Role-Playing Games and Collaborative Storytelling in the Age of the Internet

This is the final project, an “Un-Essay,” for my Fall 2014 ENGL 3340: Technologies of Text course at Northeastern University. taught by Ryan Cordell. The class focused on understanding the intersections between technology, media studies, literature, and more as pertaining to the history (and future) of the written word. My ultimate intent for this piece is to lengthen it into something of a “manifesto” on role-playing games and storytelling in the future, but as the class was not focused on RPGs as such, I am limiting the scope for now.
What follows are my own beliefs and opinions on the topics of role-playing games, the purpose of rules and systems in collaborative storytelling, and some interesting developments in that field. These views do not represent those of Northeastern University, Ryan Cordell, or any individuals or institutions mentioned herein.

On RPGs and Rules

As those around me are quite well aware, I am a fan of tabletop role-playing games. I define these as games wherein a group of friends gather around a table with the goal of telling a collaborative story featuring themselves as the stars in a safe and fun setting. Role-playing games (abbreviated as RPGs) offer a chance to become someone else for a few hours, to adventure or problem solve in a variety of genres and scenarios that real life may not accommodate normally. Whether this means taking on a new occupation, a new class or gender, or even a new species in a new world, the RPG experience is one about telling stories of great achievements in a world shared among friends.

RPG Dice

Typical RPG Polyhedral Dice

Whether they are taking down corrupt mega-corporations with cyberpunk tech and magic in Shadowrun, delving for riches and power in Dungeons & Dragons, or taming the dangerous wilderness from a rodent’s-eye view in Mouse Guard, the players take on character roles not their own in doing so. To facilitate each character having similar narrative control over the story, role-playing games use systems that describe not only how to make characters that fit the setting, but how to use characters’ strengths and abilities to drive the action forward. Though many RPG systems use dice, cards, or some other method to determine an element of randomness in the game’s world, that is not required. In fact, all that players need to make an RPG experience fun is a desire to do cool things worth talking about with their friends, and an environment where they can do so.

As a gamer and game designer, reader and writer, I feel that the benefits of role-playing games should be highly valued. They provide a safe space for creative problem solving, they improve empathetic thinking patterns, and they allow players to experience different worlds. Players can act out in ways that modern society typically does not allow for, either due to social mores, or the fact that there is no way to cast a Fireball spell using magic at present. However, when a new player typically is introduced to the hobby, the experience is often tarnished by frustration with pages of meaningless numbers, obscure or arcane references and in-jokes among the community, and an aura of ostracism and strangeness that has lingered since the first opponents of the hobby started damning it as a tool of the devil (which it is not). RPG systems are thus often facing an identity crisis: evolve, simplify, or die.

While evolving and simplifying may seem to be a natural progression for a game or hobby, in RPGs there has always been some level of distrust when that occurs. Despite Dungeons & Dragons currently being in its 5th Edition (though there were half-editions, the “0th-edition” and many other spinoffs since its inception as a product of the tabletop wargame Chainmail), there are still people playing older editions… and defending them against all interlopers. The D&D “Edition Wars” still rage on to this day, as gamers cling to THAC0 and mile-long skill lists, miniature battle grid mats and “treasure-as-experience.” Because of this, Wizards of the Coast even announced 2014’s D&D 5e as having the intent of “reuniting the tribe,” while also bringing new players in via simpler rules and more modern storytelling mechanics. That said, despite the new edition’s early success thus far, the D&D community is just as fractured as it was before the announcement of 5e, and this could easily result in more players being dissuaded from pursuing the hobby. Just imagine going into a store that sells RPG products and finding people bickering over which edition is the best, and why all other editions are bad. I don’t know about you, but if that were how I was being introduced to the hobby, I would likely not take to it without hesitation. Instead, I would rather the people in a FLGS (friendly local gaming store) tell me what fun stories they’ve had with RPGs, and how to role-play, and who some notable authors and designers in the field might be. “Get people excited about the stories theu can tell, and how the mechanics help tell these tales,” is my go-to attitude towards introducing new players to RPGs, because that’s the only way the hobby will survive beyond this generation.

Though advances have been made in more accessible and simple RPG design, the idea of abstraction of mechanics from story remains in the most popular systems. What this refers to is the development of rules by the game’s designers that affect the flow or outcome of the story. Consider the following example to see what I mean:

In the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition RPG system, to climb a stone wall, a player would need to roll an Athletics Skill “check” (the result of a twenty-sided die roll, plus their character’s Strength ability score modifier, plus a character’s level-dependent Proficiency Bonus if they are Proficient in Athletics). If the check exceeds the Difficulty Class (DC) of the challenge before them, (in this case, the Climbing DC of the wall, as set by the game or the rules arbitrater), they succeed and scale the wall! If the result of their Athletics check is too low, they fail to climb the wall.

Simple, right? However, there are also many systems which eschew this granular view of mechanizing rules and their means of determining success or failure. Certain story-focused systems state that if there is no meaningful consequence for failure, a character can automatically succeed at most tasks. What this means in the above example is that if there’s no one standing guard at the top of the wall listening for the player falling on a failed Athletics check, or if the character isn’t trying to escape something at the bottom of the wall, or there is no other similar threat to their being able to climb the wall, then they automatically succeed in ascending. This prevents time wasted at the table rolling dice, and speeds the narrative along so players can find out what happens next. After all, the game system should be there for two reasons: to inspire players to tell fun stories, and to facilitate the story being told in a fair and meaningful manner. Everything else is just tertiary padding, and often gets in the way of fun.

On the 0th Rule of RPGs:

There is an old idea in RPGs dating back to the days of 0e D&D (the one pioneered by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) that has become known in some circles as the 0th Rule. The 0th Rule lauds this idea of fun above all else, even adherence to the rest of the rules. Tom Moldvay stated it well in the Foreword to his Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook in 1977:

“No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.”

Tom Moldvay's

Tom Moldvay’s “Basic Dungeons & Dragons”

Moldvay continued on to say that rules changes should always go through the rules arbiter (often referred to as a Game Master (GM), or in D&D, the Dungeon Master (DM), who serves as the laws of physics and plays as everyone else in the world the rest of the players are exploring), but it effectively remains true in all but the most strict “play by the rules-as-written only” groups: the rules are more like guidelines. They are there first and foremost to show how to have fun playing the game and telling the story. Secondly, they are there to keep the play balanced. After all, if one player has the means to wipe all life off a planet in a breath while another can barely swing a sword, it’s not fun for every player at the table.

Because of its reliance on a Dungeon Master or Game Master’s interpreting the rules or vetoing changes, though, the 0th Rule is also often stated more bluntly as, “The GM’s rule is final.” I take issue with this interpretation, though, as it often puts GMs in a perceived position of power over the other players, when in reality they are telling the same story as the rest of their group. They may have a different set of moves they can make, but they are still a player who is discovering the story alongside their friends. While it’s always necessary to eventually decide just how much damage a particular effect does, for example, I feel that the most important deciding factor of that should be, above all, “Does it make the story more interesting, or create a fun situation for the players?” If it doesn’t make the story more interesting, (say, by stymieing the players’ attempts to reach a goal without reason), or more fun (by denying players a chance to do cool things worth talking about), then a rule or ruling has failed.

On Crowdsourcing of RPGs

One of the easiest ways to make tabletop RPGs accessible to a wider audience of new players is to hide the mechanics from most players entirely. This can be done by having the GM make all the rolls and rulings necessary, then telling the results to another player in response to their actions. This is, in effect, how a video game functions: players provide input in the form of button presses, and the GM (in this case, the game) spits out the results on screen after the input has been processed by the rules and scenario. While it removes mechanical agency from the player and makes them more of a “suggester” than a “player,” (not to mention taking away the fun of rolling dice, which feeds into a feeling of controlling one’s own fate), the benefit is that anyone then can add to the story without needing to know all the mechanics going on behind the scenes.

That said, one player still needs to know the rules in this scenario: the GM. They become a machine that processes not only the players’ actions, but also the actions of those responding to the players in-game. This, in turn, leads to an immense amount of strain on the GM in larger games with more complex rules, or when dealing with multiple players. This reliance on a skilled GM who can keep all roles and rolls straight makes this format of play extremely difficult to pull off, though in certain instances it can work in short term scenarios (such as in “amnesiac” situations in-game, when a character may not be aware of their own talents or abilities).

One strange multimodal method of communicating story to players based on their input was the Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) experiment of 2014. While Pokémon is classified as an RPG, it differs from tabletop RPGs in that it is not telling a story of a group of friends around a table in one shared adventure, but rather there is one player telling their story of an adventure through the game’s mechanics and visual/auditory aspects. As such, it is more of a solitary experience while tabletop RPGs are communal. That said, TPP illustrates a hybridization of the traditional tabletop RPG experience and the above system of suggestions to a GM combined with a video game, and its creation of a community.

TPP Animated Gif

Twitch Plays Pokémon

In TPP, the video game streaming site hosted a chat box that players could write commands into, which were translated into button presses, and finally fed into the game as user input. The result was, to say the least, chaotic. A few days in there was a feature added where players could vote for “Democracy” or “Anarchy,” where being in the first state (as viewed on a sliding scale) would tally the commands every few seconds before acting out the most popular button press, while in the second state the game would continue processing every command without gauging which was the best (or at least most popular) option.

Helix Fossil Fan Art

Helix Fossil Fan Art

The results of this experiment in crowdsourcing an RPG experience were fascinating. In 16 days, 9 hours, 55 minutes, and 4 seconds, the collective of TPP beat Pokémon Red. Whole movements had formed around Anarchy, Democracy, and the Helix Fossil item; memes were produced, comic artists poked fun at it for weeks, and the video game community at large enjoyed a good laugh. Though it was inefficient, and the “story” itself was strange in its final narrative (walking into walls repeatedly for hours is great, right?), there was no doubt that they had accomplished something and told a story. Sure the story’s been told over and over again since Pokémon Red’s release in 1996. As the game’s code did not change in the subsequent 18 years leading up to TPP, the only thing to change was the way of playing the game. The medium of Twitch subverted and changed the nature of playing Pokémon in the experiment.

Making the story of one character a group activity was a novel thing for this single-player video game. Crowdsourcing control is an interesting extension of the connectedness of the internet, however, there are other games where this has been attempted before offline. A fun introductory RPG called Everyone Is John (2002) takes the idea of TPP and puts competitive tabletop role-playing mechanics into the hands of the players, rather than just taking their suggestions and throwing them against a computer’s rules. The setup is simple: there is a GM who describes the world, and everyone else plays a voice in the head of a crazy person named John from Minneapolis. Each player decides on a secret goal for John that they get victory points for him completing, but only one voice controls John at a time. Each voice comes with personality quirks and talents, but whenever John gets injured or does something stressful, other players can seize control of John by wagering control points to try and accumulate victory points more directly. When everyone runs out of control points, John goes to sleep, and the game ends. It’s a fun party game, though I find the control check format makes the game run slower than it could, but it illustrates the TPP method of acting out a story. As TPP showed, though, taking every suggestion for the actions gets chaotic when orchestrated on such a massive scale. Thus, “Everyone Is John,” in splitting up control among the players one at a time, makes sense of the madness that multiple “voices” can bring.

On Enhanced CYOA Stories

Another way of dealing with multiple votes towards what a single character should do in a story is to take the “Democracy” route of TPP. In the experiment, Democracy was a text command used to influence a change in the mode of accepting commands to help get the character in Pokémon through tougher areas that required more finesse than chaos and “Anarchy” would allow for. One fun example fusing this democratic approach to commands and tabletop gaming is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) thread, of which many have existed over the years. These draw on the themes of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series written by Edward Packard in the 1970’s, such as using second-person narration (where the main character is “you”) and listing multiple options that send the story in various directions.

Dark Heresy CYOA Screenshot

Dark Heresy CYOA Excerpt, 4:35 AM EST, 12/5/14

One of these threads which I am very familiar with, run on the SomethingAwful traditional games forum by a good friend of mine, (LowellDND in the forums), is a “Dark Heresy CYOA” fiction. Dark Heresy is a tabletop role-playing game published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2008, and set in their Warhammer 40,000 setting; LowellDND uses the game itself as a background piece for generating impact of the main character’s actions, such as effectiveness in combat or searching for clues.

Since its start on August 16, 2014, the actual fiction had reached over 32,000 words, (with an additional 5,000 in background notes, according to the author) by 1:00 PM on November 27th. It was rated as a “Gold” thread thanks to community votes, and there had been 1,303 posts on the thread, both of forum-goers suggesting a course for the story through votes, or of the story itself. Voting periods on what the main character (a tech-priest acolyte on a massive Rogue Trader spaceship, as determined by the group’s initial voting) will typically last between one and four days, depending on interest and availability of the writer, who intends on keeping the thread running as long as there is interest.


DH CYOA Ongoing Voting Results, 8:36 PM EST, 12/6/14

An interesting option left on most of the fiction posts’ voting sections is “Other.” Oftentimes voters come up with ideas for different actions to take beyond those suggested by LowellDND, or develop “hybrid” options that utilize aspects of two of the listed paths. The interesting thing about an internet-based approach is that people around the world can participate in this shared storytelling, thus making it a communally shared and appreciated story. As well, while the original CYOA story games were restricted to options printed in the book at the time of publishing, the internet has enabled users to have more control and give feedback on the narrative, thus bringing a sense of ownership to the fiction. They can even ask for clarification on rules and the world, meaning that those who may not be as familiar with the setting or process of collaborative storytelling can still remain engaged. The fiction always comes first, and by using reader input and votes to improve and guide it, this type of story has garnered excellent responses. The writing’s pretty great in this one, too.


Ultimately, I believe that this “internet-enhanced CYOA” trend is a good thing for the RPG community for a few reasons. As evidenced by the media buzz of such stories as that of TPP, the world loves a fresh take on the familiar, whether that’s through an updated look and feel, like in re-releases of older games (or movies, as evidenced by the glut of Hollywood remakes and reboots in recent years), or through remediation, like what Twitch Plays Pokémon utilizes. The success of CYOA threads such as the Dark Heresy one proves that people want to participate in this activity still– which is a relief to me as someone who wants to design games based on the principle of collaborative storytelling.

I could go on for hours about why a given game is good or bad, but as long as people are playing it, enjoying it, and talking about it and the stories told through it, then it is good. Reading the posts on LowellDND’s CYOA thread, I am struck by how many people are engaging not only with the voting, but with the game’s setting and mechanics as a whole. They are playing Dark Heresy, even if they don’t realize it, and this makes the future of RPGs just that much brighter.

Useful Links:

Twitch Plays Pokémon:

Everyone is John Rules PDF:

Dark Heresy CYOA” (SA Forums account needed to view the full thread):

The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games: