Based on data from the US statista homepage the sales figures for computer and videogames in 2015 was staggering 16.5 billion US dollars, whereas a similar sales figure for tabletop RPGs in 2015, according to ICv2 correspondence letter #90, was a solid 35 million US dollars. From sales figures alone, the computer game industry is by this measure 471 times bigger than tabletop RPGs. In the relative short lifespan of the computer game industry, the inspiration has traditionally gone in the direction from movies, books, and RPGs towards computer games and not vice versa. Considering the computer game industry coming of age and its willingness to experiment with storytelling modes, perhaps we can now ask whether valuable lessons are extractable to RPGs. But what are the differences and commonalities of storytelling in computer games and tabletop RPGs? We need to step back and look closely at traits that define and set the storytelling apart.
The basic unit of communication in a novel is the written idea or experience conveyed over time in a linear fashion. The experience communicated in novels is in third person and is one-dimensional storytelling. Movies add a second dimension to the idea-over-time dimension with added visual experience. Instead of internalizing written words we observe and hear the character in its environment in second person. And games add a third dimension where ideas over time is combined with interactivity. Instead of observing a character, we become the character in first person and control its interaction with the unfolding story. Storytelling in games can be improved by strengthening its principle traits; interactivity, interaction and decision-making.
Immersion is strengthened with additional dimensions and connectivity points being added. Immersion in storytelling games can occur at several levels, that of space, time and emotion. Spatial immersion is our response to the setting and how our character is in relation to the environment. At a higher meta-level it can be perceived to be unexplored space in which narrative gameplay can emerge. For computer games this is naturally restricted whereas in tabletop RPG it is essentially limitless. We can add a spatial component by using miniatures or appealing dioramas, but automatically frames the narrative space. Temporal immersion is our response to the unfolding plot. This is by some measure linked to causality or our prediction of how we think the story will progress in time. However, the principle of causality is broken with the use of dice in tabletop RPGs, which have a tendency to throw the story in unexpected directions. The third level is our emotional response to the story. This relates to the developed in-game relationship between characters and NPCs but also outward from the game between the player and her/his character.
Immersion is a key factor of effective storytelling, and immersion is strongest when the exterior story is not in cognitive dissonance with our internal experience. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the story and play experience become segregated, or when the game mechanic forces us in opposite direction of what we as players want to do. Modal switching between storytelling modes or if the GM removes player interactivity to the story results in cognitive dissonance. The result is relinquished narrative agency and interactivity.
The exterior story has been a clear focus in computer games, whereas lesser focus has been on the player’s interpretation, relationship and emotional attachment to the story. RPGs often lack a visual component and the plot, climax and character development is something that emerge during the game. Emergent storytelling is player driven and occurs in the interaction between combinatorial and manipulative basic units in a complex system. It is devoid of a pre-ordained story and leads towards unique game situations and as result becomes very personal. Emergent storytelling techniques are now increasingly complementing more scripted approaches in computer games.
Aside from relationships between developers and publishers, business models, branding, intellectual property rights, digital distribution and microtransactions, are there anything we can extract from the computer game industry to tabletop RPGs? The supporting educational network behind the computer game industry produce design-textbooks having elements directly translatable for RPGs. They contain pointers for character development, story hooks and obstacle suggestions. Level design and pre-production blueprints can be used for designing spatial support to our stories. We can look at the computer industry and learn how they have drawn inspiration across media, but the biggest potential gain might be the increased awareness of story development in computer games. Emergent storytelling and a huge budget looks like a future area to keep an eye on.
About the author
Christian Toft Madsen is a freelance writer of D&D adventures and shorter pieces of storytelling goodies. He started as GM over 30 years ago and never migrated to the other side of the screen. His vimeo channel combine D&D insight with loose ramblings about tabletop roleplaying games.