Itís Not Your Story

 Pages PREV 1 2 3
 

Altorin:
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.

If i made it sound like i felt that he was saying the story was worthless, that was not my intention. I was saying that i disagreed that the story is the least important part of a DnD game. If i implied otherwise that was not my intention.

Also, how did your group get to join the lizardfolk? That sounds like a decision that came from way out of left field.

An interesting article that I think would be a must read for a particular species of gamemaster (the railroad conductors), but I think it presents one way of GMing as innately superior to all others, and the assumptions it is built on are rather shaky.

I would say the single biggest problem with a web-like story design is that the players will never have to do anything they don't want to, and that cuts out a HUGE area of fun and dramatic possibility. Generally the way it works is that the party ends up only doing something as long as they're getting paid to do it. The second the money dries up or it gets too tough for the pay, they quit and go somewhere else. I have GMed games where this has happened, and I have played in games where this has happened, and as both a GM and a player I hated it. It made the party slave to the most materialistic members, and I got sick of questing for money and money alone after my first year of gaming. The games where the story was about things other than money have always been my favorite. If money is all some groups care about, then that is perfectly fine for them, but the web-based structure does tend towards that kind of motivation. It also makes true horror virtually impossible to do, because there is only so scary something can get when you know that if you want you can just turn around and leave it all behind.

This sort of structure also makes it hard to keep the party together, unless they are designed to be very cohesive from the beginning. If one person decides to leave and go somewhere else, you have to split your time, which massively slows things down. If you have three or more groups of PCs wandering around independently, you might as well just split the game into 3 separate campaigns. I know there are plenty of people who like gaming with just one player and the GM, but for me the whole fun of gaming is the cooperation and collective action, the interesting things that happen when a group of people interact. I played in a web-like campaign last year, and early in the game there was a bit of a split between some of the characters, and from that point forward we were never all in the same place at the same time. It slowed the game to a snails pace and I really didn't have a very good time--every time we began to approach a dramatic moment, someone would pull out and the story would just sort of fizzle for a little while.

Finally, there is a lot of wasted effort in this kind of structure. If the GM prepares a large and detailed sandbox world for the party and they only choose to explore one small corner of it, then all the rest goes to waste. If you want to make the world dynamic and responsive to party actions, you have to continually update the rest of the world and have it ready at a moment's notice, but never knowing if it will ever be of any use. I much prefer to stay maybe a session or two ahead of the PCs in games I run, and at the end of each session simply ask them what directions they are planning to go in--this allows me to be responsive to their choices and grant them a great deal of freedom, and it also allows me to throw my full effort into making the areas they go to as interesting as possible. Plus, it saves a TON of prep time for me!

The author of this article seems to place a great deal of importance on unlimited player freedom within the rules, but in many ways unlimited freedom can feel very restricting. You are playing a game, which means there will always be at least some limits on your freedom--the GM cannot fully flesh out every last corner of the multiverse, and by emphasizing this kind of freedom it almost draws attention to any places where that freedom is less than absolute. As strange as it sounds, sometimes the less freedom you have the more you feel like you have. My goal as a GM is to create a situation where the PCs have to make a tough choice, but the actual choice they make is up to them. A perfectly free world allows the PCs to avoid having to make tough choices, because as soon as it gets tough they just leave. But if they have to make that choice, it really lets them figure out who their characters are, and lets them reflect on how they themselves would do in such a situation. Say the players are in a situation where they have to rule on whether or not a criminal should be executed. If you force them to make that choice, it can lead them into fascinating in-character debates with each other, it can prompt them to explore the area and investigate the crime and gather evidence, and it can lead to some real Drama in your game. But if they can just leave without rendering judgement, then they won't be able to have those interesting discussions or adventures. Ultimately, they will find more freedom if, for some reason, they are not allowed to pass on that decision.

Absolutely sublime! I used this method because my own logic lead me to it when trying to figure out how to reconcile story arcs and not railroading the players. I'm glad to see someone else clarify and quantify this for me, there are some great suggestions and it really is pushing me to revisit my old campaign world.

Coldman42:
Also, how did your group get to join the lizardfolk? That sounds like a decision that came from way out of left field.

I told the story earlier but I'll give the abridged version. There was a small village of refugees that escaped from the lizardfolk that we were helping.. but they didn't want to do any of the work of helping themselves.. they wanted to be rescued.. After a couple sessions of helping them with no real ambition from them to lift themselves out of their situation, we decided to join with the Lizardfolk instead, mostly just to see what would happen.. We encountered their Ogre Leader, told him where the villagers were hiding, disclosed that it was us that had been killing his lizardfolk, and that the village was otherwise unprotected.

Then we went with the lizardfolk and slaughtered everyone in the village.

And that's basically where the campaign ended, but it was a great ending :P

Helmutye:
I would say the single biggest problem with a web-like story design is that the players will never have to do anything they don't want to, and that cuts out a HUGE area of fun and dramatic possibility.

Players will never be forced to do something by the gamemaster, but nothing prevents players from having to make tough decisions. For instance, in one sandbox session, the players accidentally woke up a sleeping red dragon. When they got back to town, they had to choose betwee defending the town against the dragon, or letting it burn. The town was their HQ and the townsfolk looked on them as heroes; but they were only 4th level, so a red dragon was way outside their capabilities. They didn't *want* to fight the dragon, but they chose to do so.

Interesting choice develops when the party has incentives that lead them in two directions at once - risk v. reward, reputation v. safety, etc.

Generally the way it works is that the party ends up only doing something as long as they're getting paid to do it. The second the money dries up or it gets too tough for the pay, they quit and go somewhere else.... It also makes true horror virtually impossible to do, because there is only so scary something can get when you know that if you want you can just turn around and leave it all behind.

Human beings respond to incentives. This is the lesson of economics. If you have a level-up system and give xp for gold, then players will pursue gold, sure. On the other hand, you could equally well imagine a zombie apocalypse sandbox where the players got XP on some formula of time survived x number of NPC survivors kept alive. That would create a horror simulation. This would make an interesting dynamic in that going someplace dangerous to get, e.g., better weapons would be actually be a contrast between different motivations.

In short, I disagree that there's anything inherently limiting about player agency. What is genuinely limiting is when GM fiat overrides the decisions the players have made based on the incentives presented to them. It doesn't seem like you do that, though.

This sort of structure also makes it hard to keep the party together, unless they are designed to be very cohesive from the beginning.

Could be we've had different types of players. I've had more trouble keeping a party together in more "narratively driven" games, because each player tends to want his character to have a unique way of interfacing with the story. In any event, I think the key to keeping the party together is giving all their characters shared incentives. This is the same regardless of the format you're using.

Finally, there is a lot of wasted effort in this kind of structure.

Well, that's a very negative way of looking at it. I would say that there is a lot of effort given towards offering your players choice and agency. Satisfying the need for agency is not a waste unless you don't think choice is a value.

I don't watch all 200 channels on my satellite TV, but I pay money every month to have the opportunity of choosing from 200 channels. I'm willing to pay money for the privilege of not watching 199 channels at any one time. Choice is worth a lot.

I much prefer to stay maybe a session or two ahead of the PCs in games I run, and at the end of each session simply ask them what directions they are planning to go in--this allows me to be responsive to their choices and grant them a great deal of freedom, and it also allows me to throw my full effort into making the areas they go to as interesting as possible. Plus, it saves a TON of prep time for me!

I've used this method myself in some campaigns. It's a great approach for when you don't have a lot of time. It's actually not far different from what I suggested for the story web - where I suggested you initially detail only a few selected locations and then build the rest over time. My only real difference from this is that I think you should sketch out a web of locations and points of interest in advance, as compared to doing everything on a just-in-time basis.

I don't end up thinking you and I are very differently apart on this. You sound like you run a game that's very influenced by player agency.

This is really interesting food for thought, I must say, and I look forward to another of these columns. I think, however, I would like to outline where I differ from your ideas.

I've found that, sometimes, you do need to fudge dice rolls. Now, since I usually RP over Skype or electronic means, or with a group of friends I can trust to keep things honest, I don't have a problem altering dice rolls here and there to make things better for the players. Like making them hideously injured instead of dying, throwing in a Deus Ex Machina here and there. At one point during a firefight, a player rolled a 'Fumble', the result being that it would hit something behind the enemies - something explosive. I shifted the rules a little to make the stray bullet set off one of the enemy's grenades, killing him and about five others. I did this because, at that point, there was only that player left conscious, and if he had been knocked out or killed the rest of the group would have bled to death, rather ruining the game.

Now, the reason I and my girlfriend (who also GMs) do this is because, unlike most RPGs, we use a reasonably realistic combat system. Close-ranged shooting is brutal, messy and a case of quick-draw reflexes, there is no 'levels system' (you gain attributes based on how your character actually develops - find yourself gunning down a lot of mooks, and you will get better with small or medium guns), and, in general, a player's life can be ended by a stray bullet. And that's just the human enemies. The mutants and other lifeforms can simply rip a human character into small pieces. That's just the way we play - players have to be damn careful and use logic and reasoning to survive. Like real mercs/soldiers/gangers.

Now, onto GM'ing. Personally, I like to view the GM as just another player. Another player with no dedicated character and god-like powers. Instead of roleplaying, the GM gets to play a mix of simulation and strategy. She (or he) should act in a way most fun for her. With my last GM, this involved characters being sexually assaulted, a body turning up in one character's bathroom having been dumped by a local gangster, and then the police knocking on the door shortly thereafter. It involved a lot of interacting with the world around and remarkably little combat.

With me, it will probably involve players experiencing hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, being kidnapped and tortured, being attacked by vastly superior forces, and general cruelty.

Does anyone know where to find some other well written articles like the ones Alex is writing? I really would like to read about the philosophy and psychology of DMing written by/for other intelligent DMs.

Or perhaps you can help me out Mr.Macris?

This was a great article. I know personally to never have a plot to an adventure that can't be summarized and executed in more than one sentence. I leave sub-plots and twists to the players to invent through emergent game play.

Suppose I wanted to run a game of Call of Cthulhu. As a mystery game, it hinges heavily on a linear plot (I.E. players find a series of clues which lead to the investigation's climax: Them all dying). How would you play Call of Cthulhu under a story web?

mattag08:
Does anyone know where to find some other well written articles like the ones Alex is writing? I really would like to read about the philosophy and psychology of DMing written by/for other intelligent DMs.

Or perhaps you can help me out Mr.Macris?

Delve into the realm of Gaming Podcasts, they're chock full of advice. There are also sites like Gnome Stew, or Evil GM Tricks, chock full of GMy goodness.

When I first started Games Mastering, I worked from Dragon Warriors, in which the story ARC was laid out, nice and easy.. the game works for people new to roleplay and a GM new to GMing, The map has the parts written on it, and the story progresses as the player advance through the map..

In a Dungeon, where you literally cannot 'step off the path' this works.. you cannot progress to room 17 until you have passed through room 16.. so story line can progress the same way.. DUNGEONS and dragons is based off this premise, which is why open plains, political scenarios, true to reality magic & actually intelligent evil bad guys, just wont work.

The Hardest map in DW was book 4 (from memory), why? because it had no set 'path' instead were maps of the castle, the region, a timeline of events, and player motivations, I skipped this adventure time and time again, because I could not 'GM' it... Until later..

When I'd grown up, and revisited the books, the concept of a structured adventure, railroaded storyline, and fudged dice, just.. lost its appeal. but that one adventure stuck and I had to try it with a new group.. and it worked.. as an adult, I could now appreciate the concept. Player could choose what the wanted to do, I knew where key players were at key points in time, and just had to read out entry points and keep track of these things.. and was my most successful game yet.

Its essentially how I've GM'd since, and that was 22 years ago.

The inheriant problem seems to be more of system.

D&D is/was made for the beginners, the learners, as true enthusiasts usually find something more complex and realistic to set their swords & minds to. If your 1 or two levels below an adventure encounter, your going to get thrashed, so you need to hold players hands to make sure they don't wander off into the woods and get killed. and if they do, you need the local priest to res them.. because beginners just want to win, which is fun for them.

As to the story arc

Your 'web' is a good idea.. but I fear you don't go far enough, having a set of locations is great idea.. assigning levels to each, and 'warning' players to avoid the harder stuff is cool too. but why should you have to structure the map so that players don't access the hardest stuff..

you touch on events and consequences, why just the king and his sickness.. what about the bartenders wife, the local candlemaker and his new hard wax business, NPC desires are great plot hooks.. if you have an idea of what the town is looking for, then it doesn't matter what the players decide to do, you have many different plot hooks.. but none of these compare to...

Nejira:

To me the question is, can you build a continous campaign without resorting to having to hand out scripts to your players. I would like to say yes, as the lure of a wellcrafted story with my character as one of the maincharacters sounds seductive. But to do this we need to move away from the free roaming campaign structure, and more into the realm of directed stories.

The main concept to keep players on track, is to have the players build their own tracks and railroad themselves.

Interview the players about what they WANT to do, what is IMPORTANT for their character..., reward the players who stay on track.. but don;t punish them for going in other directions. If your a person that likes to create the plot/world around the players.. knowing that bob's character "Thrud" would like to kill as many goblins as possible, will allow you to write in a nice forest of goblins nearby, mostly leveled around 'thrud' to make interesting battles & experience gain..

Or, if your more like me, you create your world, create major and minor time events and the consequences of both, understand what each towns inhabitants would like from their local adventurers, and throw in a mini-plot encounter table, THEN make sure the troubles of the region have enough propaganda going on to get local bards singing of the troubles of the goblins in the north, so that Thrud knows where the goblins are.. and let the players set their own story arc.

I love this article, but I think there's something missing. Story arcs can be good things. But they have to be done without a loss of agency. How do you balance those?

Imagine a world without the players temporarily. (This is, after all, almost the definition of agency: How you change things from what would have happened had you not been there). Now, the story arc is that world. The intrigues, the wars, the villains' plans. That can all be written in advance, because that's what is going to transpire without player intervention.

THEN the players show up. Now they can do whatever they want to screw with that. The evil summoner needs to collect twelve artifacts to bring the demon god to Earth? Too bad, since the party unwittingly lucked out into finding one of the artifacts because the Bard managed to get a clue from the townsfolk, the Rogue managed to avoid powerful encounters, and was smart enough to deal with the security measure that normally only the summoner would have prevented.

Now let's say your plan was to have the summoner pull a Xanatos Gambit. He'd get them to collect the twelve artifacts and give them to him. But maybe he never asks about the artifact they got already, because he assumes someone else must have taken it. And when the players figure out what they have, what do they do? Etc.

This combines the best of both worlds. Your villains can have speeches, your players can have their planned awesome moments, you can have an entertaining storyline, but it's still emergent.

Now, my experiences may differ, but the vast majority of the time, players WILL follow the railroad. If they come to town and four different factions offer them different quests, they will PROBABLY take one of the four quests, happy to have the choice, and not decide to be a fifth faction, or pull a Yojimbo and pit them against each other, or just leave town and hunt boar. So your pre-planned set of events will likely proceed.

But not always, and oftentimes the changes are CENTRAL. In one campaign I ran, the villain of one arc was the President of the United Earth Government, and she had corrupted and taken over a supersoldier group that behaved like a hivemind. I had thought that these would be expendable mooks, just more people the PCs would slay.

Instead, one player character felt sorry for the soldiers. He let himself be taken into the hivemind!

That led to great drama. The character inside the hivemind rallied the minds of the controlled soldiers and got them to break free. As he did so, his allies had to fight their own teammate and deal with his decision. And when the soldiers were freed, they were able to turn around and strike their victimizer, giving the team a decisive victory.

The whole feel of an arc changed. Running with it was one of the best decisions I had ever made.

In particular, I think of the GM as a chessmaster. The PCs are playing the game: This is not a solitaire game. But the GM is making counter-moves to the PCs. However, the GM is not doing so to obstruct them, or to help them. Rather, he is moving his pieces in response to the PCs actions, within the character of the pieces. Most of the board won't change since the PCs haven't done anything. But some will change from their original trajectory, and then that will have ripple effects.

For example: It's railroading to have your villain's original plan succeed no matter what the players do. But a villain that just lets the players beat him without any alteration is a boring adversary. Instead, when the players stop his plan A, he moves to a plan B. That gives them consequences but preserves story.

This sort of structure also makes it hard to keep the party together, unless they are designed to be very cohesive from the beginning. If one person decides to leave and go somewhere else, you have to split your time, which massively slows things down. If you have three or more groups of PCs wandering around independently, you might as well just split the game into 3 separate campaigns. I know there are plenty of people who like gaming with just one player and the GM, but for me the whole fun of gaming is the cooperation and collective action, the interesting things that happen when a group of people interact. I played in a web-like campaign last year, and early in the game there was a bit of a split between some of the characters, and from that point forward we were never all in the same place at the same time. It slowed the game to a snails pace and I really didn't have a very good time--every time we began to approach a dramatic moment, someone would pull out and the story would just sort of fizzle for a little while.

Okay, but here's the problem: The same thing SHOULD happen in a railroaded game, it just DOESN'T because the GM forces people with starkly disparate motivations, either IC or OOC, to stick together. Players should talk before the campaign and have a shared idea of motivations, goals, etc. and make sure their players can get along. Otherwise, you have to choose between railroading out the conflict, violating good roleplaying, or let the players roleplay, and then screw your story and likely end the campaign.

 Pages PREV 1 2 3

Reply to Thread

Log in or Register to Comment
Have an account? Login below:
With Facebook:Login With Facebook
or
Username:  
Password:  
  
Not registered? To sign up for an account with The Escapist:
Register With Facebook
Register With Facebook
or
Registered for a free account here