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In Defence of Narrative RPGs

August 5, 2018

 

I post my thoughts on this blog. With seven billion people on earth (and many more who have lived before), I doubt I can come up with any ideas that are truly original. Hopefully, I can present my ideas here in an interesting way. If I get my ideas directly from somewhere, I would credit the source, but I am not going to cite a long list of references. Also, my ideas are subjective, so feel free to disagree with them.

 

Anyway, I should get to the topic. A while ago, a player in my D&D group told me that Urban Shadows did not feel like a game to him. Let's call him Antony (not his real name). Antony had a lot of experience in tabletop games in general, and had been playing RPGs longer than I do. He was a power gamer (his character's armour class was so high that most enemies could not hit him without rolling a critical), but he was also a very good role-player who act in character. He was in two of the Urban Shadows one-shots that I ran, and they went quite well in my opinion. The major complaint he had was that all the rules could be fit into two pages, which made it not a game. (By the way, Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman is my favourite RPG. I should probably write a review of it at some point.) I see Antony's sentiment echoed by some people on internet as well, who complained that their victories are not earned in narrative RPGs because whatever they say can be true.

 

It reminded me of the debates years ago about whether "walking simulators" like Dear Esther are video games. Some people on the internet argued that Dear Esther is not a game because it does not have a fail-state. To them, a game is something they can win because they are good at it. Antony wanted to be able to build his character the right way and fight strategically in order to "win" an RPG. The stakes in the game had to be supported by numbers and mechanics to be "real" for Antony. In PbtA games and other narrative RPGs, the stakes are reinforced by the story itself. Coming from more traditional games, some players are used to gaming the system, and they see themselves "making up stories" just to win. I think the problem here is that they see the narrative only as part of the game, and they do not act with conviction, which is why their felt they cheated their way through victory.

 

I guess what I want to say is that there are different games for different people. I get why some people enjoy crunching numbers in a game, but if I want to crunch number and optimise stuff, there are more suitable video games I can play by myself. When I play a tabletop RPG with people, I want a collaborative storytelling experience, and numbers and mechanics just get in the way. In narrative RPGs, rules are there to keep the story flowing, and not to present an arithmetic challenge, which is why I love them.

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