Chess and RPGs and Stories

So recently John Wick, who is a heck of a smart dude and a heck of a game designer, wrote a thing about chess and RPGs and stories, and everyone spent a moment in thoughtful contemplation.

Ha, no, of course not.  Everyone freaked right the heck out.  And who am I to fight a trend?  Anyway, this won’t make much sense unless you go read John’s thing first, so you definitely should.

“These things are roleplaying games, and these other things are not roleplaying games” should not, in theory, be anything to freak out over.  In practice, people have always freaked out over this sort of thing:

  • “This stuff is punk music, this other stuff is not punk music”
  • “This stuff is science fiction, this other stuff is not science fiction”
  • “These opinions are feminist, these other opinions are not feminist”
  • “These people are Christian, these other people are not really Christian”
  • “These objects are planets, but Pluto over there is not a planet”

Always with the freaking out, despite (or perhaps because of) it not really making any difference.  One day call Pluto a planet, the next call it not a planet — it’s still the same cold ball of rock that it ever was.  One day call D&D an RPG, the next decide it’s not — it’s still the same thing.  Nothing changes.  “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

I’m predisposed to the tack taken by the fine people over at Story Games who basically decided, fine, if calling something an RPG is really upsetting you that much, we’ll call it something else.  Anyone get upset if we call it a Story Game?  No?  Okay good.

That’s not a bad segue into stories, which is mostly what Wick is talking about.  “The focus of an RPG is to tell stories” he asserts, and I’m not inclined to disagree with him.

Here’s a story:  “Gutboy Barrelhouse was born, grew up, and found some friends.  They wanted some gold, and they heard there was some gold in a hole in the ground, so down they went.  Then Gutboy got stung by a giant bee and he died.”

That’s a story.  Maybe it’s a good story, maybe it’s not — that argument has been around long before anyone was arguing what’s an RPG and what isn’t, and lots of people a lot smarter than anyone I know have tackled it, and we’re still not any closer to solving it.

So let’s say we have the story of Gutboy and his good friend Falstaff and how they descended into a hole in the ground.  It’s a D&D story which means, as I have mentioned earlier, that it’s about our heroes solving their problems with violence.

How shall we establish contrast and distinguish between the characters of Gutboy and Falstaff?  It won’t be through their motivations, because they share the same motivation.  It won’t be through their past, because they have no past.

The obvious answer is to distinguish them by their personal means of inflicting violence, which is, of course, what our story is about.  Ergo, a big list of weapons is exactly what this story needs, despite John Wick’s assertion that it’s just noise that gets in the way of telling the story.

And we get a story of Gutboy inflicting violence upon his enemies with a dozen tiny knives and deaths of a thousand cuts, and of Falstaff decapitating his foes with an enormous bearded axe, and it’s a good (or not) story.  Then they get stung by giant bees and die.

We see this all the time in non-RPG but still violence-based stories.  Characterization through weaponry, I mean, not death by giant bees.  Dirty Harry and his .357 Magnum.  James Bond and his Walther PPK.  David and his sling versus Goliath and his sword.

I mostly agree with what John Wick has to say on this topic; I think our slight disagreements arise merely by virtue of being interested in different types of stories.  Which is, of course, not any sort of problem at all.


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