Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Great Debate: Story vs Rules

Bannister Nicholas posted some interesting thoughts on the topic of Does Story Trump Rules?... it's a messy subject because there's a huge amount of room for debate, and the terms are not really definitive, and there's a great deal of emotion vested in this topic by many players of RPGs. So, that said... here I go. Diving into the mess head first.

I got to thinking about this never-ending debate between RPG Gamists and RPG Storyists. Which takes precedence over the other? Story or Rules? Usually the answer is related to what people on either side of the debate claim is more "fun". Some think story is more fun (as long as the story goes the way they feel is fun ... some stories are actually not fun, though they are definitely stories. For example, as Bannister points out, Romeo and Juliet is a classic tragedy).  Other people feel that playing RPGs as a game is more fun.

Of course one might immediately notice that "fun" is completely subjective. For some people playing an RPG as a game is the most fun. For other people playing an RPG as a story is the most fun. Usually the debate turns into a burning pile of turds when either side claims that what they think is fun is the only true fun, and what the other people think is fun, to borrow a nasty turn of the phrase from yesteryear, is BadWrongFun. This claim that one group's fun is wrong is at the heart of the entire controversy. I've written about this in the past and don't care to regurgitate my position endlessly on this, and it's all old history by now anyway, so I'd like to move along to what occurs to me about all of this.

So there's two orientations for RPG Players (more, actually, but let's keep it simple for this discussion). There's Story Orientation and Rules Orientation. Sometimes people want to orient their game towards Story, sometimes they want to orient towards Rules. For those who prefer Story-Orientation, the objective is often stated to be Immersion. And since Immersion is fun, Story wins for them. In the other case of Rules Orientation, the objective is to play a Game, and for those people this is fun.

What seems to be the case, and what makes this so messy and un-resolvable, is that RPGs appear to straddle this strange realm between these two incompatible worlds of desire.  What makes it so difficult to resolve is that most players seem to want both from their RPGs, but in differing degrees based probably on something as whimsical as their mood of the moment while they're playing.  In one turn strict adherence to the rules seems perfectly justified to them, while in the next a fudged die roll so that the plot does not get derailed by an errant bit of bad luck feels just as justified.  It's kind of schizophrenic, actually.  But I do see it quite often among most of the players I know.  It's odd, but there you have it.

What is almost impossible, I think, is to actually balance the two objectives. This is because, I think, in the case of Rules it's a binary proposition. You are either following the rules, or you're cheating, and in games cheating is not allowed. But for Story Oriented players cheating seems ok so long as the story is interesting, or meaningful, or at least fun, and it doesn't happen constantly.

There are risks with both styles. For story oriented players the risk is that the GM will railroad the game in order to create a "fun" story.  Usually this means, in most cases I've encountered, that the Players win.  They save the princess, get the loot, kill the monsters, or what have you.  However, the problem is that this takes away their agency as players and that ruins their fun because it eliminates challenge in the game. On the other side for Rules gamers there is a risk the GM will secretly or overtly cheat (or make mistakes), or the players will cheat (or behave like munchkins), which ruins their fun because cheating is Not-Fun.

What is really at issue here, I think, is that from the days of yore, RPGs have attempted to fuse into one game, two completely different and incompatible objectives. Making a game both Story oriented and Rules oriented at the same time is, well... seemingly impossible.  The problem is that this goes back to the very foundations upon which RPGs are built, and has its roots in the difference of style between Gygax and Arneson, if I have the history right. Gygax was a Rules oriented player, stemming out of his love of Wargames, as is reflected in the development of the miniatures game Chainmail, which became the original Dungeons & Dragons. On the other hand Arneson, whose focus was on Story, came out with an alternate view of the game, of which Blackmoor is a quite wonderful representation, that focused more on the story aspect.  So the schizophrenia of RPGs was born at the dawn of the hobby, it seems.

Since then the game has twisted into a rather complicated braid of Rules and Story with a zillion variations on the mix.  And since the struggle between the two orientations has been going on since the dawn of the hobby, and will probably continue to be debated for a long time to come, I don't think it is likely there will be answer to the question "Which is better?" any time soon.  This is probably ultimately because one's play preference totally subjective.

All I ask is that people not claim that their own preference is the "One True Way", because neither preference is better than the other. And in most games, there is a fusion of both aspects. One of the principal roles of the GM is to balance the two during the course of each game. Sometimes the Story gains the upper hand, and the GM adjudicates things along Story lines, maybe fudging a die roll, or placing a monster somewhere other than directly behind the next turn of the corridor. Sometimes the Game predominates the GM focuses on the rules, battle map tactics, and the exact factors involved to accurately derive the necessary die rolls needed for success. I see GMs swinging back and forth between the two all the time. I know I do. Because frankly, I like both aspects and I think both are necessary for me to have a truly enjoyable game. But dang... it really is a difficult thing to balance well! It takes the right feel for the thing. And I don't think you can teach that easily at all. It just comes from experience... or intuition.

So for those GMs who may be new to this debate, and who are hearing both sides tugging at their sleeves with "Do it my way!", I just want to mention, there's a difficult but rewarding middle way.  You can see it as the small red region on the diagram above.  My experience tells me that this is the target to shoot for when GMing, as difficult as it may be to hit.  Good luck, and happy gaming to you!
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