More than 40 years ago, some guys published a hacked together game they played in their basement. The game, Dungeons & Dragons, caught on like wildfire. If you ask people today why D&D remains popular, you’ll get a million different answers. Mine is because role-playing games contain surprises that no other form of fiction offers.
All good fiction has surprises for readers, as audiences get bored if a story becomes too predictable. It’s less often that a story really surprises the teller of the tale – after all, they’re the ones who determine how it starts and ends. In an RPG, though, everybody becomes both a storyteller and an audience member.
Yes, the Game Master sets the stage and knows the plot ahead of time. Unlike a novel or film, though, the characters have minds of their own. Each player gets a say in how things develop. A GM can start telling one story only to find the tale veering into a whole different genre.
One of the most successful campaigns I ever ran came from what was supposed to be a hack and slash adventure. The PCs were mid-level and going against an escalating group of monsters – ogres, then trolls, and finally an ogre mage who was raising an army. Then, out of nowhere, it became a political drama.
The PCs, upon finding out that there was a whole army of these creatures, decided that a ragtag bunch of misfits was not going to solve the problem. Instead of pressing on to the ogre mage’s lair, they reversed course and headed for the capital city, hoping to raise an army of their own.
My old-fashioned gaming sensibilities said that a group of small-town adventurers couldn’t get an audience with the Queen at the drop of a hat. Instead they wound up getting routed to the Minister of War, who decided that the best course of action would be to call in an airstrike.
The Minister’s plan: send some airships to firebomb the forest where the ogre mage was hiding. The fallout? Some small logging communities would suffer as a large chunk of forest disappeared in flames. But the Minister would get a nice feather in his cap for killing an army of monsters without losing any troops.
I know the idea of an egotistical politician being willing to arbitrarily bomb a foreign power and ruin the lives of poor laborers as an act of political dick-measuring seems far-fetched, but that’s one of the great things about a fantasy setting – we can totally divorce ourselves from reality.
The PCs didn’t like the Minister’s solution. So they went to a neighboring city-state and recruited help there. The ruler of that city-state happened to be a high-level adventurer herself, with no compunctions about running in and stomping monsters. So a hastily-assembled army rushed the fortress, hoping to dispatch the problem before the bombers arrived.
This prevented the fire-bombing of the forest, but recruiting a foreign power led to an international incident. The PCs finally got their audience with the Queen, and had to explain their actions. With some skillful negotiations, they came out of the affair smelling like roses and made the Minister look like an incompetent boob.
To reiterate, all this came from an adventure where they only real challenge was supposed to be whether the PCs’ attack rolls could beat a troll’s Armor Class. The further out of my control the session got, the more the game amazed me.
I’ve had my own fiction surprise me before. The editing process of my novel Conquest of Greystone Valley, for example, led to a major change in direction from where I thought things were going to go and set up many other potential stories. But my stories never abruptly changed genres without me seeing it coming.
RPGs are about collaborative storytelling. Because there are so many people involved and you never know what kind of mood they’re going to be in, what you have written down can morph into something you never expected. The stories you and your friends tell can surprise you in amazing ways.
Sometimes, this can come down to a single die roll – your dragon villain botching its save against a charm monster spell can totally alter the direction of the plot. Other times, years of stories can develop out of a single decision by the PCs. A simple hack and slash session can turn into months of political intrigue.
Art that surprises its creator becomes something truly special. Because RPG sessions have a group of creators that shape the story on the fly, these games have the ability to surprise you more than almost any other form of art. That’s one big reason why a game made in somebody’s basement still thrives decades later.