale, moving down from military units to single combatants, and then a question of intent, aiming to play out scenarios with more ambiguity than a classic side versus side battle scenario. As soon as the RPG medium began spreading out from its origin, many people other than wargamers saw the promise that these games held. Science fiction and fantasy fans flocked to RPGs, driven by the promise of new stories and new paracosms that could be created with the games. They were the largest influx into the hobby until the Basic D&D Red Box completely opened the floodgates in 1981.

Now, at the beginning of 2023, the influence of the RPG is seen a little differently. Sure, we’re still over here with our books and dice, but over the last fifty years or so RPGs carved a path through interactive media, permanently changing the board game, wargame, and video game hobbies. In the same way, these hobbies, no younger than the RPG at their youngest, have changed the RPG. The world of games, in a broad sense, is different, and that means the RPG fits into that world differently. With the constant growth and innovation happening across the tabletop games industry and across entertainment, it’s clear that the differentiator in RPGs is story.

Story is an RPG Constant

It can be difficult to articulate this, but every role-playing game exists to tell stories. Even though we use terminology like “storytelling game” and “narrative game” to try to section off a portion of games out there, the fact is that every single RPG worth its salt is so because of its ability to tell stories. Take the OSR. The OSR can be many things, but even if you look directly at the most stripped-down, dungeon-oriented mode of old-school play, it’s still about stories, it’s about figuring out what happens. Dungeons have monsters, and traps, and puzzles, but what makes them interesting are either the big picture questions about why and how the dungeon exists, or the small-scale questions about why and how a certain encounter has transpired. Dungeons may exist to tell micro-narratives within single rooms, but that’s still a narrative.

Small narratives often look different from large narratives, and the tools we use for both are different. That said, any game which can usefully teach a reader how to run it does so by framing how the person running the game can make everything make sense. Dungeons, murder mysteries, and corporate intrigue plots must all play by a set of rules to produce a satisfying narrative, and this is doubly true when the other players in the game are empowered to be the most dangerous backseat drivers possible. But once again, whether it’s a dungeon room or an entire quarter before the next annual report, it’s a story which splits up its roles: the game master frames, the players act.

What differentiates ‘storytelling games’ is not whether or not they are concerned with a story (because all RPGs are concerned with a story), but how the rules enable the players to act on the story. Storytelling games provide mechanics which interface directly with the narrative. You are framing the scenes of the story, or rolling to introduce plot twists, or doing other things which directly impact the story as it’s being told. Traditional games provide mechanics which interface with the simulacrum of the world in which the story is being told. We don’t directly go to if the heroes beat the villain, we go through intermediate steps which are defined by weapon stats, or ability scores, or the particular way the designer has chosen to interpret the effects of gravity. These ‘trad’ mechanics are the same tools that a wargamer may use, though used to very different effect.

The tools of wargaming are where everything gets confused; this has arguably been the case for the last fifty years. Wargaming mechanics provide challenge, they provide mathematical rigor (or the perception thereof) to our make-believe. There are definitely some people who engage more with the math of role-playing games, bench racing Pathfinder builds or figuring out how to break Exalted charmsets. The problem is not and has never been that people are interested in these things or that they can do them, it’s that RPGs are, among all the options for strategic gaming, kind of a mediocre one.

Better Ways to Wargame

It’s not interesting to say that D&D isn’t that great an RPG. And it’s not surprising anyone that D&D also isn’t that great a wargame (it’s a worse wargame than it is an RPG). And yet, there are still arguments that the popularity of D&D is based on its rules; this counts both arguments about the quality of rules as well as arguments about the density of rules. If there is a valid argument that D&D is the ‘right’ level of density or complexity for a roleplaying game, it’s that D&D is complicated enough to feel weighty, but not a single iota more than that.

Wargaming has evolved significantly since the 1960s and 70s. While historical wargaming arguably limps along as a niche of a niche of a niche, fantasy wargaming has had its own renaissance, led by lines like Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 miniatures games. While Warhammer was released a few years after the first RPGs, 1983, it has still used that time effectively for continual rules development and innovation. The original Warhammer ruleset was discontinued in 2015, but it was superseded almost immediately by Warhammer Age of Sigmar. Warhammer 40,000, on the other hand, continues to this day from the original release in 1987.

What do minis games like Warhammer matter for the RPG hobby? Well, they provide a significant answer to the question of what more complex, more strategic play looks like. And, considering Warhammer and its derivatives are typically better received than the most complex RPGs, they also imply that maybe RPGs aren’t the best medium for strategic play. It stands to reason then that if minis games posit an alternative to RPGs for ‘crunchier’ strategic play, video games provide yet another. While chart-topping video games are intended for the mass market, very detailed wargames and other highly complex number-crunching games of all types still see fair popularity in the digital space. Consider Dwarf Fortress. A game of immense complexity and (historically at least) legendary inaccessibility, Dwarf Fortress has been a legend for the twenty years that it’s been in development. Recently, an updated version of Dwarf Fortress was made available on Steam, and in short order sold half a million copies. That’s not massive numbers in the video game world, but it is roughly six times more than the number of people who backed Avatar Legends, the largest RPG Kickstarter of all time. If an infamously obtuse game can outsell the biggest RPG Kickstarter ever six to one, there might be some merit to the idea that video games can handle complexity a bit better.

Beyond the (admittedly contrived) sales comparisons, consider for a moment what Dwarf Fortress can actually do. The depth of simulation within the game is unbelievable, and that’s arguably what created its renown in the first place. And video games don’t only beat RPGs on the high end of complexity, either. Take Fallout. The original Fallout, a post-apocalyptic video game developed by Interplay, was slated to use GURPS as its backbone mechanics. For multiple reasons this fell through, and Interplay instead developed SPECIAL, a system specifically for Fallout. What’s not really examined too much is that SPECIAL was in many ways more complex than GURPS, with both how action points and the hit location system worked serving as key examples. SPECIAL added layers of detail that were trivial when there was a computer doing the number crunching, but would have never worked for a tabletop game.

So computers and bespoke wargaming rules are better at high-math, high-complexity gaming than RPGs. Sure. And RPGs are, when you get down to the quantum level, concerned with some form of storyline or narrative as a matter of course. All right. Does that all need to be the case? In addition to RPGs being somewhat worse off for number-crunching play than video games or dedicated wargames, they’re significantly better for story-driven play. As much as the ‘One GM-Many Players’ paradigm is pushed against by designers, it creates a unique structure for telling any sort of story you could want. As I said earlier, the GM frames, and the players act, and the number of different framings and actions you can mix together with this is for all intents and purposes infinite. Video games can’t ‘do’ story; sure, a video game can have a story (even a branching story) baked into its code but that’s not the same as group storytelling. Wargames either revert to simple win conditions or, in the case of newer cooperative games like Gloomhaven, end up in the same place video games do where they are tied to an existing story with finite outcomes.

Let’s not pretend the market hasn’t noticed that RPGs are story vehicles, either. Actual Play has exploded not because it’s interesting to hear people go through the mechanics of a role-playing game (it isn’t). Actual Plays are interesting because they transfer the perspective of the story being told to the players, and create a new place for the tension of the story to sit. The meta-layer of Actual Play is compelling, but it only works if the underlying story is interesting and the production doesn’t spend too much time on the mechanics. There are many reasons Actual Play exploded during the reign of 5e, but the simplification of the mechanics over previous editions certainly didn’t hurt.

What does this all mean for the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of tabletop RPGs? Not all that much. The ascendance of story as a central pillar in RPG design started with Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon in the 1980s, continued with the World of Darkness in the 1990s, and continued further on with Fate in the 2000s and PbtA in the 2010s. Whether a player prefers traditional games or whether they’re interested in direct narrative mechanics, they are still calling for, more often than not, games which support the stories they want to tell at the table. The most complicated rulesets have slowly fallen off in popularity; though games like GURPS and Rolemaster still sell, no one is really making anything new that looks like them. Thanks not only to 5e, but also 2d20, Year Zero, and Genesys/Narrative Dice, the future of the RPG is pretty firmly storycentric.

The reason it’s important to acknowledge story, in whatever form we want it to take, as the central pillar of RPG design is because it will help us move forward and innovate. What has happened in the last 50 years is not proof that RPGs have to be built around story, but rather a demonstration that story is the only thing unique to the medium of the role-playing game. Giving players the keys to the narrative is the one thing you cannot do better with either a dedicated wargame ruleset or a video game, and that will inform RPG design for the rest of the hobby’s history, whether we like it or not. It’s easier to gain an audience for a video game, and it’s way easier to make money off of minis. The reason we design RPGs will be, and must be, the one thing we can do that nothing else can.

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