So just the question alone probably will probably cause most people really involved in RPG’s to check out. But I have to wonder…is story really that important? Conventional wisdom seems to be that it is, that anything that supports story-telling is good, and anything that doesn’t is at best extraneous.
Personally, I like story. I build little arcs into all my characters. It helps me put them in context and make them interesting to me. But I know just as many gamers that actively recoil from doing that, preferring to just roll the dice and let the game tell them just who this character is and why they are interesting. It’s not that they can’t tell stories, it’s that they’d rather just play a game and see what happens. Role-playing and roll-playing can co-exist peacefully, and even bolster one another.
Assuming story can’t be everything (which it may be), how important is it? Is there another ingredient could eclipse it? Player agency seems like a candidate, but in a push story tends to come out on top…pretty much any time you have to say ‘no’ to anything for the good of the game and story you will. Fun? If that entertainment comes primarily from the story then we’re back to square one, but I don’t think that’s what happens. Fun seems to bubble up from a volatile mixture of story, agency, and mechanics. Plus some ingredients I’m sure I am missing.
I’m not discounting the importance of story, but I tend to think of it as a desirable side effect rather than a goal itself (the goal being to have fun.). If you really want to tell a story then any game rule at all seems like it is just interference with that goal. The most effective way to tell a story being to just tell one…what do dice have to do with that? Any input that enhances the story should ‘succeed’, and anything else is more interference. But if the goal is fun things change. Dice are fun. Maneuvering within rules constraints can add to enjoyment rather than lessen it. An RPG seems fundamentally different in that you can hit constructs which are terrible story-telling, but still pretty damned fun as game elements. (How else to do you explain Dungeons and Dragons? Zing!)
So is story the most important thing in an RPG? Maybe it is…but I’m actually not sure.