Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Small”. What fun! There are so many directions to take this prompt. Although I’d love to write about my fondness of halflings, gnomes, goblins, and kobolds, I think I’ll write today’s post once again about story structure.
My preference for stories in roleplaying games are always for small stories, in multiple senses of the word. I enjoy tabletop RPGs when the sessions themselves are small and limited in scheduling. Keeping things limited means that there is a clear scope to the story, as well as managed expectations. I’ve been part of too many unending RPGs that always bleed out somewhere down the line, be it over weeks or years, due to life happening. Shorter sessions, on the other hand, focus gameplay and encourages some commitment. Having said that, I am absolutely not opposed to having multiple consecutive campaigns with the same group in the same RPG with the same characters. Just as a television show will have multiple seasons, so too can I enjoy an RPG set up like that. The added benefit is that much like a T.V. show, each season will end up having a coherent and contained story. Each of those stories, of course, could add up to a larger overarching narrative.
The other way in which I enjoy smaller stories is in their scope. It’s all well and good to have a massive, dramatic story about the apocalypse happening or political struggles between nations, but it’s hard to empathize with things of that scope. Stories (and lives) are about individual people and their experiences. The interesting thing in Lord of the Rings isn’t the story of a ring being tossed in a volcano to end an age-long evil—that’s just the backdrop. The interesting story is a fun-loving little scamp and his gardener getting swept away in something they’re not fully prepared for, growing and changing because of the journey, and becoming new people by living through that. I think the best stories have large stories as a background, like The Witcher novel series, a story of a man learning to love a woman, with the both of them learning to accept their role as self-appointed parents to a young orphan, set to a backdrop of an young empire conquering many nations. Alternatively, stories that start out small but logically build up to something larger, as in the Kingmaker adventure path that starts out with a small group of unlucky individuals essentially being exiled to an inhospitable area where, through many adventures, they get continually embroiled in larger conflicts with higher stakes.
The other way in which I enjoy tabletop RPGs is with smaller groups. I think three or four people is the sweet spot of collaborative gaming for me. I’ve played in groups of 5 or even 6 people, but that spreads out the stories and interactions so much. Individuals tend to get bored while waiting for their turn, or there is a lack of commitment from each person. With only a pair of players, there’s a lot of intense focus on each individual, and it’s only so long that you can keep that up. With RPGs, and particularly ones where improvisational skills are required from not just the host but also the players, down-time is also important. For me, 3 to 4 players hits that perfect sweet spot where each player can get some focused attention, but there’s plenty of opportunity to take a back seat as well.
At this point, let’s do one of those stereotypical blog things and say: what’s your ideal size for RPGs?