I have long acknowledged that Math is my mortal enemy; however, I never expected it to create narrative problems in my RPGs. Unfortunately, it does. It does so quite a lot, in fact. There is a critical difference between many of the stories we read to inspire us and the games we create to emulate those types of stores. That difference is the number of heroes. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey appears over and over again in literature, but is more than a little ill-suited for RPG story design.
Game writers often point to the many forms of fantasy literature (High Fantasy, Sword-and-Sorcery, Historical Fantasy), as well as genres like pulp and science fiction as their inspirations for creating imaginary worlds for the game players to play in. When we’re inspired by Beowulf, Siegfried, Conan, Solomon Kane, Shea Ohmsford, or Thomas Covenant, the theme of a solo hero struggling to save the world, we’re creating a template in our head that is inspiring in literature, but troublesome in RPGs. If the average number of heroes in the story is one (plus secondary characters) and the average number of heroes in an RPG is 4-6, we’ve established wildly different expectations, and we haven’t even begun questing yet.
But what about that 1,000-page gorilla, The Lord of the Rings? Quick – how many fights did the Fellowship win before they came apart and went in half a dozen separate directions? How many PC groups have you been a part of that would spend even half as much time running from the enemy as did the Fellowship, even when they were at full strength? The Lord of the Rings is a cross between mythologizing and a man trying to work out his feelings about war. It’s a rich and lovely story, and its atmosphere certainly informs a lot of fantasy RPGs, but its narrative is anomalous to the typical RPG experience.
At present, Paizo and Catalyst Game Labs are some of the only people who consistently write adventures – most companies focus on elements for players to utilize (Because, rationally, players make up a larger market and the RPG market deals in very small margins). These adventures tend to have a single antagonist. The problem of crossed expectations expresses itself in the antagonists of adventures in two ways. First, the antagonist is capable of smearing any one adventurer across the floor, requiring a team to work together in order to achieve victory. The end result is often a narrative that highlights the relative fragility of the heroes (“Epic” fights usually involve casualties, and those casualties happen at nearly an incidental level – a single round of attacks or a single spell producing death). Conversely, the antagonist, as a practical matter, is incapable of defeating a whole party of PCs. When one side may take Z actions per round, and the other side may take Zx(4 to 6) actions per round, the math renders the less active side from a credible threat to a grind. What you end up with is an enemy that can clearly not defeat the heroes, but can kill one or two of them, and it’s simply a race to the bottom. Increasing the threat of the enemy only pushes the battle into an area where the party will die because they cannot harm someone so much more advanced than they, and decreasing the threat makes the enemy undramatic.
I think we need a shift in our thinking as to adventure design, but it requires us to acknowledge that we’re not really telling the same stories as Robert E. Howard or Terry Brooks. The solo hero against the world has found a good niche in video games: Dragon Age, The Witcher, Skyrim – all of these allow a player to have that story experience.
As writers and GMs, we need to start looking outside the box for inspiration: there are team-based adventure stories out there. Team-based comic books, like X-Men, The Avengers, or JLA. Films like The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglorious Basterds. You can even find them in books: Ari Marmell has a great story about a band of evil humanoids learning to work together to survive The Goblin Corps. We also need to start rethinking how we approach antagonists. Groups of villains can balance out the action economy and keep any one bad guy from being able to simply annihilate good guys with a sweep of their hand. The result is closer challenges, encouraging cooperation, and, hopefully, better stories.