And the saga continues!
(I know I said I’d maintain this series of posts on a fortnightly basis, but if you think about it, 16 days is the same as 15+1 days which is the same as 14 days, and also the world’s on fire and time isn’t real.)
We’re back talking about D&D stories, and how you can start creating D&D stories if you want to get into the NEW HAWTNESS of pretending to be an elf warlock over Discord, and how different D&D-like games will tweak the settings of a ‘D&D story’ while still delivering an experience that’s about the same as D&D, oh no I said D&D too many times, D&D has lost all meaning, what’s a D&D, I D&D you in the face, D&D is in yr base killing yr doods.
*HARD RESET* okay we’re good now
The first post in this series outlined some elements of the typical D&D story; the second added tone to that mix and looked at some alternative games that are cheaper or that adjust some of those setting knobs.
Speaking of knobs…
Characters are at the heart of nearly every story and roleplaying game. Not all of them, mind you – Jorge Luis Borges wrote incredible stories with no characters in them, and there are some fascinating games about crafting histories and drawing maps – but fun, engaging characters are what we want 99.9% of the time.
Modern D&D characters are larger-than-life heroes; even if individual games initially position them as neophytes or bumbling naifs, they rapidly become tough and competent, ready to take on dragons, demons, liches and other Big Bads.
However, a lot of people seem to want games that are ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ (whatever those terms mean), which means the primary adjustment many fantasy RPGs make is dialling down the competence of characters. Some of them also re-calibrate to tell more stories that are better suited to such characters; others throw Joe Blow against the same array of dragons, demons, liches etc., because heroism is only ‘genuine’ if characters are totally outmatched or whatever.
Not my style, personally; if I want to tell a story about more-or-less regular folks (who nonetheless have swords and fireballs), I want that story to have a similarly constrained scope.
Beyond the Wall: Such as this absolutely brilliant game, which couples the simplicity of older D&D rules with modern ideas about shared setting creation to tell stories of heroic teens defending their village from unnatural danger, with a tone more like Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander than Gary Gygax. It’s superb, it’s simple, it’s cheap – of all the games I’ve looked at, this is the one everyone should investigate.
Warhammer Fantasy RPG: Heroic teens too, well, heroic? How about playing a ratcatcher, failed student, ferryman or a bloke who hands out racist pamphlets in the pub? Long divorced from the miniatures games, the Warhammer RPG created its own legacy of grimy British humour, Holy Roman Empire aesthetics and reasonably simple mechanics. If you like your fantasy grubby and your names groanworthy, this is for you.
The One Ring: Of course, if you want smaller-than-life characters, you can’t go past hobbits. Of all the RPG adaptations of Tolkien’s books, I think this one comes closest to evoking the tone of the setting and its characters, with systems that make a simple burglar or scholar feel engaging and important but also limited and grounded. Sadly this game’s in Limbo at the moment due to licence changes; you can’t buy it digitally, but physical copies are still out there if you want to try it.
So okay, that’s three games that constrain characters and keep them grounded. Are there games that go more larger-than-life than D&D?
13th Age: There are, and this bad boy is my personal favourite (see my current campaign for details). 13th Age couples over-the-top cinematic action with broad, sweeping characters-influencing-setting rules, in a gonzo world stuffed full of fantasy tropes that doesn’t stop for breath long enough to acknowledge its ridiculousness. It’s not the best at explaining itself, and it’s definitely aimed at those who enjoy the game part of role-playing games, which makes it a bit inaccessible for newcomers, but not so much that you couldn’t have fun with it. Give me a yell if you get stuck; I’ll come help.
On that last note, the game part of these games is simultaneously the best and worst part – or perhaps the most-and-least accessible part. Rules define characters and make actions concrete; they’re also a bunch of numbers/systems that constrain imagination. Some folks like that, some tolerate it, some bounce off and never come back to RPGs again.
Rules obviously shape game-stories in significant ways; they define what’s possible and what’s not (or at least what’s technically not possible, until you all agree to say that it is). Rules complexity also shapes story because it determines a level of detail; the more defined and specific the rule, the more defined and specific the manifestation of that rule in the story. If your alchemy rules require 10 difficult steps for brewing a potion, stories take shape around taking those steps; if the rules just ask for one dice roll and a bit of narrative colour, the story is going to be about the outcome and not the process.
The current (5th) edition of D&D is moderately complex; the 2nd was less so, the 3rd more so, the 4th put its complexity in a different place. There aren’t a lot of contemporary fantasy games that are more complex; that’s not what the market wants these days. But there are plenty of games that are less complex, and if you want something that gets out of the way so you can explore the story, here are two solid options that do that in slightly different ways.
Tiny Dungeon: Perhaps the epitome of the get-out-of-the-way philosophy, this game has a simple 1/2/3 dice system and imposes little structure during play, to the point where I personally find it a bit hollow. The game also comes with a lot of sample settings and tweaks; whether that’s useful depends on whether those ideas grab you. Its real strength is immediacy – you can create a character in about 5 minutes by picking 3-4 choices from a list, and then just start playing. That’s a powerful thing, especially for players that don’t as yet have concrete ideas.
Quest: The new kid in town, Quest has been gaining attention thanks to its accessible writing, whimsical and inclusive artstyle, emphasis on character and very solid marketing campaign. Its strength is its narrative focus – it asks players and GMs to define characters and stories primarily using bits of text and imagery rather than numbers. But that also means players need a strong vision and concrete ideas coming in, which can be a lot to ask when you’re new to this whole thing.
Of these two, I think Quest is more fun and interesting, but it’s more work up front; Tiny Dungeon isn’t as engaging, but you can get started on a moment’s notice. Consider what works for you.
…or just use D&D if you want
And what works for you may well be D&D after all – and that’s great.
These other games all alter the stories and flow of D&D-style fantasy in useful and worthwhile ways. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make those alterations using D&D, so long as you’re willing to put the work in and make changes to the way the game plays at your table.
Want D&D characters to be more grounded? Present them with realistic problems and difficult challenges. Want them heroic? Do the opposite, and present stories that emphasise the fantastic. You can ignore external problems to focus on emotion, you can make the tone as gritty or cinematic or silly as you like; you can simplify the game rules by just ignoring the ones you don’t like. You can even get cheaper or free versions of D&D if you want to save money and don’t mind missing out on the glossy hardcovers. You do you.
Ultimately, games like these are tools for shared storytelling. Each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, but what really dictates the success of that shared creation is the enthusiasm and creativity of those working together to craft it. If everyone at the table wants to have fun creating a D&D story, the D&D/not-D&D game involved is the least important step in reaching that goal.
Places to go, faces to punch
Is there more to talk about when it comes to D&D stories? Yes, because you need a context for those stories – a world of fantastic places to visit, dangerous adversaries to thwart and relationships to explore.
You need a setting. And we’ll talk about that next time.