Game first, story second

I just now realized that I’ve been in grave danger of falling prey to the insidious sin of trying to turn roleplaying games into story vehicles. *Crosses self. Out, damned spot!*

For all that I talk about telling stories and playing characters in a story, I’m not building a container for stories or even a storytelling engine. I’m building a game. Stories aren’t the real point or the end product; if they were, we’d be better off reading a novel or reciting Homeric epics by turns while the fire burns low. In tabletop roleplaying, playing the game is the point.

You know you’ve got a good game when a story keeps breaking out. But the game has to come first.

Roleplaying games don’t make unforgettable fun around the tabletop by mandating that there be a story. They make great fun by being great games. With a solid game system and a good GM, something that has no story as such — like this DM’s dungeon crawl — starts to take on a story-like feel when you play your way through it.

That’s the way my favorite gaming sessions and campaigns have unfolded. There was no big overarching theme or elaborate plot, just some well-chosen incidents and scenarios with enemies and rewards that I knew would pique my players’ interest. (And the same goes for when I’ve been a player, although that’s not as often.) It started becoming story-like naturally when the players did their thing.

Read the post, and you’ll see the DM storifying things not before the game starts, but bit by bit as the action spontaneously unfolds. And I guarantee you that the players, in addition to having a hell of a lot of fun playing the game, felt like they had been part of a kick-ass adventure story when they were done.

So that’s why I’m going to keep repeating to myself: Game first, story second.

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