Itís Not Your Story

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Another great article, and another I don't fully agree with.

I get the feeling that you're polarizing things too much. It's not a matter of running an emergent story or a directed story. There's no reason you shouldn't use elements from both schools of thought. They're two extremes, but in the end it's a much more analogue choice than just that. Purely directed stories risk being too confining for the players, but a fully emergent story runs the risk of being too 'sandboxy', resulting in the players faffing about aimlessly much of the time. Of course, this depends just as much (if not more!) on the players as it does on the DM, but it's certainly something to keep in mind.

I guess what I personally do is a mix of the two. I tend to have directed 'mini-stories' within a larger emergent tapestry. Players still get to choose what to do and how to do it, but when tackling a certain problem (like the example used in the article, "the local King will come down with Bubonic Ebola, which will only be cured if the Polyhedral of Power can be recovered from the Lost Temple"), that part of the story becomes more directed. They need to go to location X, collect object Y, and on the way they'll encounter problems Z1, Z2, and/or Z3. Of course this isn't a purely railroaded sequence, since players will always come up with stuff you never anticipated (which, if you aks me, is half the fun of being a DM), but the basic layout of the mission is pre-planned, encounters and all. All I do is improvise to make sure my plans don't get in the way of the players' crazy schemes to ruin my plans.

Something I don't really like about the web structure is that it plans too much. You've got all these locations that you try to make interesting, but the players might never see most of them. And that's not even the worst of it. What if players go somewhere that isn't an immediate part of the web? Are you going to steer them back onto the web? Are you going to draw a new web? I also dislike how inflexible it is. As I mentioned in my reply to the previous article, if the MacGuffin is in the Forest of Doom and the players go to the Dungeon of Boring Cobwebs in stead, who's to say that the MacGuffing wasn't in the dungeon all along? That way you can plan one or two adventures while still maintaining the illusion that the players have dozens of places to go to and keeping the action going at the pace you want it to be.

Kaihilik, I suppose my answer is that I do think there is a theoretical "Right Way". The point of discussion between experienced gamemasters is to present different arguments about what that Right Way constitutes and share lessons learned and viewpoints. But as between an experienced gamemaster and a new gamemaster, the experienced gamemaster should present his current view of the Right Way, i.e. his own best practices.

It's akin to martial arts. The masters of the different martial arts will hold tournaments to determine which fighting style is best. But when the master is giving a class to his new students, he presents his fighting style as best, not everyone else's. Jujitsu teachers don't tell you that Karate is the better way. They tell you Jujitsu is best, and teach you how to whip the Karate Kid's butt.

So continuing the analogy, my columns are the dojo where I instruct, the forums are where I come to fight other masters and test my fighting style against their fighting style. ;)

Hope that makes sense!

Hmm... Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to...

You see, to me, "plot arc" doesn't necessarily speak of railroading. But it does suggest a line of events in which the players probably would be interested, which they could conceivably alter or change, and which will continue to work themselves out whether the players intervene or not, much like the "King's Plague" scenario the author describes.

The last major campaign I ran, there were a couple of major villains going about their business: a wizard crafting increasingly sophisticated insect-like constructs that were capable of turning humanoids into zombie-like things, and a military officer using the spreading of this "plague" and an under-utilized army as a means to usurp power. Now, there was nothing in particular to demand immediately that the players go do something about this; in fact, there weren't immediate suggestions that this was going on. But they did meet this military officer early in the campaign, and had cause to reflect on it when word started coming in of cities "contained" under "quarantine" on that officer's authority. And they did start to wonder when the "zombies-but-not-zombies" started to show up in abandoned farmsteads and villages, with tiny metal insect-like things imbedded in their flesh.

I like improvising. I'm happy to come up with things on the spur of the moment to accomodate what players want to do. The same campaign began with the players going to a dwarven fortress and being faced with a decision whether to let an old crime against local elves go unpunished in the name of local diplomacy or allow the resident elven magic to destroy said fortress, and the players insisted upon- and found- a third way through. I was proud of them.

Not every GM has a gift for improvisation. Not every GM can make random encounter tables seem like a living thing rising out of the environment rather than what it is- a roll translated into an encounter. Not every GM has the ability to take the copious notes sometimes necessary when players go off the beaten path and the GM has to remember what was there later. Like others have said, I hesitate to wholeheartedly criticize one style of GMing because it isn't what works for me. I think there's plenty of room in between wholesale railroading and entirely emergent play, and that only experience will teach a GM where their own strengths lie. I can very easily imagine a GM with a carefully crafted plot that keeps the players enthralled, just as I can imagine a more "emergent" GM whose random encounters and refusal to fudge the die rolls got the whole party killed through no particular fault of their own.

Archon:
Kaihilik, I suppose my answer is that I do think there is a theoretical "Right Way". The point of discussion between experienced gamemasters is to present different arguments about what that Right Way constitutes and share lessons learned and viewpoints. But as between an experienced gamemaster and a new gamemaster, the experienced gamemaster should present his current view of the Right Way, i.e. his own best practices.

It's akin to martial arts. The masters of the different martial arts will hold tournaments to determine which fighting style is best. But when the master is giving a class to his new students, he presents his fighting style as best, not everyone else's. Jujitsu teachers don't tell you that Karate is the better way. They tell you Jujitsu is best, and teach you how to whip the Karate Kid's butt.

So continuing the analogy, my columns are the dojo where I instruct, the forums are where I come to fight other masters and test my fighting style against their fighting style. ;)

Hope that makes sense!

The problem with this method of presentation is that it can be very intimidating to newcomers, despite your attempts to make it otherwise. By your method I don't really see any REASON to put myself through all the headaches and hoop jumping required by a GM. Where's MY reward for taking on the most grueling, thankless and difficult job required to play the game?

Different people have fun in different ways, by presenting your method as the one true way you're breaking the most important rule of gaming, that being that there is no such thing as "Bad Wrong Fun". Essentially, as long as you're enjoying yourself, you're doing it right enough.

I've really been enjoying your series. As a rookie DM with my group we recently started playing d&d 4E and started using the pre-packaged adventure arc. These are pretty much nothing but a huge railroad, and in my mind I get a bit disappointed every time the adventure storyline forces me to direct the players somewhere that they didn't necessarily want to go. After reading your article I'm going to start working on a "web" type adventure, from reading my player group I can tell this would be more fun for them. Especially since they all come from a MMOG background and the "web" style is more akin to that anyway.

Gantoris13:
I've really been enjoying your series. As a rookie DM with my group we recently started playing d&d 4E and started using the pre-packaged adventure arc. These are pretty much nothing but a huge railroad, and in my mind I get a bit disappointed every time the adventure storyline forces me to direct the players somewhere that they didn't necessarily want to go. After reading your article I'm going to start working on a "web" type adventure, from reading my player group I can tell this would be more fun for them. Especially since they all come from a MMOG background and the "web" style is more akin to that anyway.

I've had nothing but terrible luck with Pre-Published adventures for exactly the reasons Alex mentioned in his article. They are FAR too rigid and don't present enough outside fluff/information if your players stray from the path, which they are almost sure to do.

Heck, sometimes they don't even give you enough information to follow the adventure properly without some serious rewriting. Also, encounters against easy enemies in empty hallways for no discernible purpose is BAD ADVENTURE DESIGN, you listening Wizards? Paizo?

I find it a rediculous analogy, in marital arts each different art has a dojo, in this contest you have the one dojo and everyone else has to go in unprepared. Perhaps if there was a competeing column on the Escapist dealing with the other side the analogy might work but its not really the same thing.

Why is a game that has an overarching story from the start that all participents want to explore and flesh out wrong? If the group wants to explore certain themes and goals in a roleplaying environment why would that be the wrong thing to do? Why do they have to play a game with an emergent story to be right even if none of the group wants to do that?

This is my point, you are really just discussing the generic fantasy roleplay experiance, a game where everyone makes a character, they are thrown into the nearest inn to meet up and discuss their plans and let loose. That is one of the many types of roleplaying game that you can play. If I wanted to play a game where everyone was a member of the FBI and were involved in investigations then your style would be totally irrelivent and practically impossible to achieve.

The web style only really works when players have no real role in society, where they are let loose to do what they want. So basically what your saying is that the only valid type of roleplaying game is one where you are a group of adventurers of some discription that travels around and does what they want.

In the FBI game I am still going to make decisions that effect the character in positive and negative ways, I may still die, I may still fail but it will be a game with a story arc. It will still be a valid experiance, it can still be right.

Its this annoyingly narrow definition of what a roleplaying game is and can be that is informing your articles.

Do you honestly believe that the only type of roleplaying game which is right, is the type where a group of relatively unconnected individuals do what they want to do?

Kaihlik

Zannah:

Amazon warrior:

Out of curiousity, will you be doing an article on running one-offs too? The most concrete advice I've ever seen on running one-offs was in a DrivethruRPG newsletter. I didn't agree with all of it, but it was an interesting read.

What is a one-off? (I have an Idea what you mean, but given I could be completely wrong, I'll stay safe and ask, before I answer)

Well, my definition is a short and usually quite intense story or scenario played out over (ideally) one or maybe two sessions. For example, many convention RPGs are designed to be one-offs. Of course, I've played one-offs that lasted 12 hours, so it depends a lot on the length of your gaming sessions!

Amazon warrior:
[
Well, my definition is a short and usually quite intense story or scenario played out over (ideally) one or maybe two sessions. For example, many convention RPGs are designed to be one-offs. Of course, I've played one-offs that lasted 12 hours, so it depends a lot on the length of your gaming sessions!

Not exactly what I thought It'd be, but anyway, have to drag my boyfriend to the keyboard for advice, he's the dm in our house;

well, doing short, or one night adventures, what to do really depends on the number of players you have to work with, and wether they play new, or used characters.
If, like me, you have someone close, constantly demanding for adventures, without any other persons present (Zannah, I'm looking at YOU), the low hanging fruit is to work on developing that particular character.
If you have a couple of characters/players, but only an eve's time, just set the scene (like a tavern or whatever) and the players are likely to start something (be it a bar fight or bragging on about how the goverment sucks). Once they do, develope from there on, like you planned it all along (I.e they had their bar fight, the tavern is burning, and the players must now get out of the city, because the guards do not appreciate the fireworks).
If that doesn't work, or the characters/player are all new, and therefore less likely to take the initiative, but desperately need to get an adventure right now, because the party your on is boring - rip off movies. A lot of movies can make excellent adventures, if you set the scene right, and rip the things far enough out of context to not get caught. (Battle Royale to name one, makes an excellent one-night D&D campaign, and if you set the stage right, most people will only catch you if you tell them - In fact I did this one both as an character plot for my own char seeking nerulls favor by arraging a tournament in his honour, and as a ~7 hour adventure for a single, high level fighter, since I stayed at a friends house overnight, and we couldn't get Lan between laptops to work.
To quote mr croshaw - ,,you may call this unprofessional, I call it efficiency".

Kaihlik:
Why is a game that has an overarching story from the start that all participents want to explore and flesh out wrong? If the group wants to explore certain themes and goals in a roleplaying environment why would that be the wrong thing to do? Why do they have to play a game with an emergent story to be right even if none of the group wants to do that?

If all the participants want to explore and flesh out the story, it's not wrong. But to my mind that's one of two things. Either (a) it's a game where the players and gamemaster are sharing the world-building and story-telling aspects, a la Ars Magica's "troupe" style play, or (b) it's a game where the story-web that the GM has woven is so compelling that the players CHOOSE to pursue that story, even though they could do otherwise.

What I have railed against is GMs who think it's their JOB to tell a story, and that deviation from this story is wrong. That is very clearly the advice of the DMG2, which recommends you write an ending in advance, and cheat the die rolls to make your pre-determined ending happens the way you want.

This is my point, you are really just discussing the generic fantasy roleplay experiance, a game where everyone makes a character, they are thrown into the nearest inn to meet up and discuss their plans and let loose. That is one of the many types of roleplaying game that you can play. If I wanted to play a game where everyone was a member of the FBI and were involved in investigations then your style would be totally irrelivent and practically impossible to achieve.

No it wouldn't. I've personally done it. My "Chrome Berets" Cyberpunk 2020 campaign set up the players as mercenaries hired by a national government to wage counter-insurgency. Likewise, I just finished a Mutants & Masterminds sandbox with the party as members of a UN-sanctioned hero team.

In the former campaign, my players decided to overthrow the government and set themselves up as dictators. In the latter campaign, my players discovered a villain (Mr Zero) who was a duplicating shapechanger who had killed off world leaders and replaced them with his dopplegangers in order to create a unified world government that could bring order to the globe. The team decided that while his methods were despicable, his was the best available way of preventing a superpowered apocalypse, and joined up with him.

Those weren't my choices, they were the player's choices. That's why I called my column "It's Not Your Story". The GM's job is not to tell HIS story, it's to help the players make their story.

The web style only really works when players have no real role in society, where they are let loose to do what they want. So basically what your saying is that the only valid type of roleplaying game is one where you are a group of adventurers of some discription that travels around and does what they want.

My own personal experience suggests to me that you are wrong.

In the FBI game I am still going to make decisions that effect the character in positive and negative ways, I may still die, I may still fail but it will be a game with a story arc. It will still be a valid experiance, it can still be right.

So long as the players want to follow the story arc, it's fine. But if they decide, "we like our characters, we enjoy this rules set, but we want to betray the FBI and sneak with our money off to Venezuala" and you tell them "no", then I'd say you, as GM, are in the wrong, because you're not respecting player agency.

The risk you take when you write a story arc is the risk that the players won't like your story arc. Then you need to choose what's more important: The player's wishes or your story arc. If you choose the needs of your story over the wishes of your players, that's the point when your desire to be a novelist becomes damaging to your gamemastering.

My advice, therefore, is to avoid putting yourself in this situation by creating a web, rather than an arc, in the first place. Other GMs have said that they solve the dilemma by having the story arc, but then ditching it and improvising if need be. Also a viable approach, but I think pre-planning for flexibility rather than planning rigidly and improvising later is better advice, especially for new GMs who may not be highly skilled at on the fly improvisation.

Its this annoyingly narrow definition of what a roleplaying game is and can be that is informing your articles.

You're imposing your view on me. I hold no such narrow definition.

Do you honestly believe that the only type of roleplaying game which is right, is the type where a group of relatively unconnected individuals do what they want to do?

Again, no, but that's your opinion of my views, not any view I've actually stated.

Kaihlik:

Do you honestly believe that the only type of roleplaying game which is right, is the type where a group of relatively unconnected individuals do what they want to do?

All I heard him say is games driven by player-agency are more fun than games driven by story, no matter how good the story is. I think he defended his point well.

Okay, i do not want to sound like a jerk, and i appreciate the Indiane Jones reference, but dude... Godwin's Law.

As for the article itself - if i ever take up GMing, this will probably be the way i do it. The way of having some basic structure to build your improvisation upon is far more appealing to me than a way of "cinematic" adventures. Maybe it's because i see the incredible fluidity and limitless possibilities as one of the strongest sides in tabletop gaming, while it's weakness in visual department dosen't lend itself too well to "cinematic" storytelling. Plus, i see small-time adventuring as a bit more plausible than having epic journeys and showdowns every day.

Wait just because you have a story arc does not mean that the players cannot leave it. It may just put you on a different story arc but it doesn't make it a web system.

In a web I would have an infrastructure set up which would allow me seamlessly adapt to the situation where they decided to betray the FBI. With an arc I have no such infrastructure in place, I simply reevaluate where the story is now headed and make a new one. Do you define that as a web because if you do its really not clear in your article.

The idea you seem to actually be presenting is not that a story arc position is wrong it is simply that a story arc that is artlessly forced on the players regardless of their decissions is wrong which I agree with.

In my current game my players could decide to side with the enemy and betray the Inquisition. At that point I would likely write a new arc for them dealing with being hunted by their former employers or I may switch to a web format for my campaign. It would be difficult for them but I wouldn't say no.

Here is the problem that I am now having, you seem to be associating a story arc with railroading. My viewpoint is that a story arc is a way to present a scenario to the players, the same with a story web. Railroading can happen in both formats and is bad in almost all cases.

Am I any closer to understanding what you are trying to say?

Kaihlik

Kaihlik:
In a web I would have an infrastructure set up which would allow me seamlessly adapt to the situation where they decided to betray the FBI. With an arc I have no such infrastructure in place, I simply reevaluate where the story is now headed and make a new one. Do you define that as a web because if you do its really not clear in your article.

I don't define that as a web, I'd define that as "continuously revised arc" or "arc plus improvisation." I think it can be a good system but I find it very hard for most people to do well. That said, I have known some GMs who are absolutely amazing at improvisation (and conversely lousy at pre-planning), and for them, this approach works.

The idea you seem to actually be presenting is not that a story arc position is wrong it is simply that a story arc that is artlessly forced on the players regardless of their decissions is wrong which I agree with.

Then we're in agreement!

Here is the problem that I am now having, you seem to be associating a story arc with railroading. My viewpoint is that a story arc is a way to present a scenario to the players, the same with a story web. Railroading can happen in both formats and is bad in almost all cases.

Well I am associating them because I think the story arc is the way railroading is most likely to occur. In the many published modules and GM guides I've read, there's a certain "wink wink nudge nudge" advice given to GMs that suggests it's OK to railroad to achieve your story, so long as no one notices.

But I agree; railroading could happen in both formats. Hell, railroading could happen in a purely improvised game, where some GM fudges the dice so that the players always fail at what they are trying, and instead makes something else happens.

Am I any closer to understanding what you are trying to say?

I think we're on or very close to the same page now!

You like reading stories Archon? Here ya go.

I choose a mixture of both types of things.. When I DM, I find I'm not very good at directing players to where they might go.. and players are always expecting some direction, so I find it better if I say "We are doing the Tower of Gygax tonight, and I describe it to them, and get them excited to explore it." Then I let them explore it.. Then at the end of the adventure, I leave clues that will lead into the next adventure.

For instance, I once ran a game, where a city was being hounded by kobolds. When going to the kobold village, the players defeated a massive swarm of kobolds including their leader, a Goblin named Muckberry. In Muckberry's possession was a letter in strange cursive writing, with the emblem of a white foot at the bottom. Also, in the Kobold camp, the Kobolds had summoned a small fire elemental and that was another "boss" encounter in the adventure. Before dying, the Fire Elemental cursed the party and told them that some great elemental force was coming, specifically for them, for defeating the fire elemental.

The next adventure involved a small goblin force attacking their safe-zone village. By that time, the players had encountered a lot of interesting denizens of the village, and this goblin attack struck home as several of the NPCs died. While this attack happened, there was a mighty bell tolling at the small wizard tower in the village (basically the place where they sold their excess magical goods, and had items identified).. Elementals had broken free of the safety measures in the tower, and the players were presented with a choice; allow more NPCs to die during the Goblin attack, or help the mages.

They ultimately decided to help the mages and had to fight elementals of every kind, along with levelled down mephits (my favorite RPG monsters). My best elemental was the earth one that was in the top floor. I loved this encounter, because the room was basically a square patch of dirt, and the elemental could move through the dirt, without disturbing it.. it was like a fish moving in and out of the water without actually disturbing the surface.. It's really hard to explain in writing, but it was really effective..

Upon saving the mages, the mages and the PCs went into the village to find a large number of their NPC friends dead, and white foot prints ALL over the place. The mages told the players about a particular mage that had gone missing during the hubbub, and that they should try and find him, because he was the mage tower's elemental warden. The players can't find him immediately, but decide to track down the goblins that had murdered their friends. The find a cave, with a bunch of goblins in it, and a few stray elementals, still cursing the players. At the end of a long winding cave dungeon, the players find the lost elemental warden, and it turns out he was behind the elementals breaking free (Surprise!!).

A battle ensues, and despite the help of more elementals (including a particularly annoying air elemental that would constantly attempt to disrupt spellcasting by "consuming" a character in a torrent of wind), the warden was defeated.. Defeated, out of spells, and injured, the warden tells them of a mighty creature called Thunderfoot that has been rallying an army.. He doesn't say too much before a giant quake shakes the cavern, and a huge stalactite drops on the warden, killing him. The players exit the cave through an opening near where the battle took place (which was covered by an earth elemental during the fight), and encounter a GIGANTIC hill giant, who, upon seeing the players, begins kicking at the cave. The players escape back into the cave as the exit is sealed by debris. They hear the hill giant bellowing "THUNDERFOOT GONNA GET YOU LITTLE ONES!! MWAR HA HWAR!"

As you can see, it's episodic, but also directed. The players want direction. They want to feel like they're doing something, and crafting the story, but they want to be directed as well. My players have always been pretty good about following my cues when I've made them clear enough to the players. An example of where this direction can fail, and lead to emergent story (which, was actually one of my most memorable games, although it was short) is a game a friend of mine ran.

We were marooned on an island with a group of refugees that had escaped from a lizardfolk encampment. We spent several sessions killing lizardfolk, collecting their weapons, trying to marshall the refugees into helping us take down the lizardfolk. The refugees, instead, after refusing to help us out of cowardice, basically implied that they wanted us to rescue them.

So, doing what any good hearted group would do in this situation, we joined the Lizardfolk (and they're Ogre leadeer Ugu, I'll get to more of him in a moment), and utterly destroyed the small village of refugees. Killed every last one of them. One of my favorite D&D moments. Apparently, the DM had been giving us hints about what we should be doing, but we weren't getting the directions, so instead, we just went with our instincts, and killed a bunch of helpless humans.

Another thing I do is cross-campaign continuity. This is where I put elements from one campaign, into a different campaign. Even if they're in completely different settings/worlds.. heck, even different games. For instance, in my games, there is always a family of gnomes that are looking for one another and never finding one another (except very occasionally). This is actually sort of a meta-joke, as the brothers are looking for brothers that have somehow slipped into different campaigns and settings, but it's a bit of flavor that my players seem to enjoy.

I also almost always have an Ogre in the game named Ugu. Ugu was an expriment of mine, when I discovered that in all of my years of gaming, I'd never had a player character die. I had started to think that maybe they were invincible. I'd try and set up difficult encounters, and they'd always survive. You could say my own Agency was being called into question. Is it possible to kill players? The answer, of course, is Ugu.. Err, I mean yes. And of course Ugu as well.

Ugu started off as a Ogre Barbarian lvl3. He used a greataxe in one hand, and used a giant wooden door as a tower shield. And he is a player killer. I first put him up against a group of level 2 players. Their instinct, due to their percieved invulnerability, was to run up and attack him. I did the math, and they could hardly hurt him with a natural 20 roll. Couldn't hit him with a 19. He couldn't miss them with a natural 2, and would kill any one of them in 1 hit. It was a foregone conclusion. And players died.

I love, when my players, take my campaign elements, and bring them into their own games.. Ugu and the Nicklebuckle Family are sort of my children, and seeing them mature and grow further then I took them myself is very satisfying. I loved seeing Ugu in my friends game.

Ok good to know. My problem has not been with the message of the articles which is usually good solid advice but that they seem to lump several things together that aren't directly related. There may be a causal link between the two factors but the articles often seem to suggest that the link if definitive.

In this case it was the idea of railroading and Story Arcs. While Story Arcs can lead to railroading they don't always do so and that is not presented clearly.

In a previous case the idea presented was that ensuring fun led to a lack of agency. While attempting to ensure everyone is having fun can lead to a loss in agency it depends strongly on the groups definition of fun. In many cases it is perfectly easy to ensure everyone is having fun while keeping agency intact.

I feel that your opinions aren't coming across properly because you attack ideas that you feel oppose your own even when they don't.

In this case I feel that the article would have been better served by attacking misconceptions on how a story arc type game should be played as espoused by the DMG 2 and describing how it should be done in addition to describing how a story web allows for greater agency and a style of play that renforces agency.

Anyway thanks for responding to my posts, I appologise if I have appeared beligerant at any point as that was not my intent.

Kaihlik

Might be something of a shameless plug, but the post I wrote regarding this turned out like so:

Dice

I've been inspired to write the following due to Alex Macris' latest Check for Traps feature on the Escapist. You can read it here. The Cliff's Notes is basically that a GM in a tabletop RPG should be less of a directive storyteller, and more of an emergent one. That's a great concept in theory, but it's possible for some GMs to consider this an excuse to do no story work whatsoever and that, my friends, is a mistake.

Characters with no story to bring them together or drive them forward is like ribs without a spine. Now, as a food, ribs without a spine are mostly what you're looking for. Lather those ribs in a delicious sauce and cook them just right so that the meat's nice and moist rather than tough and dry, and you have yourself a delicacy for a discerning omnivore such as myself. But even in those ideal conditions, the end result's a bit messy.

A less food-based example of what I'm talking about is Mass Effect 2.

Courtesy BioWare

For most of the game, you go from one hot spot in the galaxy to another, either picking up a new member of your crew or helping them with a personal matter to earn their undying loyalty (for the most part). This series of mini-stories is bookended with the whole Reapers/Collectors business, but the nature of the game leads one to believe that they're more of a backdrop against which the characters grow, rather than being any sort of impetus for change or tension. If the plot had been more coherent or the threat more credible, we might have had a more full-bodied experience rather than a plate of (albeit tasty) character ribs.

When you have strong characters, the story holding them together should also be strong. However, it shouldn't overwhelm the characters. I think that's what Alex has been driving at in his last few articles. The guy behind the screen, the man behind the curtain, the puppeteer above the stage pulling the strings - it shouldn't be all about them and the story they want to tell to the exclusion of everything else. Role-playing games involving more than one player should be collaborative experiences, with players bringing interesting characters to the table while the GM weaves their plots together and gives them something against which to struggle. That is unless you're running a demo at a convention or something and just want to show off how cool this dungeon is or how that class works in comparison to that other class. Then you go straight for the mechanics and rules, and leave most of your story-telling and world-building and atmosphere-creating tools at home. I learned that one the hard way.

See what I mean here? Are you catching my drift? Or am I completely off my rocker because I told those kids to get off my lawn a bit too violently? Share your thoughts, Intertubes.

Kaihlik:
I just dont see one point of view as incompatable with the other. I can have fun playing both types of game, I see the merits in both, they are different but both have merits and flaws. I am planning on running both, and I am planning on playing in both.

I would rather get insightes on how to achieve your method of GMing rather than hear how it is the right way because to me there is no right way. Yes maybe one way has become too prevelent (although thats a basic premise that I disagree with) and there is a lack of knowledge about how to achieve the style you are advocating but I feel that your articles would be better served by instructing people how to achieve it.

The total dismissal of one type of Roleplaying in favor of another just seems stupid, fair enough point out the cons of that system and the pros of yours but don't be so arrogant as to think that because you like one method the other one is wrong.

That really is whats bugging me, this notion that there is a right and wrong way. Fight for your side but dont do it by dismissing the other side. Yes, one style of game may have become deeply entrenched but that doesn't make it wrong, yes you can rubbish the fact that the DMG2 only espouses one facet of GMing but that doesn't make that facet wrong, it just makes the DMG2 a bad book for not giving a rounded view of things.

You are not alone on this Kaihlik. I see Archon's style as outdated and entirely too focused on lack of story because I have seen it done poorly. I think he's been in one too many games where he feels powerless and doesn't enjoy the ride.

Yahtzee on this site has some very good views on why this is bad, from the point of view of Splinter Cell:

Yahtzee:
And while there are a lot of linear games I like, they're all beset by this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that the only reason the environment would possibly be designed like this is as an assault course for visiting infiltrators. Enemies wander aimlessly about because they've been told you might be there. Rather than being a place that actually functions normally when you're not around, I strongly suspect that the universe only exists within a fifty foot radius from Sam Fisher's position.

That is what old-school style gives you with it's random tables and lack of direction. I may have control in the world, but it seems so flat and artificial that I don't care. In his forum posts, Archon makes clear he knows this and puts in more motivation if the players want it: the king needs medicine, you've been asked to get it. New game masters will miss that distinction if they follow his advice and end up with sandbox that feels fundamentally empty except for you. That is why they will throw out his advice and go to a directed game on the other extreme.

The next problem with this style is boredom of grinding. Random tables for encounters mean pointless encounters. If I spend 5 hours walking through the woods with nothing more than random encounters, I'm going to lose my motivation to do anything but kill random monsters for loot. At that point, I'll go back to Diablo.

The third problem with this old-school view is players. If I want to go left and you want to go right and there is no real motivation to go either way, why are we still together, why play at the same table? It's a problem with the agency of fun theory Archon has never really answered. A good group, with strong social skills and sense of character motivations will build the story as he states. The problem would be finding a group of gamers with strong social skills and sense of character. I've gamed with hundreds of people and only a narrow few fit that definition. Maybe Archon is blessed with a great group but the rest of us are not.

Mostly, I think this whole "plot Nazi" argument is nothing but beating a straw man. I can point out the random number gods just as easily killing fun. The problem here is an absolutist view on gaming. I just wish more people saw it.

For what it's worth, lokidr, most of the new game masters who have responded here seemed to have quite readily understood what I've been saying and found the advice helpful. I think there is disagreement, perhaps, but not much misunderstanding.

To answer your specific assertions -
Grinding: I think grinding is a perjorative with no more meaning other than "content the game is making us do that we don't want to do." The beauty of not having a required story arc is that if your party is bored with A, they can do B. If they are tired of traveling in the wilderness, they can stay in town and engage in a war of wits with the local Thief's Guild. I don't think anyone would say my campaigns have much grinding in them.

Lack of Direction: I think I already addressed this with the story web. My answer is to offer multiple directions. So I'm not sure where you're coming from.

Plot Nazi as a Straw Man: Go back and read the comments on these forums and you will see quite a few GMs who have said they do whatever it takes to keep players on their story arc, giving them only an illusion of free will, etc. Whether or not this is YOUR opinion, I don't know, but it's certainly an opinion many people share. So I don't think it's a straw man at all.

Players: Great comment, very fair criticism. I am, in fact, blessed with a great group, but the underlying problem can be severe when player agency leads people in different directions - or is absent entirely on the part of the players. My wife's criticism of my GM style was along these lines, i.e. "your way only works really well if you have engaged players who get along." Thanks for bringing this up; I will be sure to address it in a future column.

***
Altorin - great stories, thanks for sharing!

My friends have moved on from D&D, and have moved on to the White Wolf RPGs (the progenitor of this "Storyteller" GM mindset). I find it pretty irritating however, is that it's much more difficult to juggle player motivations in these games, because the games are focused more entirely on the character development and growth rather then cementing together a believable world.

For instance, my character's motivation is to abolish slavery in all of Creation. Another character's motivation is to bring his ancient kingdom back to prosperity. Another character's might be to bring warmth to all of the cold areas of Creation. These may seem like very good things in character creation, but bringing them together and allowing each character to work towards his motivation is a difficult juggling act.

These characters are basically created in a vacuum.. You might ask "Hey, do we have a character very similar to this one I want to make?" so that you don't double up on character concepts, but you don't design the character's in a "party-based" sense. That's one reason why I like D&D. There are roles that need to be filled. You need a tankish character, a roguish character, a magey character, and a healery character. People can pick roles, and positions in the group, and start from there. And the game is basically about working together to accomplish goals that you couldn't otherwise do by yourself.

White Wolf doesn't make characters in the same way. Each character is made largely independant of eachother. That's great from a story-based standpoint, if there are only a few characters, but the game I'm currently in has 6 players and a Storyteller. All but the most vociferous of us fall through the cracks each week, and it's not our ST's fault. It's the game.

I'll still play it though.. if that's what it takes to play RPGs with my friends, I'll try and find my place in this crazy world.. and despite my gripes, it's fun to play.. But I wish they liked D&D, but they refuse to play it.

Altorin:

However "Role-Based" Character creation has it's own issues, such as Characters being defined to heavily by their Class/Race Selection and having no personality apart from "I'm an Elven Fighter, which means I like nature and I fight!". Similarly it can lock players into a specific role in combat and gameplay, which can be helpful, but at the same time can mean that your Rogue never does anything but steal and backstab and your fighter just stands there taking and dishing out hits.

Similarly what happens when one player gets forced into a Role they don't want? I've been shoe-horned into being the party Cleric twice now, and what that means for me is that for the most part I have to hang back and be a boring healer while the Fighters, Rogues and Mages get to have all the fun. While some people may enjoy that character, I do not, I like to be an exciting and dynamic front liner, not a hang back spell caster. Similarly DnD, 3.5 especially, is aggressively built so that you MUST have a Trap Finding Rogue, a Damage Soaking Fighter, an Area Attacking Wizard and a Healing Cleric, deviate from that textbook model and you can no longer accurately judge monster difficulty by their Challenge Rating and beware running any kind of prebuilt adventure. Nothing like playing a character you don't really want to play and then being shouted down whenever you try to deviate from the role the rest of the party told you that you have to fill. Similarly most actions you can take to alleviate this, like giving the party more healing potions or a group of fighting henchmen, breaks the Role Based Gameplay anyway, as you no longer need people to fill specific roles.

Independent and Non-Role Based Character Creation allows you to play the kind of character you want without being blocked by the system and can occasionally encourage more dynamic and exciting gameplay.

PedroSteckecilo:
*snip*

I agree, there are issues. I've never really had problem making an interesting character from a pre-defined role. A wiser man then I once intoned that restriction, not freedom, breeds creativity. If you give an artist a paintbrush, every paint color imaginable, and a canvas, he may seem happy, and he might make something good, but if you give him just the color blue and the color red, and you tell him to make a volcano scene.. he has to stretch his creative muscles a bit more and might come up with something a lot more interesting.. that's a really shitty example, I know, but it really does have sound thought behind it. I think of creativity as being like kudzu vines. It flourishes best when it has some structure to hold onto.

I'm not saying the Role-model is the BEST model in all situations.. I'm just saying that in my gaming group at least.. it's been forgotten.. And for that, I blame the proliferation of White Wolf RPGs. They're not bad RPGs, but they aren't really what I want. I play them because my friends play them, and I enjoy spending time with them.

And as for you being shoe-horned into being the cleric twice.. if you were in my group (at least before White Wolf took over and made things like "Clerics" a dirty word), and you truly didn't want to be the cleric, I'm sure we could accomodate you. It's especially easy in 4th edition, with "Cleric" no longer being a role in and of itself. You can be a Cleric, a Warlord, a Bard or a Shaman, and that's just from the core rule books.. Within those races are 2 suggested paths for each, and if you want interesting, just pick a strange race to combo with it, like an Eladrin Shaman, and then try and explain how a noble high elf took on the trappings of a primal shaman.

If you still didn't want to play the healer though, my friends, generally, aren't so selfish that they'd make someone play a character they really didn't want to play in order for THEM to play exactly the character that they want to play. It's about making a compromise. Don't want to be the cleric, or any other "Leader" role (that's what the Healer role is called in 4th)? Ok, I'll make a Leader, I can come up with something, you can take my spot as a Striker, or maybe a Controller.

That's what friends are for :)

Altorin:

And as for you being shoe-horned into being the cleric twice.. if you were in my group (at least before White Wolf took over and made things like "Clerics" a dirty word), and you truly didn't want to be the cleric, I'm sure we could accomodate you. It's especially easy in 4th edition, with "Cleric" no longer being a role in and of itself. You can be a Cleric, a Warlord, a Bard or a Shaman, and that's just from the core rule books.. Within those races are 2 suggested paths for each, and if you want interesting, just pick a strange race to combo with it, like an Eladrin Shaman, and then try and explain how a noble high elf took on the trappings of a primal shaman.

If you still didn't want to play the healer though, my friends, generally, aren't so selfish that they'd make someone play a character they really didn't want to play in order for THEM to play exactly the character that they want to play. It's about making a compromise. Don't want to be the cleric, or any other "Leader" role (that's what the Healer role is called in 4th)? Ok, I'll make a Leader, I can come up with something, you can take my spot as a Striker, or maybe a Controller.

That's what friends are for :)

I agree with you on that, 4th Ed REALLY improves the Role Concept by embracing it rather than kinda side stepping it like they did in 3.5. The fact that there are MANY different classes that fall under each of the roles (2 per Role in the Core Book, more in the expansions) means that it's easier to fill all your roles and play the character you want. Also, 4th Ed Clerics are awesome.

If you're wondering who the wiser man than I is, I got that general idea from Mark Rosewater (lead designer of Magic the Gathering).. It was one of his main tools when it came to design (game and otherwise) - add carefully placed restrictions, so that participants (be it players, artists, musicians, etc) will have to step outside of their comfort zone, be creative and come up with a solution.

Might have something to do with Agency actually, but I'll let Archon be the decider on that one

PedroSteckecilo:
*snip*4th edition*snip

What I really find interesting is that there is a role for each power source (Martial, Divine, Arcane, Primal), in the PHB/PHB2 (I count PHB2 as core, because it adds gnomes. can't have D&D without gnomes).

Some of them are pretty dumb, but they're there.

Defender: Fighter, Paladin, Swordmage, Warden
Leader: Warlord, Cleric, Bard, Shaman
Striker: Ranger, Rogue, Inquisitor, Sorcerer, Barbarian
Controller: Wizard, Druid... Pretty sure there's a Divine one too.. No Martial one though in the first 2 PHBs.

Archon:

I personally think the gain in agency is worth the loss in "epic directed cinematic conclusion" but that's because I see the epicness of the conclusion as an illusion. Others may see it differently.

In short, I agree completely with that.

Good article, I'm on the story side of the coin, but emergent method is a perfectly fine way to run game. I agree with the post that emergent games can feel a little flat. However, I been in the nightmare world of the railroaded game down to having the character choice of a dirty private eye or a dirty cop. Being pushed from one scene to next with the PCs being more akin to set pieces than protagonists given the occasional puzzle or fight.

The reason I agree with emergent style games feeling flat is the rules are always very present ruining suspension of disbelief. I was always aware mechanical setup of every encounter and very generic feel. Because of random night time encounters we set up 1 watch (1 watch = 1 encounter roll) until the mage/wizard learn rope trick. Every random encounter felt more like a hassle than a thrilling fight when it always seem like 2d8 area type monsters. They always reminded me of Dragon Warrior just being in the way of where you're going.

I do think an article on player character motivation or the GM's role in character creation would be a good read. I know all too well the White Wolf loner/personal world problem. My solution of having the players get to together before the games starts to flesh out why their characters would have lives merge together and pick what each character brings to the game as to define everyone's role always felt like a cop out me. More of an issue of Agency vs. Story is unruly character designs and the players run amok in games. I usually have to deal with power gamers.

A piece of advice I would give any GM regardless of gaming philosophy is be prepared to design a person, place, encounter, or story arc and have it go unused. Players have the uncanny ability to avoid carefully planned work by going in the opposite direction of the game never encountering it. Just let it go or find a non-intrusive way to being it to the player character's attention again.

I'm reading over this because I do a group of odd-ball scatter brained teens who do a Table top Zombie Survivalist RPG, but we base it on heavy stories. We each take turns Game Mastering, and we've only had one totally shit guy.

This is gonna help immensly, we've been getting these rules down to a science.

I only have one problem with this mode of gaming, and that is the greatest thief of them all: time. How do you get the time to plan out every encounter, every NPC, every possible (emergent) plotline, without it becoming generic and boring to the players? First, a quick run-down of how my current game (contemporary zombie apocalypse in World of Darkness setting sans the supernatural [aside from the zombies that is]) runs:

There is a map (Chicago in this case), which is overrun by zombies. The players started in a hospital on the eve of the outbreak, and are now wandering around Chicago looking for their lost families and loved ones, as well as trying to survive. For each session, I plan a number of possible locations where they can go, and then try to give them enough hints to make them go to at least one of these. I then have a contingency plan for if they go totally off road (e.g. instead of going to the university or the rallying point marked on the map, they head off into the great unknown as fast as they can) - now I might have them encounter A or B which will hopefully take up the rest of the session, so that I have time to plan the next session in more detail.

Doesn't anyone else have this problem? It's not good enough that I write down half a paragraph of description of a place, and a completely useless addendum of "a unicorn is guarding it". What about the unicorn? Whats its agenda? Personality? What can the players do with the unicorn? Fight it? Talk to it? What does it know? What will it tell them without coercion? What kind of coercion might work on it? This is necessary, since in my group discussions (although aided by) do not happen by dice rolling - I will need to voice this NPC, which is clearly an important NPC, guarding an important place. In WoD, there aren't any clear cut moral guidelines for how an orc or an elf or a mage or a warrior is supposed to work, there're no stereotypes to lean back on. Every character I introduce that truly "appear" before the players needs to have a name, a personality and an agenda. When I say "appear" I mean appear in the sense of being important, unlike for instance "you bump into a random NPC in the refugee camp who mutters profanities at you" or "the random soldier points his gun at you and tells you to back away from the barbed wire" - these are obviously just unimportant side characters. But when you design a set of locations in your web, every single point of interest will almost by necessity have at least one fleshed out character with which the players can interact, either peacefully or not.

And, to be frank, I haven't the time to plan tens of fleshed out characters, half of which the players are liable never to meet! In a computer game, this is fine: even if you were dreadfully slow in Fallout the first time through and half the settlements were destroyed before you even got there, in your second playthrough you might just find and talk to all of those nicely fleshed out characters. But in a tabletop RPG, there's no rewind or restart button, and effort WILL in fact be lost completely if you design your game like a web. Effort and time which many of us do not have, no matter how dedicated and enthusiastic we are about our hobby.

I think my solution works fine enough, even if it does "fudge" encounters: Plan a web, as large as you want, which the players will hopefully get caught in. Have a contingency plan (or five) in case they escape the web, and then re-plan the next session based on where they ended up (potentially re-using parts of the old web if well planned and still pertinent to their current course of action). This does mean that the GM can be shafted if the players really try to escape, but you can't claim that even your web-based approach is safe from that. I doubt you'd be pleased if your whole little playing zone, which you've spent hours meticulously crafting to be interconnected and lore-perfect, was suddenly abandoned because the players wanted to go to the neighbouring kingdom which you've spent absolutely no time planning whatsoever - the only thing coming out of that is either a piece of absolutely stunningly super-creative DM'ing in which new adventures and exciting characters spring out of the air to meet the players (in which case I wonder why you bother planning at all, if you're so good at ad-libbing), OR the more realistic and terribly boring alternative of "well, this kingdom really is kind of at peace and kind of happy and healthy with no particular problems?" which I don't think is conducive to very exciting adventing. In any which case, you'd probably have to spend at least as much time AGAIN to recreate a web for their new chosen zone -- time which, I think, one does not always have.

But I have to say that I think the method is great, and an ideal to follow - if I had endless time and inspiration it'd be fun to create a huge interconnected adventure in this style where there is a story hiding under all the encounters, NPCs and locations, a story which might go one way or another, but which depends entirely on the PCs to uncover or change dynamically. I'm a bit of a pragmatic though, so I'll be happy to consider open-endedness an ideal, while I secretly railroad people anyway. I do have a thing or two to say about your ideas on agency and the fallacy of believing the DM had nothing to do with it, but that might be for another giant rant. If nothing else, you're good at sparking debate!

I don't see archon's way as an absolute rule.. just more of a new (old) way of looking at gaming.

He's not trying to tell you to only use emergent gaming, he's seeing (quite rightly I think as well), that emergent gameplay is disappearing in tabletop gaming, being replaced by streamlined, lead your players by the nose, storylines. He doesn't like this, and as CEO of a company that produces a gaming magazine (along with other things I'm sure), he's well within his power to release a different view on the subject matter.

That's all it is, is a point of view. It's for the DMs that are not good at epic story design (there are many that are, and that can do it seamlessly, but it's a learned craft), telling them that there is another way, that's closer to what the creators of dungeons and dragons had in mind when they made the game.

If they try it, and find that they don't like it, then at least they tried it.. maybe they'll find a piece of this process that DOES work for them, and even if they have to scrap most of it, having any bit of help when you've decided to undertake game mastering is a big help.

EDIT: and don't worry wolfrug, I think you're doing exactly what he's doing, but on a slightly smaller scale. He's basically saying "Make a map, give your players choices where to go, and don't tell them no if they don't go where you don't want them to go".

That's the jist of the whole article. Anyone who's reading more into that isn't getting it.

At the root of it all is GM/Player collaboration. I don't believe the campaign or adventure style is the GMs alone to decide. Some groups want the complete sandbox, freedom of choice where they feel they can do anything at any point. In fact, there's some players whose whole meta-game motivation is to see if they can be the proverbial "monkey-wrench". Other groups, want to the world to make sense, want clear, defined goals and motivations,then work towards them within the context of a rich story on the proverbial "heroes journey". Then there's a mixture of the two as the mode of a campaign can be a swinging pendulum between the two.

I've played and GMed in all these facets and they each offer different benefits/challenges. It's really more about finding the square peg for the square hole.

What I find funny about this whole article is that while the DMG2 for 3.5 encouraged railroading, the 4th edition DMGs seem against it; encouraging more of the story webbing, and working with your players to make fun worlds.

I really have to thank you for writing all of these articles. I am currently doing a DnD campaign and your advice has been very well received by me. While i wouldn't agree with you that the story is the least important thing to a campaign, i don't think it is the most either. I think the best thing to do is get a balance between open world sand-box and linear plot. A technique i'm trying out is making sort of "game levels" where i'll mark out different points of interest for the group, about 2-4 different seemingly small "levels" for them to do that will turn into rather large plots with options on how to deal with them. Some of these different quest levels may be connected leading one to the next depending on what order you go in.

I find that having a good story in your setting is a great way to immerse your players more so long as you don't over-do it and just keep the ball rolling with whatever they choose to do. That's why i only write a skeleton story out so i can change it as need be for whatever the players do.

And like i tell my players, you can never fail. Even if you don't save the princess in the tower the story will go on, just in a new direction. Telling them that does comfort them so they aren't completely brought down from failing at some critical moment, which is the main reason i don't feel story should be at the bottom of the barrel. But in the end, to each their own and thanks again for the good advice.

Rokar333:
What I find funny about this whole article is that while the DMG2 for 3.5 encouraged railroading, the 4th edition DMGs seem against it; encouraging more of the story webbing, and working with your players to make fun worlds.

that's because 3.5 was harder to build encounters on the fly for.. and 4th edition makes it very easy.

at least I think that has a lot to do with it. In 3.5 it was a lot better to plan almost every encounter in advance.. that was the best and easiest way to ensure the encounter was balanced.

In 4th, the enemies have roles too, and it's a lot easier to mix and match different enemies to create interesting encounters without unbalancing the encounter, and it's also the stat blocks are a LOT easier to read in 4th.

Coldman42:
I really have to thank you for writing all of these articles. I am currently doing a DnD campaign and your advice has been very well received by me. While i wouldn't agree with you that the story is the least important thing to a campaign, i don't think it is the most either. I think the best thing to do is get a balance between open world sand-box and linear plot. A technique i'm trying out is making sort of "game levels" where i'll mark out different points of interest for the group, about 2-4 different seemingly small "levels" for them to do that will turn into rather large plots with options on how to deal with them. Some of these different quest levels may be connected leading one to the next depending on what order you go in.

I find that having a good story in your setting is a great way to immerse your players more so long as you don't over-do it and just keep the ball rolling with whatever they choose to do. That's why i only write a skeleton story out so i can change it as need be for whatever the players do.

And like i tell my players, you can never fail. Even if you don't save the princess in the tower the story will go on, just in a new direction. Telling them that does comfort them so they aren't completely brought down from failing at some critical moment, which is the main reason i don't feel story should be at the bottom of the barrel. But in the end, to each their own and thanks again for the good advice.

A lot of people are reading this article as him saying "Story is worthless", which isn't the truth.. what he's saying, is that there is a way of having a story in your game that doesn't involve you frontloading an epic storyline onto the players. You can just make a good world, give the players several different choices, and they'll make the stories for themselves.

Like earlier I mentioned a game I played where my party and I ended up becoming evil and siding with the lizardfolk slaughtering the village that we were protecting.. the DM did not anticipate that, but was able to facilitate it for us, and it was one of my most memorable D&D stories ever.. much more fun and memorable than ANY story pre-crafted by the DM and imposed on me.

There was a palpable sense of fear when we first entered the lizardfolk village to try and join them. We had spent several sessions killing them, and we were all trying to hide our human natures as much as possible, because we figured that if they discovered it was us, they'd probably attack, and we'd have a whole village of lizardfolk attacking us.

Which ties in to another of Archon's concepts he has been pushing in this column, Agency.. Basically, creating that sense that the players might die, and have actual choice in decisions is important for players to enjoy the game (most of the time). It helps combat meta-game thinking if players believe that the monsters and encounters play by the same rules as they do, and as such, they can die.

Rokar333:
What I find funny about this whole article is that while the DMG2 for 3.5 encouraged railroading, the 4th edition DMGs seem against it; encouraging more of the story webbing, and working with your players to make fun worlds.

Well the DMG2 for 3.5 was added several YEARS after the debut of the system and it provided the advice it thought was lacking in the initial DMG, whereas the 4th Ed products are structured more carefully, with each DMG intended to draw the DM deeper into the web of the craft. The 1st is about the Heroic Tier, second is about the Paragon Tier, third will be about the Epic Tier. Similarly each throws in more advanced "DM Tricks" for DM's who are growing with the game.

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