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How do the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons and Tales from the Loop affect storytelling? Part 1

For my next article, I thought it would be good to do a more in-depth case study of sorts. From a theoretical point of view, I am fascinated by how mechanics in tabletop roleplaying games create narratives through play. Due to this fascination, putting all of this in one article made for a very long read, so this will be the first 2-parter for The Game Mechanics! In these 2 articles I will look at two Tabletop RPGs: Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and Tales from the Loop (TftL). Both of these games have a large amount of mechanics that players can use to create a narrative, or a story, to play through and enjoy.

At their core, both of these games function the same. They both require a gathering of players, usually about 2-5 people, who create characters that can then affect the world of the ‘Dungeon' or ‘Game' Master (DM and GM respectively). These 2 articles will look at the 2 games and attempt to draw out and detail the various mechanics that they use to create a long-term, cohesive narrative for players to play in; and how these mechanics can sometimes directly influence the direction of the story, without the player(s) or DM/GMs say so.

These two games, whilst similar in genre, do differ in setting and the way they are played. D&D, for example, is almost entirely adaptable. The game, first created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, allows players to create a group of adventurers that then go on to play through a story of either the book or the DMs own devising. Play is achieved through the rolling of the various sided die (D4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, 100) each of these rolls determines how successful a player is in achieving a goal; The higher, the better.

Tales from the Loop differs from this slightly, this game uses increasing numbers of D6s (determined by the players score in a certain trait) to define a ‘success’. For example, if one of your scores is a 5, you get 5 dice, every 6 that is rolled on those dice counts as a ‘success’ you would need 1-3 successes to achieve a goal you have set for your character.

It is also worth mentioning that alongside these differences in mechanic, D&D and Tales from the Loop also contain a difference in theme and setting, for example, most, if not all, D&D games are set in a fantasy/medieval setting, where magic and heroic fables are the norm. In Tales from the Loop, it is slightly different, Tales from the Loop is set in an alternate reality of the '80s, where science is more advanced, containing robots, dinosaurs, and time travel. These two very different settings make for two very different types of narrative.

These mechanics, alongside how they affect the experience of playing, will be what this article looks at. Alongside this will be support from several narrative and mechanical theorists, which will help us answer the question, ‘How do the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons and Tales from the Loop effect narrative/story-telling?’.

With introductions out of the way, let's take a closer look into our first game, Dungeons & Dragons, and how it uses its mechanics to create deep and meaningful narratives.

To start it feels important to mention another mechanic that both, and in fact all, Tabletop RPGs rely on heavily; and that is player interaction. In the act of playing D&D, one could argue that the line between narrative and mechanic starts to blur as the players continue to play in the world of the DMs creation. As the game goes on, players roll dice to determine how successful their plans and decisions succeed. The player's interactions, and how the dice that are rolled directly influence the story, alongside the DM who has the final say on where the narrative will go. For example, the DM may be planning a long fight, which could be avoided by a character being able to bluff their way out of the situation, the success of such a decision changes how the players can act to their characters' surroundings, but also affects the time taken to achieve such a goal, both in the real world and the fantasy provided. This creates a 50/50 split in D&D. On one hand, the characters get some say in what goes on but on the other, the DM and the dice end up determining the result.

As Mark J. P. Wolf suggests when discussing interactivity and alternate storylines ‘Interaction most often gives way to narrative involvement'. (Building Imaginary Worlds, Pg.220) This point only serves to cement the requirement of this mechanic; in order to improve narrative involvement during play all people truly need to do is interact with the narrative that they are provided. It is most useful when building the world to try to make the game as fun and engaging as possible.

Mirroring this idea is the theories of J. Hillis Miller, in his essay ‘Narrative’ he defines a handful of components that combine to create a tangible narrative. He describes a narrative that contains ‘an initial situation, a sequence leading to a change or reversal of that situation, and a revelation made possible by the reversal of the situation’ (Narrative, From critical terms of literary study, Pg.6). This adds to Wolf's theory, not only saying that interaction gives way to narrative involvement, but that involvement goes on to improve and enrich the narrative, this definition also suits all stories that are created in Dungeons and Dragons, all of them follow this pattern, as it is a pattern that creates the most successful and immersive story.

Moving on from how players can affect narrative and back to the consideration of rules, and how they apply to narrative, or more specifically, the fiction. Looking back at Dungeons & Dragons core mechanics is another useful example when comparing the games’ mechanics to the narrative and how they can affect one another. The result of certain rolls can spell disaster for a campaign or, at the very least, cause the players to interact with, or solve, unforeseen circumstances.

These results can often cause a pause in the creation of the narrative as players start to consider how they will solve the issue. Seymour Chatman shows this in his writing ‘The members of the audience must respond with an interpretation they cannot avoid, participating in the transaction’ (Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, 1980) whilst this at its core applies to his writing for Film and Fiction, it applies in this sense too. Let us consider the ‘transaction’ as the DM offering the players a problem. The players (audience) have to return to the DM with a solution to said problem. Scenarios in D&D will, at some point, offer up problems that the players must solve before the narrative can continue. This mechanic, whilst not something that is mentioned in the Core Rulebooks of the Players Handbook is still massively important. It increases player to player interaction and enriches the narrative in a positive way.

Whilst the mechanics in D&D help create hugely exciting stories, there are certain mechanics in the game that can restrict or inhibit the narrative that the DM and players attempt to create. In Dungeons and Dragons, a player character has an “alignment”. Alignment is defined by a ‘Combination of two factors: one identifies morality (good, evil or neutral) and the other describes attitudes towards society and order (lawful, chaotic or neutral)’ (D&D 5e Players Handbook, Pg.122, 2015). These 9 different alignments (as indicated on the diagram below) are what each player must assign to their character before they can be played. These alignments inform the player on how a character should act in any given situation, and this is where the problem lies.

As Greg Costikyan once mentioned ‘Game structure has to do with the means by which a game shapes player behaviour. But a game shapes player behaviour; it does not determine it. Indeed, a good game provides considerable freedom for the player to experiment with alternate strategies and approaches’ (I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games 2002). This Alignment mechanic in D&D limits the ‘considerable freedom’ that Costikyan mentions, and forces players to make their characters act in certain ways that cause the narrative to falter.

With both the positive and negative sides of Dungeons and Dragons mechanics explored, let us take a moment to round this first article to a just conclusion. For this first part we will follow the format that we have used previously and leave a more in-depth conclusion for the second part of this article. So, what has this article taught us?

· In order for a narrative to succeed it is essential that both the players and the DM can interact, not only through the game’s mechanics but the player's own willingness to interact.

· The mechanics must not restrict the way a player can make decisions, for the narrative to feel rewarding for the player, only the players should make the decisions, with no restraints in place by the game’s mechanics.

· Guiding the players through a story is not enough to succeed, in order to engage the player, there must be a challenge, even if it is a simple puzzle to solve.

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