4th Edition and Cooperative Storytelling

After PAX East sparked my interest in DnD and my players wanted to get back to it, I decided to give it a try. I liked the 4th edition simplification and streamlining of the rules. So I got the core books and read through them in anticipation of trying a new campaign. What I want to talk about came about at the end of our character creation session.  Using the suggestions in the Player’s Handbook #2 the players use the possible background bullet points to create their character’s pasts. With very limited input from me, my players came up with the following.

Krieg Fargrim, a Dragonborn Warlord, was a farmer on the edge of a desert before entering the military. His company was sent on a campaign into the bordering desert to fight a war and then they got a certain mission. They found an underground complex that had connection with long fallen Dragonborn civilization. His unit was wiped out during this mission. When he was rescued and brought back, he quit and made his way to the city. The player got this from the background elements geography-desert, status-poor, occupation-farmer, occupation-military, and racial Dragonborn-Brush with past.

Ashley Pliskin, a Half-Elf Rogue, was born to a human mother in the mountains to the north to a community of bigoted humans that ostracized him and his mother for their connection with an Elf and was cursed by his grandmother at birth. Later he escaped the mob, becoming distrustful of others and made his way to the city where he ended up joining a gang for a short time. They weren’t happy when he left. This player worked off the tags geography-mountains, status-poor, occupation-criminal, birth-cursed and racial Half-Elf-outcast.

Midnight, an Elf Barbarian (and the only female of the group), came from a noble elven family. At her birth a prophecy dictated that she would be forced to suffer humiliation and degradation before eventually achieving greatness. Her parents sent her to the city, thinking it the best place to impose suffering on their daughter. The only work she could find there was as a stripper (I am not making this up.) working in a shady section of town. She randomly chose geography-forest, status-noble, birth-prophecy, occupation-entertainer and racial Elf-urban Elf.

Finally, Rain Vavack, a Human Shaman, (for this background I kept a running list of sources as he was telling us his background, see footnote) was a farm boy in the desert before sand pirates attacked it. He didn’t beg for his life and instead of killing him put him to work turning a large wheel. While on the sand ship he learned how to fight. Eventually he escaped slavery and found an old man in the middle of nowhere. The old man explained the mark on Rain’s forehead and the old man revealed his own mark telling him all with the mark where chosen to do battle and suck the power out of the mark until there was only one. (Our group then dubbed him the “main character”) He then made his way to the city being chased by his former owners. He was inspired by geography-desert, occupation-mariner, status-noble, birth-blessed and racial Human-Heir to forgotten god.

Now here is where co-operative storytelling got interesting. Rain showed up late, so the others had crafted how they met so he had to fit himself into the situation. This, with little help from, the DM, was the final product; Ashley was caught by Midnight attempting to rob the strip joint and in return for not turning him in, he would get her out of there. She had had enough. They managed to get outside, but were seen and are forced to run with the bouncers giving chase through the twisted streets before running into an alley bar and ducked behind the imposing figure of Krieg, making him spill the rum down his front just as their pursuers charged in. Krieg demanded to know who spilt his rum and is pointed to the pursuers by Ashley. Meanwhile, Rain sees the men charge in, think they are slavers there for him, tried to slip past. Krieg whirls around and clocks Rain in the head knocking him prone…TBC…

At the point I threw out all my plans. This was such a good setup there was no way I could not run with it. It even comes with it’s own built in cliffhanger. My input to all this was giving bonuses to skills and the act of Ashley and Midnight ducking behind Kreig. The rest was all them. We had to leave it there, but the next session saw them defeating the pursuers, Rain running away like a coward and later meeting at a city square. Here is where a problem arose. The girl who made Midnight didn’t want to play so I took the character over. I interjected her into a conversation the other two were having at an inopportune moment that spoiled the role-play, while I was dealing with Rain taking a bath in the central fountain.

I am not a real experienced DM and because of the lack of players I always did the job and ended up having to run additional characters to pick up the slack. It was even more unfortunate, because this was the first time in a campaign that my players have actually tried to role-play. Through all this and reading the opening chapters of the Dungeon Master Guide #2 I see more clearly what the job of a DM is, to provide structure. It then becomes a question of how much structure to provide.

The DM in this case is the game designer. He doesn’t create the rule system, or at least not most of them, but he does choose which ones to implement. He creates the setting and imparts it to the players. He takes control of all the other characters. He is friend, enemy, designer, and referee all rolled into one. In this case I have become the real world equivalent to the hidden calculators and systems invisible to players in video games.

When I worked on previous campaigns I was always working on the mechanical nature of the world. Dungeon maps and basic interactions, while failing to either utilize or live up to the implications and purpose of a role playing game. Too often I worked from the top down, building a combat encounter around monsters that would attack, instead of the bottom up where I figure out why they are there and learn how they would attack. The latter is much more satisfying. I would stumble across a few of these moments and it would be obvious that they were superior to the other encounters of the game. The more I’m reading and thinking about it from the design aspect the more I think of what I actually have to do to create a fun and compelling game.

Game//Cooperative storytelling designers do their best work when they set the stage and let the players do the action. Or to put it another way, DMs create the story and the players create the plot.

I don’t have any definitive answers, but I feel like I’ve taken another step to understanding what the hell everyone else seems to already know. I’ve stopped looking at the surface and am now looking at the structure. I just have brush up my skills towards this craft.

[Addendum] I had written this, but then Jason Rohrer released Sleep is Death. This is probably the quintessential cooperative storytelling program. I have not yet have had the chance to try it out. I can’t afford it at the moment and when I can I hope it wont be a fad that has flown by. I put this aside for a bit so I could come back to it and edit all the details and clean up the writing, as any decent writer should. In the mean time I read on Sleep is Death and how to be a better player within this particular experience. I couldn’t help but notice that much of the advice is similar to the Dungeon Master Guide. One of them was almost word for word.

If you have a game that’s purpose is to create a story, whether fully or just the details, then putting a person in a sandbox is a bad idea. Putting a person in a sandbox with a shovel in their hand is a better idea. Putting a person in a sandbox and then offering them the choice of different types of shovels seems to be where we are at the moment. The best idea of all, put the player in the sandbox offer them a shovel and have a swing set sitting the background.

* Star Wars, Gladiator, Dune, Conan the Barbarian, Princess Bride, Harry Potter, DBZ, Highlander, Lord of the Rings

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