Core Stories in RPGs

Over on his LiveJournal, Mike Mearls posted some provocative ideas about something any successful roleplaying game needs: a core story. This sums up the game’s central theme from a player’s point of view in a sentence or two. It sparked off a few thoughts in my own befogged brain, which I added to his comments there. So you don’t have to go hunting for them, I’m posting them here too.

Back in the Pinnacle days, we used to wrestle with this question, although we just called it “the Hook.” We always tried to boil a game down to “What are the heroes supposed to do?” That leads to your Core Story.

Of course, heroes can do all sorts of things in a game that the designers never dreamed of, but it helps if you can sum up the purpose of the game in a short sentence or paragraph. It makes it easier for everyone involved with the game, from the designer to the players, to understand what they’re all talking about. As John Zinser used to point out, it makes it a lot easier to sell the game too.

In college, Dr. Eric Rabkin taught me that a western works like this: The in-group (usually townsfolk) is threatened by an out-group (usually outlaws). A hero with the values of the in-group and the skills of the out-group arrives to save the day. After succeeding, the hero must leave because his skills do not fit with the values of the in-group he’s just saved.

It seems that Tolkienesque fantasy is the opposite of this. A person from the in-group (usually a peaceful town) leaves that locale and acquires the skills of the out-group (wizards, warriors, etc.) so that he can save in the in-group. He then returns home to accolades.

The Tolkieneqsue story seems more European in flavor and values, which may explain why so many fantasy worlds are thinly veiled versions of medieval Europe.

I think of Eberron as more of a western than a fantasy, despite all the surrounding tropes. It shows in the first Eberron novel I wrote, Marked for Death, which has a distinct western flavor.