February 4, 2023

What’s the Story?

If you haven't seen it already, there's a new update on the CORE20RPG design and development blog: Skills and Story. And thinking about story in relation to skills — and specifically, thinking about how to describe the new setup for handling skill success in CORE20 — put me mind of the following.

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When I talk about story in RPGs, and about story in D&D in particular, there’s often a response (usually measured; sometimes not) of: “But D&D isn’t a story game.” And that’s entirely true; but also not at all true, in the way of all conundrums that are less about fact and more about how we define the things we’re trying to factually assess.

For folks who define story games as games with specific mechanics for telling story, it’s absolutely true that D&D isn’t a story game. It doesn’t have those mechanics. No version of D&D has ever really worked on that level. But for folks (like me) who define story games as games in which a story can be unfolded and told, D&D has been a story game since its inception.

How do I know? I was there. I was there three thousand years ago, when Isildur took… Sorry, I mean I was there in the 1980s (which only sometimes seems like three thousand years ago), playing AD&D without so much as a standard mechanic for using skills unless you were playing a thief. And with those completely non-storytelling rules, I created stories with my friends that still resonate in my heart and mind to this day.

Were they good stories? Not always. But the characters we  created and the narratives we shaped never failed to hit all the touchstones for what story can and should be made of. Goals and desires. Conflict and tension. Secrets and revelation. Villainous monologues. Dramatically revealed character backstory. All that good stuff. 

For better or for worse, D&D is a game that lets people tell stories. And I like to think that the strength of the kinds of stories it tells — the kinds of allegorical tales that fantasy excels at — are a big part of the game’s enduring success. Much more so than mechanics, because there are many other games whose mechanics are much more elegant than D&D’s nearly-five-decades-old rebuilt war-game engine. 

Story ties to mechanics, to be sure. The randomness of combat and skill challenges can help create the uncertainty that defines the dramatic tension of an encounter or a scene, with the overall up-and-down movement of that tension tracking the shape of story as it unfolds. But even though the mechanics of D&D in its earliest forms ignored story completely, story became an unavoidable byproduct of the game nonetheless. And for me, that speaks to story as being the single most important part of the game’s ongoing legacy.