Story is not a Four Letter Word

The relationship between story and RPGs is a complicated and often painful one. It’s been popping up on my radar lately since I’ve been hearing “story” used as if it means “Railroading” or “Fudging Dice Rolls” and that bothers me a little. Not that I have any objection to people having strong opinions about specific topics like that – it’s just jarring to me to see them lumped under story, a categorization which is almost nonsensical to me.

The thinking is something like this – there are players out there who view RPGs as a means to tell the story. In some cases it’s the GM telling a story to the players, in others it is everyone at the table collaborating to create the story. Whatever the model, telling a story is the priority, and unless the rules explicitly support the creation of a story, then the rules take a back seat to the needs of story creation. As such, behaviors like dice fudging, railroading and other tricks are fair game because everyone is on board with the priority of story.[1]

If this was the only role of story in games, I’d understand the confusion. While these “pure story” games are (in my experience) a small but vocal minority, it is easy to buy into their principals and try to treat story as something additive – that by taking one of these techniques like railroading, you can improve your game through the inclusion of story. The fact that numerous published adventures have bought into this idea has contributed to muddling the waters further, but I’ll state it as plainly as I can: that is not all that story is. And I’ll go a step further to add that’s not even the important part of story, at least with regards to games.

“Story” (as differentiated from a story) is a set of techniques used to tell, you guessed it, a story. They’re used in every media imaginable, and while some elements are specific to specific media (such as the act structure of television), others seem universal (such as rising tension and the necessity of conflict). This is a huge toolbox, and it can be used for everything from structuring an 27 book epic just as easily as it can a 55 word short story. There are more tools in this box than you will ever use, and no two people’s toolboxes are the same. You find things that work or sound interesting, even things which are contradictory, and you add them in over time. Some become well-worn form use, others never come out of the plastic wrap.

So, given this, let me look at RPGs. There is a school of thought that asserts that the GMs role is solely that of referee, which is to say that the GM should effectively just serve as an intelligent, dynamic rendering engine for the setting.[2] In this worldview, the fairness of the GM is the most critical issue – the GM has material (adventures, setting etc) which he needs to present and use as written to the best of his abilities. If there is a gap, he is expected to fill it, but he should hew as closely to the original material as possible, and his creative satisfaction should come from running antagonists[3] and playing existing NPCs.

Setting aside that I would go watch TV or read a book before I’d want to run a game under those sorts of strictures[4], that thinking simply doesn’t hold up outside of tournament play or other specialized environments. GM creativity and judgment calls are not fringe elements to an RPG and there is no way to open that door just a little. And I think that’s great, since the alternative is by-the-numbers play, which might make for a decent fight scene in 4e, but makes for an unsatisfying framework.

And this is where we come back to story. See, once the GM starts creating his own material (from a single encounter or NPC, to a huge mega-campaign), he is in a position to start using tools from the story toolbox. This does not mean he’s telling a story, rather that he’s using elements that make a story interesting to make play interesting. Making characters sympathetic or unsympathetic? Story. Having villains take things from bad to worse? Story. Menacing things that are important to the character? Story. Many of the important decisions and designs that will go into creating satisfying play can be improved by understanding the tools of story.

Now, it’s obviously going to be a personal decision on how much this shapes play. You might just use the tools of story to craft a satisfying encounter with a hateable villain, but draw the line at using “story logic” to impact play. For example – the decision regarding if and when the villain flees, and when any meta currency (such as fate or action points) might be spent on his behalf can be made for any number of criteria. The GM might use strict Morale rules, he might have a fixed number at which the bad guy flees, he might eyeball the situation and base it on which way the wind is blowing, or he might opt for a dramatically appropriate moment. Any or all of these can be used to make the decision, but personal taste might remove some of them from consideration.

And that’s fine. We all need to find our personal level of preference. But for all that, it is a very rare game indeed that cannot benefit from the toolbox story provides. Certainly, people may use different tools in different ways, or use more or fewer tools, but they’re the tools for drama, for making events personal and compelling. I genuinely can’t imagine someone wanting to play RPGs (as opposed to other games) and not wanting those things.

1 – All of the games I’m discussing here are going to assume full buy-in from the table. Every single model of gameplay can break down if the table doesn’t buy into it, and if things aren’t communicated clearly. So for argument, we’re going to assume people communicate and think a bit.
2 – A rendering engine is the part of a program that turns all the bits and bytes into pretty pictures, like the terrain of World of Warcraft.

3 – This is, BTW, a reason you end up with killer GMs. If this is the limit of your expression within the game, and that is frustrating, and adversarial relationship can jazz things ups.
4 – I’d play but solely on the understanding that we’re playing a boardgame, not an RPG. And I like boardgames fine.

38 thoughts on “Story is not a Four Letter Word

  1. RobertSlaughter

    I mentioned something over on Brad’s blog when he had related post — I’m not sure “story” happens in the moment (though story-relevant elements do), but happens only after-the-fact. If you have solid elements, then the story can built on them, but if all you have are boardgame-like actions, then maybe not so much.

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  2. Stuart

    Great post, except for this bit:

    “There is a school of thought that asserts that the GMs role is solely that of referee, which is to say that the GM should effectively just serve as an intelligent, dynamic rendering engine for the setting.[2] In this worldview, the fairness of the GM is the most critical issue – the GM has material (adventures, setting etc) which he needs to present and use as written to the best of his abilities. If there is a gap, he is expected to fill it, but he should hew as closely to the original material as possible, and his creative satisfaction should come from running antagonists[3] and playing existing NPCs.”

    The GM as referee is not the GM as rendering engine. The GM is doing a lot of improvisation (dialogue, description, tactics) and interacting with the players – not just presenting pre-canned story info as if they were reading from a Fighting Fantasy novel.
    I find that if I’m running a game more as an impartial referee I can identify more closely with the characters, and find their situations much more exciting. I don’t know if they’re going to escape from the monsters, make a bad choice and head down the wrong passage, or trigger a dangerous trap. If I were a less impartial GM I wouldn’t get that same sense of immersive excitement because I would be exerting more control over the game world and making choices about what will happen, rather than watching it unfold along with the players.

    Otherwise I agree with your points about story being MORE than just railroading and dice fudging. A Referee style GM can also use the elements of story in their game.

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  3. Miguel de Luis

    I think it’s all about balance between gaming and narration. I don’t think a game master should act purely as a referee or as a travel guide. It’s the subtle use of atmosphere, the suggestion that gets the job done, and still you can stay very fair.

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  4. Rob Donoghue

    @Stuart The point I failed to emphasize is that the GM serves as an _exceptional_ rendering engine, giving life to NPCs, extrapolating consequences of actions and otherwise doing the things that no computer can currently do (though hypothetically some kind of super planet-sized computer might be able to do someday). This is not a trivial effort, and it takes a great deal of work to do this part of things well.

    The differentiator is that the referee doesn’t take ownership of the game. He’s using someone else’s adventures in someone else’s sandbox, and he may use the hell out of those, but he doesn’t create, he just expands.

    And that’s fine. If that’s all a GM wants to do, then more power to them. I know that’s what many players want GMs to limit themselves to.

    But that said, the use of impartiality is an interesting one, because it raises the question: Impartial towards who? When we use that term to talk about judges, we want them to favor neither side and view them both fairly. When we speak of a GM, are we viewing him as his own side? And the players on the other? That (in contrast to us all being friends and players around the table) is, I think, a dangerous division to draw, and one that self-perpetuates a lot of problems.

    To give an example, if the players wander away from the adventure to an uninteresting section of the map, the GM has numerous choices. the impartial one is to consult to book, maybe roll on some encounter charts, and otherwise allow them to be bored. But I assert that’s not a particularly _good_ option, at least not to my mind.

    If, instead, the GM comes up with something interesting because they are players and this is his game, he is absolutely “cheating” in that the likelihood of them stumbling across something interesting by chance is very low, then he’s making the story decision – the decision that it is better for play to be interesting and fun than right.

    If this sounds confrontational, i want to reassure you that it’s not. I think that we have different tastes on the role of the GM, and that’s totally legitimate. But I want to highlight that the idea of the impartial GM in an RPG is a piece of sleight of hand. Buying into it is an act of willing suspension of disbelief, and that’s awesome, but that makes it something that’s not portable.

    -Rob D.

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  5. Rob Donoghue

    And to clarify (because that wasn’t long enough) I think most pure referee GMs very quickly become creative GMs, even if they don’t advertise it. As noted, the illusion of the referee is important.

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  6. Reverance Pavane

    The problem is that in the traditional model* of role-playing story comes from the gamemaster and is delivered to the players. The players are generally reactive.

    When one starts invoking story and narrative in this regard, one looks to the gamemaster to be the author of the story. In the modern Western tradition this usually involves adopting an authorial voice. There are reasons that author and authority have the same root.

    This is a problem because most of our experience with the art of storytelling comes from the written word (or derivations of the written word; a tv show or movie is the written word in a different media).

    The problem is that the gamemaster often expects this to play out like a book, as it is the only example of storytelling that most of us have experience with. It innately puts the players in the role of the audience, or readers of the book. The quality of the gaming experience is then often reflected by how the gamemaster compensates when the players inevitably go off script.

    Too many people confuse telling a story with writing a story.** They are different, albeit related, arts. The decline of the oral tradition in our modern literate consumer-media society means that there are few examples of how to tell a story for a gamemaster to model themslves on. And this is where the confusion arises in the minds of most people.

    It is the techniques and skills of oral storytelling that are truly important. The good thing is that effective players and gamemasters are rediscovering them, usually by trial and error and example.

    * The non-traditional consensual approach, where the players tell the story (usually at the direction of the gamemaster) is an improvement because it removes the authorial voice. But unless the players have some sort of experience in this form the lack of an authorial voice can create a lack of cohesion. Plenty of “story” is generated, but there is precious little forward momentum. It’s why I feel role-playing is closer to acting than storytelling/writing. If you assume that every character is a prima-donna with a different copy of the script.

    ** With the advent of spin, and media bites, the oral traditions of our culture are declining faster than the literate ones. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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  7. Rob Donoghue

    @Rev Weirdly, a lot of the oral traditions remain in place in peculiar places, like advertising.

    That said, yes, there is a real danger of the domineering GM, but I think it’s one of the easiest problems to grow out of, or at least that’s what I like to tell myself. 🙂

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  8. Stuart

    The point I failed to emphasize is that the GM serves as an _exceptional_ rendering engine, giving life to NPCs, extrapolating consequences of actions and otherwise doing the things that no computer can currently do (though hypothetically some kind of super planet-sized computer might be able to do someday). This is not a trivial effort, and it takes a great deal of work to do this part of things well.

    Sure. I guess by that logic the players are also exceptional render engines for their characters. 🙂

    The differentiator is that the referee doesn’t take ownership of the game. He’s using someone else’s adventures in someone else’s sandbox, and he may use the hell out of those, but he doesn’t create, he just expands.

    Not true at all. They could have written the adventure themselves, which seems to be very common for people playing this kind of game. The difference that I see is that the adventure design is done *before* the game session, rather than during it.

    And that’s fine. If that’s all a GM wants to do, then more power to them. I know that’s what many players want GMs to limit themselves to.

    It’s an approach to gaming that isn’t inherently better or worse than the full-improv, make-it-up-as-you-go approach. It’s just different. I don’t see it as being more limited, anymore than I’d feel I was limited to playing Arkham Horror instead of playing some kind of improv game.

    But that said, the use of impartiality is an interesting one, because it raises the question: Impartial towards who?

    Impartially running the game according to the rules, and the scenario according to what has bee noted as being in certain times + places. This is particularly relevant for a map and key type of adventure. No dice are fudged to make it easier/harder/more “exciting” and occupants of locations are not altered to steer things towards a desired story outcome.

    When we use that term to talk about judges, we want them to favor neither side and view them both fairly. When we speak of a GM, are we viewing him as his own side? And the players on the other? That (in contrast to us all being friends and players around the table) is, I think, a dangerous division to draw, and one that self-perpetuates a lot of problems.

    A referee isn’t an opponent. The scenario/system is the opponent.

    To give an example, if the players wander away from the adventure to an uninteresting section of the map, the GM has numerous choices. the impartial one is to consult to book, maybe roll on some encounter charts, and otherwise allow them to be bored. But I assert that’s not a particularly _good_ option, at least not to my mind.

    I think this presupposed that the GM approaches the game with a Fourth Wall Uber Alles outlook. Personally I’d just say to the players – this is where the adventure is, so if you guys want to play D&D tonight it’ll be adventuring in this dungeon. 🙂

    If, instead, the GM comes up with something interesting because they are players and this is his game, he is absolutely “cheating” in that the likelihood of them stumbling across something interesting by chance is very low, then he’s making the story decision – the decision that it is better for play to be interesting and fun than right.

    If the GM is given sufficient notice, or has sufficiently planned things out in advance each place the players go to could be essentially seen as a separate but related scenario. It’s not cheating to have different scenarios, but it’s a “kind of” cheating, or more accurately a different type of game, if the GM is just improvising that sort of thing as they go.

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  9. Stuart

    If this sounds confrontational, i want to reassure you that it’s not. I think that we have different tastes on the role of the GM, and that’s totally legitimate. But I want to highlight that the idea of the impartial GM in an RPG is a piece of sleight of hand. Buying into it is an act of willing suspension of disbelief, and that’s awesome, but that makes it something that’s not portable.

    No worries at all. I like chatting with you about this stuff. 🙂

    I really disagree that an impartial GM is an imaginary thing though. I can provide you with a keyed dungeon map and an actual play recording of me running through that dungeon with my group as an example. I was rooting for the players, and it was very tense and exciting at times – even though I was the GM! I wasn’t “against” the players, and was disappointed when one of them was killed near the end of the session. I didn’t *want* them to have their character die… but that was the game we were playing and I was doing my best to remain impartial, despite identifying with the protagonists.

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  10. Rob Donoghue

    @Stuart Once the GM is making his own material, all bets are off – at that point the GM is absolutely making creative decisions, for good or ill, for his game. it is a genuine point of transformation.

    And as to impartiality, I’ll ask you this: Were you invested in your players having fun? Were you willing to make decisions (even subtle or non-rule violating ones) to support that?If so, I would say your impartiality is sleight of hand.

    The trick is that what’s going on at the table is not the scenario – that’s going on is people playing. A lot of good salesmanship goes into hiding that from everyone, but at the end of the day, it’s still people.

    And note, fair enforcement of the rules is non-informative. I’ll be a stickler for them because I feel doing so increases tension and improves play, and so long as they are working to do so, it will be visually indistinguishable from someone sticking to the rules for some other reason.

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  11. Stuart

    Once the GM is making his own material, all bets are off – at that point the GM is absolutely making creative decisions, for good or ill, for his game. it is a genuine point of transformation.

    Scenario design is part of the fun of running an RPG. Sometimes you don’t have the time, or inclination, and are happy enough with just the “running the game” part… but certainly I find setting up Rube Goldberg-like scenarios and watching the players interact with them to be a big part of my enjoyment GMing. 🙂

    And as to impartiality, I’ll ask you this: Were you invested in your players having fun? Were you willing to make decisions (even subtle or non-rule violating ones) to support that?If so, I would say your impartiality is sleight of hand.

    The last time we played Arkham Horror (I really like that game!) at our local Con we lost. I thought it was a blast, while another player nearly had a temper tantrum about having lost. There are different ideas about what “Fun” in relation to a game is. Clearly I didn’t have the same idea as Mr. Sore Loser. 🙂

    I think you can present things in an exciting, dramatic way to players (aka FUN) while still being an impartial GM (meaning not changing the rules or what’s in the scenario). Like I said – I have a map + key + recording if you want to take me to task. 😉

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  12. Rob Donoghue

    So, here’s a question: If the GM created the scenario, how is it bad for him to alter it? Can he alter it before play begins? Before a scene begins? Is there a consistent rule that can be applied to that which is not just picking a threshold?

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  13. Stuart

    So, here’s a question: If the GM created the scenario, how is it bad for him to alter it? Can he alter it before play begins? Before a scene begins? Is there a consistent rule that can be applied to that which is not just picking a threshold?

    The important factor is whether players have begun to make decisions in the game and if the GM would be changing things behind the scenes to alter the outcome or importance of those player choices.

    If they wrote it and they alter it before play begins that’s just a revision of what they were writing. This would also apply to changing a pre-published adventure.

    If the GM alters the scenario after the players begin to interact with it they are playing a different type of game.

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  14. Rob Donoghue

    I mean no offense when I say, that is an arbitrary distinction.

    (also, Making no assumptions about WHY the GM makes changes. Maybe it’s story. Maybe he finds an error. Maybe he realizes something was a bad idea. Maybe a player’s do just died and he realizes he really needs to remove the hellhound puppies. maybe his players are bored).

    Now, all that said, I find Arkham an interesting point of comparison because, like many such games, it’s really not an RPG by any number of yardsticks. Now, I enjoy many boardgames with RPG trappings (AH, Buffy, Touch of Evil and, of course, Talisman) but they are as different an experience as pure improv or wargaming.

    But with that in mind, you lead me to ask: Is your desired gameplay closer to Arkham Horror? And if so, why not choose a game like Descent, which is much more on the game end of things?

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  15. Stuart

    I mean no offense when I say, that is an arbitrary distinction.

    I disagree – I think it’s a very important distinction. This is a good article on improving player choices and is relevant to designing and running RPG scenarios. If you are changing things behind the scenes after the player have made their choices you change them into Hollow decisions. This is not good game design.

    (also, Making no assumptions about WHY the GM makes changes. Maybe it’s story. Maybe he finds an error. Maybe he realizes something was a bad idea. Maybe a player’s do just died and he realizes he really needs to remove the hellhound puppies. maybe his players are bored).

    This is the sort of thing that should be done between sessions, not during them. If something is outrageously wrong (why that would happen, I don’t know) I think the GM should stop the game and discuss things with the players.

    Note: The GM doesn’t need to remove the hellhound puppies… the players need to remove their characters from the vicinity of the hellhound puppies. 🙂

    Is your desired gameplay closer to Arkham Horror? And if so, why not choose a game like Descent, which is much more on the game end of things?

    Descent is about combat. I like mystery, exploration, and suspense more than combat, which is why a game like Arkham Horror is more appealing than Descent. AH is limited though – there’s only so many choices you can make, and only so much detail you can get from the game world. In an RPG the GM provides for greater scope of action and can provide more detail where needed. More than thinking of the GM as a super-render-engine think of them as super-game-logic.

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  16. Stuart

    Ok, by that article’s definition’s, a hollow choice is one without consequences, so I’m not following your logic. It’ snot like the only way a GM might might changes is t make things _easier_, and in fact, I think that’s almost never the motive.

    I think fudging dice to remove the risk of characters dying is not very uncommon. Certainly when we discussed it on Twitter a number of people suggested they’d do as much.

    Often, the GM may change things so as to make a player choice carry _more_ weight, or have more compelling consequences.

    Is there any way to predict this in advance? Again, it’s not about good/bad but it does change the game into something quite different. It turns into collaborative storytelling rather than narrative world exploration.

    Keep in mind that the GM may only have notes on how things are setup and the execution is based on them as “exceptional game logic”. An entire location might be described on the page with 2 sentences and it’s the GMs job to turn that into 20 minutes of gameplay.

    For example if the 1st level PCs encounter a vampire in a boarded up crypt they might offer the fiend a deal and the Referee-GMs job is to improvise how the vampire reacts to that. Their job isn’t to replace the vampire with an orc before the characters enter the room because the players failed to notice the door was boarded shut, covered in crosses and decorated with garlic. 🙂

    They also shouldn’t make the Vampire into the barmaid one of the PCs took a liking to back in town. (OR if they do, understand that’s a different type of game than the one I’m describing)

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  17. Entropicurity

    Great post all around I would have to say myself, though some of the comments added I’d have to really say I agree with as well, some more so than others.

    Primarily speaking, the whole concept of playing an RPG is for the Game Master who has a particular idea for a conflict that the players themselves must resolve. It is this conflict that drives the adventure, and it is an art in of itself that the Game Master collaborates with the players in order to tie everyone together in order to help them find a common purpose in the world created.

    Once the GM has pieced together the key points in an adventure, the element of Story Kicks in in a number of ways, and it is my thought that the players themselves can put together stories of their own creation as they play through the game.

    Taking these hints can really help drive the story, and if the GM is willing, can add to the excitement of the game as the players find out that one thing that they have been deriving is actually true, or that its partially true and there is some sinister twist, both of which are key elements of story.

    In any case, having railroads and fudge dice rolls are just a means for those people who prefer “safety rails” in their RPG’s where its more of going from dungeon to dungeon hunting for loot. Its a conflict of “my wallet is empty and I need to fill it, and I’ll take anything, even a dragon, to do it.”

    It is my belief that when the Game Master puts in small hints of a story and starts developing a world beyond the simple safety net Role Playing that the game can truly take a new dimension, and doing so in such a way that increases the enjoyment of all the people involved.

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  18. Rob Donoghue

    @stuart I feel like I have my finger on something, so let me ask this; Is it safe to interpret this as “Material that’s written down is set in stone, material that’s left out is fair game” (once a session starts)?

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  19. Stuart

    Let’s say I’m asked (as a player) to choose between 2 or more options, let’s say doors in a dungeon.

    Does something exist behind those doors before I make my choice? Or is my choice just a cue to the GM to narrate something new?

    Those are different types of gameplay. One is narrative virtual world exploration, the other is collaborative storytelling.

    If you consider the complexity of a dungeon or non-linear narrative, so much is dependent on early choices so that if you don’t have most of it mapped out you’re ending up swinging towards the 2nd style of gameplay (collaborative storytelling).

    The more you change things after the players start making choices or exploring the non-linear narrative the more those choices don’t matter.

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  20. Reverance Pavane

    @Rob: I have to respectfully disagree with you. Whilst tricks or oration and rhetoric are commonplace nowadays, storytelling (as a performance art) is sadly in abeyance.

    Even advertising copy is still thinking it terms of the complete text. We have 30 seconds to sell this after-shave. It must be succinct and persuasive. Good copy might leave you asking questions (such as “how is he on a horse”), but the design is still to get from A to B.

    Wheras proper oral storytelling adapts to the perceived desires of the audience. It is adaptive, and may end up travelling to C. Often the audience actually knows the stories as well as the storyteller, which increases the interaction. It is a thing of the moment; the journey rather than the destination. Example are the medieval mummer’s plays. Or traditional children’s pantomine.

    It’s something we’ve lost in the main. We have an expectation to be passive observers of our entertainment. Consumers rather than producers (in the main). Our interaction with the media becomes that of the critic, analysing it’s worth (in terms of its impact on us).

    But one of the great pleasures of role-playing games is that they bring back the audience as a participant. In a sense increasing the personal resonance of the story for us.*

    YMMV.

    [* Which is why RPG “war stories” are usually intensely personal. Usually, if we enjoy them, it is because they nostalgically shadow our own experiences.]

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  21. Reverance Pavane

    I should mention one of the reasons I hate Heroquest (v2) is the assumption of narrative importance to the exemption of all else. Admittedly part of it is their fanaticism in support of “this bright new way of play,” but if you base the difficulty the players face on the perceived narrative beat (for example), then the character’s choices don’t really matter.

    To borrow Stuart’s example, as far as the game system is concerned it doesn’t matter which door the players choose. They will encounter the same thing behind either of them. It may just be of a different colour.

    Even with no overall narrative destination, this takes a lot of the fun out of the game for me (both as player and referee).

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  22. Leonard Balsera

    @Stuart said: “The more you change things after the players start making choices or exploring the non-linear narrative the more those choices don’t matter.”

    I think limiting most of the examples to the layout of the dungeon is potentially muddling some of the ideas being presented.

    Or, to wit, if I’m a GM, and I offer my players the choice of two paths in a dungeon, and my plan is to narrate the next improvised situation I’ve come up with regardless of which way they go… well, you’re right, that would mean the choice doesn’t matter.

    In my book, that’d be a moment of poor GMing. Offering the players a choice that doesn’t matter detracts from play. So there aren’t two doors; there’s one door, and that’s the signal that this hallway is not where important decisions are to be made.

    By contrast, let’s look at your vampire example. Let’s say I have reason to believe that there’d be a visceral charge to reincorporating the encounter with the barmaid from earlier in the session. So I make her the vampire.

    I haven’t taken any significance away from the player’s choices in the encounter. In fact, it’s probable I’ve enhanced it, because he has a previously established relationship to the NPC.

    Does he try to save her soul? Does he bargain? Can he bring himself to destroy the beast? What will happen when he gets back to town and everyone’s favorite barmaid is dead? How can we say the player’s choice here doesn’t matter?

    So it’s not always (and rather, I think seldom) true that the improvisational, dynamic approach removes the significance of their choices. It just changes where that significance lies in play.

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  23. Stuart

    By contrast, let’s look at your vampire example. Let’s say I have reason to believe that there’d be a visceral charge to reincorporating the encounter with the barmaid from earlier in the session. So I make her the vampire.

    And it’s now a different kind of game. While you’re right that this stuff:

    Does he try to save her soul? Does he bargain? Can he bring himself to destroy the beast? What will happen when he gets back to town and everyone’s favorite barmaid is dead?

    …can make for more interesting character choices, the problem is that you’ve changed something behind the scenes, and you’re hoping the players don’t notice. But there’s evidence left behind that they might pick up on. How did she wind up a vampire so quickly, and how is she boarded up in the dungeon already? Who boarded her up? Why were there no tracks in the hallway? You can try and cover those up with more improvisation… but it’s like a crime scene. Depending on your players they might be onto you.

    It’s probably something the players won’t raise with you directly, but it’ll be there in the back of their minds. You’ve given them clues that you’re changing things behind the scenes which will increasingly affect how they interact with the game world from that point forward. I like to think of this as ‘The Truman Show Effect’. It’s actually a rather good movie with themes very relevant to this discussion. 🙂

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  24. Rob Donoghue

    Lenny has pointed to something that may turn into its own blog post – I think I am comfortable asserting that you can’t make a choice more hollow when the choice is _already_ quite hollow, as most dungeon choices are. Is there something behind the door? I think the answer is “Does it matter?”

    I totally understand the idea that if the players choices will always lead them to the plot, that undermines a lot of things, but unless the choices are meaningful, there’s nothing to undermine in the first place.

    To come back to the vampire example, it might be more apt to say “if the vampire is a villager (a more reasonable baseline than just pulling the idea out of the air) , why not decide it’s a villager that the player’s know or care about?”

    To flesh out the question all the further, let’s say that the text of the adventure says one of the three following things:

    1) The vampire is a villager
    2) The vampire is bob, the baker (who the PCs have never met and who is nothing more than a name)
    3) The Vampire is a villager, choose one the PCs have interacted with.

    Assume all circumstances otherwise being equal (including how reasonable it would be for any given villager to be there), I infer from your interpretational approach, that we could use the Barmaid in 2 or 3, but not 1, yes?

    Reply
  25. Rob Donoghue

    (or put more briefly, I accept the case to not make changes that undermine player choices, but by accepting that, I am more concretely uncertain of the argument against changing things that _enhance_ player choices)

    Reply
  26. Entropicurity

    With the Vampire Example though, why limit your choices to just the most immediate thing. The questions I would ask myself for the story driven aspect are:

    What purpose does this encounter have in relation to the bigger picture?

    How important are the various NPC’s in this encounter, and how significant of a tie will be needed to drive to the next story element and provide an entertaining experience?

    If the purpose of the encounter is purely transitional I’d provide NPC’s that are easily forgettable, but put an emphasis on the conflict they pose between themselves and the story element or conflict they are trying to pursue/resolve.

    Mind you, if its part of a purely “POWER LEVEL!” experience, the encounter can simply be part of a set of encounters meant to remove resources before a final climactic element, or the climactic element itself.

    @Stuart As far as changing the game up a bit between Narrative Exploration and Collaborative Role playing, I find most of my games consist a little of both, where the world is something that I’ve pieced together, and part of the exploration is discovering has more to do with how each player will approach a conflict.

    It is not up to the GM to predict this, but instead provide a means of adapting the key elements that they need the players to get the information or resources they need to resolve the conflict the GM has provided to the players.

    If by means of trying to discover a lost treasure to rescue an entire civilization from destruction, you would have a number of options, some of the most prominent being as follows:

    > Random Roll Table for random encounters!
    > Have key creatures you know are “Big bosses” that dominate the area
    > Or have a history to each major and key playing creature

    The first option requires work on a random roll table, and having to keep track of a large number of creatures, most of which do nothing to drive the story, nor the exploration. Though if your just looking for more dice rolls on the GM’s part then feel free.

    The big bosses would be something you can do with less rolling, and instead the players will use their skills to find, avoid, and/or kill said beasties to get to the final destination. This has some story potential, but the third option takes it to the next level.

    Instead of just each of them, you now have key players acting as a conflict, and one must use the local area or creatures in order to persuade, understand, and potentially gain a new ally towards gaining the resource needed for the artifact that will save the world.

    I find that in any case, story by no means limits the narrative exploration nor kills the railroading, but instead provides an infinite web of possibilities for options for the players, making it truly dynamic.

    The GM only needs a basic understanding of the system being used, and have access to benchmarks that can help determine whats balanced for the group and what “makes sense” for a creature or NPC. Special abilities can be as potently lethal or soft as the imagination allows.

    The question is not “What is behind door 1 and 2” but instead, provide a reason why they have the option in the first place. If the importance is to browse through a dungeon with random encounters, instead use the mental attributes of the party to determine the time that a group of those people would have to go through a maze, and have them encounter the denizens of the maze, using diplomacy and intimidation to get information, aid, or their combat abilities to go beyond this.

    Who knows, perhaps through the maze of doors one finds allies along their path who have been in the maze a much longer time?

    Reply
  27. Stuart

    I think I am comfortable asserting that you can’t make a choice more hollow when the choice is _already_ quite hollow, as most dungeon choices are. Is there something behind the door? I think the answer is “Does it matter?”

    We all have our preferences and think some things are more “fun” than others. Some players are more interested in interpersonal drama and their characters feelings, while others are more interested in the exploring and discovering the mysteries of the game world. So some choices might matter less to you than someone else and vice versa.

    if the vampire is a villager (a more reasonable baseline than just pulling the idea out of the air) , why not decide it’s a villager that the player’s know or care about?

    Because it’s contrived and suggests to the attentive player the game is more about improvisation than exploration and discovery.

    If the purpose of the encounter is purely transitional I’d provide NPC’s that are easily forgettable, but put an emphasis on the conflict they pose between themselves and the story element or conflict they are trying to pursue/resolve.

    Sure. That’s a different kind of game. I’m not suggesting any sort of “one true way” at all – just that there are different approaches. 🙂

    The question is not “What is behind door 1 and 2” but instead, provide a reason why they have the option in the first place.

    What makes a dungeon a good reference for this discussion is that the map of a dungeon adventure and the narrative map of a piece of interactive fiction are quite similar. You are being presented with a more limited number of choices than just “anything” and those choices lead you to different nodes in the dungeon/interactive-fiction.

    If you’ve designed a good dungeon/I.F. then you’ll always be presenting the players with good choices… or doors. If you’re looking down your nose at it, you’ve probably just been exposed to really poor examples – or genres you don’t like.

    Reply
  28. Leonard Balsera

    @Stuart said: “…the problem is that you’ve changed something behind the scenes, and you’re hoping the players don’t notice.”

    Why would I care if the players notice? Elements of the fiction in play are in negotiation during every moment of play, whether or not the participants are fully aware of it. Memory is inconsistent, and there are limitations to the variables that the human mind can keep in consideration. I think I’d rather want the players to know that I’m organically responding to things that viscerally stimulate them.

    But, my biases are pretty well documented, too. You’re presenting the situation like I’m trying to pull a sleight of hand on my players. I’m presenting the situation like there’s a unity of expectation. Where a disparity would exist, my hope would be to communicate about it rather than trying to “disguise” one mode of play as another through stealth.

    And you’ve already pointed out that such a group wouldn’t be like the one you’re talking about. So, yeah.

    Couple of interesting things flowing out of this:

    1.) The idea of “hard” boundaries existing regarding certain exploratory content and not others, and how you define those boundaries.

    2.) The question of what constitutes valid discovery where those boundaries exist. (About this: My assertion is that fully improvised details can satisfy an exploratory yearning, and if you examine play honestly, it actually happens all the time.)

    I’m curious for you to comment on those things. But what I’m *really* curious about is what you do when the scenario simply just sucks, and you don’t figure that out until you’re in play.

    Reply
  29. Stuart

    Where a disparity would exist, my hope would be to communicate about it rather than trying to “disguise” one mode of play as another through stealth.

    This is the best approach. I have no problem with people having different ideas about how to run an RPG — but like you say trying to disguise one mode of play as another isn’t good.

    There’s no way around the GM needing to improvise details for the game world. In fact that’s an important part of the experience. However I think the distinction is whether the world is shaping to the characters or the characters are exploring an impartial world. Again, I’m not advocating better/worse – but those are different sorts of experiences.

    what I’m *really* curious about is what you do when the scenario simply just sucks, and you don’t figure that out until you’re in play.

    This can happen in any kind of game. Hopefully if you’re experienced, or working with material from someone else who’s experienced, this is less likely to happen. It’s also dependent on your personal preferences. Some people like it when their game gets a bit zany/gonzo/silly as some group improv can tend to get, but for me that’s kind of “sucking”. Other people find a well structured and non-silly environment exploration scenario (whether dungeon or not) to “suck” because it’s not producing the type of dramatic story they’re looking for.

    Reply
  30. Rob Donoghue

    @stuart Sure, it can happen in any game, but I’ll reiterate the question, because I’m really curious. What do you do if the text sucks*? Since departing from the text is an option for me, I know what I’d do, and in fact I don’t really see another out. So with that in mind, I’m really hoping to hear an alternate approach.

    * – Not important why it sucks, for purposes of this question. Just needs to suck for you and your table.

    Reply
  31. Stuart

    I would either have written the adventure myself, or I’d have at least read through the adventure if it was written by someone else. If I thought anything “sucked” I’d have changed it before we sat down to play the game.

    Although, like “fun”, I think “suck” is probably highly subjective. 🙂

    Reply
  32. Rob Donoghue

    Sure, but I’m not worried about subjectivity – just needs to suck for you and yours.

    I mean, if you have never overlooked a potential problem on a readthrough, or discovered that something worked out in play very differently than you read (or than you wrote) then I’m envious because you’re either much luckier or much more thorough than I am (likely both!). But the question still stands: If it ever were to happen, and by happen I mean suck for you and yours, how would you deal with it?

    -Rob D.

    Reply
  33. Stuart

    Perhaps one of the reasons it’s less likely to be an issue is the format of a dungeon/I.F. compartmentalizes things a bit. Unlike trying to plot out an overarching story you have things in discrete packages. If one package isn’t as good as you’d hoped… it’s not so bad, since you move onto the next one.

    Maybe if you could provide an example of something from a published adventure that you think “sucks” I could tell you what I’d do with it. 🙂

    Reply
  34. Rob Donoghue

    I hate pointing finger, and it wouldn’t help much because, as noted, suck is relative. If you’ve never had a written adventure fall short for you at the table, I am genuinely envious, and I understand much more why your take such a strict literalist stance.

    Reply
  35. Stuart

    Okay, I went for my morning walk and thought of a recent situation in a game I was running that I thought “sucked” a bit. In our Ancient Academy game there was a room I described as being filled with cobwebs. I think the retainers were also spooked and refused to go first into the room. I thought this would be a pretty big clue to the players that there would be… yes… a big spider in the room.

    Unfortunately one of the players was quite cavalier about announcing: “fine I’ll go into the room then” without saying anything about slowly, cautiously, with a torch, looking for monsters / spiders / UP, etc. So the big spider in the room got to roll for surprise… and the PC was surprised. And the spider got to roll to attack… and hit… and did enough damage to kill the PC… and poisoned him… and he failed his saving throw anyway.

    So one bad choice cascaded into that character dying. This was also my first time playing with this person, and I wasn’t 100% sure how they’d handle character death. Fortunately he took it in stride and we’ve gamed together since.

    At the time I did feel that temptation to change things so the character wouldn’t die… because I felt myself identifying with the heroes as well. That would have been a bad choice though, since another player had taken his 2 hit point character into melee with the undead and walked away from the battle when the zombie managed to roll a 1 for damage. This was very exciting for the group. The real risk of character death was important for the feel of the game we were running.

    What I’ve done though is taken that “less than optimal” situation in the game and thought about it since when designing scenarios. I want to make sure there are no further 1 bad choice = game over situations, and have done some tinkering with the rules to see if there are other ways for the players to use the system to mitigate that kind of situation as well.

    I’m glad I stuck to my guns and didn’t switch things around behind the scenes though… even though it sort of “sucked” at the time. I think it needed to so that the “fun” part was more fun. 🙂

    Reply
  36. Leonard Balsera

    @Stuart said: “There’s no way around the GM needing to improvise details for the game world. In fact that’s an important part of the experience. However I think the distinction is whether the world is shaping to the characters or the characters are exploring an impartial world.”

    I’m really curious about what standards you use to define impartiality when you have to improvise those details.

    Reply

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