Monday, March 12, 2012
Same old story
It is claimed that there are only 36 different dramatic situations on which all the stories of the world are built. I can't guarantee that number, but it sure seems that I'm getting more easily bored by stories of games or films these days, as they appear same old, same old to me. For example I finally got around yesterday to watch Avatar, and I while the technology is impressive, I found the story far too cliché. The evil corporation with no redeeming feature on the one side, and the totally good earthbound natives on the other side, you knew how the story would end as soon as the conflict was defined.
Fantasy literature especially had more than its fair share of reuse of old stories and concepts; how many fantasy worlds have you come across that had elves, orcs, and wizards? Games usually spend a lot of effort on game mechanics and technology, and little effort on story: WoWHead shows that World of Warcraft now has nearly ten thousand quests, each of them a small story, and most of them as repetitive as forgetable. Even the much better told stories of Star Wars: The Old Republic got old quickly after a few planets.
The only good thing about having the impression to already have heard all the stories there are is that it makes it easier to write stories when I am creating or modifying D&D adventures. Or even make up a story on the fly in a sandbox situation where the players wandered off the prepared path.
And by the nature of pen & paper gameplay, you don't want the stories to be too complicated anyway. There is only so much a group of players can do in one evening play session, and when you meet again in two weeks you want them to remember the important points of a story. Add too many characters and sub-plots to the story and you risk running into the situation where the game bogs down, because most of the session is spent remembering what the players already found out. A short and rather straightforward story with some surprises is often better, because (just like in online games) the story the players are actually interested in is the story of their characters. I recently listened to series 1 of the Penny Arcade D&D podcasts, and all the funny stories are how Jim Darkmagic burns Binwin Bronzebottom with his area effect spell, and completely independent of the story of the adventure itself; in fact I was surprised how little storytelling and roleplaying the DM did in series 1, but that was probably more for the start, the PAX video live games look better there. As long as the players care about the game, the quality of the story is of secondary importance.