The Challenge of Telling Great Stories in TTRPGs

I recently played A Visit to San Sibilia for the first time, and I found it to be a really enjoyable solo tabletop role playing experience for crafting an interesting story. It appealed to me as a writer much more than as a gamer. In fact, I think part of the reason why it does so well at making interesting stories is that it’s barely on the edge of being a TTRPG at all. All of this got me thinking about telling great stories in tabletop RPGs, and why it can be so hard to do well.

One of the challenges I inevitably run into when I’m playing these games is the desire to craft a good story. I think this is only natural for writers. The problem is that good stories have certain structures, and the game often fights against that.

TTRPGs have three aspects that often disrupt good story structure:

Mechanics

Especially in rules-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, the mechanics of combat, spellcasting, or even more esoteric things like politics or detective work can really limit the storytelling. If there is a rule for doing something, players tend to stop telling stories and start plugging values into the equation to get the outputs they want. They go into gameplay mode. Plus, working through these rules often throws pacing out the window. I’ve been in more than one session where the story was really getting good…right up until we got in an hour-long fight.

Too Many Drivers

Imagine going to get lunch with a few friends. Now imagine you all pile into the same car, but it’s a crazy car with pedals and a steering wheel for every seat. Oh, and you all want to go to a different restaurant. That’s what trying to guide the story in a TTRPG can sometimes feel like.

Each player has their own character and their own interests in the game. The only person who can really guide the story more than others is the DM/GM who is running it. But even they can’t really force the story to go in a direction unless the players want it to. If they try to railroad the players in the “correct” direction, the players will feel like they have no agency in the game. If they give the player characters the ability to shape the story, they will inevitably steer it away from whatever long-term plans the GM might have, whether on purpose or by accident.

Even harder to control are real-world intrusions into the game. Maybe a player has to miss a session or two. Maybe they have to stop playing. Suddenly a main character disappears, like a star actor unexpectedly leaving a show.

Randomness

Sometimes you get a couple of lucky hits and the villain dies in the middle of the campaign. Sometimes you get a series of bad rolls and miss all the clues that move the mystery forward. Veteran GMs know that you shouldn’t count on any outcome if there’s any randomness involved.

Randomness can make a story arc drag on too long, or unexpectedly end it outright. It can be responsible for incredible highs when the players get lucky at a vital moment, and incredibly low lows like party wipes.

True randomness means you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next. That can be exciting, but it doesn’t help you to craft a tight story.

Story vs. Game?

So, are TTRPGs destined to have bad stories? Not necessarily. But a good story for a TTRPG has a different structure and a different feel to a good story on the page.

In TTRPGs, it’s important that the story give the player characters agency in the world, give them challenges and opportunities. It’s up to the players what they do with them. Much like video games, the fun comes from experience and participation. The “plot” will sometimes stall or take a ninety-degree turn. Or a session will get bogged down in mechanics, and the story will be mostly ignored. All of that is fine, as long as everyone is having a good time.

That said, there’s a reason why TTRPG logs often translate into boring fiction. Good fiction can’t afford to meander. Good fiction has to have tight character arcs, and the success or failure of the characters can’t be thrown out the window at a die roll.

I personally love writing stories and playing games, but I had to come to grips with these differences when I first started running those games. I had to realize that I don’t want a story outline that goes much beyond the current play session. I had to learn that my job was to build interesting settings and experiences and above all, opportunities, and let the players navigate them however they wanted to. I had to create a collaborative environment, and then I had to collaborate.

So if you’re frustrated or worried that your TTRPG sessions don’t feel like you’re playing a novel, realize that you’re not alone. That’s expected. Leave the books for reading, accept that the story in your game is sometimes going to be a little wonky, and enjoy it for what it is: a collaborative experience; part gameplay, part story.

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