I was thinking about some of the Appendix N books I read recently, as well as some of the newer books that are similar in style and I have come to the following conclusion:
1) Roleplaying games are influenced by fantasy and sci-fi literature
2) When said literature was shorter, the older games influenced by it had a philosophy that was more game-focused
2a) Characters died more often and were generally more replaceable
2b) Settings could be more fantastical and full of wonder, not everything had to be
realistically realized with a fully functioning economy, languages, and culture
3) When said literature became longer (probably due to the incredible popularity of The Lord of the Rings), the newer games become more about telling an epic story, thus more story-focused
3a) Characters had to survive to tell their story and any character death had to be meaningful to the story
3b) Settings must make realistic sense in every way
I don’t want to blame The Lord of the Rings, but the giant brick of a novel series that explores every aspect of background, culture, economy, language, religion, food, cleaning habits, architecture, and weather patterns has come to dominate the fantasy genre. This has influenced roleplaying games to be more epic-story focused. Thus, characters must survive for a long time, so their personal drama / backstory is properly explored.
However, in older stories, the characters were less “well-developed”, but the fewer character traits they exhibited were more memorable. In real life, people are complex and with many traits about them that are moderated by other traits they possess, but the most memorable people tend to have strong character traits. You remember the person who is extreme in a particular way, but not the more well-rounded person.
For example, my greed is tempered by my sense of right/wrong. Even if I want to steal something from the store rather than pay for it, I know that it is not the right thing to do, so I won’t do it.
But that is boring and realistic. No one wants to read a story about that.
It is more exciting to actually steal the thing and have an epic chase with store security and the police.
(I am not condoning theft, I am just making an example)
In a shorter work, you can have a character do more extreme and memorable actions, but in a longer work, the ramifications of those actions must be fully worked through. It is difficult to write a long, coherent story with constant action. It is easier to write several short stories that each have a few high points.
In the example above, I could write an action-packed short story about someone getting chased by mall cops and just barely getting away. The story could end with the main character reaching a hideout or losing the pursuers. A short, satisfactory story. But in a longer story, the character would need to constantly be on the lookout for the police and avoiding drawing attention to himself. If he left town to avoid the heat…what was the point of the heist? A good author could do something with this series of events and turn it into a coherent whole in a long novel. But a lesser author…not a chance in hell. And in this day and age, there are a lot of lesser authors.
Look at the Conan stories. They are short by modern standards and memorable. He has a short, intense adventure and the story ends. Then, he moves on to a new location and has another great adventure. The adventures are not tied together by some overarching plot, so they are each short, satisfactory, and enjoyable. Long enough to give the reader the information they need, but not too long that it drags down in boring detail that adds nothing.
We know a few things about Conan as a person, but there are a lot of gaps in his personal history. Who was his first kiss? When was the first time he killed a man? What did he get on his 5th birthday as a gift?
No one cares about that stuff.
We need just enough information to know what motivates him. That background information might be known by the author, but the reader does not need to know it all. But in more modern stories, the reader is inundated by background information and the excessively detailed backstory of each character.
If I want to write a character that doesn’t trust anyone, a quick mention of “my mentor betrayed me” is enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. The reader knows that the character is going to have difficulty trusting anyone, particularly authority figures. The reader does not need a 2 chapter-long flashback going through a training montage with the mentor and the betrayal incident.
In more modern works, it seems the trend is to excessively detail each second of each character’s life, with everything precisely spelled out for the reader. And it needs to stop.
So how does this tie into tabletop gaming?
Older games took it for granted that characters died often, either due to player stupidity or the occasional bad roll of the dice. The player would then roll up a new character and get back into the game. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Character background was less important, because spending a lot of time thinking up an epic story for a character who might die in the next 30 minutes is not a good use of time. The game itself, overcoming challenges in the game world was more important than an overarching story about defeating the world-ending evil bad guy.
Nowadays, it is popular to have a big, world-shaking story (see Pathfinder Adventure Paths), but that means that the characters must survive to be a part of it. Players roll up complex characters with a fully-fleshed out background that fits into the larger story like a glove. If they die (not when, but if), that death is tied into the story as a noble sacrifice or somehow relevant to the plot of the game. In a newer game, a character can’t just die, it has to have meaning.
I guess, if that is what and you group like, go for it. Don’t let me tell you how to have fun. But as for me and my house, we will have fun adventuring in weird places that are fully of deadly surprises, inspired by the shorter stories of the past and present.
I tried to complete NaNoWriMo. I did not do the 50,000 words in November. But, I learned a lot of about my writing process, got some great writing advice from Brian Neimeier, and I have a nice re-written outline for a novella project I am working on.