Dancing in the Flames

This is the second, a bit less fluffy part of my thoughts on collaborative storytelling in RPGs, I suggest you read the first part for context.

Bad ideas

I’ll start with acknowledging that there is such a thing as bad ideas. Of course there is! Torching the tavern in a typical D&D game (no, seriously, read that first post) is a bad idea for the game, as it negates already established or worked-on ideas. GM has an existing plot planned out that involves the tavern being there and characters not being known as tavern-torchers. The idea of making them tavern-torchers is not bad on its own, just in the context of that game. In contrast, in a game without preconceptions that PCs will work for the mysterious figure awaiting for them in the tavern, torching the tavern is not destructive. No existing ideas or effort is invalidated.

So why do players do this? My theory is that they don’t know any better. Creativity is a skill, as is collaborative creativity. GMs learn the craft, and our early games have probably been full of poor ideas as well. We gradually improve this skill and get better. So can players, given a chance. In one of the earliest posts on this blog I discussed the differences in the way players and GMs consider the game, and it applies here as well. Players simply aren’t trained to consider the ramifications of their actions beyond the immediate impact on their characters. It obviously helps if they try their hand at GMing. If that sounds too intimidating, perhaps something like Fiasco won’t.


Communication is crucial if you are to tell a story together. Talk it out! Before, during and after. What do you want from the game? What’s the tone and theme and topic? Why should or shouldn’t something happen? Always be mindful that the conception of the game is different for everyone, and reconciling these differing visions to the point where ideas originating from them are compatible is by far the trickiest part.

Start with something like Same Page Tool (noting that it doesn’t actually support this collaborative nonsense – still, a good starting point). Get everyone’s expectations in line. Discuss it until a coherent concept for the game emerges. If half the players want to torch every tavern they see, the other half expects to kill goblins in designated goblin-killing areas for at least two hours each session, and all the while the GM prepares for intrigue and mystery investigations, someone is going to be disappointed. The need for communication exists in all roleplaying games, we neglect it at our peril.

Letting Players Contribute

But how does this actually work? How can we get players to participate as partners in the creation of the game, not consumers of GM’s creativity? Let us examine some of the methods used in existing games. Obviously, this won’t be an exhaustive list of either methods or games, just ones I’m familiar with.

Picking narrative elements to play with

Many games use character generation or advancement as a major step in establishing common setting and as means for players to signal the kind of stories they’re interested in. I suspect this trend started somewhat inadvertently, and players may not even realize they’re doing it. Have you ever taken a story flaw that granted you a nemesis? Played an elf in a human-centric and prejudiced setting? Took levels in the assassin prestige class and joined an assassins’ guild to do so? Congratulations, you either caused the existence of that nemesis or guild, or at the very least brought game’s focus upon them. While prejudice against elves would probably have existed in the world regardless, you chose to interact with it. You’ve introduced these things as narrative elements, demonstrating to the GM that you want to explore them.

Of course, likely as not, you took the nemesis flaw because you thought story flaws are essentially free and really wanted the extra build points, played an elf because elves are awesome, and summarily avoided the assassins’ guild as the game’s plot was about something else entirely. It takes a mental shift on the part of both player and GM to see these elements for all they can be – which is what these posts are for.

Fate deserves special mention here. First, there is explicit cooperative setting generation in it, something to admire and steal. More universally, aspects are a prime example of a character’s build affecting the game. They are elements of the character’s story you’d like to examine from all possible angles, and the very act of using them will cause this exploration.

Limiting selection

Limiting the choices that have impact on the game is an important tool in GM’s arsenal. Perhaps they won’t let you play an elf at all, as they don’t want to handle the issue of prejudice as one of the central themes of their game. Of particular interest in this context are Icons of 13th Age. They allow players to declare their character’s relationship with iconic NPCs and their organisations. More importantly, these relationships have a chance to crop up each game, and so by choosing one Icon over another players demonstrate their interest in exploring them. As Rob Donoghue notes in his blog, by picking Icons for the game, the GM can provide a strong theme for players to further refine. Indeed, while the default 13th Age Icons are epic NPCs that make sense if the PCs will one day be their equals, in a more localized game Icons could be factions, cults, tribes, politicians or a mix thereof. Icons can be lifted from 13th Age wholesale, and I expect many interesting things will be made of them.

Modifying reality

Methods listed so far have one significant advantage: they occur outside of game proper, allowing players to immerse in their characters. Certain genres (and players!) work better within the confines of a character’s point of view. It’s hard to be afraid of a monster if you’re the one who’s put it there, just like it’s hard to feel smart about discovering a clue you just came up with. It’s still possible to play out a story of characters being afraid or smart, though, but that’s a different topic.

For more adventurous groups, there are games that take this further, letting players dictate their will upon the game reality. The aforementioned aspects from Fate can also be created on the fly. With a successful skill check a character may realize something that has always been true. While players undoubtedly use this ability for their benefit, sometimes that actually means creating a complication to earn fate points. The whole cycle of earning fate points through complications to spend fate points on overcoming further complications is brilliant, as a story is created almost incidentally in the process. A very smart game, Fate.

Then there is Apocalypse World (and others) with its “Ask questions, build upon answers”, simplest method to steal as it involves no mechanics at all. Whenever the GM feels like, they ask one or all players a question as to what they see or why something is happening. While I’ve usually seen it used to expand upon the backstory of characters (“Who gave you this shiny sword?” “Why did your affair with X end?”), there is no reason it can’t be used for contemporary events. This can range from offloading some of the background descriptions (“What does the tavern look like?”), to full-scale narrative control (“The door of your prison cell opens. Who is standing there?”). These questions work best if they (or at least events leading up to them) contain something unusual in them to spark imagination. Compare “What did your employer promise you?” and “What did your employer, the blue dragon, promise you?”

My own previous attempt at exploring this method sought to impose some structure on it while staying true to the spirit of collaboration, and resulted in a mini add-on system that can be put over any other game.

And of course there are games that are weirder still. Take Mystic Empyrean, in which players take turns asking and answering questions about each scene, and the only special role the main GM has is to answer questions about the lore.

…And Living With It

So now you have players introducing their ideas into the game. How do you (together!) keep the story from dissipating into a chaotic tangle of disparate threads?

Chekhov’s Gunpile

There is a dramatic writing principle stated by Anton Chekhov, called “Chekhov’s Gun“: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Of course, a game is not a product of writing and re-writing. No benefit of hindsight, no way to go back and add or remove a gun. What to do? You can’t ensure all guns will fire. Instead, toss in more guns! As many as you can think of. This results in what I’ve taken to calling a Chekhov’s Gunpile.

The elements players may choose when they make characters; the questions you may ask and answers you may receive; any and all ideas introduced: these are your guns. Your aim is to have enough of these idea-guns, so that no matter what happens, some of them will fire. Ideally, “ricochet” will hit other guns, resulting in a chain reaction of cause and effect, linking ideas together in ways only possible at that exact moment of play.

Incorporate, not invalidate

These unexpected links of ideas introduced by all the participants form the plot of the game. Seeing the way ideas can connect becomes not just a goal, but a source of fun. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s always been one of the main sources of fun for me as a GM, it just took trying to connect my ideas to those of other people to realize it. Improv theater is obviously a relative of this style of play: participants make offers of ideas to each other, then try to build on them with ideas of their own, not block them.

Once something is stated, it becomes reality in-game. As more and more facts are added, the game grows more complex. And with that complexity grows the risk of stating something else that clashes with an already established fact, either inadvertently or, worse, purposefully. Complicating things even further, some of the established reality of the game is only established in the assumptions of players, and those, as we know, can wildly differ. That is what happens in the tavern-torching example from the previous post: the GM assumes it’s obvious that the PCs will peacefully enter the tavern, as that is what PCs do in her head. Players, knowing of no such thing, happily proceed to burn the place to the ground, invalidating the unstated offer of the GM.

Communicate your assumptions. Respect ideas of others, even if they’re not to your liking. Instead of invalidating these ideas, either by outright denying or ignoring them, find ways to channel them into something agreeable to all. Be mindful that it’s not your own story anymore, even if you’re still the GM. It’s everyone’s story. Get used to it.

Method to the chaos

Naturally, most games won’t be as free or intimidating as pure improv, with setting, theme and prior discussion providing plenty of context upon which to base your creativity (potential topic for a future post and/or PhD: maximizing creative utility of a campaign setting). Established context is your friend! Use it to vet any ideas you may have to see if they’ll fit in at all, or if some taverns are better left un-torched after all.

The frameworks of tremulus (and fronts of Apocalypse World, on which they’re based) are another useful tool for providing a structure in such a game. Of particular interest is the advice found therein of picking a theme for each potential plot line, and filling events relating to that plot line with symbolism of this theme. Thus, foreshadowing occurs seemingly of its own accord.

Your Turn

There you have it, my thoughts on collaborative storytelling in roleplaying games, why and how it can be attempted. While far from being an expert on it, I’m still fascinated by the topic, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to give it a shot. It’s long been the domain of indie rpgs, so try some of the ones mentioned here, or others – there are so many. Experiment, and steal what works for you. Not to sound like a motivational poster, but be creative, and encourage your fellow players to do the same. Make stories together.

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