Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Personal Rant - Dragonlance, Vampire, Story, Plot, and the Sandbox

[Since more than one person got a mistaken impression, mild edits were made]

  There is a fair amount of love in the world for the Dragonlance setting. And a fair amount of hate. My personal opinion is... it isn't good enough to hate, but it sure impacted my favorite hobby.
  Personal revelation time (again). I was 16 when the first Dragonlance book came out and, oddly enough, was already living outside the home while going to school and working. I had three great room mates who were all brothers and big gamers who were going to school and working, like me. I was running two games a week, one in my own campaign, called Seaward, and one in Greyhawk where we essentially played all of the official modules plus some unique stuff of mine. One of my room mates would also DM from time to time, usually his own stuff in Greyhawk.
  When Dragons of Autumn Twilight hit the shelves we, of course, bought a copy. It was, frankly, bitterly disappointing. The characters were flat, the story line was terrible, the tension wasn't and if the companions were examples of what TSR employees thought was interesting and engaging PCs I'm surprised they lasted as long as they did.

  Before we continue, let me make a few things clear.
  1) This is my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
  2)  My wife and I have worked as freelance, professional editors for large firms and authors whose names you know; we even had our own editing company and it was our primary source of income for some time. This is my personal AND professional opinion.
          [If I am a professional editor why are there so many errors in my blog? One, this is for fun; two, the cobbler's kids go barefoot]
      [still feel free to disagree]
  3) Yes, I know the authors have written a ton of books, sold a ton, and have made a ton of money from this. My reply is - Flowers in the Attic has sold more than 40 million copies and it sucks, too

  From the mary sue characters (Weis felt she had to tell us Raistlin was her favorite character?) to the eye-rolling cliches like: the twins (one is physically sickly but smart, the other strong but dull; the weak one is an evil wizard who resents his brother, the strong one is a good warrior who is blind to his brother's evil etc. (my then-nine-year-old sneered at this); the hot, dim, but feisty! barmaid; and the absent minded wizard who has vast power but can't feed himself - but is he really crazy?! (hint - of course not) I feared permanent eye strain.
  And it got worse, of course. My mother bought me the next one, so I read it (dutiful son and all) and I received the third as a Christmas gift so I read it, too (I am older now and might not do it today). The writing was clunky, the story boring, the characters terrible, and the details like gully dwarves and tinker gnomes infuriating. I came to the conclusion that they were poorly written children's lit and was amazed at the love showered on them by the gaming community.
  And let me add that it is my belief that the depiction of Sturm did more to cement the idea of Lawful Stupid in the collective mind of gamers than almost anything else.
  The modules were worse; focused on either being the basis for later novels or (after the first few) being based on the existing novels they are almost the definition of 'railroad adventure': the modules must have certain things happen certain ways with certain conclusions or the rest of the modules don't work.
  We will come back to this.
  There were a lot of Dragonlance books published - more than 100 if the internet is accurate. And many modules and source books - probably also over 100. There were action figures, and miniatures, and all sorts of stuff.

  Interestingly enough, even at the time when I would complain of the terrible quality of the books and modules a fair number of my gaming friends would reply with some version of,
  "Well, sure, but it is bringing in a ton of new players!"
  The argument was that the Dragonlance books and modules might be objectively terrible in and of themselves but a lot of younger people would read the books and then play D&D so, well, that was good! More players is good for The Community therefore, no matter how terrible the books or modules, Dragonlance was good for Gaming.

  Now, since I haven't read anything Dragonlance in almost 29 years, why am I bringing this up?
  Besides the fact that a lot of other OSR bloggers are talking about it, of course.
  Because of story, plot, and sandbox.
  Walk with me for a moment

  In 1991 Vampire; the Masquerade was released and I, like many others, picked it up. I thought the stripped down mechanics were interesting (stripped to the point of being hard to use, in my opinion) and the setting interesting, if rather highly derivative of a certain author's works, I didn't like the game itself. Mainly because of its incredible focus on 'storytelling'. It reminded me a great deal of Ars Magica.
  Ars Magica was an interesting system with a clever mechanic for spells, and interesting 'almost real world' setting, and a lot of potential but also a heavy emphasis on 'storytelling'; I liked a lot of elements of the system but didn't like it as a game entire.
  I remember finishing reading Vampire and digging out Ars Magica and, boom! same guy involved in both, which I had suspected.

  The World of Darkness concepts that flowed from the old Lion Rampant and White Wolf systems were wildly popular at the time and very influential. I believe that a fair amount of this was because of the 'advance work' done by Dragonlance; in those wildly-popular books and modules the goal was completing a story. In the WoD settings the goal was completing a story.
Quick Aside: a 'story' is defined as "an account of people and events told for entertainment. May be real or fictional"
The definition of ;'plot' is "the events that make up the main part or parts of a story"
Don't forget the difference! 
  But how does this affect actual gaming? Not just game play itself, but the metagame around it: GM prep, adventure and world design; post-game work, character design, party dynamics, etc.

  Let's start with the GM: if he is focused on story he must arrange for the entire dramatic structure: exposition; rising action; climax; falling action; denouement. Since the GM is supposed to have an overall story to tell ( the War of the Lance or whatever) the exposition, climax, and denouement of each sub-story, or 'adventure' must have certain things happen for the overarching story arc to be met. In the end this essentially demands that one of two things happen - either the GM places strict rails on certain elements of the adventure or the players willingly participate in the story telling effectively constraining themselves to the needs of the overall story.
  It logically follows that character creation, design, and development is subject to and inferior to the needs of the story. If you have to have a Sturm to check of the boxes for 'knight of solamnia',  'lawful good', 'noble hero', and 'tragic death', well - someone better roll up a Sturm or the story ain't happening. And you better hit your marks, utter your lines with conviction, and sell that death to the crowd.
  Further, the plot may well demand that you do create friendships with certain NPCs, dislike other NPCs, do certain things within certain time windows, realize certain facts within other time windows, etc. This constrains everything from the weapons selected and skills taken to even the appearance of a character. Just a few years after storytelling was seen as a prime paradigm of RPGs you saw articles on how to design characters level by level, stat by stat, skill point by skill point, in order to 'maximize' them.
  There are obviously a fair number of people who enjoy this sort of play; damn near everyone in the Drama department of the local college was playing LARP Vampire within a year.
  But to me this was instantly an Issue - I don't play RPGs because I am a frustrated screenwriter or actor, I play RPGs because I like RPGs. Yes, there are clearly elements of mutual storytelling in any tabletop RPGs. No, the goal isn't telling a story!
  The goal of RPGs is for the players to have fun. For me and for a lot of people the railroading/constraints of the RPGs=Storytelling approach leach out the fun.

  Personally, I have run what I call a 'near sandbox' for 36+ years. Seaward and Blackstone are both highly detailed, well-stocked, etc. with a large number of detailed NPCs, plot hooks, etc. scattered all over. The players are free to roam as they wish, if they wish, set their own agendas, change character goals on the fly, etc. Sure, the occasional adventure has a time limit imposed, but if the characters give that room a miss, meh. If they thwart the dragon without ever seeing it, great!

  But I have seen a small handful of bloggers advocate something I will call 'pure sandbox'; the GM stocks the world, restocks it as necessary, etc., but gives no plots or any such thing to the players. New players with a 2nd level party of 5 in the campaign decide that Mount Thunder is a low-level goblin clearing when it is really home to the King of the Ogres?
  "If you give them a hint, you aren't really 'Sandbox'!"
  A particular player really wants to quest for such-and-such an item but you don;t have it in the mythology of your world?
  "If you add it in you aren't really 'Sandbox'!"
  I disagree. This is tying the hands of the GM and the players almost as much as the railroad style.  Oh, I don't dislike it as much as 'well, I am 4th level so I better take Cleave or I will never be able to compete in 7 more levels' or 'OK, I get it - the dodgy alcoholic is a critical plot element or exposition center - I will sit and listen to him talk rather than follow that mysterious stranger'. But taken to this extreme it can seriously hinder the development of a campaign through ongoing co-creative work of the GM and players.

  Are these extreme types of 'pure Sandbox' advocates common? No, but I see them and I suspect it is largely a rejection of storytelling as goal taken too far.

  Remember those definitions I posted earlier? In my opinion any dynamic, internally-consistent, campaign world with a healthy, vigorous interaction between players and GM will "generate" plot lines for the characters to be exposed to that will naturally lead to a dynamic structure - it is just that the pace, climax, and denouement of the dynamic structure is not pre-determined and aimed for. Indeed, this dynamic, collaborative structure will result in better results than either extreme will ever be capable of.

  The space between "story is goal" and "pure sandbox" is vast and most of us fall in that range already.

  In my opinion, the thing to remember when GMing and playing is that there is a tacit agreement between all members of the group that a minimum level of cooperation is required to play and also that a minimum amount of latitude is also required to play: the GM can't have a story arc that from before anyone throws 3d6 in order requires a 9th level thief with Boots of Striding and Springing, a 67% Open Locks ability, and a volatile relationship with an NPC barmaid from 3 levels ago be standing at the altar of Baal at moonrise on MidSummer exactly 100 years after the paladin Gervine died. On the other hand, the GM also has to provide a bit more than 'you are in an inn, there are 6 other people in the room, you know no one, what do you do?'. Both represent extremes that take away from the core goal of RPGs.