Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Storytelling Series: Games & Story

Welcome to a new series on storytelling that I will be featuring on my blog, hopefully monthly.  As a writer, I tend to see stories in everything.  So in order to prove I am not completely out of my mind, I have enlisted the help of some friends to help illustrate how stories help weave together the our lives from day to day.  Every where we turn there is a story, in the news, on TV, in the movies we watch, the plays and art we see, the games we play.  This first guest post about Games and Story is by my good buddy and big time gamer, Rich Redman.  I've known Rich since high school. As a matter of fact, I think I was one of the people he experimented on as an early game master and I have the twitches to prove it.   Anyway, here is how Rich describes himself as a writer/storyteller/gamer.  I highly recommend you check out his blog and other works, he is a discerning critic and a great writer.

Now an eccentric recluse, Mr. Redman publishes digitally because it's easierfrom his mountaintop fortress in Tibet. He claims to have a harem of firstreaders, and an army of bloodthirsty, opium-addicted, yetis who keep thechildren off his lawn. Mr. Redman is a multiple winner of National NovelWriting Month. He has written for, Dungeons & Dragons,Magic: The Gathering, Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, Pathfinder, StarWars, Dark*Matter, and d20 Modern.Web: www.richredman.wsTwitter: @richredman

Games & Story

I have always been a gamer. My parents introduced us to board and card games at early ages. My sisters and I played everything from checkers to Monopoly together – not always peacefully. Sometime in late 1979 or early 1980, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons®, a role-playing game (RPG), and I’ve played it ever since. I’ve been writing tabletop RPG material professionally since 1999. My first computer game was the WWI air combat game that was part of the very first Microsoft Flight Simulator. My dad bought it for himself (he had a private pilot license for a while), and never got to use it because I was always shooting down biplanes.
So I’m what they call a grognard: Someone who’s been a gamer for a long time.
I was one of the first people in my group of friends to discover “D&D.” Since no one else knew how to play, and since I had to teach them, and since I didn’t want to game solely with my younger sisters (only one of whom was evenly vaguely interested), I took on the role of Dungeon Master (more on that below). I created adventures for my players to experience.

Do Games Have Story?

Yes, they do.
Some games have stories because the players create them. For example, many people make up stories about the properties, houses, and hotels they acquire in Monopoly. Ask any child or teen about the video game that they’re playing, and what they tell you sounds like a story.
Some computer games have stories because game writers and designers program them to. Players in those games make choices that lead them to one of the programmed endings.

Do Games Need Story?

This is actually a controversial question in game design. 
What game designers and psychologists alike observe is that players create story even when there isn’t a clear character, or even when the character has its own identity.
Listen to a child talk about playing a Mario game, or to an adolescent talk about playing the latest driving or sports game. They strongly identify with characters, teams, and action in the game. Adults do the same thing, but they tend to play more violent games and their language gets a little blue. Players string together events to make “and then” stories.
“The race started and I passed, like, half the pack before we hit the first curve, and then I was in second place so I started working on the lead car. I put some better brakes on my car this time, so I could brake later and come off the brakes faster, and then…”
So video game designers wonder how much time and money they need to spend designing story. If players find their own stories in any game, perhaps there’s no need to create additional story.
The art of story is in creating a compelling character in a relatable context with a thrilling conflict. Further, it lies on clearly identifying turning points in the story, building tension up to each point, and then releasing it, until the story’s climactic moment.
When players inject themselves into games, they rarely consider that art. Races, for example, may be of varying lengths and may get faster as the player “earns” or “unlocks” faster cars, but there are no turning points or climactic moments.
Games such as Battlefield, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto 5 do have them. Their fans relish the stories and want sequels so they can revisit characters and the contexts. They enjoy the tools available within the game, and using them to overcome challenges.
Grand Theft Auto is actually an odd exception, because the setting and character change with each game. Only the themes of criminal activity and driving are persistent.
What about D&D?
A tabletop RPG, like Dungeons & Dragons, in practice, is like a cross between improvisational theater and poker night. You get together with your friends for a few hours. You share some food and drink. You catch up with each other’s lives. At the same time, each of you has a character except for the gamemaster (GM; sometimes called a Dungeon Master, DM, Referee, or Storyteller).
Your character is not you. Your character is a role that you play in your little improve troupe. You might be a mighty warrior, a cunning wizard, or a clever rogue.
The characters, as a group, act as the protagonist. The DM provides the context (setting, including everyone else in the world besides your characters) and the conflict. Typically, that story is called an adventure. A bunch of thematically linked adventures make up a campaign. As your characters try to resolve the conflict, a plot unfolds.
It’s the DM’s job to describe how the context reacts to the party’s actions, and to constantly provide you with more information. Good GMs follow the improv theater model – they say, “Yes, and…” What comes after “and” is how the context reacts.
For example, JoAnna’s character comes upon a locked door. While the rest of the party guards her, she listens to see if she hears anything beyond the door. Typically, JoAnna rolls some dice and adds some skill rating from her character to the total of the dice roll. She tells the total to the DM, and the DM uses the game rules to determine what, if anything, her character hears. Then JoAnna decides that her character will pick the lock. She does the dice rolling again, and the DM tells her whether or not she can open the door. If she cannot, she puts her head together with those of the other players, and they figure out another way around the obstacle.
The player decides what the character does. The character’s skill, and some random factor, determines whether the character succeeds. Based on the results of skill plus random factor, the GM describes what happens.
While the game rules can be complicated, playing the game actually isn’t.

My Experience

My first stories were terrible. Granted, I didn’t have the best examples. 
My first box of D&D rules didn’t even have dice. It came with an adventure called B1: In Search of the Unknown. It was a map of a bunch of tunnels and underground chambers, accompanied by a thin book describing the contents of the rooms and anything special about them – hidden traps, locks, secret doors, and so forth. 
None of the rooms had inhabitants or rewards for the players. In D&D, those rewards would be treasure in the form of gold coins, magic weapons, mysterious potions, gems, jewelry, and so forth. Each DM had to populate the dungeon himself (or herself, I was lucky to always have female players in my groups, some of whom wanted to tell their own stories). I packed the place with monsters, weighted it down with treasure, and turned my players loose to loot and pillage to their hearts’ content.
At first, I thought that’s what all adventures were like. The characters met in a tavern, heard about some long-lost hole in the ground reputedly filled with valuables protected by fiendish traps and horrible monsters. They killed and looted their way through the hole, and then spent their money on better weapons, armor, and magic, so they’d be better equipped for the next long-lost hole.
While I ran games for my friends, I also played them at our local library with another group of people. I saw other published adventures, and those created by DMs. I realized that many adventures had real stories. So, I tried my hand at those.
They were awful.
Mind you, I thought they were awesome. However, I had specific ways that I expected things to happen, and a specific vision for how the characters would act, react, and interact with my lovingly crafted context and conflict. 
Thus, I learned one of the basic laws of GMing: No story survives first contact with the players intact.
Where I expected them to runaway, they attacked. Where I wanted them to attack, they ran away. Where I thought the need for stealth was obvious, they thought it was a good idea to smash down doors, bang on the walls, and generally raise Hell. Safe spots that I purposely created to give them a chance to rest and recover, they treated as sources of imminent danger.
It wasn’t their fault. It was mine. We call what I was doing railroading. As in, I expected the party to get on a set of rails and follow those rails, unerringly, through the adventure.
I was lucky. Enough players encouraged my early, flawed, efforts that I kept playing and kept writing.

Live and Learn

Hopefully, you love writing. I did, and I still do. I feel much the same about gaming. In fact, the thing I hate the most about working two part-time jobs and constantly scrounging for new contracts is that I have so little time to write game material.
Still, that love carried me this far and, if you don’t remember anything else, I hope you’ll remember that I got better, as a writer and good enough as a game designer to actually work, for several years, designing material for the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
Keep doing it. Keep learning. With any luck, you’re smarter and faster learners than me, and it won’t take you thirty years to see your progress.

Rich Redman

Twitter: @richredman


Next Month check out a post by Valerie Brincheck, artiste extraordinaire, about how art is a form of storytelling for her.

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