RPG Design: The Asymmetry of Narrative Weight

The Anti-Monitor

“Maybe I’d do more good stopping muggers in Metropolis?”

Not all story elements have equal impact on a game setting. The more dramatic a threat to the status quo, the more that threat deforms the setting around it like a gravity well, pulling characters and events into its orbit. Existential threats overshadow local events; the specific issues you’re dealing with in your local context have no meaning in the face of the larger threat, making the rest of the setting irrelevant.

For example, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth hosted all manner of interesting local stories, such as the picaresque events of The Hobbit. But the drama of the War of Five Armies, central as it was to the latter part of the story, simply couldn’t happen in The Lord of the Rings, even though both narratives take place in the same fictional setting. Sauron’s return reduced all local concerns to irrelevancy, except insofar as they touched on the goal of destroying the One Ring.

Similarly, in Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, the titular antihero has all manner of local pulpy adventures through much of his career. He engages in thievery and war, battles sorcerers and godlings, and is embroiled in feuds with relatives and rivals. He also struggles against his own inner demons, and at least once tries to set aside the sword for a peaceful life. But later in the series, once the powers of Chaos rose up to ravage the world, every story revolves around that conflict, pushing smaller events and themes to the wayside.

High fantasy stories of this nature, dealing with matters on the grandest scales, are viable in a literary work where the author decides the aims of the story. But a published game setting should provide players and referees with many possible stories, and if a threat demands that the PCs combat it, that narrows options for play.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Many games thrive on a narrowly defined setting and story, especially small indie games like Polaris or Dogs in the Vineyard. These games have a laser-like focus on specific playstyles and stories. If you’re playing 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars, you go into the game expecting to kill aliens as a Space Trooper; that’s what the game is about.

Broader, mass-market games with world-shaking Big Bads also generally assume that you’ll end up on the front lines, but certain factors allow early gameplay to avoid focusing on the grand conflict.

  • The “zero to hero” power curve generated by typical RPG advancement systems means that you’ll typically start off as such small fry that you don’t have a role in the fight. Starting characters in the Supernatural RPG simply aren’t going to harrow Hell and go toe-to-toe with Lucifer.
  • Similarly, various high-powered NPCs are usually posited as holding the line against the threat while the PCs are still low on the totem pole. In Mage: the Ascension, the Traditions’ Masters and Archmasters are so far beyond the powers of starting PCs that the PCs can act as they will without feeling that they need to be throw themselves into the conflicts of the Ascension War.
  • The existential threats are often genuinely existential; though the struggle dominates the setting, there’s no immediate threat written into the books. In the various incarnations of Runequest, Chaos endangers the universal order, but there’s no immediate War against Chaos that the PCs have to participate in. Despite the presence of an inimical cosmic threat, life goes on.
  • Lastly, sometimes the war has already been lost, at which point the urgency of individual battles subsides. For all their rage, the Garou of Werewolf: the Apocalypse are a dying race, and their defeat is inevitable. They can continue to fight the Wyrm and its minions, but they can’t win, so while the PCs may still be drawn to battle, their players recognize that there’s no underlying urgency to the conflict.

Where things get tricky are in games where these factors don’t strongly apply. If your PCs start out at a high power level in an environment where they can make a difference against a powerful foe, stories will naturally revolve around conflict with that foe. If the enemy is transparently evil or just plain doing bad things, then unless you’re making an effort to eschew modern morality in your roleplay, you’ll feel compelled to intervene. World-destroying threats don’t even allow you that loophole; your game has to be about that fight, because if you lose, you don’t have a world to keep playing in.

This has been a steadily increasing problem through the run of Exalted. As more and more existential threats to Creation appeared—such as the Deathlords being repurposed from focusing on conquering the Underworld to actively seeking to annihilate Creation, or the Yozis going from an irrelevant holdover from an ancient war to a potential invading force of unimaginable power—the local stories that the game was always intended to facilitate became irrelevant in the face of those existential threats.

The peculiar asymmetry of such threats comes from the relationship between the game designer and the individual RPG group. It’s the designer’s job to present an environment full of stories; it’s the group’s job to select and play out their own story. The referee and players pick what they focus on, and if they want to add such narrative weight to an adversary that it warps the entire setting around it at their table—well, that’s very easy to do! But taking that weighted threat out of a published setting for your home game is much harder! If that warping effect is hard-coded into the setting, you’ll have to untangle it from everything it touches in the books—a significantly more arduous task.

In short, creating an immediate, world-ending threat to a game setting is only the job of the designer if the core of the game is always meant to be the struggle against that threat. If the game is about other things, then adding immediate world-ending threats is a job for the table.

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