How do the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons and Tales from the Loop affect storytelling? Part 2
For people unaware, this is the second half of a 2-Part essay analysing the mechanics of both Dungeons and Dragons and Tales from the Loop, in order to make sense of most of what we will discuss in this essay, I would suggest reading Part 1 before continuing.
For this article we will take some time looking at Tales from the Loop, comparing and contrasting its effectiveness to Dungeons and Dragons, and how the mechanics can be used to create effective narratives and stories. To start, let us look at how the mechanics of TFTL can affect the narrative of a game, and how players use these mechanics to influence engaging and interactive stories.
In Tales from the Loop, decisions are made differently to how they are made in Dungeons and Dragons. Every decision is made by the players, but before the player’s decision is enacted it has to be decided by chance, in the form of a dice roll, when the dice roll is made it can fail, and so the narrative can be changed against the players will (their decision). In Tales from the Loop a player’s decision can sometimes just happen. For example, in D&D if a player requested to ‘Open a door quietly’ then the DM would probably request for some sort of dice to be rolled, however in Tales from the Loop there are fewer hurdles. A player could ask to ‘Throw a punch' or to ‘Cut the Grass' and whilst in D&D this would be met with a ‘roll this and that' in Tales from the Loop it just happens. Both ways, whilst different, only serve to benefit the players' experience. This rule of chance taking a factor is still prevalent in TFTL, but in a slightly different way. In D&D you use certain dice from a set of polyhedrals, most commonly a d20, to determine whether a decision is successful. In TFTL the decisions that are made are entirely determined by D6’s, the better a character is at a certain task, the more dice get added to the pool, with 6’s being the best form of success.
Rules can also affect the narrative in a different way as well. Jesper Juul once wrote that ‘Rules and Fiction compete for the player's attention' (Half Real, Pg. 121) this is true for the video games that Juul focuses on, but also the games that we are focussing on in this article – Both D&D and Tales from the Loop have a multitude of rules that the players must always consider; focussing on these rules can sometimes pull away from the fiction that all the players are attempting to create in the game at hand.
Juul goes onto say that ‘They [Rules and Fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical' (Half Real Pg. 121) again, this is applicable to both D&D and Tales from the Loop, the rules that are used can influence player decisions, and drive the players to choose or make use of certain items over others, however, this does not always work going the other way, the rules can affect a player choice, but never the narrative or story within itself. Let us put together an example to discuss this further In D&D a player may have a decision in front of him in combat, should he cast a spell? Or should he attack with his weapon? Both options they may find cool, but perhaps one of the options would affect the narrative, or fiction, of the game more than the other.
This is where rules may affect the narrative, he may be able to attack with his weapon, as the attack would be within its range, however, the player may not be able to use a spell due to being out of range, or not having the components. In this case, the player will have to go with attacking with the weapon and not doing the exciting thing of casting magic. In Tales from the Loop, this is different, in a similar scenario to the scenario just given, the player may get the chance to attack with a weapon or do something “cooler” in the environment around them. At this point the rules would normally come in to shut down the player, however, due to the way Tales from the Loop is played, with its less specific combat style. ‘Range' or ‘components' are never something that is necessarily taken into consideration. And it is usually the more exciting option that is chosen over the simple option, this, in turn, improves and enriches the narrative, thus increasing the enjoyment of all players involved.
The comparison of these two types of rules, and how much sway they have when considering the ‘fiction’ of the game, begin to give us a better idea on how certain mechanics can change how the narrative of D&D and Tales from the Loop looks.
This mechanic of problem-solving goes onto influence another huge appeal of both D&D and Tales from the Loop; ‘Uncertainty’. As Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman mention in Rules of Play ‘the uncertainty of each action, each encounter and each adventure plays a crucial role in building narrative engagement’ (Rules of Play, Pgs.388-399). This is massively important when designing games for both D&D and Tales from the Loop. The inclusion of uncertainty increases a player's connection to the game, they will become more involved, and show more concern for the characters they are playing as/with. Following on from this Salen and Zimmerman make an excellent point that I myself have personally noticed in D&D games I have interacted with, they mention how ‘experienced tabletop role-players will shun game masters with reputations for being too easy or too hard’ this is due to how the difficulty influences the narrative, the certainty of death or success dissuades the player from playing, as it lacks the rich narrative that the players that normally play these games crave. Another craving these games share is the need for environmental storytelling.
To quote Henry Jenkins ‘Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways.’ He goes on to say how there are diverse ways for narratives/spatial stories to be told. These are: ‘Evoked’ ‘Enacted’ ‘Embedded’ and ‘Emergent’ narratives (Game Design as Narrative Architecture, 2004). To link this to the narrative elements of both Tales from the Loop and D&D we have to consider how not only the DM/GM but also the players will work together to create this sense of Narrative.
A good example of environmental storytelling is a game of D&D I have taken part in myself. The DM that runs the game has run other games before this, all of them in the same ‘world’ of his own creation; This draws a comparison to the first example from Jenkins which is Evoked. The inclusion of pre-existing environments, whether it be cities or houses, containing loved, recognisable characters or favourite places adds a sense of familiarity for the players, to the point that they will insist on travelling/visiting places before leaving an area, to ensure they aren’t missing out. Furthering the comparison to Jenkins; the DM will embed several narratives prompts for the player in a scene. For example, they could describe a building, saying it has ‘Ruined, crumbling walls' or that there is a great deal of Ivy growing on the walls. This use of descriptive language can begin to give the player an idea of what to expect from the location, perhaps it could be abandoned or, if it’s been destroyed, there could have been a great battle recently in this area. Continuing from the previous point, a Dungeon Masters job is to keep the story moving, as most games do not have a definitive end, or if they do it is far on in the future. This gives the opportunity for emergent narratives. Where the player(s) decisions can affect where the game, and thus the story, goes next. The idea for an enacted narrative is where the narrative is open-ended, producing expansive goals for the player to achieve in the future. This is something the DM is good at, constantly leaving the opportunity for the players to have their own story, never letting one overbear or overwhelm the other(s). Whilst this analogy focusses on an example pertaining to D&D, this effect is just as easy to achieve with Tales from the Loop.
Expanding on this narrative idea is the descriptions and definitions of ‘narrative space’ written by Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire; ‘Game designers use spatial elements to set the initial terms for the players' experiences' in the context of this essay, the game designers are the DMs/GMs that run the games. They use this idea to add references to their narrative in their world. As Jenkins and Squire go on to say, ‘Information essential to the story is embedded in objects such as books, carved runes or weapons.’ ("The Art of Contested Spaces" Pgs.64-75). This, much like environmental storytelling helps enhance the narrative in many subtle ways, and some DMs/GMs realise they are doing it. Only after studying the ideas they have for their work does it come apparent how many times this theory is put to work when creating a game of D&D or Tales from the Loop for players to play in. Inherently this is not a “mechanic” that is written into the design of these games, but it is crucially important for a successful narrative to form.
To mirror the processes of the first part of this essay, I feel it is important to look at the shortcomings that cause problems in each of these games. For Tales of the Loop, this problem comes from the fact that it is impossible for your character to die. They can be injured and emotionally ‘broken' (see statistics below) but they cannot suffer death. This is arguably one of the reasons that some people may struggle to immerse themselves in the narrative. The uncertainty of death causes the narrative to lose some of its meaning. The lack of death is substituted in 2 ways. The first is the ‘Conditions’ mechanic shown on the left, each condition a player character suffers causes the player to lose one of their dice on their rolls until they can get it removed, this lowers the chance of being able to succeed.
The lack of death is also substituted for the allure of ‘The mystery(ies)' that permeate the environment of the game, the uncertainty of the game having a resolution keep players roped in, whilst neither of these are a complete substitute for the uncertainty of death, it starts to do its work in bridging that gap.
Let us take these articles round towards their conclusion – I feel as though the mechanics, both obvious and underlying, affect the narrative of the games in question in a multitude of ways. When you look at Dungeons & Dragons and how so much of its narrative comes from player interaction, either from the DM or player, you will always get the same rich narrative that players vie for in so many of these games. More often than not, the mechanics will help make the game as interesting as possible, every dice roll, every stat that is created ensures that no two sessions, no two campaigns will ever be the same. Each character is unique and different, and always adds something new to immerse the players in the campaign.
This is just as apparent in Tales from the Loop, the focus may shift from fantasy to a far more recent and specific timeframe, but the narrative is still there, the use of mechanics, allowing for easier successes, and replacing the uncertainty of death, but ramping up the excitement for the uncertainty for what the story may hold in the future, creates an immersive narrative that players can interact with in whatever way they see fit.
In answer to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, the mechanics contained within Dungeons and Dragons and Tales from the Loop most certainly affect the narrative and how a story would be told, but these mechanics are there to affect the narrative and storytelling for the better, only increasing the experience of every player. I find a way of looking at this the same as Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska look at narrative ‘Narrative has happened or has been created while "play" is happening' (Computer games/Cinema/Interfaces, 2002). In any tabletop role-playing game, the narrative has happened, or has been created, and is always being created. The playing of the game and the game's mechanics are always happening and are the only way that the narrative can continue to be created.
In summary, there are some points that are worth taking away for the development of your own games
· If you can use the mechanics of your game to enforce not only storytelling but environmental storytelling, then you will obtain a game that players will look forward to interacting with.
· The rules you put in place should refrain from affecting a player’s choices, to allow for deeper narrative engagement.