Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part III: Distinctions as Fate’s Aspects

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Distinctions in Cortex Prime already function in a similar manner to Fate’s Aspects. Both have the capacity to help a character: in Cortex Prime, an applicable Distinction that provides some advantage to a character is added to the player’s dice pool; in Fate the player may spend a Fate Point to “invoke” an Aspect and add +2 to a roll’s result. Likewise, both can provide a hinderance as well: a player in Cortex can use a Distinction to add a d4 to the opposing dice pool and gain a Plot Point; a player can compel an Aspect in Fate to have some inconvenient event occur to the character (or have the character make some decision that makes sense for the character but results in misfortune) to gain a Fate Point.

While I love the idea of Aspects in Fate, the use of the Fate Point Economy to drive them–the necessity of spending a Fate Point to invoke an Aspect in particular–has always irked me a bit. I must acknowledge that this is a personal issue and not really a design flaw of the Fate System. The Fate Point Economy provides some very desireable benefits: it gives some mechanical balance to the game, means that (as in conventional narrative) a character’s traits don’t always come into play, and, most important, it forces players to resort to compels to use their Aspects beneficially at later points. This last factor both helps the gamemaster in a narrative game by giving cues and assistance in driving the story forward with complications that are sensible and meaningful to the players and adds interesting, spontaneous and unexpected knots to the conflict that simply could not have been planned. It is this last factor, which meshes well with the Powered By the Apocalypse mantra that the GM should “play to see what the characters do” (or perhaps it’s “play to see what happens to the characters;” I don’t recall perfectly offhand), that I very much want to capture in my Cortex Prime Shadowrun ruleset.

By design, the Cortex Prime system sidesteps my complaints about Aspects and the Fate Point Economy–Cortex Prime’s Plot Points are used differently and are not required to invoke Distinctions under normal circumstances but still provide incentive for players to complicate the story by reference to their character’s Traits.

With a very simple modification, we can make Distinctions even more like Fate’s Aspects and underline a grittier tone for the game (perfect for cyberpunk, but probably at home in just about any setting I’d be wont to run a game in).

That modification is this: Instead of a d4, when a Distinction (which I’m going to go ahead and just call “Aspects” in the CP Shadowrun ruleset) is used to gain a Plot Point, that Distinction/Aspect adds its full die do the opposing pool. So, if I have the Aspect Street Samurai d10, it will sure give me that extra oomph to take down mooks like a hot knife through butter, but it also gives me an opportunity to make my supposed adherence to Bushido matter in the game.

I think that this practice also fits well with gritty fantasy (whether or not combined with cyberpunk a la Shadowrun). In fact, it reminds me greatly of heroes of Celtic myth–there’s always a weakness, always some downside that accompanies greatness. Players will (and should) think twice about whether they really want to have that Street Samurai d10 Aspect. Yep, it’ll help you be a combat monster, but is the cost ultimately worth it? This kind of mechanically-supported and inherent game balance goes a long way for me.

You’ll see more about how Aspects will be assigned (and change) when we get to conversations about character generation and growth. For now, though, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this relatively minor but far-reaching modification to the Cortex System.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part I: Initial Rules Summary

I’m finding that I’ve got a lot of work to do in putting together the coherent and comprehensive guide for using Cortex Prime to run Shadowrun games that I’m currently working on. Because of this, I thought I’d provide some teasers of what I’ve got going on to tide you over some before I post the entire document.

What follows is a broad-strokes summary of some of the major rules selections I’ve made so far. The text is mostly taken word-for-word from the draft document for the ruleset, though I’ve made a few adjustments for clarity.

This is a work in progress, so questions and criticisms will help refine the end product!

Cortex Prime Rules Selection Summary

The following is a bullet-point summary of rules (or mod) choices that underpin the game:

• Prime Traits Sets are Approaches, Skills, Aspects, Assets and Specializations. Of course, temporary or scene-related Traits will also be included.

• SFX (and Limits) will be used. SFX are most often attached to Aspects and Assets. As will be explained below, this ruleset will make a distinction between Inherent SFX and Limits, which are automatically a part of certain Aspect or Asset choices, and Permissive SFX and Limits, which may be selected by characters in character creation or character advancement. Additionally, this ruleset uses Hardwired SFX and Limits, which are SFX and Limits that are always in play and applicable to certain situations. Hardwired SFX are described below and used primarily to translate some of the important setting ideas of the Shadowrun Universe to the Cortex Prime System—things like the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality while hacking.

• Character Injury is tracked by stress (called Shock) and trauma (called, coincidentally enough, Trauma). Per the Prime rules, this supersedes the “High Stakes” action rules. See the “Damage and Injury” Section below for more information.

• Characters are created through the “Priority Chart,” described in “Character Creation,” below.

• Plot Points are referred to as Edge when in the hands of players and Threat when in the hands of the GM. Edge and Threat are generated per the standard Prime rules except that the “Using d4 in your roll rule” to gain Edge is changed to the “Use Aspect as Complication” rule described in the “Custom Rules” section.

• The Test-Created Assets Mod is used.

• None of the Prime “Plot Point Mods” is used. Plot Points are stored in the Bank.

• Characters improve through the “Session Histories” rules.

• The standard “Effect Die” rules are used.

• Standard “Random Difficulty” Opposition is used.

“Custom” Rules

• This ruleset uses Ryan Macklin’s ideas for “Dice Cracking,” mostly during character creation. Under this rule, a die may be “cracked” into two stepped-down dice, i.e. a d8 can be used as 2d6. During character creation, this allows for more highly-skilled but specialized builds, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none builds, and a number of steps in between.

• As mentioned above, additional rules involving SFX and Limits are used—Inherent SFX and Limits allow the feel of certain aspects of Shadowrun to be incorporated inherently into certain power sets. Additionally, Hardwired SFX and Limits help to reinforce the setting.

• Rather than Distinctions, this ruleset uses Aspects. Aspects are treated much like Aspects in Fate RPG—they may be added to a player’s dice pool when the Aspect is beneficial, or the player may gain 1 Edge by adding the die to the opposition dice pool when the Aspect hurts the character. Aspects may have dice of any step rather than always being relegated to the d8 of Distinctions, but because the same die is rolled in negative situations (rather than a d4), having a higher Aspect cuts both ways. The intent of this rule is (other than using Aspects from Fate) to play up the gritty and noir-ish feel of Shadowrun (where characters are often their own worst enemies) and to mechanically reinforce the narrative description of a character’s important qualities. Aspects may have SFX associated with them, but none are Inherent.

Fiction & Fatherhood Update and Roadmap

Most of what I’ve posted about lately has been theological in nature, so I thought it might be good to give some of my readers more interested in other aspects of the blog an update and information about what to expect in the future. Here we go:

Fiction

I’m currently working on the following for my fiction:

Avar Narn Novel

By the end of NaNoWriMo last November, I’d put on paper what I estimate to be about 40% or so of the novel. I’ve been editing and slowly rewriting scenes and plot lines for this portion of the book and have the intention of attempting to finish the first draft during NaNoWriMo this year. I may be looking for early readers of drafts, so contact me if that’s something you’re interested in.

Short Stories

I’d like to put some more short stories on the blog to give readers a better feel for my writing. I’ve got one currently under way set in the world of the Worldbuilding Example Series. Not currently sure whether most of what I work on in the near future will fall into that setting or into Avar Narn; we’ll just have to see. I’m also not sure whether I’ll try to submit the short stories anywhere before posting them here–that may depend on how good I feel they are. Again, if anyone out there is interested in critiquing and helping to edit some of these, shoot me a message.

Dark Inheritance

I’m a pretty big fan of the Warhammer 40K universe. While the logic of the setting is highly questionable at times, it’s a science fantasy setting I spent a lot of time in while I was younger, I respect the depth of accreted material over the years since, and it’s just plain fun. Also, there’s a new 40K roleplaying game (Wrath & Glory) due out about August, and I’m excited about that.

Dark Inheritance will be an expansive campaign for Wrath & Glory. It will be posted here in PDF format for any gamemaster who wants to run it for their players. I’m excited about this project as a different form of writing (for public consumption) than I’m used to, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to be writing full story arcs for the RPGs I run rather than building stories on the fly in the last minutes before it’s time to game.

Since the ruleset won’t be out until August or so, the campaign won’t be published until after that. But I’m working now on the story arcs, flow of the campaign and locales and dramatis personae, so it hopefully won’t take me long to add the rules-based information after I have it in my grubby hands.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun Ruleset

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. Not so much the rules. I am, however, a big fan of the Cortex Plus system and its soon-to-be-released successor, Cortex Prime. So, I’m working on a ruleset for Shadowun using the toolkit that Cortex provides.

This has been done before by others, but I’ve never seen a conversion done that I really liked, so I’m doing my own. Cortex Prime has also not been fully released yet, but I expect that it has enough in common with Cortex Plus that only minor tweaks will be required after I have the new rules.

The Cortex Prime kickstarter said to expect a first draft of the rules in the next week or two nearly three weeks ago, so I assume I’ll be able to wrap this project up sooner rather than later.

Yes, that’s a lot of projects. Yes, if I focused on one at a time I’d get at least something to you faster. But that’s not how my creative side works, so it is what it is.

Fatherhood

Tonight, K and I begin several days of refreshing our training as foster parents. We are currently scheduled to renew our home study on July 5th. If all goes according to plan, we should be fully licensed for a new placement shortly after that.

We’re not yet decided on the timing of a new placement, but I would expect that we will take one sometime between late July and early September.

When there are kiddos back in the house, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about in the currently-on-hiatus “Fatherhood” section of the blog.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Roleplaying games, at their heart, differ from most other types of games because they are about telling an interesting and enjoyable story in a medium that combines traditional storytelling techniques with improvisational theatre, speculative problem-solving and statistics (found in whatever “resolution mechanic” that decides actions that could succeed or fail—and, according to modern RPG theory, both success and failure are interesting and appropriate to the story).

There’s no need to detail the venerable forty-some-odd-year history of “modern” roleplaying, but a few notes might prove useful for those drawn here by subjects other than gaming. The mother-of-all-roleplaying-games (as we think of them today) is of course Dungeons & Dragons.[1] In that game, as in most other RPGs, one of the participants takes on the role of the Gamemaster (GM), while the others take on the roles of the Player Characters (PCs). We’ll call the latter the Players.

As in a theatrical performance, a Player seeks to play his Player Character as well as can be done. What “as well as can be done” depends heavily upon the group and the RPG, but for our sake we’ll stay highbrow and assume that this means immersing oneself in being someone else for a while, learning how someone other than yourself might feel and speak and act and exploring an alternate reality through that lens.

Under normal circumstances[2], each Player has only one character to portray. With a typical group, that means the Players are supplying three to five PCs to the game. While they may have intricate backstories, complex psychologies and all of the other traits that well-thought-out characters in fiction have, there’s not much for them to do without a situation for them to be in.

This is where the Gamemaster (GM) comes in. In an RPG, the GM represents all forces external to the characters—the weather, the setting, things that happen, all the other characters in the story that are not the PCs, etc. This gives the GM broad authority over the nature and course of the story that will be told over the course of the game.

So, the PCs find themselves in a situation over the creation of which they had no control. Once the “scene,” the playing out of the situation, begins, however, it is the agency of the PCs (and other characters involved in the scene—known as NPCs or non-player characters and controlled by the GM) who move the story forward.

This brings us to a feature of roleplaying games that separates the genre from other storytelling games—rules and mechanics. A Player Character has “statistics”, values that determine the character’s strengths and weaknesses. When the PC takes an action that could potentially fail, that character’s statistics are used along with the rules and mechanics to determine the result of the action. The mechanics of most RPGs use dice to add the element of chance to the action—representing all of the little factors that could come together to ensure success or conspire to assure defeat. This prevents the game from being determined by GM fiat, leaving some things to chance.

The rules may allow for possibilities that do not occur in our reality (such as wizardry and magic), but they may also prohibit certain actions (like hacking a computer to which one does not have access, or succeeding at sprinting down a tightrope in gusting winds and pouring rain).

Once the dice have fallen, the results of the action (its success, failure and side-effects) become part of the story, which now moves forward having incorporated that event. The “structured unpredictability” of the game both separates it from other types of storytelling and adds drama to the story. If, as occurs in Dungeons & Dragons, a brave hero confronts a dragon, he cannot be assured of success. When played as intended, neither does the GM have the ability to absolutely determine the outcome of the battle (although, as the controller of the dragon, he may try his best—using the rules—to defeat the hero).

Who wins? Some RPGs focus on an adversarial relationship between the GM and the Players, with each attempting to outwit the other for control of the story. Fortunately, the mainstream approach is quickly becoming that of “structured collaborative storytelling.” Here, everyone wins or loses together—either the story is a good one or it falls flat. Well-developed and -played characters can improve a poor plot; conversely, a rich setting with an interesting plot can cover for two-dimensional characters. But the game only takes on the transcendence sought by its Players—it only becomes meaningful as something more than mere game, something closer to art—when Players and GM all do their jobs to the best of their ability and everyone’s benefit.

Stories can be long or short, they can be played in a single session of a few hours or stretched into many sessions over the course of months or years that create truly deed and epic narratives.

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[1]Thoughts about Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs and Sci-Fi/Fantasy as they relate to Christianity are (or will be) addressed in other posts.

[2] Much to my delight, creators of roleplaying games have brought us a wide variety of approaches to gaming, some quite avant-garde in pushing the envelope of what the genre of game can do. There’s far too much variety (and I have far too much to say about that variety) to address such things here. So, when I say “normal circumstances,” just know that I intend the most common approach used by current RPGs. There will always be variation.