art by drew baker
Disclaimer. I write a lot of games that are small picture stories, because they have to be completed in three hours (though there are protocol games that address large scale problems). The majority of what I’m writing here is about traditional gaming and how the inspiration we receive from other media (tv, etc.) impacts our ideas negatively. Or at least, not in a constructive manner.
George Carlin once said there are two kinds of stories, big picture and little picture. Little picture stories are 99% of what we know and read. A protagonist or group of protagonists facing a specific problem with measurable and tangible cause/effect. ‘Bob’s family is murdered and bob wants revenge.’ ‘Sally loses her job and spirals out of control.’ ‘The black company is hired to kill a dragon.’
Big picture stories are more difficult to explain, as they do many things. The Game of Thrones series or anything by Tom Clancy might be identified as big picture or macro storytelling. Characters pitted against larger than life forces with events that can impact nations, if not the world.
In micro storytelling, characters drive the plot. They are not victims of the events (once the plot is established).
But in macro storytelling, the environment is a real concern. Other people, forces of nature, dragons, and similar obstacles all work against the protagonist(s). Macro storytelling, which could be named environmental storytelling, addresses issues of nations, armies, dozens upon dozens of character and contingencies, plot struggles, and the like.
(I’ve never watch the airbender series. Apparently it is both of these styles!?!?)
Modern, micro storytelling is about personal drama, small picture problems. Anything on CW is a perfect example of this. Small picture problems and issues are at the forefront of these kinds of shows. Pettiness, relationship squabbles, and situations we as readers/viewers can easily empathize with dominate the landscape.
So. Where does roleplaying fall into all of this?
If you’re a traditional gamer, you most likely enjoy playing a single character who can affect change in the world. This means more than just fighting monsters, but saving entire villages, towns, duchies, and (eventually at 20th level) kingdoms. If you’re lucky. Using D&D as an example, the Forgotten Realms is a gameworld ripe with opportunity for this kind of gameplay.
And this is essentially MACRO storytelling.
But. The PCs don’t see it that way. And the gamemaster is probably drawing a lot more inspiration from micro stories and less from macro stories.
Essentially, the wants are at odds with the needs and the inspiration to create either wants or needs is crippling any attempt to write truly macro stories.
Allow me a short segue to explain.
The last great show on television to thread the needle between micro and macro storytelling was Breaking Bad. When the story of Walter White started, the events were small. The stakes were small. The characters faced a few obstacles and those were all tangible. A single street corner fight comes to mind as micro, though with macro repercussions. As the story progressed, so did the stakes. The tone of the story grew to match the character’s reach. Walter had 20 guys killed in 20 different prisons within 10 minutes of one another in a single move. That’s big picture stuff.
(Btw. If you ask me the last two episodes aren’t very good, but that’s a longer post.)
So. Breaking Bad might be the best tool for us to understand how to write campaigns for gaming. Stories that start small and grow into epics have a more profound effect, than stories where characters are already bearing the weight of the heavens on them.
Japanese Roleplaying Games
The biggest offense to storytelling is the tired Japanese roleplaying game. Every single story is identical in structure. The village of a ‘chosen one’ is attacked. He or she must gather some friends and go from village to village solving tiny ‘FedEx’ missions over and over again, fighting ever stronger monsters, and buying ever stronger weapons. There are no choices. The path is linear. The characters take on tiny event after tiny event, only to face a demon the size of the moon in the final scene of the game.
Tonally and thematically, this makes no sense. If this is what video games are becoming, I’m glad I don’t make any.
I love the movie, Dredd. It is a perfect example of how to take a Macro IP and turn it into a single micro story. In fact, there’s a great line that reveals just how macro the environment is should the franchise grow.
“Judges are losing the war for the city.”
This line is normally unnecessary in a movie like this. The judges won’t be tackling the crime of the entire city. They are going to kill/arrest a lot of people, but they aren’t going to make a dent in a city where “Twelve serious crimes reported every minute. Seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.” So, the quote about losing the fight for the city implies that there’s a city worth fighting for.
A city we might see again.
To put it into fantasy game terms, imagine you are fighting a single street gang in the alleyways of Waterdeep. Defeating them won’t make the city safer, but acknowledging that they are 1 of 100 gangs that make Waterdeep unsafe, the PCs can grow the story from micro to macro. The tone of the story might change, but the themes of it could remain the same.
And there’s the magic word again. Theme.
I intend to address theme soon in a post all its own. For now, just know that as a gamemaster, your games will always be stronger if you keep your themes tidy.
Marco storytelling is going away because of the changes in our culture and the demand for more personal stories. Multiple characters facing internal and external conflict. Etc. This is neither a good or a bad thing. But it does mean if we want roleplaying games to have big strong campaigns, we need to learn to use tools that aren’t readily available. There are much more stories in our wheelhouses that reflect micro stories. And if we turn to them for guidance, we’re going to run the same course of stories we always do. “All of a sudden the ground trembles and there’s a massive demon facing you. What do you do?”