Storytelling, Emotional Investment, and Cooperation in Gaming

If you hadn’t noticed, I started doing write-ups of my Out of the Abyss D&D sessions here on the blog. I initially just started doing it to keep track of the story myself, and maybe give my players a way to recap what happened (when a week passes between play sessions, it’s easy to forget that you killed and ate a grick, you know). But they’ve quickly proven to be some of the most popular posts here, getting viewed a lot more than pretty much anything else I’ve written (if you’re curious, the most viewed posts on this site are “Girls in the Woods: Sexism in Fairy Tales” and “Color Symbolism in Disney Princess Movies”). I think the key is that people are really enjoying the story.

On a completely unrelated note (that will definitely not prove to be related later, no), my boyfriend and I started playing Pandemic: Legacy recently. We just finished up with March (and lost both games, ugh), so no spoilers past that, please. We actually had a bit of a heated discussion at one point, because we have a fundamentally different viewpoint on why this game is fun. I accused him of metagaming (which I know I was not using correctly, but bear with me) at one point, and I had to explain why that bothered me so much. Metagaming is basically using out-of-game knowledge to influence in-game decisions and strategy. Interestingly, the time I’ve had the most conflict over this is in cooperative games (specifically Matt Leacock games, because it comes up for me a lot in Forbidden Island, too). This is because I think I have a much broader definition of what constitutes “out-of-game knowledge” than most other gamers do. Why? Because I play every game like a roleplaying game.

There comes a point in a lot of cooperative games where one player will point out that it is now mathematically impossible for us to win. We haven’t actually lost yet, but with the knowledge we have as players (how many cards are left in the deck, which cards come up next, etc), we know our characters are doomed in the next few turns – it’s just a matter of when. Even when I’m aware of that moment when winning becomes impossible (which I often am not), I don’t bring it up. I don’t mention it or think about it, because I want to play the game through to the end. I want the story to have a satisfying conclusion beyond “the players realized they couldn’t win and they stopped playing.” In Pandemic: Legacy, I am emotionally invested in the characters, in finding these cures, in “saving the world.” I want to win. But I don’t play games to win. I play to 1) have fun, first and foremost, and 2) tell a story. That’s what I mean when I play every game like an RPG. Story is king.

Now, hearing me say that might surprise some of my friends who’ve heard me rant about a certain kind of board game that I hate to play – RPG-in-a-box. Fuck RPG-in-a-box games. They are not fun and I will not budge on that position. Why? Because they take all of the mechanics of tabletop pen-and-paper RPGs (what some people consider “the fun part”) and leave behind all the story (what I and some others consider “the fun part”). The mechanics, like the rules of when you roll certain dice and how you determine certain attributes, are not the fun part of any game. Any of them. And I know that saying this will have people saying “But Jen, if you don’t like the mechanics, are you even really a gamer? Why play games at all? Why not just go write another dumb book if you want to tell stories?” Shhh. Shh. No.

First of all, I’m not saying that I dislike rules in games. I love rules when rules exist to service the story. I’m saying that rules should come second to fun. When I DM/GM an RPG, I am 100% willing to bend or break the rules if it results in a better story. The other thing that I think is key to point out – games are inherently cooperative. Even non-cooperative games. There is a social element that is literally unavoidable in being a gamer (at least, a tabletop gamer – it is very possible to play video games alone) (this is, coincidentally, why I think tabletop gaming attracts more well-adjusted people in general than other types of solo nerdery). The fact of the matter is that if you want to play games, you need people to play with (my boyfriend was going to play Pandemic: Legacy alone because he hates playing cooperative games with people, until I pointed out how insane that was). So even if you’re playing on different sides or different teams, you’re still working together to tell that story. And if you’re playing an actual RPG, you’re all on the same team with (to my mind) the express goal of telling the best story possible.

There is no winning or losing in RPGs (again, unlike RPG-in-a-box games), and that’s the best thing. The only time you lose in an RPG is if you don’t have fun. Do you know how to not have fun in an RPG? 1) Don’t do anything – don’t get involved in the story, don’t take initiative, don’t do things. 2) Do only what is expressly allowed of you by the rules – don’t ask “can I do this?” and see what your GM says, don’t think outside the box. 3) Don’t engage emotionally with the world and the story. I’m an adamant believer that if you always hold yourself at arm’s length, if you don’t invest in your characters and the world they’re living in, the stakes aren’t high enough for you. And by “an adamant believer”, I mean “I do not understand people who are capable of not investing emotionally in the story.” Maybe it’s a writer thing, but if I’m in the story, I am IN.

So, the emotional satisfaction of RPGs and their stories is a big factor, I think, in why I like them so much (and I know at least some others agree). The other is one that ties back in that social element – group storytelling is group bonding. Maybe you have an idea of the best way to approach that dragon fight, but the player next to you just came up with something completely awesome too. And when you all invest emotionally in the same story, it brings you closer together (how many of us have made friends because of a shared favorite book or movie or TV show?).

And as long as you buy into that, you literally cannot lose. Sure, you might lose that fight, you might fail that quest, your character might even die – but if you come away from the table like “oh my god, and when you backflipped onto the dragon’s back and tried to stab it, wow that was amazing, even if it immediately killed you, that was still great” – you won, and everyone in your group won. Because even if you “lost”, you were still emotionally fulfilled by that (this is why I always encourage going out in a blaze of glory, actually). I’d rather have a narratively satisfying loss over an emotionally hollow victory any day.
(Alternate interpretation: I am a crazy delusional person who invests far too much time, energy, and emotion into fiction, and this is why I am a writer)

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