Storytelling in D&D: Interesting Story or Player Abuse?
An intriguing discussion popped up last week in the D&D Adventurers League world. The administrators of the large and popular Organized Play campaign released a document called State of Mulmaster. The first part of this very interesting article highlighted the city of Mulmaster, where the second season of the D&D Expeditions adventures—in the Elemental Evil storyline—is taking place. Mulmaster is a highly volatile setting for a campaign, and is thus a very interesting one.
The controversy with the article surrounds its second part, which details what happens to characters who use unauthorized arcane magic within the confines of Mulmaster. In this case, “unauthorized” means anyone not joining a sanctioned organization called “the Cloaks” cannot use arcane magic without serious consequences.
When a player can lose a character—including the character getting “publicly burned alive” if the player is not careful and particularly unlucky with some die rolls—there is naturally going to be some complaints. Having been an administrator in countless Organized Play campaigns over the years, I am no stranger to the sometimes staggering sense of entitlement that some display when they feel their needs and desires are not being meant.
This latest friction in an OP campaign between what the campaign offers and what certain players want has brought up the question again, and I think it is particularly relevant in my ongoing investigation of D&D as a game that promotes and facilitates storytelling. Is this campaign-driven hindrance to one aspect of the game (in this case, arcane casting) an unfair impediment to a certain subsection of players? Or is it an interesting twist in an ongoing story that provides an opportunity to create new and diverse stories in an otherwise “vanilla” setting?
No one can deny that there is a certain type of player who treats D&D as a mere game, where the object is to win. Anything that threatens to keep the player from reaching that win condition (even if the win condition exists only in his own mind) leads to rumbling at best, and epic tantrums at worst. At the other end of the spectrum is the player who plays the game to help create a story, and the only way to win the game is to make the story interesting and memorable. Even if the obstacles presented in the game are totally overwhelming, spelling doom for the character, a good interaction between the character and the world excuses that, because the result is a good story.
This “arcane casting in Mulmaster” conundrum seems to be fertile ground to evaluate that dichotomy. The setting being created in Mulmaster, I contend, is one rife with drama—the stuff of great stories. An oppressive government understands the threat that magic presents the status quo, so it seeks to control that threat, specifically by co-opting it. If drama equals danger intersecting with desire, then this background for a story is perfect. However, as a mechanical piece of a larger games, the restrictions on arcane casting can certainly seem to place a greater burden on certain classes.
For me, seeing the danger that arcane casters might find themselves in while adventuring in Mulmaster has ensured that I am going to be playing one in the Mulmaster adventures. I like the mechanics of D&D, and I like the storytelling as well, and I cannot wait to see kinds of stories that DMs and players can create together in such an interesting milieu.