Interactive Storytelling – Pen & Paper Edition
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
When I was a kid, I believed that there were little people called “Hobbits” that lived under the roots of big trees, in creek beds, in holes at the bases of hills, or in hollowed out logs. I believed that my GI Joe action figures were in a deadly war with the forces of COBRA. One day, I was a running back for the Dallas Cowboys and my brother was the entire Washington Redskins defense. The next, I was Lancelot (well, Galahad, actually, because I always liked him more), and my brother an evil trickster knight that had to be dispatched. Every day was a different story. Every day presented a new adventure. Then we began to grow up.
Some of us, back in the day called “nerds,” never left those stories behind us. There has always been an innate sense of story in nerd-dom that many people in the “regular” world no longer recognize. We’ve been drawn to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, or to a host of other worlds and other times. We’ve recognized what Tolkien has described as some of the primordial needs of mankind: to plumb the depths of all space and time, and to hold communion with all living things. And so we find ourselves watching movies or television, reading books, playing games, and telling each other stories.
Think back to when you were a kid. You probably played cops n’ robbers, knights and dragons, and so on. My wife told me she played Wonder Woman, She-Ra, and CHiPs (though, to be fair, she and her friends played the wives of Ponch and Baker). My point is: as children we lived out various stories and they helped us learn more about ourselves and our place in the world. We pretended to be grown-ups, heroes, good guys and bad guys, and so forth. Some of us never left that behind us, but if you have, then it is time to rediscover it by trying a good old fashioned role-playing game (RPG).
Unlike the games we played as children, role-playing games, or more accurately storytelling games come with rules systems, and use dice to simulate situations and actions that involve random elements. Apart from this, these games are tools we use to help us tell stories, to become heroes once again, to create myths and legends, and even learn a little bit about ourselves. It is a travesty of adulthood that the act of participating in a story has been disparaged. Storytelling games give that sense of play-acting back to the player.
Now, you may think it’s weird for a group of grown-ups to sit around a table with oddly shaped dice, pencils and papers with numbers and such all over them, but it’s really not such an odd activity at all. In fact, what you will be doing is a combination of playing a game, socializing with friends, and creating myths.
In an RPG, a group of people come together in order to tell a story. In the story, each person will assume the role of one of the protagonists, except one. That person will not take on a specific role, but will in fact perform a sort of meta-role. Alternatively referred to as Game Master (GM), Dungeon Master (DM), Storyteller, Referee, or Storyguide, this person brings the players into the world of the story. The Storyteller provides the atmosphere, the major plot points, and the antagonists, and shares them with the players. Through role-playing, the players interact with each other and the characters created by the Storyteller much as would be found in a novel or movie. Through this interaction, or role-playing, the story is advanced and the myth created. The players become the heroes of myth and legend through the story they collectively create. Here is the real fun and benefit of these types of “games”: you, playing a character, or acting as storyteller, get to participate in the story.
Man, every time I read Lord of the Rings, I want to be involved. Well, there are several RPGs set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Ever thought about how you would take on Zombies, Mummies, Demons, or Dragons? There are numerous games allowing you to do so. And who doesn’t want to fly around the galaxy in a modified YT-1300 Freighter a la Han Solo? You know you do, and you’d shoot first, too. When you look at your favorite universe, and have the opportunity to tell your own story within it, it is a wonderful thing.
But in the world of storytelling games, you’re not limited to only previously established worlds. Let’s say you want to tell a story at Hogwarts, or create your own world with its own cosmology and internal logic, there are generic systems like GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) that allow you to set your story anywhere you want, and introduce your own creations to your friends who will inhabit your world for a short while.
And we just happen to be living at a time where you can get just about any type of role-playing, or storytelling game ever printed. Wizards of the Coast has recently brought back the original Dungeons and Dragons™, and there are websites like DriveThruRPG.com that offer not only electronic versions (usually pdf) of games no longer in print, they now have print on demand versions of many of their titles. You, good people, are able to get your mitts on some of the greatest vehicles for telling stories in history. So, you have no excuse to not be doing this.
As a helper to get you on the path to interactive storytelling I’m including blurbs about a few games that I’ve played throughout the years. Maybe you’ll find a setting in which to tell your stories.
Games to Try
Title: Pathfinder® Roleplaying Game.
Publisher: Paizo Press.
Although Dungeons and Dragons® stood for years as the standard in fantasy roleplaying games, Paizo has taken it to a whole other level. You have your standard fantasy fare: Orcs, Goblins, Gnolls, Lizardmen, Dragons, Demons, Vampires, and Zombies. Good Lord, the undead hordes you will face! That’s not even to mention the Gnomes. Beware the Gnomes! As to setting, there is something for everyone in Paizo’s world, which they call Golarion. Do you have a penchant for mist shrouded Gothic Eastern Europe? Then think about setting your story in the macabre Ustalav. Do you feel like telling a story of overthrowing an evil bureaucratic empire? Then Cheliax may be a good country to explore. Like all things Viking? Try hunting great wyrms in the Land of the Linnorm Kings. You even have the option of setting your campaign in a fantasy Western town. No, it is not the mystical world of Ka’ah.
Availability: You can purchase the main book which is a hefty 500+ pages, or you can buy the book as a PDF. Paizo also offers all of the OGL rules free on their website.
Title: Vampire: the Masquerade® (Revised Edition).
Publisher: White Wolf Game Studios.
Genre: Gothic Punk, Modern.
Age: Mature. V:tM combines an elegant dice system based on attributes and skills with heavy emphasis on storytelling. Billed as a storytelling game of personal horror, inV:tM the players take on the persona of Vampires, and must wrestle with the burning hunger within, while trying to maintain the last vestiges of their humanity. Each Vampire is a member of a particular bloodline or Clan, and have to learn to rely on themselves and the members of their coterie (the player characters) in order to survive in a savage and dark version of the modern world. There is more of an emphasis on telling the story than rules, and I’ve discovered the most fun in storytelling in V:tM is to be open to improv.
Availability: This version of V:tM is no longer in print; however you can still purchase it through DriveThruRPG in PDF format, and they now also offer a print-on-demand version.
Title: Changeling: the Dreaming® (2nd Edition).
Publisher: White Wolf Game Studios.
Genre: Anything and everything.
Age: 14+. Based on the same dice system as V:tM, Changeling gives the group the opportunity to tell any kind of story imaginable. As Changelings are born from the dreams of humanity, your stories can involve anything you can dream up. Changelings are creatures of two worlds. They have a human half that interacts with the “mundane” world while their fae half is able to perceive all of the dream creatures that have been born from the imaginations of people around the world. Consequently, the stories open to you can be anything from chasing a group of rampaging My Little Ponies to the horrific nightmares spawned by the abused and forsaken. This is my favorite game because built into it is the possibility of being as light and heroic, or as dark and disturbing as you can possibly imagine. But whatever kind of story you choose to tell, Changeling is about saving the imagination of people. To lose imagination is to succumb to banality and death.
Availability: As with Vampire above, you can find the books used, or order from DriveThruRPG.
Publisher: White Wolf Game Studios.
Genre: Science Fiction.
Age: 11+. White Wolf’s Trinity is set in the 22nd century. Humanity has moved to the stars, and encountered other species and worlds, but not all is rosy. Not only are there threats from without, there are threats from within in the form of the Aberrants: people who suddenly developed godlike powers and terrorized Earth in the 21st century. The players take on the role of Psions, people who’ve evolved to special abilities like Telekinesis, Biokenesis, and so on. These Psions help protect humanity from dangers all over the known galaxy, but there is plenty of political intrigue amongst the various order of Psions.
Availability: You can purchase all of the Trinity books as PDFs from DriveThruRPG.