Sunday, December 2, 2018

Story and Old School D&D

I once saw someone on an old school D&D forum say "My D&D games don't have a story". Many early discussions on such forums were concerned with what distinguished Old School gaming from other kinds of gaming. While these discussions sometimes had merit, they usually ran the risk of excluding things that some players would enjoy because they were as some of my friends on The Piazza say, "badwrongfun". Obviously the same thing was going on in other circles too, from the opposite angle, like the New Editions or in the case of the topic of story, fans of the World of Darkness games or the Forge would criticize (especially early) D&D for the exact things that some old school gamers would take pride in.

But what is story really? A story usually has the following elements:

  • Setting: Not necesarily a published setting with its own boxed set and colorful maps, but a an environment.
  • Characters: In RPG terms, this would be both PCs and NPCs
  • Plot: Things that happen. 
Now, the Old School fan I referred to above was probably talking about a prescripted story (who on earth enjoys that?) or the idea that a good story could trump dice rolls as has been promoted in some non-D&D games. 

But in terms of the definition above, D&D has always had stories. Players and DM's are often seem in gaming stores retelling stories of their old games if they aren't posting about them online. One of the things that always appealed to me is that D&D can be about anything you want. That was one of the great discoveries made by Dave Arneson and his friends when they decided to abandon Napoleonic War Gaming for Fantasy Roleplaying. If you read through the First Fantasy Campaign or any of the other stories from the Twin City Gamers, you will see now much they experimented. 

However, D&D still comes with a set of assumption about what the game should be about. What the story should be like. Although you don't have to play it that way, there is a reason why D&D is usually about young heroes setting into a Dungeon or other dangerous environment, killing monsters and taking their stuff. That is a story right there. 

The setting can be a desert, the elemental plane of fire, or an icy frostland. But it is most often a place with room for the traditional classes, monsters and technology (equipment) found in the rulebooks. Usually there are also some underlying concepts of Chaos vs. Law and possibly Good vs. Evil which can be a little more subtle. 

Characters in D&D are defined by class and race. In movies and novels, an important characteristic of characters is motivation. In D&D motivation is in part represented by Alignment. In addition, all PCs are by default assumed to be interested in Fortune & Glory. Now players can change this up, but the game does assume that the PCs are interested in getting gold and loot. If you decide to play a Paladin or other Lawful type, then perhaps other things are more important. 

So the above are the premises of the default D&D story. What happens if you change some of those assumptions? What if the PCs aren't looking for gold, but instead work towards overthrowing the Emperor? That is where the wonder begins. The possibilities of D&D are endless!



  1. Getting a bit philosophical here.

  2. Story has a place but the difference between old school and new school is in the details. What I'm about to say is admittedly a generalization and certainly there are many ways to play D&D and have fun. For me, the story is not supposed to be scripted by the DM. The story comes from the players and the DM. The DM creates hooks and maybe some rudimentary plots and then casts his or her line out and waits for the PCs to bite. That's the difference for me. However, I do recognize that some DMs do like to create elaborate stories and some players enjoy following those stories. There is no right or wrong, only preferences and sometimes the debate gets heated and personal but I'd rather have that passion than apathy.

    1. Interesting. One would then have to say that the story is not within the set up by the DM. And I've had some seriously pedantic DM;s that wanted me to sit and listen to their home made version of lord of the rings, when all I wanted to do was play... Thus the story is the result of the play sessions. I agree with your premise.

    2. Good input Ghendar. I agree with you absolutely that a scripted story is something I don't think most people would enjoy. However, I am trying to change the meaning of the word story to also include the kind of stories that players and the DM create together. I also think that D&D comes with a significant assumed framework for these "stories". Realizing what that framework is means that DM's with the acceptance can make changes to that framework to create very different adventures. What if the PCs aren't looking for gold? What if the main conflict in the setting isn't between a civilization defined by Law on the border of a wilderness dominated by Chaos? There are so many options and ways to play D&D if the main goal is to have fun!

  3. Well Havard, you got me thinking--A LOT! One thing I would mention that plot is different from event. It's a subtle thing and those can overlap. Even the guy who said he had no "story". Well, he likely had sequences of events that could be described as story. I often see people talking about RPG's and story, yet I do not think they have formulated a very sophisticated understanding of story, or they have created their own personal interpretation of story, which is fine.

    I while back I got into a huge argument about story and plot with a film maker friend. He is an expert on non traditional forms of film making, which most people call experimental, but I hate the word because I feel that there is no experimentation going on, they've found something different and they are trying to apply it within a film with precision. So anyway, he claimed that these films are plot-less and argued that even a painting has plot within it. I'm just going to throw those random thoughts out and we can go from there.

    And I am not saying that I know what story in an RPG is either. Perhaps, one thing we should discuss is the processes and methods for creating plot in an RPG?

  4. Second wave DMs put stories into the adventure. The goal was to go from A to B to C to D. They put effort in at the table to keep players on track. I think this stems from the tournament module style of play.

    First wave Referees allow story to be what you tell after the adventure. This is the Blackmoor/Greyhawk/CSIO/Jacques school then revived with the West Marches and OSR ethic.

    Both kinds of games are okay!

    But it’s important that everyone at the table recognizes what kind of game you’re in.

    I had real trouble for six or seven sessions with my current DM because I’m a first wave player and I didn’t realize he is a second-wave DM. Now I’m having more fun - using my stats and skills to solve puzzles and fights rather than trying to overthrow the Baron.

    1. I could see this being true for published adventures, but I am more wary about making generalizations about how people actually played. Gary Gygax hired Tracy Hickman specifically to add story based elements into the Dragonlance modules.

      The problem was how these modules contained some elements of railroading and did not have enough advice on how to deal with players who did not want to follow these.

      OTOH, my group started playing in the 1980s and we never played any modules, both because we couldnt afford them and because we preferred to create our own dungeons and adventures.

      I won't make any judgement that you prefer focusing on individual puzzles and combats rather than the individual story, but I am not sure your style is more old school than anyone elses. This is another reason why I find terms like old school and descriptions of different generations extremely problematic since there simply isn't enough documentation about how people actually play and have played.

      Look at the FFC and there is plenty of story there.

    2. The premise of an adventure or the setting for the action are not the story though. The story is what the several characters do with that premise in that setting.

      The Ref can supply tons of leads and interesting places and people but the players and their characters - and NPCs - make the story.

    3. I have to disagree, Scott. A story already exists before any D&D adventure. The premise is a story on its own, which the DM and PCs will expand and continue based on what unfolds during the game. At the very least, the premise establishes the parameters for the resulting story.

      For example, the entire framework for a story already existed before Dave Arneson ran the first session of the game that would become D&D. Arneson told the players they were going to play an entirely new game where they would assume the role of characters who delve into a dungeon, fight monsters and pursue treasure.

      Right there, you have a setting, characters and a plot. The story will be about characters in a fantasy setting who delve into a dungeon and fight monsters in a quest for treasure.

      Yes, the final story will be about what the characters do within that framework, but those parameters determined much of the story and what unfolded thereafter. It’s the same with any adventure, no matter how it’s presented.

      Alleged "second-wave" adventures are merely a series of adventure premises with an assumed plot arc. If the PCs pursue the initial premise and a story begins to unfold, they get to the next premise or plot turn, which allows them to choose how they proceed and continue to craft their own story.

      Nothing forces the DM or players to follow the adventure's premises or plot arc as they're presented. Things can change and often do, and the group can do almost anything it wants.

      Even if the group happens to proceed in a way that's compatible with the adventure's assumed plot arc, the story is never going to play out the same way for any group. A unique story will always occur. The players will get to play the roles of characters in a fantasy setting and decide the ultimate outcome. In D&D, that’s all that matters.

  5. What took you folks so long to get here, where some of us have been for over forty years? Welcome to what I call the meta-game, as practiced in the Twin Cities by some guys I used to game with. :)

    Very good post, very good observations, and very good comments! :)

    1. Thanks for your kind comments Chirine! I am glad you are still following my blog my friend! :) I like your term the Meta-Game. :)

  6. Havard, let me say again something I’ve said before: I am very impressed by your command of English. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t know it is a second language for you.

    Some day I hope to speak English as well as you do.

    1. Haha, thank you Scott! Having several good English native speaker friends in real life as well as my online friends certainly helps :)


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