Tonight’s post is going to be somewhat rambly. Yes, even more so than usual. I have a topic in mind, and I’m going to try and figure out what my thoughts on it are. Stick around. The topic in question: cooperative storytelling in rpgs (buzzwords!).
Imagine a stereotypical game in broad strokes. The party arrives into town, looks around, and immediately proceeds to torch a tavern, fight the town guard, and somehow ends up in the mayor’s mansion hiding his bloody body under the bed. Sound familiar? Be honest, you probably ran something like that. Or perhaps caused it. Imagine this was the start of a D&D campaign. Worst session ever, all the carefully constructed plot ruined, time to get new players. Now, imagine the exact same session: tavern-torching, mayor-killing and all, but as the start of a Dungeon World campaign. Awesome, so many threads, so many places this can go. What’s different? We’ll get back to this.
To Serve in Heaven
Here’s how I ran my games for years. I’d come up with a plot: who and where and why. I’d consider how PCs could interact with this plot, what their role would be, what decisions they could make. I’d make sure they were the protagonists of the story. It wasn’t railroading, not in the usual sense. But I knew the major decision points and had plans for each and every significant fork they could take. And I’ve gotten good at this! I’d plan for incremental access to information, knowing beforehand how their attitudes would change with each revelation. I’d have key dramatic scenes pre-planned, and would know how to get all the moving bits to where they need to be, juggling dozens of narrative elements at times. I’d spend the whole week between games obsessing over the details of the plot, refining it to perfection. The pinnacle of this approach, in many ways, was an NPC mastermind rakshasa pulling off an honest Batman Gambit (warning: TvTropes link) on the party.
It was exhausting and rewarding. Fun was had, great stories were told. After a while, though, I started feeling just like said rakshasa. We were playing different games, my players and I. I was the mastermind, manipulating their emotions and their experiences. And it’s not like they didn’t have any say in the game: their decisions mattered, shaping the rest of the game. Yet it felt different.
Does it really matter which door the hero chooses, the one with a tiger behind it or the one with a princess, if I was there to install those doors, hide the tiger and the princess, and already worked out what the hungry tiger would do if let to its own devices behind a closed door, and how the princess would escape if left locked up? Players had agency, sure. What they didn’t have was creative input into the game. It’s no wonder that new directions were only introduced into the game via between-game discussions. And even then, players would express their desire to, say, found a city, and I’d get back to them with a new, fully realised plot, mechanics and all.
To Rule in Hell
Since I’ve began my Odyssey into indie rpgs, I’ve been experimenting with GMing style as well, trying to adhere to the intended way of playing them. They typically come with strong assumptions about game structure, and one in particular, tremulus, offered a maxim that was a direct challenge to my style: “play to find out what happens”. Not to see which of the carefully laid out paths players take.
It is incredibly liberating, to show up to the game I’m supposed to be running with nothing but a few ideas. Of course, there is no free lunch. Some of the effort saved during preparation instead has to be expended during the game. On the other hand, there’s no need to over-prepare for eventualities that will never happen, nor is there a risk of getting mentally stuck trying to bring these eventualities to life when the game wants to go somewhere else.
Naturally, the outcome is often messy and unfocused. Instead of a poetic story full of foreshadowing and meaning executed with jeweler’s precision, you end up with a hot mess of ideas and events. Plot lines will appear and fade out without resolution, mysteries will be raised and left unanswered, and there may not even be any payoff in the end. There is, however, a chance for players to introduce their own ideas, and not just at the start of the game. It might just make the whole thing worthwhile.
I may be mixing up my metaphors here. It sort of works: creativity as divine fire, free will expressed through tavern torching, tavern as entire Creation thus completing the circle. Ahem. Either way, that’s the crucial bit, the difference in the attitudes of the example at the start: how much creative input players are allowed. It’s a topic of some interest to me. And, of course, to others (remarkable timing on that post). It’s also something I’ve blamed D&D for curtailing: in a traditional plot, which is to say a plot that happens to PCs, there’s no space for players to exercise their creativity, no use for it. All the narrative space is taken up by GM’s plot and attempts to branch off into other directions or introduce other elements are actively destructive. Don’t play with matches.
While not better, I do believe that the other approach is more well-suited to RPGs in general. An RPG is not a book, not even a choose-your-own-adventure one. It is ephemeral, a process, a chimera born of dice and cliches and creativity, inhabiting several skulls at once, different in each. It is messy and glorious when it works, messy and frustrating when it doesn’t. It takes courage to let it run free, and great trust to let others contribute to the beast. But if you don’t trust your players, you may be missing the point.