On Narrative Serendipity in Roleplaying Games

A mining operation and a shittily-drawn airship

Five Days & Two Decades of Adventures

First, a little history: Sometime in 2019, my childhood friend Jennifer Hunker and I hatched a plan to reunite over the winter holiday at my house in Massachusetts. She and her husband live in California. My best friend David, whom I met in fifth grade, lives in Florida. They all agreed to fly across the country for a five-day event, where I’d run five sessions of a roleplaying game I’d conducted in our late teens and early twenties over fifteen years ago. When I left Florida in 2008 to go to grad school, I never thought we’d play again. So we had five days to catch up on nearly two decades of adventures, which meant we’d run each session for six to eight hours at my dining room table from the day they flew in to the day they flew out.

It’s OK, I can’t read what I wrote either

On Narrative Serendipity

All this to say that game mastering in roleplaying games is a creative exercise akin to crafting a narrative in the most abstract sense of the phrase: musicians craft narratives with their music that lead you to experience certain emotional states, in the same way writers and comedians craft narratives with their stories. It’s all the same art: one of the ways we humans empathize with each other is by sharing stories. If I want you to feel the abject terror of loneliness that I feel on a dark winter evening in the middle of nowhere, I use my art to immerse you in a narrative.

Sketch out that dungeon before you forget it!

Forsaking Your Fantasy Heartbreaker

Rules, of course, are also essential to roleplaying games. The rules facilitate serendipity because they dictate how the dice are used. They are the other thing that haunts game masters. The rules are like the violin or the typewriter or the mic: incidental to the craft, but nevertheless fundamental to how we craft the narrative in the artform. And there are so many to choose from: if Dungeons & Dragons is the Home Depot of tools in every suburb, then Mörk Borg and Blades in the Dark are artisan woodworkers you can only find on a glacier at the foot of Hvannadalshnúkur in Iceland.

From Rules-Light to Revelation

I wanted to see if I could reproduce that sense of wonder in people who had no concept of what a roleplaying game is. I wanted the rules to get out of the way. I wanted both the GM and the player to roll dice, because I needed to feel as surprised by the narrative as my players. I wanted session prep to take a couple hours at most, not months. I wanted a character sheet to fit on a single sheet of paper or a single viewport of a desktop or tablet. No looking up crap in thousand-page books, no tactical maneuvers to destroy theater of mind combat or multi-paragraph definitions for various mechanics: any rule should be reduced to a sentence at most. I’d have to start with a framework that was extremely simple, but also familiar enough in its styling to awaken the slumbering nerd in these non-gamers. A single session would need to last at most three hours, because, after all, my eight test subjects were nerds with jobs, and I couldn’t expect them to sit in front of Discord for any longer than that.

The “alpha” of my OSR+ hero wizard

OSR+ in 2021

Alas, all that nerdy excitement makes me sigh.

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Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn

Web designer, RPG hobbyist, scifi writer at dquinn.net. Cohost of worldbuildwithus.com. My favorite holiday is Halloween and I believe in Oxford commas.