Is D&D a Storytelling Game?
One of my many freelancing gigs is to act as the DM Training Seminar Coordinator for the Herald’s Guild of DMs. We are in the process of creating content to help DMs get better at the craft of running D&D games. One seminar that I am responsible for personally creating, in preparation for presentation at Origins and Gen Con, has to do with “Storytelling in D&D.” I’ve written a couple different drafts of the seminar, each time focusing on different topics under that broad theme. Being the world-class navel gazer that I am, one nagging question haunts me while I create this seminar: “is D&D really a storytelling game?”
If I asked a dozen different types of gamers that question, I would invariably get a dozen different answers, ranging from “Of course it is” to “Of course it’s not.” For those players and DMs who enjoy deep character immersion and highly interactive narratives in their game, D&D is definitely a game that facilitates storytelling. Other types of players, or players of other games that focus more on creating a narrative, D&D isn’t the most adept game at facilitating storytelling.
As with most questions that border on the philosophical, half of the battle is managing the hair-splitting semantics. Is there a difference between a “story game” and a “storytelling game?” Is the object of a storytelling game the creation of the story, or is the story just a byproduct of whatever happens while other goals and objectives are pursued? Does the depth and quantity of storytelling agency differ between the DM and the players, so that it is a storytelling game for the DM but some other type of game for the players?
So, even while I prepare my seminar under the assumption that D&D is a storytelling game, here I sit arguing with myself about semantics, the nature of narrative, interactive fiction, the line between story creator and story audience, and about a dozen other questions that an overactive mind cannot ignore.
To shut down the questions for a moment, I am going to try to pull a Descartes and break everything down before I start to build it back up. If the dude thought, and therefore he was, then I too must be because I think. If I want to be able to talk intelligently about how to manage storytelling in a D&D game as the DM, I must first decide what a story is, and what it means to tell a story.
So to the basics! A story needs characters, and D&D provides those. The game provides characters in a different way than a work of fiction might, but the characters are still present and still at the heart of the work. A story (generally) needs a plot, and D&D definitely provides that as well. Setting? Check. Themes? Check. The elements that make a story all seem to be present in a typical game of D&D.
How about the “telling” part of “storytelling?” This is where the questions gets a little hazier. Generally a story is told, whether through writing or speaking or even dramatic presentation, by a single person. That person may create several voices to convey the story, but those voices are within the story, not outside of it. D&D stories may be told mostly by the DM, or told mostly by the players through the DM as a facilitator, but there are definitely several voices on the outside of the story, all collaborating on creating the final narrative. Who has the most power to shape the narrative, how is that power shared, and what method is used to choose who has the power at any particular time?
These questions I will tackle next time, after a few stiff drinks….