Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Core Stories (I'd Call 'Em Formulas)

John Kim pointed to this post on Mike Mearls' LiveJournal in a response yesterday. Go take a look, it's interesting.

His argument is that a role-playing game should have a predictable formula that describes what in instance of play is like. For example, he quotes Ryan Dancey's core story of D&D:

"A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again."


I'm not sure that I agree. I don't dispute that having a core story for your game helps people understand what they're supposed to be doing in the SIS. What I don't like is the idea that this is mandatory. Maybe it's just me being stubborn and resistant. What do you folks think? Can you give examples of games that don't have a core story that you have enjoyed with your group?

9 Comments:

Anonymous Scott Knipe said...

I think you can have a good experience with a game sans "core story". The Pool, doesn't exactly have a core story, although maybe it fills the same niche as GURPS (as described by Mearls, GURPS allows you to hijack other games' core stories). Point being, the players can provide the necessary vision.

From a game design perspective though, lack of core story (or premise, or formula, or whatever you want to call it), equals bad design. Maybe you've written a resolution mechanic and some fictiony setting stuff, but anyone can do that. If you can't articulate what the players are supposed to do, you've failed as a game designer. Because without it, yes, maybe some people out there will derive necessary inspiration from your setting or whatever to figure out something to do and have an enjoyable experience, but it's a lot harder, far from guaranteed, and won't be true across the board (not as true, anyway, as a game with a solid core story).

Thursday, June 02, 2005 1:15:00 PM  
Blogger Brendan said...

Nobilis. My group has ended more sessions by beating the crap out of baddies than not, but they've also solved a murder mystery, gone back in time to cause another character's conception, and gotten caught with a bunch of dead hookers while running for President.

That's not to say "look how awesome my guys are"--it's to point out that while Nobilis certainly sets up the "discover Flower Rite attack, unravel Excrucian plot, beat Excrucian, go home" formula, I don't think the system actually encourages it. Most of the excellent "how to run a story arc" text in the book avoids formula while still giving the GM great situation-building blocks.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 1:27:00 PM  
Blogger John Harper said...

I'd say a complete game design has to either give you a formula in a clear way (Dogs, MLwM, The Mountain Witch) or give you the tools to make your own formula (PTA, Universalis, TSoY).

Games which do neither of those are incomplete from a design perspective. A certain group can still play such a game and have fun, but it's not a complete game.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 4:19:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

So does a game need a core story to be complete, or is it just guidance of some sort that is needed?

I think that what players really need is a structure about how to structure a story and what implications the genre of the game have on that structure. My main problem with the core story idea is that it assumes that uniformity at the game system level is the goal. But the best adventures, IMHO, are the ones that break the mold. Playing in the confines of a formula results in consistency, but not in amazingly good storytelling. It's the same as the difference between a formula movie script and a really original, well written screenplay.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 5:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Scott Knipe said...

Jay,

I'm not prepared to dismiss your movie metaphor, but I can offer a different one (courtesy of Paul Czege):

Would you consider freeverse a superior form of poetry than Shakespeare's sonnets? Does the fact that sonnets have a "formula" limit their authors' creativity or enhance it?

And when you say what you want "is a structure about how to structure a story and what implications the genre of the game have on that structure", that seems pretty close to "A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again." Maybe I'm not getting you though.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 7:21:00 PM  
Blogger John Kim said...

Jay -

I think that having a formula is good from a game design perspective. I also think you're right that the best stories will break the formula. These aren't contradictory. If you want ordinary people to be able to pick up a game and learn, then there needs to be a simple starting point. Later, as they get more experienced, they will move past that. If you want a game to be good for long-term play by advanced players, the system should be flexible to move past the core story.

A skilled gamer doesn't need anything to help him. He can write his own setting, homebrew his own system, and similarly create all the other necessities. So, yes, I've certainly had good games using published systems without core stories.

Friday, June 03, 2005 1:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

I totally agree with you, John. Sorry if I've not been very good about articulating it.

Friday, June 03, 2005 3:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My problem with the "core story" approach to game design is that when it is combined with the "extremely focused system" mechanism of design you get games that are very little besides their core story.

I think that's a mistake. I'm also not real sure what the core-story is for GURPS or Hero and, if they can be great games without one, what does having one add?

Obviously it may help people get started--that seems logical--but I think we need to look at what an older demographic gets out of a standard RPG that isn't particularly clear about its core story to compare them to.

-Marco

Monday, August 01, 2005 9:36:00 AM  
Blogger wbrant said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a macbeth cabin site/blog. It pretty much covers macbeth cabin related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

Saturday, October 22, 2005 11:54:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home