If you read my various RPG posts as well as my book reviews, you know that when it comes to roleplaying games, I care far more about the story than I do about the mechanics or the rules. I want to hear about your character’s backstory almost infinitely more than I want to hear you rattling off their stats. Sometimes it feels like I am alone in this regard (not very often, thanks to the excellent groups of people I game with). So I was really excited to see Dice Tales: Essays on Roleplaying Games and Storytelling by Marie Brennan (already one of my favorite fiction authors).
Let me preface this review with a few statements: Most, though not all, of these essays were first posted on Brennan’s blog then later collected here – I didn’t know about the blog before, so this collection was the first time I’ve read any of these essays. Secondly, I am by no means a newcomer to RPGs. My brother DMed my first session of D&D when I was 12 years old, and it’s been an interest ever since. Followers of this blog will know that I’ve DMed at least one session per week (often two sessions, and sometimes three) for the last two and a half years, non-stop (I GMed sporadically before that, and I played weekly for a good two years before my regular GMing).
At the very outset of this book, I was concerned that it would be too basic for me – just like all RPG rulebooks have that introductory chapter explaining what an RPG is, what the lingo is, how it works, etc., this book had that as well. It was a well-written explanation though, and it was pretty much entirely system-agnostic, which is always a nice change of pace (the introductory chapter of a specific RPG rulebook tends to be flavored with “here’s how it works in THIS game”). Having these things clarified early on – and repeated throughout – does ensure that the book isn’t too forbidding for newcomers; the barrier to entry is not high at all. You certainly don’t have to have played RPGs before to read this book, though I’m not 100% sure you’ll get as much out of it if you haven’t played in at least one session.
One of the things that’s discussed the most in this book, that I typically haven’t given much thought to before, is how the rules and mechanics of various RPGs enforce their given storytelling style. Brennan’s go-to examples tend to be Dungeons and Dragons (being the one that everyone knows), Legend of the Five Rings (on which she’s worked as a writer), and LARP systems liked Changeling: The Dreaming and Vampire: The Masquerade. Except for D&D, I haven’t played almost any of her example games given throughout the book (I’ve never done a LARP before at all), and I actually found that really interesting. I mean, of course the world of RPGs is enormous and there’s more coming out each day, but I came out of this book with an entire list of game systems I’d like to try, and that legitimately excited me.
At any rate, I hadn’t thought much before about the storytelling limitations of different game systems. I mean, obviously D&D is in some ways limited to certain kinds of fantasy game (at least without significant re-skinning work on the part of a DM), and there’s certain ideas that are enforced by the game (like that all characters must fall into a specific class of abilities, something that doesn’t exist in my other main RPG system, Savage Worlds). But I had never given much thought to the varying levels of complexity enforced by those classes. Brennan explains it well in the terms of simplicity and complexity. A simple D&D character is most often a fighter; a complex D&D character is most often a wizard. There’s very very limited options if you want to play a fighter with a lot of complexity and fiddly bits and “crunch”, or if you want to play a very simple wizard with as little crunch as possible.
Brennan delves a lot into character, in particular, which makes sense because your characters (whether player or non-player) are what drives the story. I’ve never been a fan of characters whose personality, backstory, and life don’t go beyond a sentence or two scribbled on the back of their character sheet. I don’t like having to remind players that their characters are not their character sheets. A character sheet is an imperfect translation of your character into the rules of the game. That’s definitely also the attitude this book takes, with a lot of thought given to how each player character interacts with the world, with the story, with the other player characters. This is a great section of the book that I would very strongly recommend to literally anyone who plays an RPG, even those who prefer hack-and-slash.
The other best section of the book (I say, as if each section is not the best section because this book is wonderful) is a large segment on GMing, because really, as much as RPGs are a cooperative hobby, the GM is still kind of the one in charge (assuming the game has a GM, as many games like Fiasco and Microscope do not). It covers a lot of the trickier aspects of GMing that are often either not covered or at least not covered in depth in most RPG rulebooks’ “GM-only” chapters. Things like the social element (not only how the characters interact, but how the players interact), planning a long-term campaign with an ongoing story, balancing what you-the-GM want with what the players want. There’s just so much good information here, and nearly every page had something eye-opening to me (again, I am an experienced GM).
This is a delightful book, and it’s clear from the get-go that Brennan’s perspective on RPGs is one of experience and love – it’s apparent that she cares deeply about this subject (she in fact did her thesis on RPGs). To me, that’s the best thing – when you can get a really good writer writing about a subject they love to write about. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who plays RPGs, to anyone who runs RPGs, to anyone who writes RPGs, and to everyone who loves RPGs.