The Burden of Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games
By MARK WILSON
Avatar: Legends and My Narrative Struggle
I’ve been reading the core system book and various supplements for Avatar: Legends recently, the RPG system created around Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and the connected world they’re both set in. It’s a game I hope to run for my RPG group who normally plays D&D. They are all on board with trying it, though we don’t have a set start date atm.
Learning a new RPG system is a rarity for me. I read plenty of RPG books, but it’s rarely with the intent to run the game. One of the open secrets of TTRPG publishing is that a lot of purchases are from people who aren’t going to play the game, and are either reading to aid with brainstorming for other games, or simply because they enjoy absorbing the setting and adventure materials as though it were an adventure novel.
But those types of readings don’t have to be as thorough when it comes to mechanics. And even rules-lite systems are generally more complicated than an average board game, so learning the system is a process. My own involves discussions with RPG friends online, video how-to-play’s to see how others explain what I’ve read, and potentially even streamed sessions, to see the game in action at someone else’s table. To juxtapose this with board games, we’ve likely all watched live sessions of games, but it’s rarely a routine part of learning a board game when the rulebook or single how-to-play video will suffice.
Another item struck me profoundly, though, as I read the book. As I read, my gears are of course turning as to how I would run the system at my table. Imagining the flow of combat, of social scenes, of moderating interpersonal moments…all that good stuff.
But that’s just the mechanical side. The burden goes deeper.
Games vs. Toolboxes
Internalizing the rules and rule systems does not equal an RPG game. You can’t simply execute the rules as you can with a board game and receive a complete experience. If it helps, it’s probably better to think of most RPG systems as toolboxes, not games in and of themselves. Of course, they’re games in the colloquial sense of it. This isn’t a definitions article. But the distinction does relate to execution.
The meta-problem, one that even well-written roleplaying books can only handle obliquely, is how to take those mechanics and create a compelling and coherent narrative around it.
Shockingly, despite hundreds of Youtube channels and thousands of blogs on TTRPGs, I’m not sure anything exists like a template for this process. It’s too elusive and personal. Even good adventure modules can’t provide you with Story. That part is up to you.
The burden is not solitary, of course. No self-respecting Game Master (GM) simply dictates a story to their players. It’s a collaborative experience. But this actually heightens the burden. The reason for this is that you have to facilitate compelling narrative without knowing large swaths of elements that will comprise the story. Whether this is from player input (character creation, individual decisions, tone, etc.) or stuff like randomized game elements (random tables, dice rolls removing possible outcomes, etc.), the burden is high.
I take this for granted in D&D these days, because I’ve run so many games as GM that the storytelling process and its integration with the game’s mechanics comes naturally to me.
Mechanical Integration: Beyond Improv GMing
One might foist this burden onto a GM’s improvisational ability. But that’s purely theatrical. The problem remains interwoven with mechanics. Intuitive, interesting, surprising and logical uses of the game’s systems is part of this, but it’s impossible to know how a particular system is used well without a lot of effective modeling and/or trial & error.
So when I look at Avatar, I don’t yet have a mental model for how the mechanics best facilitate and weave into the narrative. I know I can improvise around dice rolls and player choice, but I don’t know how best to apply the toolbox I spoke of earlier, and the game book – almost tautologically – can’t provide me with answers. I know how the mechanics work in a technical sense, but that is a separate and lesser achievement.
This, to me, is perhaps the largest gulf between board games and RPGs. I assume a tiny portion of this burden in some epic, thematic board games, but would never need to consider it to enjoy the hobby. Board game manuals can be complicated, but no one’s ever understood the entirety of a board game manual and still honestly uttered “I have no idea what to do.” Internalizing the toolbox is merely Step 1 in RPGs, whereas it’s the end of the pre-play work in board gaming.
It took my consternation over Avatar for this realization to crystallize for me. And it involved separating the improvisational elements of GMing (which I’m comfortable with) with the mechanical integration into the storytelling process, which is unique to each system. It’s a self-evident fact that RPG prep as a GM is a step beyond playing in an RPG or playing most (all?) board games. But I think it’s less understood that even hundreds of RPG books and supplements within a system don’t actually equate to a game as we traditionally think of it.
It’s a good problem, mind you. One of the joys of exploring RPG systems is seeing which mechanical systems best facilitate the types of experiences you either want at the table, and/or are adept at creating at the table.
Putting It Together: Creating Narrive
I’m not waving the white flag on this, but I won’t be diving into this process in this particular blog article. The reason is that I want to explore some answers through Avatar and see what the process ends up looking like. I have some ideas, but want to test them.
Additionally, I could talk about this for Dungeons & Dragons – and likely will in future articles – but as mentioned earlier, solving for this problem in a system you’re familiar with is different than it is with a new system.
So stay tuned to this blog, because this isn’t the last I’ll be exploring narrative in TTRPGs, and what some strategies are for creating compelling narratives.