When did story and storytelling become buzzwords in tabletop roleplaying games?

Did it start with Dragonlance? Or did it come later with White Wolf’s World of Darkness games? Or were such campaign settings and RPGs fulfilling an already existing need?

How many times have you read or heard the following, or something similar, to describe RPGs?

Playing an RPG is like being in a story, except your character is the protagonist.

The game master is like a storyteller and the players run the main characters. 

Running an RPG is like reading a novel but you get to determine the ending. In fact, there is no ending so long the players want to continue the story. 

At one end of the spectrum, the story analogy works because its hard to describe what an RPG is to somebody who’s never played. The RPG might play more like a wargame, have lots of crunch as opposed to fluff, but its starting point to grasp what happens at the tabletop among the players.

Continuing down the spectrum, you get published games which promote story over the rules. Don’t let this be confused with rules versus game play. That is, when the rulebook tells a game master to ignore certain rules to keep the game moving or to avert an undesired outcome. No, these are games where the design philosophy is story first. White Wolf’s World of Darkness is a classic example.

The rules should fade in the background. Every character must have a background story. Playing the game is like being in a novel as each player contributes to the story.

At some point, the story analogy becomes asinine.

At this end of the spectrum game designers slap Storytelling on the cover of their RPGs hoping to boost sales (as I suspect with Fantasy Imperium). You get doe-eyed gamers praising the rectitude of story over the rules. Anything which might jeopardize the story, like using miniatures or character death, must be removed.

For some reason, the memory of an AD&D game I played at somebody’s house long ago comes to mind. We all sat in the living room on sofas, recliners, and fold-out chairs around a coffee table. One guy, wearing flannel, sporting a number of piercings and a goatee, with the Player’s Handbook and dice in his lap kept trying to explain to his bored girlfriend: Don’t worry about learning the rules for now, it’s all about the story. 

No. It’s not. It really isn’t. It’s a game and you need to learn the rules of the game.

Since I first played Dungeons & Dragons, I tried to somehow mesh what happened in my games into some form of fiction. And I wanted to become a writer before I started playing D&D. Roleplaying game were an extension of the stories I wanted to tell.

As my interest in creative writing deepened, the games I ran became more narrative. I setup each encounter as a scene, visualizing it in my head. The adventures I wrote were almost like story outlines, lacking only the player-characters to interact with each scene.

Coming of age during AD&D Second Edition Era didn’t help matters. Every major campaign setting, whether it was from TSR or White Wolf, had its own line of novels. The emphasis on story entered into the TSR’s published modules at the time. Some of these adventures were quite good, but most railroaded the player-character into a predetermined outcome.

Somehow, I believed, skills from being and game master could translate into writing fiction. First I wrote my adventures by hand, then I wrote them on the computer. The process took a lot of time.

The players often became railroaded into a story, which they resented. If they’re characters took actions I hadn’t accounted for, I became defensive or annoyed. To get them back on track I’d have nothing happen, no matter what they did, until they started interacting with the material I’d prepared.

Didn’t they know it took effort to prepare those adventures? Why were they ruining things? And why don’t think the story is interesting? 

Any RPG I run now resembles, more or less, a sandbox-style of play. I do the absolute minimum amount of prep work. Any published adventurers better not force the PCs into a story where they’re mere observers rather than participants.

I learned my lesson the hard way.

Roleplaying games aren’t story, nor are adventures. 

RPGs don’t tell stories. Nor do the rules, no matter who rules-lite they might be. 

You and your players do.

Mostly the players. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking otherwise. Most published content leads game masters into thinking along storylines: beginning hook, rising action via encounters, then a climax. The worse culprits arise from organized play, where GMs and players are part of one grand over-arching campaign. Adventure paths.

You know, like in an epic series of fantasy fiction.

Is any wonder why the major gaming companies have their own line of novels tying into the game?

And here’s in lies the trap for would-be fantasy fiction writers. 

It’s the great pit I fell into a long, long time ago, and am finally crawling my way out. 

If you’re a game master who wants to write fiction, the moment you start seeing your characters through the lens of D&D classes, it’s over. Drizzt Do’Urden is a Ranger. Caramon Majere is a fighter and his brother Raistlin is a magic-user. Sturm Brightblade is like a Paladin.

Folks like R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis, and Tracy Hickman got away with it because they got in early. Current authors employed by gaming companies write specifically to their audiences. Their readers want to see the game influence the fiction, and vice. At least, anyway, until the next edition comes out and the authors have to rationally explain the changes in the story in the game.

Forgotten Realms fans, for example, howled at the Spellplague when D&D 4e came out. The designers at Wizards of the Coast used the Spellplague to justify and explain the rule changes from D&D 3e to 4e. Then for 5e, the Sundering fixed everything. Sort of.

Imagine, if you will, a die-hard Realms fan caught in this weird loop where the rules influence the story and the story influences the rules, who tries to write something original. It’s not going to work. It’ll be an imitation.


Besides, if you decide to base your story off your favorite fantasy RPG, you WILL fail The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam.

Whether are you game master or a fantasy fiction writer, the vaunted Appendix N is a decent enough place to start, though it does have its own pitfalls. The first being that none of these books explain how to tell a story, let alone keep a group of people entertained for hours at a time.

You’ve got to branch out.

Game masters should The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Or Story, by Robert McKee, though it’s about screenwriting. Or Poetics, by Aristotle. Or certain sections of The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. Game masters can use many of the techniques found in these resources to help run their games.

For game masters who struggle to find players, I recommend Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, by Steven Pressfield, to learn how to make your game more appealing.

Here’s the catch:

The skills learned preparing for and running an RPG don’t translate well into writing fiction. I used to think so. But I was wrong.

I’ve got binders full of adventure notes fully typed or written as evidence of this. Though deep down I knew better, I’d try to reason with myself: Don’t worry, someday you’ll use this for your fiction. The Open Gaming License was an even bigger trap. Hey, I might publish this adventure someday. 

My campaigns were epic stories in their own right. My players were entertained for the most part.

Early in my GMing career, however, I’d almost lost them a few times when they became fed up with my literary aspirations inflicted upon their characters. Later I gave them more choices, and I’d write adventures based on these choices, so long as the players gave me time to prepare. Even so, this took time, time which could have been spent on my writing.

I thought I was taking a short cut. Perhaps by combining RPGs and Creative Writing I could become better at the craft. Again, I was wrong.

If you’re a game master who’s happy creating stories via roleplaying games, that’s perfectly okay. There’s plenty of fun to be had sitting around the table with your friends and creating something memorable.

But if you’re going to be a writer, don’t use RPGs as a poor substitute for your literary ambitions.

In my case, it was all too easy to be seduced by the idea I was practicing storytelling via RPGs. To a certain extent, I was. In reality I’d given into the marketing. Game designers used story and storytelling as buzzwords to sell their games. They still do.

And while I was buying into their so-called stories I wasn’t creating my own.