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Image provided by FreeImages.com / Michel Zarcharzewski

Modern video games are becoming more dynamic when looking at console capabilities, online functions and graphics. The diversity in game types is also increasing. It is never enough these days to have wonderful graphics; so many games with outstanding graphics end up failing, as they lack the story element. When we look at the very best RPG games in the video-game sector, the one thing that is always common is a well-thought and highly developed storyline. But that begs the question, is this a universal law? Quests may basically make a game more attractive but are stories really vital for game success – and what does that say for tabletop RPGs?

Story Vs Plot

When looking at the game’s story aspect, the most important thing is to understand the difference between the two.

A plot is linked to what will happen. It will track character physical movement, at least in gross location. One event will basically lead to the next one. A story is going to serve didactic functions, i.e. it will teach the player something (even if that something is only relevant in the context of the video game narrative).

Stories are a flow of ideas that are arranged and presented through the plot.

As an example, when looking at Assassin’s Creed, the plot revolves around the feud between Assassins and Templars. The story of good versus evil is an oldie but a goodie that never grows stale; it will continue and will lead to gamers wanting to know what will happen.

Character Development

A story is not just about the plot. Characters are very important a these are the movers of the plot, the manifesters of the story, and the point of emotional connection. A story needs them for the players or readers to love or hate.

Judging video game characters is similar to how you look at the characters you normally see in a book. In video game history there are many characters that were so well built that players wanted to know everything about them. This led to the appearance of sequels in some cases.

Stories without great characters are practically impossible these days. There are so many game-makers out there of adequate or better technical skill that any given game needs something to lift it above the noise, and the universally resonant quality, the thing that makes the difference, time after time, is a great story with enticing, compelling characters.

Technical improvements aside (many of which are the product of improvements in the technology, anyway), that’s the biggest difference between video games of the 70s and 80s and those of the modern day. There was a time when it was enough to boast a broader color palette, or faster refresh rate, or snazzier graphics; these days, these can be safely assumed (save when deliberately violated for stylistic effect, I suppose). To take the next step in popularity, aside from great gameplay, we need to see something in a game that has some emotional resonance for us – events that we can relate to and/or characters that we can relate to.

Different Video Game Types

When we read a novel we have to see central characters that are rounded, together with a good story. The smaller their plot role, the flatter the characters can be. In many video games the same usually applies, but it is not always the case. With sports games in particular, titles like NBA Live or Madden NFL do not actually need a story.

Such games do not need a story tacked on, the competition – provided that it is not pre-scripted – constructs its own narrative.

We also have games that benefit from the story and from the actual gameplay at the same time. In this case it is the story that will add depth and that will help those gamers that see stories as particularly important.

Personal Preference

Obviously, at the end of the day player preference is going to dictate the success of a game and whether or not the story is really important for success.

It is really important that game developers focus on both elements. A great story aspect never detracts from a game’s value; it can only enhance it.

Storylines have been proven to make games more successful but only when they were captivating. Similarly to novels, some are a lot better than others. This directly impacts the success of a video game. A great story can even overcome deficiencies in gameplay.

The Tabletop Relevance

Having looked at video games from as many directions as we can, let’s turn our attention to tabletop games and see which of the emerging lessons apply.

First, there is the direct ‘competition’ aspect of sporting games. This is analogous to the basic dungeon bash, in which the challenge is simply to overcome whatever combat challenges the GM places before the characters, and to a certain extent, that can be enough to satisfy; however, directly comparing two games, one that has just this component and one that has both this component and a great story, it can be seen that the difference is night and day. In days long past, it might have been enough to have impressive monsters, or even great visual aids to help manifest them in the minds of the players; that’s no longer the case.

Even a basic dungeon bash needs to have some level of story through-line connecting the events. Every improvement to the story over that minimum requirement simply adds to the value of the campaign.

Second, there needs to be a strong correlation between story and plot. You can’t simply strap the story on like a backpack; it needs to translate into concrete day-to-day manifestations and events. This is often where GMs struggle; there are ample tools and schools to improve your writing skills that can be adapted to the purpose, and getting better at game mechanics is simply a matter of experience and practice; it’s bridging the gap between the two that is different and unique to RPGs, even from the similar problems faced by adapting a story into screenplay (though that probably comes closest).

Third, the PCs are automatically semi-compelling by virtue of being a player’s character, but every enhancement to that compelling, quality that makes the characters more rounded once again functions as an enhancement to the basic value of the game. Furthermore, that basic semi-compelling quality is no guarantee of a rounded character, and contains no promises of interest to any other player. It is incumbent on the GM to fill the gap by ensuring that the NPCs, common to all the players, are as compelling and interesting as possible. That doesn’t mean necessarily compromising them; it can mean mixing your already-dark villain with even darker shades of black.

Video games and RPGs are growing more alike all the time. It’s no longer good enough to have prettier pictures than the guy at the next table; it’s no longer sufficient to have compelling characters whose lives simply meander from random event to random event. The things that produce a compelling video game are also the things that produce a compelling tabletop RPG campaign.

If you were marketing your RPG campaign as a video game, what could you say about it that makes it better than the one in the next booth? Unless you can tick every box, there is room for improvement. And no-one can ever tick every box; as soon as you do, it’s time to raise your standards – because everyone else will be raising theirs.

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