What D&D can tell us about Transmedia (Part 6)

I've written a lot in the past two weeks about the similarities between tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and transmedia stories. I have just a few final notes. World Getting in the Way of Story

In the comments on my second post, Guy Gonzalez pointed me towards an article about the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which mentions the rich storyworld concept I was talking about:

Core D&D will give you the rules for a +1 longsword, but in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting that +1 longsword is the Platinum Tongue of Garthak, fashioned as the parade sword for Garthak Hammerfist, patriarch of the dwarven clan of Hammerfist, one of the ruling houses of ancient Gauntlgrym. Everything in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting has a story. --Philip Athans

My response was that the point about the sword is a good one — and I think one that could be extended beyond FR, for sure. Having that history enriches the immersion in the storyworld for the player who cares.

But there’s also a danger to watch out for in that, I think, in that it can be taken too far. For example, perhaps we are wandering the forests of Cormanthor, and the DM is describing the scene and stops to say, “Oh, there’s this really cool tree that grows around here, hold on, let me find it…” And pulls out the 2nd ed. Volo’s Guide to All Things Magical and flips through it and says, “Ah yes, the roseneedle pine. It’s a pine tree, like a yew, but it never grows taller than a few feet, and in the spring it has little roselike flowers at the end of each needle. The roots end in tubers that make great fishing bait.” And meanwhile the players are thinking, “Great, but we really just want to get to the bandit’s camp so we can save some slaves.”

I think it’s awesome to have those details available to you, and if you can include them in your initial descriptions of the forest, it adds a great element to the story. ("The forest around you is lush with spring growth. Yew and spruce rise around you, and the 3-foot tall roseneedle pines are in bloom with their tiny pink flowers.") But as soon as it disrupts the actual gameplay, and the flow of the story (the tuber thing is irrelevant unless we’re fishing), it becomes a distraction instead.

If I care about the history of the sword, or if it’s important to the story (or a story somewhere), then great. If not, sometimes I just want the +1 to hit and damage. Know where to pick your fights. This applies in exactly the same way to transmedia. Know the history so that if someone wants to find out, they can, but don't stop all the action to read out a page of information to people who don't care.

This is also why, though I love the Lord of the Rings, I can’t stand Tolkien’s prose.

(The roseneedle pine is real. There are two long paragraphs about it. Page 62.)

Links and Resources

If you follow my argument that a D&D session is, in many ways, a transmedia experience, then it follows that a lot of articles out there about D&D and running a good D&D game and general DM advice can actually be coopted for use for transmedia. Here's a few.

Island Design Theory discusses a way to keep the plotline of your story fluid enough to adapt easily to what the players do, without losing the thread of your plans.

Restate the Obvious talks about making sure you're communicating effectively with your players. In transmedia, you might not have the chance to say, "Let me make sure you understand..." So be sure to be giving as much detail as the audience needs.

Safe in the Game Master's Hands? discusses the issue of trust between players and DMs that I mentioned in regards to the contract between them. It focuses more on mechanics -- trusting that the DM won't kill you outright -- but it can easily be applied beyond that. A transmedia property needs to show the audience that it can be trusted to show them a greater world, to present a story without forcing people into it, that we Know What We're Doing.

World Building 101 talks about player agency, having your audience help shape the world, and touching on what I discussed with adapting to what they do, where they want to go.

The blogs Gnome Stew and Campaign Mastery generally have a lot of resources for DMing, a lot of which can be extended to some degree to transmedia writing.

And finally, I talked briefly about characterization in transmedia, and Andrea Phillips has a great article about that.

Conclusion

In the Digital Book World WEBcast, "Learning from RPG Publishers," the panelists turned to transmedia for a fair amount of time. As Gareth-Michael Skarka pointed out, "The core skillset for transmedia storytelling is the same that games publishers have been well versed in for the past thirty-odd years," in which they've been "developing a very specific competency: the design and implementation of fictional settings for the interactive use of our customers." This really is transmedia at its core.

RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons share the same principles as a transmedia story. It would simply be a waste -- and, I think, a disservice to the industry -- not to learn as much as we can from what there already is, from what others have already learned in similar disciplines. I hope I've given a glimpse into that.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Disagreements? I'm happy to discuss! Leave them in the comments.

(The whole series: Part 1 - D&D = Transmedia; Part 2 - Storyworld; Part 3 - Engagement; Part 4 - Interaction; Part 5 - Differences; Part 6 - Resources)