Story Play or Game Piece Play?

game-pieceThe Old School Renaissance is immensely appealing to me. I like a lot of the “simpler is better” philosophy behind the design of adventures and rulesets, and the emphasis on creativity. But I keep bumping my head on one of the common conceits. I think it’s best summed up by this line from the famed module Anomalous Subsurface Environment 1, in which the writer Patrick Wetmore declares, in an advice section for players, “You will probably die at some point. Possibly  repeatedly. That’s okay, rolling up a new character is quick and easy. Don’t take it to heart.”

The thrust of this kind of gaming is centered on problem solving and discovery, and I believe — I can’t be sure — character development and narrative must be de-emphasized. I’ve seen some people playing this way, and the characters are only loosely role-played and the players don’t really speak with their voice at the table. If one is removed from the board, they just drop in a replacement character and keep going.

barrowmazeReading Wetmore’s module, and a favorite of mine, Barrowmaze, as well as countless others that I find appealing, I’ve come to understand my fundamental disconnect with a good chunk of the gaming community. I, and the people I play with, prefer the feel of a TV series, where they develop characters, discover the world, and uncover mysteries and defeat problems. Each episode builds upon the last. I seed events and encounters that lead to new ones. If their characters were constantly dying, they’d lose all the great interaction that depends upon characters referring to past history and growing to depend upon one another — it’s improvisational theatre, and it only gets better the more they play their characters. If one of them were to die it would be like Captain Kirk getting vaporized and being replaced with some new character dropped in from Star Fleet. That death would have an immense impact upon the story, and probably not in a good way.

That’s not to say that characters are never hurt, and sail through without challenge — because overcoming the challenges and succeeding is a real pleasure of the game — but characters don’t usually walk the plank.

kirk-spocks-brainI think the players must like our play style, because they seem to have limited toleration for descending into the stereotypical dungeon. They get bored with lockpicking and random monsters and death traps — they want a story. And not just different people in the dungeon to speak with, or a back story about how the dungeon came to be, but actual story with arcs and climaxes and things that involve them and things that their characters would care about. As a result, if I’m running a game I almost never send my players into the famed dungeons half of Dungeons & Dragons — or at least not a very long one. They might be attracted at first to seeing what’s around the next corner, but eventually they always seem to be wondering (you can see it in their faces) “what’s the point?” In other words, where are the story arcs?

I think I must be in the minority. Most of the products out there aren’t really aimed at me and my players. They come from a friendly neighbor from whom I can borrow ingredients, but never an entire meal. Much as I loved reading Barrowmaze, my players were bored after the first few sessions. They told me it began to feel the same, no matter that it was completely different around every corner. It was just the wrong product for them. They couldn’t be compelled to keep poking the stone to check for traps and search for treasure and fight whatever monster popped up. They wanted to role-play.

How do the rest of you play?  I wonder what the percentage is between story based players and, for lack of a better word, game piece players? I’d be curious about your thoughts. Do some of you play both ways? I find myself kind of wanting to try, as a player, the other style. I bet it would feel more like an improvisational board game in some ways.

5 Comments on “Story Play or Game Piece Play?

  1. I am completely onside with you on this one. There can definitely be tension without the threat of death – most TV series provide evidence of this, as do many movies, especially stuff like James Bond, Jason Bournes, and Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoy a good round of fisticuffs, but what really brings my players back to the table are stories and the characters that inhabit them.

    • The folks I play with are definitely there for the story. They like overcoming the challenges, but long combats bore them, just as they bore me. They prefer other sorts of challenges spiced up with occasional fisticuffs, preferably ones where they don’t just beat on the monster until one of them drops.

  2. I play OSR as quasi-story games as well. Breaking out the grid paper is to me a major bore. And developing characters and seeing their interaction is a joy.

    But I do have character death, and I do it at 0 hp with no Resurrection. The possibility of death really heightens the suspense, the drama, and I’d argue even the verisimilitude. It adds danger to every encounter and makes the victories so much sweeter.

    There are some OSR products that aren’t just mega and nega dungeons. Belying its unsavory reputation, a lot of Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules are built with a lot of social interaction and allow some breathing room for character development. Check out Red and Pleasant Land, World of the Lost, No Salvation for Witches, Better than any Man, and the stuff by Zzarchov Kowolski, just to get started.

    • Absolutely agree with you — long combats are kind of a bore. They can turn into extended sessions of dice rolling as you try to get a high number to whittle down the opponent hit points. I do my best to encourage descriptive play, but even then it can get kind of samey.

      I tend to use bits and pieces from different modules interspersed with my own stuff, tailored for the characters. And I may send some characters back into the Barrowmaze again — but I’m going to give them limited goals and see if I can find a way to make the mystery of the place more compelling for them. It’s a wonderful megadungeon chock full of atmosphere. I’m certain I can make it work for them if I do it right. Well, hopeful, not certain…

  3. I just read “The Lazy Dungeon Master” by Michael Shea, in which he quote’s Phil Vecchione’s “I Don’t Like Published Adventures”. To paraphrase, Vecchione says that published adventures aren’t built around your actual players and that the story is “pre-packaged,” taking away from your own ability to build the story. My parenthetical comment on my recent Black Gate article was meant to convey that my players don’t do what I expect, so they certainly won’t do what a published adventure expects! In my view, published adventures require that players “get on board.” “This is the adventure,” they seem to day, not “You’re free to do what you want!”

    Really this is becoming a kind of “sandbox” vs. “railroad” discussion, which is probably not what you intended, Howard. I will say that, like you, I have played “story based” for all of my life. But also, like you, I am very interested in this “encounter-based” method. I like the idea of PCs being in real danger, the “real life” grind of searching your dungeon surroundings and figuring out how to haul that 1 ton (worth 1,000 gp) carpet out of the foyer! (I have never, ever dealt with this).

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