Jul 06

I WAS A GOBLIN: But I Wasn’t A Hobbit

FT + The Brown Wedge + TMFD9 comments • 2,104 views

Miniature of MerryFrom the time I got into role-playing games, the selling point was well-established: the games allowed players to create stories in which they were the heroes. But what kind of stories? The RPG set-up requires a group of characters (4-6, on average) to work more or less together – individuals can break away from the group, but these break-outs can hardly be extended as other players are likely to get bored while one person’s storyline is furthered.

This is a fairly rare set-up in storytelling, which tends to focus on a single protagonist, or a protagonist plus a sidekick. War stories are an exception, as the focus can be on a squad. Team sports stories, too. And school stories often follow small groups of protagonists, who can’t separate too easily because of the tight setting. But pretty much no early role-playing game – and very few later ones – have focused on war, or team sports, or school as a setting. Instead they chose fantasy or science-fiction. Sci-fi novels didn’t often focus on groups, but at least Star Trek provided some kind of narrative model. And fantasy novels? In the mid-1970s they were a genre in transition from pulp-derived ‘sword and sorcery’ sagas to Tolkein-derived ‘high fantasy’, a change sparked by the enormous success of Lord Of The Rings.

Lord of the Rings provides the apparent model for the group-oriented action of RPGs. The Fellowship of the Ring is a formalised group, whose members have clear roles and motivations. Their adventures, surely, were the kind of thing you could reproduce playing D&D. Except for two things: the group operate for only a sixth of Tolkien’s novel (which in some ways is a critique of communal – as opposed to individual – action against evil). And the adventures of the Fellowship would be completely unplayable.

In the early 80s the magazine White Dwarf published a D&D adventure based on the Mines of Moria sequence from LotR. It sparked much letter column debate, mostly agreeing that the attempt had been noble but doomed. The problem was the enormous discrepancy of power and ability between the heroes of the Fellowship: a player given Pippin or Merry’s character would find themselves with almost nothing to do except hide and hope. In the meantime, Gandalf is again obviously an order of magnitude more powerful than the ‘muscle’ characters, which means only he can fight Moria’s main bad guy. But attempting to fit this into any rule system would leave the game hugely imbalanced. You could have got round this by having the hobbits and Gandalf as non-player characters, controlled by the referee. But this would take away a good chunk of the reason players had identified with the Moria story in the first place. The whole affair outlined quite starkly what anyone who played D&D knew deep down: the game was NOT designed to tell stories of heroic fantasy, or at least not that kind of story.

The stories it did tell were about problem-solving, steady progress, co-operation, in wholly artificial environments – the average D&D campaign bears more relationship to a corporate training programme than a heroic saga. The type of gameplay that came out of D&D was new, and original, and as it turned out hugely influential, but it had nothing to do with storytelling: that was spin, or less cynically, a way to sum up a thing whose creators didn’t really understand it. The problem for RPGs – and particularly for D&D – was that a host of players were lured in under precisely this false pretence, and the history of the hobby in the 80s and 90s is the history of them trying to make it real.


  1. 1
    Magnus Anderson on 4 Jul 2006 #

    Corporate training days are now more honest I think – in the nineties they never called it roll-playing, even when the team was fabricated with potentially conflicting objectives and motivations allocated to the members on CVs very similar to character sheets.

    Now, if there’s a facilitator and a theme, there’s a roll-play, with no embarrassment or tongue in cheek. So all those childhood hours not wasted? How I wish. What it showed was how imbecilic we must have been by the criteria of roll-plays, sketching out interactions and negotiating objectives, amongst the gang as well as facing it. Instead we would argue and blunder, with the gamesmaster occasionally relenting and progressing to another encounter, often because a fight had broken out between the characters, the players, or both. I’ve not seen that happen in corporate training. Yet.

  2. 2
    Greg on 5 Jul 2006 #

    Is there an index of the TE D&D/rollplaying posts anywhere? I reckon I must have missed a bunch, and they seem really terrific.

  3. 3
    Alan on 5 Jul 2006 #

    You could type “i was a goblin” (no quotes) in the search box

  4. 4
    p^nk s on 7 Jul 2006 #

    alternatively (and slightly brilliantly) you can follow the link called “i wasn’t a goblin” in the “related article” box, and when you arrive look at ITS “related article” box [slightly sadly, this no longer applies :(]

  5. 5
    Admin on 28 Jul 2006 #

    Hope the new sidebar list helps

  6. 6
    amuletts on 9 Sep 2006 #

    You weren’t a hobbit but were you a halfling? ;)

  7. 7
    James_Nostack on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Incidentally, several recent “independent” RPG designs have solved the Sam/Boromir/Gandalf power disparity: the trick is to give all players the same number of story-affecting tokens (or other resource), and exactly how these tokens are implemented depend on the character’s particular style. Thus, although Sam and Frodo can’t fight very well, their plucky-little-hobbit-ness ends up having as much of an effect on the flow of the story as the bad-ass characters.

    The good effect is that you can have wildly different characters all having an effect on the story. The downside is that players are creating a story, where things happen for story-reasons, rather than realistic-reasons. That’s a turn-off for some people (though not for me).

    I’d recommend checking out “Capes” by Tony LowerBasch, and “With Great Power,” by Michael Miller, for examples of this in practice: I’ve played them both, they’re a lot of fun.

  8. 8
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I didn’t have any direct experience of games with storytelling mechanics – I went straight from rules-based tabletop to near-complete freeform under the evangelical influence of Aslan in the early 90s! But I never really liked the idea of them – it felt like extending the mechanistic parts of the game into areas good players wouldn’t need. Maybe I was just being a snob though!

  9. 9
    DV on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I always liked the idea of Hero Points, which were basically “blimey, here’s a garbage chute!” style get of jail free cards.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page