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Stories, Characters, Supplements, and Modules


Ever since I can remember having conversations about gaming I've heard arguments over which should be the pan-ultimate focus of a game, the stories or the character. It's neither. It can't be. If a role-playing game session is shelved as some 'interactive literature', where the GM wheedles the world and characters around like puppets, leaving the other players with little control, then what fun can the players have? If characters become the true focus of the game, the characters run rampant and the GM will usually end up having to run a bunch of solos for each character as they do their own thing; and the GM is usually the one blamed for the lack of party cohesiveness. Either way it's a bum deal for the GM and players. Why? Because no-one ends up having fun.

I hate, hate, the terms story-driven and character-driven. Both of them offer restrictive definitions that are not only incorrect in what gaming is, when taken literally (and by many gamers, they are) it also steals a bit of the fun out of gaming. I don't like the fact that the words story, plot, and theme are even associated with RPGs. Of course, what are the alternatives? Well, let us first define exactly what the GM does, and we'll go from there.

It is the job, scratch that, the responsibility of a GM to provide the player characters something to interact with; we'll call that 'the setting' for now. It also increases the potential enjoyment of the game if the GM presents the player characters with challenges and goals. What's the difference between that and a story or a plot? Well, both story and plot have connotations that there is one set way of going through the challenges and achieving those goals. An RPG, on the other hand, relies on the creativity, imagination and quick thinking of the players, and the ways to solve a problem are infinite - or at least varied. While it's true that the re-accounting of a session or campaign could be presented as a story or boiled down to a plot, this is not the goal of gaming.

'What about theme, what's wrong with that term?', I hear you asking. I place this in the same category as metaphor that 'gaming is an art form': pretentious horse-hockey. Role-Playing Games are first and foremost a form of entertainment. The goal of an RPG is escapism, pure and simple. I'm not claiming games can't have a theme, or that some people might actually learn something about human nature or themselves while playing, but the term theme has been thrown about so loosely lately that it has lost some of its meaning. I, for one, do not appreciate the overuse of the term.

The term 'character-driven game', on the other end of the spectrum, has more implications than the characters are the center of the game, the term conjures the thought that the game is controlled by the characters. Granted, a game should be focused on the player characters and the characters should have the spotlight, but the term character-driven places the characters behind the wheel of the game. Character. Driven. Two words separated only by a hyphen. Once again, this term adds the feel of control to a game, the word 'driven' alone implies it. RPGs are a collaborative effort, rather than a competitive one.

Perhaps I am just harping on about linguistics, but most people who hear a term for the first time will think of it literally, and eventually, the term will become a literalism. Which may be fine for some things, but as far as the terms 'story-driven' or 'character-driven' - or anything driven, for that matter - well, I'd like to stay as far away from those terms becoming literalisms as possible.

I'd like to pause for a moment and discuss supplements and modules. Don't worry, it'll all come together in the end.

Supplements are really anything that deals with a game outside of the core rule book, or rule books, so I am being a bit redundant when I say supplements and modules. Modules, for those unfamiliar with the term, are packaged adventures, built to save the GMs some design time. Supplements for the GM on the go, one might say.

We've all been told by the designers that there is not a lot of money in RPG design, and what money there is in RPGs is not in the core books, but the supplements. Why is that? Because most supplements do not take as much design time, play-testing, and re-design and play-testing as an actual RPG system and base-world itself. Plus, when dealing with unreal worlds (as most RPGs do), the amount of research is minimal when compared to the amount of creativity. Because 'the money' is in supplements, it is a rare game which has none. Generic games, such as Steve Jackson's GURPS, rely on them to be complete, and world-based games utilize them for adding depth and detail to the world, as well as to spread new ideas. This is all well and good, conceptually. I have zero problems with adding depth, new system ideas, or completeness to a game.

I do have problems with game universes themselves that are story-driven (see, I told you it would come together). Most designers play in the universes they create. This seems only fair, after all, I'd want to play with something I spent time developing. However, quite a few designers want to share the world changes that happen in their games, they want to share their stories. The problem is, most of their stories are not congruent with the games that are being played across the globe. The earliest example of a changing universe that comes to my mind of a drastic world-change was TSR's AD&D Forgotten Realms.

Once upon a time, our AD&D party was in the Forgotten Realms world (having hitched a ride from Fizban in the Dragonlance world). We went on to do many things, as PCs are wont to do, world altering things, big four-colour (nearly monty haul) world alterations, changing the very foundations of the game itself. Then along game Forgotten Realms second edition, in which the pantheon of the gods changed. That was no problem, we simply ignored all the changes sticking with all our first edition stuff. Yep, no problems. Not until we brought in a new player of course, she had only the second edition materials as reference, which caused great confusion initially, until we dug out our notes and brought her up to our campaign level. Granted, this wasn't a huge problem so much as it was an annoying inconvenience. Inconveniences are something to be avoided.

Details are more easily ignored than world changes. That is, a world-detail, such as a supplement containing officials and maps of a city that the GM has already created on his own, are easier for a group to deal with (ignore, play along with, etc.) than the fall of an emperor or the loss of a continent. This is how story-driven worlds can become a problem, and why so many gamers don't like story-driven worlds. Story-driven worlds limit the control of both the GM and the players.

There is a possible solution for designers who wish to present us with story-driven worlds, carried from supplement to supplement: modules, and not story-driven modules either. With each story-changing supplement an reciprocally active module could be included that would allow the PCs to assist in every major world-change. This would change the world and game from seeming story-driven to an interactivity between designers, GMs, and players, which is what a game world should be.

Interaction is what fuels a game - and a game should be fueled, not driven. All participants within a game should have an equal amount of control over the game. So, to sum up: story-driven gaming gives too much control to the GM, character-driven gaming gives too much control to the players, and story-driven worlds give too much control to the designers. Shared experiences are much more fun than controlled experiences, after all.

Erich S. Arendall

What do you think?

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