Books are books, games are games

<I wrote this post back in January and never got around to finishing it.  I don’t remember if this was in response to specific forum or blog posts I’ve read or just wool gathering based on various asides.  Although it’s not exactly polished, and does not really lead to any particular conclusion, I figured I’d better go ahead and publish this to get it out of the way.>

One fairly controversial column Gary Gygax wrote for his “From the sorcerer’s scroll” series in Dragon Magazine was titled “Books are books, games are games” (it originally appeared in The Dragon #31 but I saw it first in the Best of Dragon, vol. II). Gary wrote at length about why epic fantasy (and a certain book about a ring) did not make an ideal setting for D&D games. I can’t really say much on that topic, as I have not really played in games that attempted to create an epic campaign from the start, or at least not one that lasted long enough to be able to say how successful it was compared to other kinds of games. As a player, the most memorable long-term games I’ve played in have been fairly episodic, or started that way. A pair of swashbuckling/pirates GURPS games and many short fantasy games in D&D, Rolemaster, or GURPS, as well as some Westerns in GURPS, stand out and I’ve kept those character sheets for years, perhaps decades. I can also think of a couple that were slowly revealed to be epic-style games, but this was not necessarily obvious at the beginning. One was a semi-historical fantasy game set in Norman England, which began very much like a medieval/Arthurian romance but grew into a massive story involving a Viking invasion (sadly, the game fell apart before reaching any kind of conclusion). The other was a gonzo but really fun riff on Ultima IV, which started as planetary romance type thing as the players made characters based on themselves (idealized, naturally) and ended with a massive battle that involved most of my miniatures. So I can’t dismiss epic style play out of hand even if I’m more interested in picaresque/episodic play now.

Anyway, what I really have been thinking about is the tendency gamers seem to have to go back to the “sources” to promote, justify, attack, or defend their preferred game styles and their conceptions of various fantasy tropes.

What I want to say is that different media like films and books and games are essentially different — that is: are different at a fundamental or essential level as experiences. Reading a book is a different kind of experience than watching a film or playing a game. (Video and computer games are another, fourth thing; board games a fifth; etc.) People don’t always remember this.

I say this because I’ve seen some comments and discussion about how the pulp fiction of Howard and the others don’t have any of the hallmarks of classic D&D (starting weak, working in medium sized parties, looting dungeons, etc.), and how action movies are more like modern editions of the game (ignoring small details and focusing on the big action sequences, heroes from the start, etc.). People often valorize things that make a game “more cinematic,” as if that were inarguably a goal of RPGs. Likewise I myself have been tearing through old sci-fi and fantasy books looking for signs of D&D tropes, and to some extent that seems misguided to me now.

Novels and movies generally don’t have multiple heroes the way an RPG does because of the way those mediums work. It is an exceptional (perhaps experimental, and certainly more challenging than usual) novel or film that features more than one primary protagonist.  Even in the case of literary duos, it seems to me that that one character takes center stage.  (For example, in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, I tend to see either Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser as the ‘main’ character, following the narrator’s focus from story to story or scene to scene.  In Dumas’ The three musketeers, isn’t D’artangan the protagonist?)

In films, usually it is the hero and some number of sidekicks. Perhaps the hero is not clear at the start but is slowly revealed as in a slasher/horror film where we figure out who is a main character by seeing the others killed off. Ensemble casts in an action or caper film like Ocean’s Ten or the Seven Samurai may be better candidates for exemplifying “parties” of adventurers, but realistically the viewer is unlikely to see them all as equally “main” characters.

In books, there are celebrated examples of rich storytelling where many characters are fully fleshed out, but these are fairly exceptional. The vast majority of novels feature a single main character and editors and publishers encourage this. (JRRT himself thought of Samwise as the central character of LotR, by the way, so don’t point to LotR as an example with multiple “main characters”!)

One suggestion I’ve seen is for DMs to try to make a single PC the “star” of a session, and this seems pretty misguided to me. Among the assumptions you’d need to make for such a suggestion make sense are (1) there needs to be a main character at all; (2) the DM can actually control things sufficiently to keep the spotlight on one PC; and (3) the game is supposed to recreate the cinematic experience. I don’t think any of these assumptions are good ones for a D&D game (although these assumptions could apply to other kinds of games).

I say, play the damn game and let the story emerge from play. Over-planning a story line and assigning a lead character doesn’t sound like the kind of game I’d enjoy at all. I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw in a hook or event that is tied to something a character did or is or which relates to a particular character’s background or goals. You can do that without trying to force the PC in question to take any action about it or to take the lead. Likewise I’ve definitely enjoyed sessions where one PC takes a lead role, but it has to happen naturally.

But unless I’ve been completely deceived, I don’t think I’ve been a player in a game where the DM sets out beforehand to make a certain PC shine in a given session.  So I’m curious, for those who use movies or books as the frame of reference for how a game should play out, how do you handle (or circumvent) the issue of a ‘main character’?

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Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. My ‘explanation’ for this was that stories are how a single individual remembers what happened. So Hyboria is full of people who remember how they used to have a sidekick called Conan.

  2. I find that I draw on other mediums like novels, TV shows, movies, and comics a lot in my world building and when developing the major arcs and themes of my campaign. I’ll use characters from other mediums as NPCs very often, or I’ll use place names and descriptions for things, or make story elements from other sources part of the world’s back story, or I’ll mutate a novel world’s back story into an alternate form to use as my foundation.
    When it comes to the session level of play I find who shines depends largely on my players. I’ve tried the whole “making someone a star” thing and it rarely works out. For one thing your entire session can be thrown out of whack if the player of your star character doesn’t show up. I find the stars generally emerge from the players that put effort and thought into the back story of their character. Some of my players just aren’t that into developing character and back story, usually they’re at the table for social reasons and/or because they enjoy other elements of the game (mechanics and strategy usually). The players that write back stories, tend to step up more in role playing situations and they have more of the story written around them generally because as a DM I have more to work from with their character. However, the characters with little or no back story are great too, because they’re a blank canvas and with some gentle nudging from me, I’m usually able to create backs story elements for their player to run with when I’m trying to set the hook. Rarely can I assign a lead character, it never really works out to make one character a bastard prince or the son of a god or something like that because then all of the players will want a similarly awesome hook for their character.

  3. So I’m curious, for those who use movies or books as the frame of reference for how a game should play out, how do you handle (or circumvent) the issue of a ‘main character’?

    One of the first RPGs I joined was a fantasy world constructed from the DM’s girlfriend’s Mary Sue character’s background, and the DM’s girlfriend was the star of the show and nearly every session revolved around her char or the cool things her char could do. That got old pretty quick.

    When I’m the DM, I try to include things to give each character some time in the spotlight every 2-3 sessions, either pulling from backstory (appearance of long-lost family member, etc.) or consequences from actions (NPC showing up looking for the item a PC took, etc.) or the “random” victim of an interesting trap, curse, blessing, etc. A little something to give each player a bit of show time above and beyond skill-specific scenarios and the like (a lock only the thief can pick, etc.).

    • I should probably add that most of my DM experience has been with all-female groups who wrote up detailed character backstories and the like. I’ve tried doing no-setup-required dungeon crawls and that playstyle really didn’t interest me, as players only wanted to kill things and take their stuff.

  4. I guess I just don’t think of it as an issue. People play for different reasons, when somebody has a need to be the star, that usually comes out in play or in character generation. I do try to get *some* background information out of players so I can write some decent hooks, but other than that, it seems to unfold fairly naturally. I don’t think you necessarily need to keep “episodes” tracked on each character, but making sure to includes a few scenes set up for each player is nice. I definitely agree with Pirengle there.

    Unfortunately, plenty of “bad” GMs overlook that (or used to) and just play how they want to play, players-be-darned. That is IMHO, the historical force behind the desperate desire for “game balance”. To be honest, I lay a lot of this angst squarely at the foot of old-school DnD, which was honestly not much of a role-playing system at all.

    One of the curious things to me about 4e is that while, to many of us, it “didn’t feel like DnD” there’s an entire opposite crowd that feels like its finally “getting back to its roots” as a skirmish game. That makes me think that a lot of the “roleplaying” done back in the day had little to do with DnD and a lot to do with who played or ran it.

    In any case, I find TV series to be a better model than the books and movies for character relationships. Star Trek, Firefly, Farscape, Scooby-Doo, and NCIS provide good examples of party dynamics. Especially Farscape, IMHO.


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