On Story

In my previous post, I attempted to make the point that individual encounters don’t need to have a “balanced” chance for player character victory in order for the game as a whole to be considered “fair”. That led one of the commenters to make the following statement, which I thought deserved a bigger and more thoughtful response than a mere reply to a reply might afford.

I should add, we (Joe and I) don’t seem to have common goals between us; but, rather that all the players (including the referee) at our table share a common goal. For our table, the goal is an interesting story within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting.

In current RPG theory, to have some story or plot into which the player characters fit seems to be the model. This is actually something that began, as far as I can tell, with Dragonlance. It was fully embraced in 3.x, with its “adventure arcs” and so forth, and has been carried forward to its logical conclusion in both Pathfinder and 4E.

I will freely admit that I don’t have a “story” (by which I mean plot in the literary sense) in mind when I run a campaign. My games are all of the “sandbox” style, and I personally find such to be the most enjoyable sort. (I might add, but honestly don’t think it should need to be said, that I don’t think others must necessarily cleave to my own preferences; all too often in our little echo chamber people see a statement of personal preference as an attack on those who don’t share it.)

To my mind, the best stories are an emergent property of the interaction of the player characters with the setting. I’ve posted on this subject in the past, in a more abstract sense, but I thought it might be appropriate to mention how I handle this approach in my own game.

There are dozens –scores– of stories to be had in my campaign. The players, in their wanderings throughout the setting, will stumble on some of them, and are free to pick up those dangling threads and follow them, or not, as the whim takes them. Too, sometimes I will take an off-handed remark by a player, perhaps just said as a bit of color to add to his own character, and run with it, turning it into yet another plot thread that the party as a whole might choose to pursue. But I don’t have “The Story” in mind, into which the players are set to play. There is no Dark Lord that must be overcome. Or, if there is, the players aren’t necessarily expected to be the ones who overcome him.

So I will disagree with Eric (the above-mentioned commenter) when he says that my goal, and the goal of the players at my table is not necessarily “an interesting story within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting”. There is nothing at all contradictory between an adversarial relationship between a game master and the players, and the desire to see an interesting story unfold as we explore the setting together. Rather, the story emerges from the conflict between the players and the GM. As various obstacles and adversaries are placed in the path of the players, the story emerges therefrom.

The players don’t know where the story is going to lead. I don’t know where the story is going to lead. Indeed, the story might well end as the players make a stupid decision and get themselves killed. The enjoyment stems from their being able to overcome the obstacles I place in their path, and their control of their own destiny by being able to pick and choose from the obstacles in order to forge their own destiny, “within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting”.

Rules and setting don’t mean they have a chance to win every encounter. But even from the encounters they must needs flee from, story is derived.

Story is conflict, after all. I see no reason it cannot come from the conflict between players and GM, as long as the GM does not abuse his position of absolute power and turn conflict into automatic defeat.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

1 thought on “On Story

  1. Well said!

    The players don't know where the story is going to lead. I don't know where the story is going to lead. Indeed, the story might well end as the players make a stupid decision and get themselves killed.

    This part of your play matches ours exactly, which is why I often think of our group as "Old School". We, too, play in a sandbox-style campaign. Its larger story arc (retelling the legends of King Arthur) is more the setting than the main plot for our own stories.

    Very frequently I'll go into a session with a setup and not know the way out. For the example from the previous thread, I could think of no way to escape the Sons of Wotan alive. They were an overwhelming force that was a warranted response to a player action from the previous session.

    Similarly, when the party goes into an encounter (or one of the frequent large scale army battles) I have no idea how it will end up. I set up the scenarios and they figure a way out (or die trying.) If the players choose to follow some other opportunity, so be it! We'll go that way even if I'm not prepared. After 3-4 gaming sessions where I prepare multiple avenues to explore, we have lots of dormant adventures that can be brought up at a moments notice.

    Using theoretical terms, I would most accurately describe our gaming as Simulationist, though we stick to the lighter side of written rules and a sandbox-style game world preparation within the infrastructure of King Arthur's legends.

    If you ever find yourself near San Jose, CA, you or any reader here is welcome to join us for one or more sessions. The campaign is explicitly set up to allow transient players to fit right into the mix.

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