A weird Frankenstein role playing games are.

They are often described as 'a group of players gathers to tell a story'. In telling a story, the protagonist(s) dying from a roadside bandit's crossbow bolt or in their sleep from a slightly wronged individual's knife is silly. Techniques, such as 'deus ex machina' and 'resurrection' exist to revert this problem, caused by (objective) combat.

On the other hand and as far as I know, role playing games descend from wargames, where the whole point is the suspense over who survives.

To make the compromise even harder, the death of a well-developed character can be a plot driver and a memorable event ... sometimes.

Yet I must be missing something, because in all systems I have seen, combat is at least as well covered as social, mystical, moral and emotional interactions. It is important, for some reason.

How can combat be important and enjoyed, when it can disrupt the plot at any moment? What mindset can a game master adopt to allow those two to coexist?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is too broad because role-playing games aren't a homogenous lump that all put the same emphasis on the same parts of play; it is impossible to give an answer that applies to all role-playing games without it including a massive exhaustive list of disclaimers and exceptions. Voting to close. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 6, 2018 at 21:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if narrowed down this is a discussion prompt in the form of a question, not a Q&A question, and therefore off topic. You would probably start a vigorous and interesting discussion on a discussion forum if you posted this there, though. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2018 at 22:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, I have no idea how I managed to post 18 full minutes after the question was closed, but luckily someone already built a whole game theory exactly on this question, and i think that analisys might be the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    May 6, 2018 at 22:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel There's a sort of forgiveness mechanism where a post can be submitted after a short time after closure if your browser doesn't get the memo the question was closed. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2018 at 22:08

3 Answers 3


Role-playing games are not about storytelling

That is to say, they are sometimes about storytelling, but very often they are about other things instead.

Sometimes they are supposed to be more like a game of Runebound or Waving Hands or some other set-in-a-fictional-world board game. These games still have stories to tell, the same way we might tell ourselves stories about what is happening when we play a game of Chess, or Candyland. These stories, however, are not the point of such games except inasmuch as one chooses for them to be in a sort of existentialist radical-freedom sort of way. In any case, games like this (e.g. 'the dungeon game' version of Chainmail that eventually became D&D, the Cheese Grinder) are not "a group of players gather to tell a story" except inasmuch as that also describes football.

Sometimes they are about characters. Character-driven fiction is very much not story-driven fiction! Examples of systems compatible with character-driven fiction are FATE (that's FATE 1.0 and 2.0; the later editions are exclusively narrative instead) and Dogs in the Vineyard. Character-driven fiction is sometimes compatible with written media, so there are books and novels and such that are good and that are more an examination of their characters than a 'story'. Character-driven fiction does still suffer from the examples you give, but other examples of ways RPGs often have 'not good story mechanics' (e.g. running scenes in which nothing happens that moves the plot-- especially running scenes primarily narratively consisting of quotidian things that are entirely unrelated to the plot, rewarding/requiring 'my guy syndrome') do exist and distinguish the two.

Sometimes RPGs are about stories, but they're about stories about 'what would really happen', motivated by the same concerns as Realist Literature. "and then they were abruptly knifed by strangers" may absolutely be how the story ends in such a work, depending on the setting and the nature of the fictional reality. The ultimate end of systems desiring this sort of thing is an evolution towards a more-complete Pheonix Command, but there are a number of steps along the way as one desires more and more realism at a higher and higher cost to everything else.

Sometimes RPGs are about the story, but they're about the actual story-- viz. the neuro-physical act of story telling. They're about the actual words said by the players, and seek to encourage them to flow well, to establish rythym, to weave and bite back and forth and to be suitably dramatic. The story is the telling, and telling shapes the emotional experience as it happens. Polaris is an example of such a game, with each action requiring the use of a ritual phrase and, when things run properly, nothing interrupting the back and forth flow of description and demand and dialougue. There's no 'roll to see if you hit', no separation between the progress of the narrative and the actual utterances of the participants. Dying in the middle of the night at the hand of someone you wronged in such a game is not 'silly'-- it's a very likely way to meet your end on account of how it's easy to end up in such a place that it makes emotional and linguistic sense to offer such a result within the flow of the narrative.

Sometimes they are not about stories, but just about experiences, the same way a poignant painting might be, or a work of modern art. Such art-games include almost all role-playing poems, as well as some longer works like The Quiet Year and The Dark Forest. I've not seen one in which handwaving off a character via death by roadside bandit makes sense/is possible but I'm sure several exist. In any case, the story, such as it is, is not relevant.

Even in games that are truly about cooperative storytelling and indeed seeking to provide heroic narrative arcs of the sort found in plays and operas and novels and comics and songs and whatnot, wherein the random and absurd death of a protagonistic force is indeed unacceptable and consequently in which it is foolish to use an 'objective', as you term it, combat system there is little reason to expect advice applicable to literature to apply. Just as when you make a movie from a novel or novelize a movie, misapplying the rules and conventions and techniques of one medium to another makes for, frankly, garbage. There are good movie adaptations of books and book adaptations of movies, but there's a reason such works are widely viewed with extreme suspicion and the absolute lowest of initial expectations. RPGs are a medium in which one can create literary and other sorts of art. They are not, however, books nor comics nor (usually) games nor oral storytelling. They are their own thing, with their own limitations and advatages and conventions and sorts of stories they excell at telling. So even though this particular thing is true for some RPG stories, you should not expect a writer's forum answering questions about writing to be applicable in general.

Lastly, this particular quandry-- the conflict between someone hyperprioritizing narration in a format where the audience participates in an open-ended manner-- has spawned an art-game video-game unflattering of your general position called The Stanley Parable, which you may enjoy/find educational. If you're interested, you find it here or just google a let's play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the opening sentence would be best rephrased. You mention Fate in your second large paragraph, but Fate is very much about the storytelling. The story largely falls out of character exploration, and that exploration occurs in the context of storytelling -- storytelling about the world, and storytelling about the characters. "Not about storytelling" winds up a more categorical statement than you mean. I think what you mean is they're just not all about having an up-front pre-arranged plot & story thread which we follow through sequentially & tell, or something like that. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2018 at 22:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer makes me reconsider the question’s fit for RPG.se. Well done. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2018 at 23:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ In your fourth paragraph about "what would really happen", you might throw in a reference to/explanation of the short story "The Seven Geases" by Clark Ashton Smith, which was listed as an influence in I think OD&D's manual. \$\endgroup\$
    – user17995
    May 7, 2018 at 9:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener better? \$\endgroup\$ May 7, 2018 at 10:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer Maybe I'm using a broader definition of storytelling than you are. I consider character-driven fiction to be a subset of storytelling, and storytelling is a superset of story-driven fiction instead of the same thing, hence my suggesting the opening saying RPGs aren't about storytelling doesn't seem to me like an accurate opening. Does that make sense? But maybe it's nevertheless a good opening, because it may partly disarm the reader from bringing preconceptions into reading the rest of your post... 🤔 \$\endgroup\$ May 7, 2018 at 10:35

As you say yourself, the roots of role-playing games are in wargaming. There, you don't really care about who survives the battle, you don't grow affection towards the single combat units and you don't care about the story. All is fine.

Once you start wanting some believable fiction superimposed to your big battles, things start breaking apart.

You're not alone noticing this.

In his Big Model, game designer and therorist Ron Edwards identifies three mutually incompatible player priorities he calls Creative Agendas:

Creative Agenda

"The players' aesthetic priorities and their effect on anything that happen at the table that has any impact on the shared fiction"

While playing an RPG, each player including the Master makes choices according to which creative agenda he fancies to pursue at that moment.

The agendas are:

Step On Up

Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk.

Combat in D&D-like systems is all about strategy (what do you do?) and risk (roll the dice!)

Story Now

The official definition of Story Now is really technical and it involves some jargon, so let me say that it is just "let's create a good story without deciding a plot beforehand".

Your example of memorable death of a character falls here.

There's also a third agenda that deals with using thematic elements to create something that feels like a genre or a franchise, but "Right to Dream" has always been the muddiest part of the Big Model and we're not using it anyway.

So, what happens when you want to follow two different agendas at the same time? Well, you can't. They're mutually exclusive, remeber? You need to decide if you want a fair combat or a good story beforehand and play accordingly. When two players at the same table want to follow different agendas at the same time, disaster ensues. Tom is trying to win the combat, Tim is trying to trow the fight (or just makes suboptimal choices) in order to play his interesting story.

So, what can you do to solve this problem?

Play games whose rules help pursuing a single agenda. Have your players know that this game eases that agenda, and only get players that like it.

You care about the story? Don't play a game where combat is ruled by tactics and the dice.

Do games like this exist? Well, of course they do, there's a lot of RPG games out there. Some of these games still have some sort of combat, but it's really different than what you're used to, because the rules of a game that ease Story Now priorities don't care about emulating the battle board or calculating how much damage you do. They just want to produce an interesting stories made of things that happen during a combat, and telling every single swing or spell is not interesting for the story.


\$\tiny\text{Role-Playing} \huge\text{Game}\$

To qualify as a game there must be a contest - not necessarily of player v player, player(s) v system also works.

Shakespeare, Gibson, Tolkien and improv actors tell stories, RPG players play games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think there's a twist that makes this answer wrong (or at least on the wrong side of indifference). For there to be a contest, there's no need to be an "Objective Combat" system. One could have combat with basic skill-check-type rules. With all the usual initiative, spells and whistles be handled by the narration. Maybe that's what you mean, that it's role is to have a contest. But then it could be better explained. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    May 6, 2018 at 23:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Although, the more I look at it, the more the question is unclear in it's definition of Objective Combat system. So maybe this answer is right to one of the questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    May 6, 2018 at 23:05

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