This is the third in my ongoing series of columns devoted to the art of gamemastering. In my first column, I laid out the four roles of the gamemaster (judge, world-builder, adversary, storyteller), with judge as the most important role. In my second column, I explained the agency theory of fun, and showed how by focusing on objective rules, honest dice, and player choice, you maximize the fun for your players in the long term. In this third column, I want to turn my attention to that most contentious of subjects – story.
Now, in arguing that judging, not storytelling, is the most important facet of gamemastering, I have not been arguing against a straw man. I’ve been arguing against the mainstream school of gamemastering in this decade, which teaches that story is the most important function of the GM. This viewpoint reaches its fullest elucidation in the 3.5 Dungeon Masters Guide II. Let’s take a look at it now, because it illustrates everything that’s wrong with the mainstream view.
This Is Why They Invented Book Burning
The DMG II divides campaigns into two possible structures, “episodic” and “continuity.” While admitting to the possibility of episodic campaigns, it notes that since they are just “composed of unrelated adventures” they are best reserved for groups with “spotty attendance” “oddball behavior” and “reactive players who like to have their objectives supplied to them.” The real action happens in continuity campaigns, where “one adventure leads to another, creating an overall story arc that builds over time… You will adapt adventures created by others into your story arc.” [Emphasis added].
The DMGII never mentions episodic campaigns again. Instead, it moves on to an entire section devoted to how to end your campaign, noting that a campaign with a fixed ending “increases the sense of excitement,” adding that “any entertainer knows to leave the audience wanting more.” [Emphasis added.] The authors offer several pages of advice on how to close your campaign, of which this was the most telling:
Plan carefully to see that the conclusive scenes of a closed campaign pay off. By centering the entire campaign on a set of victory conditions, you’re promising a big, exciting finish. Prepare that final sequence exhaustively. It must be exquisitely balanced… Set up the climactic sequence so your resident tacticians have no chance to reconnoiter or plan in advance. Design the encounter with options that allow you to adjust its difficulty on the fly… When in doubt, fudge die rolls shamelessly, feigning surprise at the results.
The inherent assumption here, of course, is that the GM is a wise, smart entertainer, and the players are his audience and along for the ride – nuisances who will attempt to ruin your ending with their “reconnaissance” and “planning.” My prior column has already explained in detail why you should disregard everything written above, but I think it’s worth translating the language above for you into how I read it:
Plan carefully to see that the conclusive scenes of a closed campaign arbitrarily end the way you want them to. By centering the entire campaign on a set of victory conditions, you’re putting yourself in a situation where have to railroad the ending, so you’d better prepare that final sequence exhaustively. It must be exquisitely balanced so that they almost lose, but then win, no matter what choices they make. Set up the climactic sequence so your resident tacticians have no path except your path, no matter how much they want to choose otherwise. Ignore any sense of fairness to the players, and design the encounter with options that allow you to arbitrarily make it harder or easier for the players so that they end up doing what you want, how you want. When in doubt, lie to your players about what you rolled and just make up an outcome you think is better.
Of course, the moment your players realize you are doing any of the above, the whole effort becomes a sham – they can’t be excited about it because they know that they’re really just an audience, not a participant. That’s the lesson of agency. The players should be participants, not spectators.
The good news is that GMing doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to get trapped into a false dichotomy of “episodic” versus “continuous,” nor do you need to force players to drive down your Epic Story Superhighway in order to run a fun campaign. There is a better way.
What Happens Next – Or What Just Happened?
But first, let’s define some concepts. The DMGII is quick to advise gamemasters to have a “story arc” but it never stops to define what a story arc is. We will: A story arc is a meta-story that links individual storylines together. Stories, of course, are as old as mankind, but not every story is part of a story arc. Consider the early Greek myths of Perseus slaying the Medusa, and of Bellerophon slaying the Chimera. Each has a story “line” but there is no link between the two. In contrast, consider the later myths of Paris wooing Helen of Troy, Achilles slaying Hector, and Odysseus encountering Circe – these are all linked by the “Trojan War” story arc. For a more recent example, contrast the adventures of Robert Howard’s Conan (short stories without a story arc) with Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo (adventures within a larger story arc).
Many people’s earliest experiences of role-playing games are similar to those early Greek myths or Conan short stories. The party of adventurers goes to the dungeon, knocks down some doors, kills some orcs, and goes home. Next week’s adventure, they knock down some thicker doors, kill some ogres, and so on. The first published RPG products that actually linked adventures across space and time was Gary Gygax’s G-D-Q series of modules (Against the Giants leading to Vault of the Drow culminating in Queen of the Demonweb Pits. But the big breakthrough came when TSR gave us the Dragonlance series, which featured a story arc over a dozen modules long. James Maliszewski has described Dragonlance as gaming’s Lord of the Rings, and with good reason.
To players in the mid 80s, story arcs must have seemed revolutionary, adding highly detailed backstory, depth, and a sense of purpose to what had previously been only loosely connected modules. And those are all wonderful things, things that any good gamemaster should strive to have in his games. But there was a hidden cost to the story arc: a cost in player agency. A story arc only works if the narrator can create a plot, that is, a sequence of events that effects change on the situation of his protagonists. If the narrator is a gamemaster, then the players are his protagonists, and he’s made a commitment to effecting change on them. The players are now the objects, rather than subjects, of a story. A story arc transforms adventurers and agents into actors and audience.
For this reason, I call campaigns that use a story arc “directed stories.” The gamemaster, like a stage or movie director, is directing the sequence of events that will occur with an eye towards achieving particular outcomes or expressing particular themes. It is story focused on what happens next. The opposite of directed story is emergent story, story focused on what just happened. Emergent story is the memoirs of your fictional characters, and the history of their fictional deeds.
A directed story GM is concerned with whether or not what the players are moving things in the direction the gamemaster desires. An emergent story GM is concerned with whether or not the players are succeeding in moving things in the direction they desire. A directed story GM spends time in between sessions working out what will happen next. An emergent story GM spends time in between sessions chronicling what just happened.
A directed story GM is a fortune teller who predicts that awesome things will happen to you in the future. An emergent story GM is a bard who weaves a story about the awesome things that you made happen.
A Web, Not an Arc
Emergent story does not happen in a vacuum. You cannot simply release your players into the Forgotten Realms and expect entertainment to ensue – or if entertainment does ensue, it will likely be very short term and involve inns and serving wenches. Emergent story needs its own version of the story arc. The technique I use to allow emergent storytelling is something I call a “story web.”
My approach is geographical – location based, rather than event based. I begin by sketching out a map of the playspace within which the campaign will launch (a “sandbox”), and developing about ten to twenty points of interest within it. If you’re running D&D, the sandbox could be a wilderness map with 6-mile hexes, similar to the recent Points of Light accessory. If you were playing Classic Traveller, it could be a sub-sector map of star systems. For Call of Cthulhu, it might be a map of London circa 1929. Each point of interest in the sandbox initially gets a paragraph of description.
The actual process of creating the points of interest is a mix of free-form creativity, adaptation/borrowing of other published material, rolls on random encounter charts, or other techniques. Here’s an example from my own campaign of a point of interest, #18: Shrine of the White Lady:
Hidden in a secluded forest clearing is an ivy- covered shrine of white marble, sacred to Mityara, built by the dawn elves before the Argollëan War. The shrine is guarded by a unicorn. Within the shrine is a pool of crystal clear water. Characters who drink from the waters enjoy the benefits of a cure serious wounds spell.
Once I’ve sketched out my points of interest, I go back and I look for possible links between them – proximity, shared history, etc. The idea is that since story is going to emerge from the characters encountering interesting stuff, the story web should help them move from one point of interest to another.
In my ongoing D&D campaign, my initial points of interest included four different ruins that were all historically linked to the fallen elven kingdom. I decided to link them in game by placing a special pool in each location that showed where the other ruins could be found:
The surface of the pool is a mosaic map of the old elven kingdoms, which shows the location of the elven ruins located at #7, #10, #13, and #18.
Other ways players could uncover links between locations in my sandbox include finding treasure maps in hoards that lead to another point of interest; rescuing captives that hail from another place; translating hieroglyphic carvings on the wall that mention another point of interest; reading NPC journals about other locations; talking to NPCs who traveled between the two locations; and so on. (If any of you have ever designed a computer RPG or MMOG, of course, you’ll note that the above process is not that far removed from how quest chains are created.)
Because D&D is very sensitive to the level of characters, I structured my initial story web such that the interlinked web did not have any direct links from low to high level location. Since the web is essentially a road map of interest for the players, you don’t want to purposefully lead them to destruction. This “bundled” structure of linking is also beneficial in that you can launch the campaign with only 3-4 of the points of interest ready in detail, rather than having to get all of them done up front.
What contrasts the story web from the story arc is that it offers two different layers of choice. The first layer of choice is that at any point the party has multiple threads of the web to pursue. Do they want to see where the treasure map leads, or visit the elven ruins they learned about from the mosaic? The second layer of choice is the ability for the party to ignore the web entirely. Since the points of interest exist independently as locations in my game world, the party can go explore as it would like. In short, the story web is a map to a destination, not a railroad track there.
Of course, if the party can go anywhere – and you only have the first 3-4 points of interest ready to go – that does provide certain challenges. My solution to the challenges has been twofold. First, I tend to sketch out (or use pre-existing) one page descriptions of the points of interest I haven’t created in detail. Even if they end up somewhere I never expected, I have something to go on.
Second, I create a wandering encounter chart that features many powerful and interesting encounters on it. A solid wandering encounter chart can make the travel from Point A to Point B itself be a fulfilling session of gaming. More importantly, if the wandering encounter chart is scaled for the average level of play, rather than the starting level of play, it will implicitly persuade you party to stick to more civilized areas early on. For instance, most of the encounters on my chart are at 5th-7th level of difficulty. Beneath 5th level, exploration of unknown areas is risky venture, not to be done lightly; far safer to follow the map. But at 8th level and above, the random encounters begin to seem less threatening, and the campaign setting “opens up” organically to more freeform activity. But all of this is done without ever forcing any choice or outcome on the player. They can, if they wish, break out into new or unexpected directions (and my players sure have, sometimes)!
Don’t be a Plot Nazi
With a story web, you can’t be sure that your players will encounter #1 before #2, or #2 before #10. Nor can you be sure they’ll encounter any particular location, character, or monster at all. You have established a setting, but the story that occurs within that setting will be the result of player choice. They will be enjoying an emergent story as the move along the strands of your story web. Or burn your story web to the ground, as the case may be.
At a certain point in the course of running your campaign, I guarantee that you’ll begin to feel the urge to transform the emergent story into a directed story. You’ll say to yourself, “The Lost Temple of Arneson is so cool! I really want them to go there.” And so 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. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se; I use a set of random charts to create background events in my setting, for instance, and one of them really can inflict pestilence on the population.
But to stay true to player agency, you need to be willing to let your players say… “Nah. I’d rather go check out the Tower of Gygax. Pass the King our best wishes for his recovery” and run with what they want to do. Maybe that means the King dies, and the land is in upheaval. Maybe it means that another adventurer recovers the Polyhedral, and the PCs suddenly have rivals for their fame in the land. Maybe it means that the King declares them outlaws, and they join forces with the monsters. Again, the point is that the story isn’t something the GM decides alone. The story emerges from what the players decide. GMs who force their players to pursue one particular plot are being dictators when they should be democrats. Don’t be a Plot Nazi and force your story arc on them. After all, the first Indiana Jones movie showed you what happens to Nazis when they mess with Arcs.
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.