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My Problem with the Storytelling Movement

Note: This article was originally published in issue #10 of arcane magazine and also appears on the author's website.

by Louis J. Prosperi

It's hard to say when it really started. Some people might tell you that it didn't start with any one game, but that it grew out of countless campaigns run by roleplayers looking for more out of their games than dungeons, monsters, and hit points. Some people would say it started with the first release of White Wolf Game Studio's Vampire: The Masquerade in 1990. Others might say it started before then, with the release of Lion Rampart's Ars Magica. Personally, I think it began with the publication of Vampire: The Masquerade 2nd Edition in 1992. To me that's when all the trouble really started. What is this trouble I'm talking about? What I'm referring to is trend in roleplaying games towards 'storytelling,' what I might call the 'storytelling movement.'

Now, before you jump up and say 'What do you mean storytelling is trouble?' let me explain a few things. First, I think in many ways, the 'storytelling movement' is a good thing. I applaud the efforts of all the game designers who have tried to emphasize the elements of story and fiction in their games. After all, stories are what roleplaying games are really all about; you've got characters, a setting, and a plot, the three basic ingredients of any good story. If you're into more 'sophisticated' games, you might even be shooting for a certain mood, and the story you're playing might have a compelling theme. Do I have a problem with this? Absolutely not.

No, the problem I have, or the trouble I'm referring to, is an ugly outgrowth of the efforts of these game designers, one which most of them probably don't consider to be positive, and one which most of them probably never anticipated. What I'm talking about is the tendency I've noticed among players of the 'storytelling-style games' to adopt an air of superiority over the people who enjoy the more 'game-related' aspects of RPGs, such rolling dice and bending rules. That's right, superiority. Let it sink in a bit. Some people actually believe that the style of game they play is innately superior to that of others. Does anyone else think these people need to take themselves just a little less seriously? And the part of this that really gets to me is that most of these people don't simply have a preference of how to play, nor do they merely suggest that others try it. No, that would be reasonable. My problem is that lots of these 'storytelling' players and gamemasters truly believe (or at least act as they do) that there is a 'best' way to play games. To me, that's like saying there is a best way to watch TV or a movie, or read a book, or enjoy anything in life. Am I the only one who thinks this attitude is just a tad bit arrogant?

What's wrong with people playing roleplaying games for the same reasons they might play Risk, or Monopoly, or Magic: The Gathering? What's wrong with approaching a roleplaying game with an attitude that your character is little more than a playing piece? When did the word game become a four-letter word? Who is to say one style is better than another? Frankly, I think the idea of anyone claiming that their way of playing 'make believe' is better than someone else's is absurd. I also think it's destructive and has the potential to harm the roleplaying hobby. Okay, so now am I taking this too seriously? Maybe, but I honestly don't think so. For instance, this trend has affected the way some players evaluate different games.

By way of example, I'd like to share a short anecdote that really demonstrates some of the effects of this attitude about 'storytelling' games. This occurred on the Earthdawn Internet Mailing List sometime ago, when a discussion thread had begun regarding the difference between game mechanic drawbacks, and those imposed by a game environment, or what was referred to as roleplaying drawbacks. After one participant stated their view that 'roleplaying' drawbacks don't work, another participant responded by citing the example of Ars Magica, a game in which 'roleplaying' drawbacks are used effectively. The reply to this was 'But this is Earthdawn, a roleplaying game, NOT Ars Magica, a storytelling game.'

Can anyone tell me what the difference between the two is? No, I don't mean between Earthdawn and Ars Magica, but between a 'roleplaying game' and a 'storytelling game?' No? I didn't think so.

How about we all just relax and admit that there is no one 'best' way to play roleplaying games, and enjoy the games we play, the way we play them, and allow others to do the same. After all, isn't the whole point of these games to have fun?

Copyright ©1999 Louis J. Prosperi

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