Number crunching, killers of pen & paper RPG’s narrative.

As you have probably guessed by the title, in this post I’ll discuss about pen & paper RPG’s and the conflicting relationship between numeric rules, randomization (by dice or other means) and narrative play, or as my role playing group and I like to call it “sexiness”. I wont offer definitive solutions for these situations (they are not really problems, we have been playing like this for decades, we can keep doing it), I only wish to point out that there is another side of these games that, in my opinion, we haven’t explored enough (I could be totally wrong, call me on that and pull me out of the shadow if it’s the case).

I have been actively playing RPG’s for the last 8 years, months less months more, so I guess I’m sort of a veteran now or at leas a seasoned player. Throughout my years of play I have known many different games and systems, ranging from the well-known D&D to systems developed by friends of mine or myself. I’ve always found that the best games are the ones that involve less rules, less dice throws and more narrative agency.

Don’t miss understand me, I’m not saying games like D&D are bad or lack narrative involvement, but it’s harder to stay in character when each turn you have to roll 1 – 3 attacks, sum up your usual boons and your circumstantial buffs or debuffs, also, dealing with the frustration of describing a super epic action and getting a bad roll is a huge bummer. Games with a more simple system achieve narrative agency better, like World of Darkness for example.

Now, there is something you have to know, I don’t believe I’m the usual RPG player; you know those kinds of game nights where everything is goofy and there is no place for proper, real role playing?





For me that’s just not the way RPG’s are meant to be played, the problem is, most of the people I’ve known assume this is the way to play them. Now, these games can be fun, I’m not saying people are not allowed to laugh or make jokes, but when this behavior is presented all the time, every single time, I feel as if the great potential of these games is being thrown away.

It’s like movies, watching comedy it’s okey, but if you ONLY watch comedy you are missing a great deal of excellent films.

The way I personally like playing is akin to theater and involves three main elements:

The game master / narrator:

Image by : OffWorld Design

Apart form being the moderator of the game, the narrator has to propose an interesting and, if possible, meaningful story, setting the tone and flavor of the game. This means creating an atmosphere, a “space of play” where the players can easily grasp the world they are in, and feel comfortable acting their character without shame (screaming and seriously pronouncing a magical spell is not always easy). It’s also the task of the game master to accommodate the physical space where they will play, everyone will fill better playing in a table with comfortable chairs with music and a dim light than in a room without a table and listening to the neighbor’s crappy music. Most of the time the narrator is the most experienced person of the group, he ought to set the example and teach the players what it means to play “sexy”, sometimes even demanding of the players to make a better effort. Another thing of being a GM is to understand that the game is not about you nor your story, it’s about the players and the way they unfold their characters in your story.

The players:


The players have a bigger role than most people think, they are the pillars that maintain the space of play, the guardians of the suspension of disbelief. They must help the game master in every possible way to support the atmosphere of the game; this means helping him with the description, adding details to the story and developing a rich background for their characters, with elements that the narrator can use for the story. Ideally the players also have to be comfortable interpreting characters other than their own, this way they help the narrator and they also play in circumstances where their characters are not present. They also have to help each other, perhaps some of them have a better idea for the others character, and so on and so on and so forth.

The rules:

Finally! we are arriving to the meat of the subject!

Okey so, rules are one of the two elements that make up the identity of a pen & paper RPG, the other being the theme or setting. Different rules give radically different feelings, that’s why D&D 3.5 edition “felt” different from D&D 4th edition even tho they are thematically the same game.

Personally I think that rules should be a tool to enhance the narrative agency of the players and the narrator, not burdens that hamper them, I’m going to delve a little into game studies and game design theory here, but stay with me.

If you think a little bit about it, RPG’s are some sort of theatrical improvisation, there is a director who has a vague idea of what’s going to happen and you have actors, each one of them has a mental model of the world and of their character. None of the actors knows the plan of the director, they are just waiting to react, accordingly to their characters, to the situations imposed by the director. This is a good acting exercise and there is a good sense of “play”, play as defined by Johan Hizinga (Dutch historian and writer) is:

“A free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

Here Hizinga mentions rules, and although there are rules in this theatrical improvisation (rules like “don’t break character”) they don’t describe how the actors should improvise or resolve situations. So here we clearly have role-play, but we are still lacking the “game” side of it, the thing that makes Role playing games “games”. In their book “Rules of Play” Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define a game as:

“A system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

Okey, so games have to have formal, well defined rules that generates a meaningful outcome. But apart from being a core ingredient for games what are rules for? I mean, you can easily create a random set of rules and call it a game, but will it be fun? I don’t think so.

Rules are there to create entertainment or fun, and what is an easy way to create this?


Challenge is not the only way to do this, but it’s the easiest way to do it. Challenge is a fundamental part of RPG’s and the reason that why most (if not all) games have a combat or confrontation system, creating an antagonist for the players and giving them a way to beat it, immediately creates a sense of challenge. The thing is … Challenge cannot be derived from narrative endeavors because narrativity is relative and not quantifiable or is extremely hard and imprecise to quantify (if you have found a simple way to do so please contact me immediately!). So in order to create challenge we create artificial rules, the problem is that some times these rules interfere with narrative play lessening the experience.

Below you will find how I think rules can prevent narrative agency and how they can encourage it.

-End of the technical bla bla bla- 


Let’s face it, no one likes maths and doing math while playing is even worse. Just kidding, some people like doing math, but the problem remains the same. When you are forced to deviate your attention form something to some other thing radically different from what you were doing, you lose focus. We humans are really bad at multitasking (yes even women), and when you are trying to narrate something epic like:

— I exchange looks with my injured companions, we are all tired, all broken, we have been fighting for hours and our enemy is unbeatable. In a final act of courage I run through the sand, my hand firmly hanging to the handle of my sword, I jump swinging my sword over my head, the blue eyes of the Dragon reflect in my steel before i struck him! —

And then your GM tels you:

 — Yeah, okey, calculate the taco — (thank god they got rid of that!).

Your natural response is to snap out of the game and go do the math. The bigger problem of this is not the complexity of the operation, everyone can do a subtraction and a comparison, the real problem is that for any action you want to take you have to do this EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. (Oh yeah! and after you have to roll for damage, don’t forget to sum up your attributes, your base attack, the bonus of your magical weapon and the circumstantial buffs and debuffs).

Solution? Try not to over complicate your system, if you don’t know the result of the action in one simple operation then it’s too complicated, remember KISS!

Unnecessary rules

In World of Darkness you can break objects. Each object has three stats Durability, Size and Structure, Structure (the life of the object) is the sum of the object’s Size (size can go from 1 to infinite) plus his Durability, Durability is defined by the materials the object is made of; there is a table in the manual indicating the durability value of each material. In order to break an object you have to attack it until the “Structure” of the object reaches 0.

Did you know this? Me neither, I just looked it up.

Is this rule really necessary? I mean, if I have a wooden door in front of me and an axe, I intuitively know I will be able to take that door down, it will take some “time” but it will happen. I say, “time” because you could argue that the amount of time that takes the character to break through is an important factor, but it isn’t, I will retake a bit from Hizinga definition of play:

“It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space”

Now, let’s assume this rule is absolutely necessary to the game experience and without it the game simply breaks… Is it fun? Is it fantastic? Is it grand? is it entertaining to bash a fictional door that doesn’t bash back for 5 real time minutes?

…yes those were rhetorical questions … and yes, I just quoted Eminem.

The random factor

It hurts my RPG player heart a little bit to say this, but dices are bad, they are not a good system for role playing games, or at least not when they are used in a pure numerical way.

The truth is dices have become the iconic representation of role playing games, Hell! the industry of dice factory exits almost purely to supply RPG players. But they lack the implication of the player in the character’s actions, once the dice are thrown everything is up to chance, the player has no more influence over the results.


This causes a problem because it can be counter intuitive, creating a logical gap in the game space, breaking the suspension of disbelief. For example, a D&D level 20 warrior attacking a CR 1/4 goblin, the goblin doesn’t stand a chance to survive one single blow, he knows it, the warrior knows it, everybody knows it, yet … there is still the possibility that the warrior’s player gets a 1 in his dice roll and totally fails. You could argue that even the most expert of warriors can fail, but a level 20 warrior fights against gods and creatures that escape common understanding, the possibilities of him failing against a goblin are definitively not 1/20.

World of Darkness manages to have a better dice system. In WoD you have a pool of dices defined by your attributes and abilities each dot is a dice. When you throw the dices you can either get a failure (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) or a success (8, 9, 10), every single action you undertake can be accomplished with 1 single success, the magnitude of “how well you succeeded” depends on the total number of successes you got in your roll. All of the buffs or debuffs consist of adding or removing dices from your pool, which means no number crunching. The possibility of a logical gap still exists, you can have no successes in a 20 dice roll (believe I’ve seen it), but the probabilities are way more realistic, which means that when you fail, you actually believe that even the best warriors make mistakes.

I will do a little bit of justice to the dices and dice lovers, there are few feelings like getting a good roll in a definitive action, like the last attack or the last craft throw before a bomb goes off. The moment you get a natural 20 and kill the final boss of the night, is an incomparable feeling.

But … This feeling is created by the principle of uncertainty the dices generate, it’s great when it’s in your favor, but it’s horrible when it’s not, it almost like the dices betrayed you, but remember the dices are chaotic neutral.

My point is, how can we create this same uncertainty principle without a random generator? How can we involve more the player in the quality of his character actions?

I have a couple of ideas involving cards, energy points and flying microwaves, but I’ll reserve that for another post, this one is already way longer than I expected it to be.

Narrative rules

Some games, and even more in the recent years, have incorporated rules to enhance the narrative side of RPG’s. I’m talking about things like the Vice and Virtue system in WoD or the background building of D&D 5th edition. I think this kinds of rules are really important and should be developed further, it helps new players have a solid, well constructed character, guiding them through their first games; it also eases the effort of veteran players.

There are also no-spoken rules of narrativity, “don’t break character” is one of them like we saw before. “Act accordingly to your character” is another one, and is sometimes difficult to follow, some times a certain action will be in your favor, but because of your character you won’t be able to do it. This narrative rules are meant to be followed, it’s never about what happens in the game, but how cool the thing that happens will be.

There also are some rules that give mechanic advantages through narrative, that’s okey, just don’t fall in the vicious cycle of trying to get those advantages every time you describe something.


Finally … we are at the end, I didn’t think this would be that long, but here are my final words in this matter.

You can play RPG’s in any way you like, and you should, if everything I say in this article goes in counter of your RPG beliefs, don’t mind me and continue crunching numbers and throwing dices endlessly. But if you are looking for something more than a mathematical operation with a layered on fantasy / apocalyptic / cyberpunk skin, try to follow some of these ideas. Find a system that suits you well (or even better make your own!), become an actor and demand of your director to challenge you, not only mechanically but also narratively. If you are the director try your best to direct a play that the players will remember their entire life, you will throw thousands of dice in your RPG career, but you will play a story only once.

RPG chronicles are unlike TV, movies or video games, they cannot be repeated, they are ephemeral and unique, that’s what makes them so special. But they can only be worth remembering if the narrator, the players and the rules work together to accomplish something great.

It’s not about the story, it’s not about the players characters, it’s not about if the rules allow it or not, it’s about the experience you live and create together.

  1. So you haven’t played a lot of games, did you? Because there is a world of games that cries to be on your gaming table to amuse you and your friends that may change your perspective con dice and crunchy rules (maybe not so much the latter, :P).

    Examples: The Shadow of Yesterday (fantasy; indie, ’00 generation, somewhat traditional in general system structure), The Burning Wheel Gold (don’t confuse with previous versions; fantasy; indie, ’10 generation, crunchy and somewhat traditional), Fiasco (Coen brothers’ style; indie, ’10 generation, somewhat freeform), Apocalypse World (apocalyptic; indie, ’10 generation, mix in freeform and traditional structure), games derived from AW (Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, Legend of the Elements, Undying -wich is somewhat WoD’s Vampire without the trademark content and with another system-, and a large etc.), Microscope ([hi]story building; indie, ’00 generation, structured but odd to more traditional gamers), Mouse Guard (medieval mice; indie, ’00 generation, The Burning Wheel somewhat simplified), and I’m missing a lot of games.

    Try and play Apocalyse World (or some hack), Fiasco and Microscope; they are, I think, the best way to be introduced in this kind of “different” (sometimes, not a lot different) games.


  2. No, I’m sorry, but I really dislike when someone talks as if he had discovered the philosopher stone, when he is just repeating very well known facts that have been already addressed in many other games.

    Have you heard of Hero Quest second edition? That game takes narrative to a whole new level; by instance, your character sheet can be the description of your character in 100 words in free form. The thing is that you have only played simulation games, which are the most common. Even WoD and NWoD are far too bulky, crunchy and not narrative oriented, compared to games like FATE.

    Believe me, D&D in all its variants has the worst RPG systems ever, it behaves very much like a videogame. I’m not overacting and that’s not only my opinion. Sadly, because D&D was the first, most RPGs that followed where very influenced by that.

    No my friend, there is a whole universe beyond D&D, Shadowrun, WoD, Call of Cthulhu, etc.


    1. Hey QBunny, thanks for the comment.

      In the post I talk from my own personal experience, I only transcribe what I’ve seen and what I believe. I very well know I haven’t discovered the philosopher stone, if there is an universe that I don’t know please show me, I will be grateful.

      My objective with this article was to expand the debate of narratology vs ludology to the pen & paper RPG’s in favor of narratology (at leas in this kind of games, I’m not referring to video games here), so I think your objective and mine are the same ;).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: