Dungeons and Dragons and Narrative Gaming
The last few weeks have seen a spike in Twitter threads dealing with narrative or “story based” gaming. In some ways this isn’t really a surprise, with the preponderance of newer games that focus on narrative at the table.
For purposes of discussion, let’s define “narrative” or “story” gaming as gaming where the needs of the “narrative” or the “story” are put above the other aspects of the game. So in a story game it is often possible for the GM or the players to change a result or waive a rule in order to serve the story better.
So, for example, a player might spend “story points” to change a dice roll, or a game that has variable results from a dice roll (e.g. strong success, barely successful, mild failure, catastrophic failure) might allow the player to shift the result up or down, e.g. from a catastrophic failure to a mild failure. Another game might allow a player to activate an ability or obtain an important item if it fits into their backstory or goals.
Indeed, story based games often prioritize in-depth background creation and use that background to determine how the game unfolds, so the DM might place encounters or NPCs that connect to a character’s backgrounds, and allow that background to influence the unfolding of the session.
This leaves us with a few important aspects of story gaming:
1. The game is oriented towards ensuring that the needs of the story are paramount.
2. In most cases this is achieved by some sort of consensus process that involves everyone at the table, story tools are active, not passive.
Dungeons and Dragons, for the most part, is not characterized as a “story game”, primarily as it lacks tools for players to actively manipulate the game in the name of the narrative. Dungeons and Dragons is viewed as a crunchy, rules based game, a “hack and slash” game, a “beer and pretzels” game, one where the focus isn’t on individual characters and keeping them around to maintain the narrative, but instead on playing out the scenarios and letting the, “dice fall where they may.''
In short, Dungeons and Dragons is not a “story game” as it’s primary focus is enacting the mechanics, not telling a story. Yes, you can “tell a story” about your Dungeons and Dragons game, but this is an after the fact sort of thing, it isn’t the focus of the game.
Story-Focused Gaming, Active and Passive Mechanics
I think the first source of the tension between Dungeons and Dragons and more “story focused” games is precisely this contrast, the idea that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t a story focused game as it lacks the ability for the players to actively manipulate the outcomes in service of the story.
I want to dispel this idea. Dungeons and Dragons is a story game, as a matter of fact all RPG’s are story games, however the way they go about using narrative varies. You can usefully think of this along a spectrum, from consensus games where everyone has a say in shaping the outcome in an active way to “serve the narrative” to “the DM is final arbiter” games where narrative tools are often passive, not active.
There are no ‘take backs’ in Dungeons and Dragons as it is written, if you take enough damage you die. Yes, you can seek out a spell to bring back your character, but that takes actions in game, in-game resources, etc. You don’t just get to say, “My character comes back to life!”, or roll a miss and declare “My character actually hit”.
However, Dungeons and Dragons has ample passive narrative tools, a passive narrative or story tool is one that functions to mimic narrative structures without direct action on the part of the player. So rather than the player saying, “I don’t want my PC to die here, I’ll change this result by spending my story points”, the player has a baked in safety valve in the mechanics of the game. Dungeons and Dragons also has some active story tools, though fewer in number. I’ll discuss both.
There are a number of different passive narrative tools in Dungeons and Dragons:
1. Saving Throws - Gygax states plainly that a PC should always have a chance, even a remote one, of surviving a deadly attack. A PC chained to a rock then breathed upon by a dragon should still have a chance to survive. Many spells in Dungeons and Dragons have an option for a saving throw, in many cases this saving throw negates the spell effects entirely, much like an active narrative tool could change the deadly result of a spell. Dungeons and Dragons also includes “save for half” mechanics, where you can get more granular results than “full damage/no damage”.
2. Hit Points - Hit points in Dungeons and Dragons are NOT strictly physical, they are physical + luck + agility + favor of the gods. Hit points are quite literally “story points”, passive narrative tools that give your PC a better chance at survival. So rather than actively changing a result, your PC has a buffer against early death. In game what this means is that higher level characters can survive things that would quickly and easily slay a lower level PC. This is meant to emulate the ability of important characters to survive the challenging events in a story.
3. Levels - The “zero to hero” progression of Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of a passive story mechanic. To reflect the nature of heroes in literature, a Dungeons and Dragons character starts weak and becomes more powerful over time. This is a story tool as it mimics the nature of heroes in stories, they often start off a nobody but over time become more powerful and more important. Levelling “serves the narrative” in that it influences outcomes to make the game more like it’s narrative sources, as increasing in level leads to more powerful opponents and greater power and ability on the part of players. The fact that HP and saves improve with levelling underscores this point, levelling is clearly meant to emulate the progression of the hero in fantasy literature.
4. The “Mook Rule”, 0-Level NPCs, Morale and Encounter Reactions - In order to emulate the ability of the hero to easily overcome minor threats, Dungeons and Dragons has the “mook rule” for fighters, where they get one attack per experience level against 0-Level monsters (e.g. kobolds, goblins and non-levelled soldiers, mercenaries, etc, etc.) Also, the default for the majority of NPCs in the game world is that they are 0-level, 1-6 HP and easily dispatched by even a low level fighter. So rather than the player saying, “My fighter is a hero, he shouldn’t have this much trouble fighting a kobold, I’m spending a story point to increase my number of attacks this round”, the fighter gets multiple attacks to reflect their prowess.
Morale and encounter reaction rules are similar, rather than the player having to say, “I’m using my story points to intimidate those orcs as they should be terrified of my character” there are passive tools in the game to reflect the narrative tendency of foes to flee a superior opponent. Encounter reaction rules with charisma modifiers emulate the tendency for a smooth talking protagonist to be able to influence others.
There are also a number of active narrative tools in Dungeons and Dragons:
1. “The Rule of Cool” and “Rulings over Rules” - One of the core aspects of “Old school” or OSR play is the idea of the rule of cool, or “rulings over rules”, if the PC suggests doing something “cool” then the DM can overrule the rules to make it happen, or create a new rule to allow it to be tried. EVERY table I have ever played at has invoked this rule at some point, and what is this other than a “narrative tool” to allow the players to do something that exceeds the rules but would make for a better story? This is an active story tool as it takes precedence over the written rules and involves active choices on the part of the players and DM.
2. In-Play Adjustments: Peruse Twitter and gaming forums and you will see endless threads talking about how the DM can mess with the rules in-game in order to avoid undesirable results. The examples are numerous: DM’s listening to players ideas about what is happening and changing the course of events to match those ideas, DM’s adjusting the number of monsters, monster HP or abilities on the fly to make the encounter “more interesting” or “more challenging”, adjustments with clear narrative implications.
“Fudging” dice is another example of this, and when you slog through the almost endless threads on this one thing becomes clear, pretty much everyone thinks fudging a lot is bad, but fudging occasionally isn’t a bad idea, as the game is complex and sometimes it kills the fun to follow the rules exactly
3. Hand-Waving: There are a lot of rules in Dungeons and Dragons, and many of them are “hand-waved” in order to make the game flow more smoothly or to make it more enjoyable. At its root this is a narrative process, for example: many groups don’t bother with tracking ammunition or spell components as they find this too tedious, which is really another way of saying it “doesn’t serve the narrative”, e.g. Conan stories don’t go into great detail about Conan managing his supply of arrows. That’s not an exciting story to tell, so why have it in your Dungeons and Dragons game?
4. Role-Play: this may seem obvious, but Dungeons and Dragons gives players extreme latitude with respect to directing their characters, alignment is tolerant of a wide range of behavior, class restrictions are as well. Freedom of role-play is an active narrative tool, it allows a player to direct the actions of their character in any way they want to serve what they believe to be the story they want to tell about them, the role they are playing, even if it isn’t the best course of action according to the rules. The fact that a rules based concept like alignment can change in game based on the character’s actions, directed by the players, suggests that role-play is an active story tool in the game. If the rules dominated the story then your alignment would determine your actions, instead, Dungeons and Dragons explicitly states that a character’s actions are determined by the player, and if they don’t match the character’s alignment then the alignment will change.
The active tools for narrative control of the game are mostly in the hands of the DM in Dungeons and Dragons, not the players, but that doesn’t change the fact they are there and they are active. Also, many of these tools involve some sort of consensus. So for example, the “rule of cool” is often invoked by a player who feels their idea is “cool” and worth bending the rules for, and in most cases everyone has to agree to it for the exception to be made. At my table, a player can say, “I should be able to do X, rule of cool!” and we put it to a table vote to see if an exception is made.
Hand waving various rules mechanics is also generally a collaborative thing, and it can certainly be initiated by a player, e.g. a player mentions that tracking spell components is tedious, and the group collectively decides to stop tracking them.
Narrative Gaming and Dungeons and Dragons
The point of the above argument has been to reframe the understanding of Dungeons and Dragons so it is regarded as a “story game”, by changing the understanding of what constitutes a story-game. Dungeons and Dragons has few active story tools for players, but it has ample passive story tools, and a small handful of active story tools that are usually shared by the DM and players.
Why does this matter?
Primarily as there has been a false dichotomy foisted on the gaming community with respect to Dungeons and Dragons, namely that for a game to be a “story game” it needs active story tools in the hands of the players, rather than passive story tools and active story tools in the hands of the group.
As a result, camps are being formed and reinforced, differences are being exaggerated, and animosities are being created over nothing. Artificial distinctions like these tend to create division and resentment, and lead people to assume things about others, e.g. “story gamers are crybabies that just want everything without consequences”, or “beer and pretzel’s gamers just want to kill stuff.”
The pervasiveness of these assumptions is wild. For example, it has been noted many times that a lot of Dungeons and Dragons happens “outside the rules”, e.g. role playing in Dungeons and Dragons has very few rules, but many groups report spending more than half their table time role playing. Nonetheless Dungeons and Dragons players will be derided as “murder hobos” with no interest in anything but “killing monsters and taking their stuff”. On the other hand, story gamers will be accused of not caring about the rules and engaging in “dinner theatre gaming”.
In actuality, everyone is playing games with a focus on story/narrative, the difference is the degree and the execution.
Advantages of the Dungeons and Dragons Approach
There has been much written about the advantages of the active story tools used in many modern games, but much less about the passive story tools that define Dungeons and Dragons. I think this is largely as the passive story tools are hidden to most people, so their advantages are missed.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that active story tools are bad, or shouldn’t be used, I’m suggesting that passive story tools have unacknowledged advantages. I’ll discuss a few of those advantages.
One of the most rewarding aspects of role playing is the ability to immerse yourself in your character and in the gaming environment. When the game is working well, you forget about the outside world for a time, and while at the table you become your character in a way. Active story tools remove you from that process and break immersion so you can adjust the result of a game mechanic in some way. Passive tools do not do this, instead they bake the story tool into the game mechanics so it becomes invisible. The most obvious proof of this is that most people don’t even think of HP as story tools, even though they are all aware that HP are not entirely physical.
Oddly enough active story tools are not the only way to give players agency. If a PC survives an attack or encounter because they spend “story points” to alter results that can give them a sense of agency in the game. However, surviving the encounter because of the choices you make is also empowering. Because players don’t see HP and levels as story tools they take them to be aspects of their character, so when they survive the encounter it's because of their actions and choices, not because they got to change a dice roll. This creates a sense of agency.
The sense of achievement associated with RPGs is palpable. Surviving and thriving in a dangerous environment is rewarding, facing the threat of death creates excitement and visceral reactions on the part of players. This is one of the side effects of role-playing, immersion in the character that leads to similar responses on the part of the player when their character has particular experiences. It is also sometimes called “bleed”.
For better or for worse, the ability of a game to put up barriers and experiences that *cannot* be overruled adds to the gaming experience. It is one thing to beat the dragon when you can reverse results or appeal to the DM to change things. It is quite another when you don’t do either of these things, but instead the results are a consequence of your actions and choices only. Passive story tools create the illusion that the consequences are solely the result of your choices. Of course this isn’t strictly true, but for the purposes of enjoying the game it certainly applies.
One of the biggest complaints about gaming is time, e.g. such and such a mechanic or rule slows down the game too much. Passive narrative tools do not require players to make choices, they are baked into the game instead. This saves time at the table, as players don’t have to actively choose to alter a result to “serve the narrative”, it happens automatically. Over time this saving accumulates and becomes significant.
I’m not against games with active story tools, nor am I against the use of active story tools in Dungeons and Dragons. I have some concerns about “double dipping”, e.g. if you use leveling and HP AND you add active story tools to your game you have to be cognizant of the fact you are putting a lot of control over the narrative into the hands of the group. That isn’t in and of itself a problem, but it is worth noting.
Still, I don’t see any reason why Dungeons and Dragons couldn’t incorporate more active narrative tools into its regular operating procedure.
However, it’s time to drop this idea that somehow Dungeons and Dragons is not a game with narrative tools, that it isn’t designed with story in mind, or that it is somehow impossible to allow for narrative concerns to influence the rules in Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is up to its hips in narrative tools, but many of them are baked in or a matter of group consensus rather than being available as active tools for the individual player to use.
RPG’s vary in the degree and kind of narrative tools, not in their presence or importance to the game. Once we all realize this, it will become easier to discuss the real issues at hand, e.g. how game play impacts player agency, how does authority work in the game, how can we structure play to be inclusive, fun and fair, etc, etc.