Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

A post on one of the forums I frequent prompted me to write a rather long response in attempt to answer a question about the meaning of “collaborative gaming” and how a GM handles giving up control of the narrative of a RPG story. My answer prompted the lot of fruitful and interesting discussion, and so I thought I would reformat and tweak it a bit and post it here.

As a preface, there are a lot of great explanations of these out there already and I am no where close to an expert on these issues. Instead, I’m just trying to summarize my experiences and thoughts. So what follows is a mix of fact, opinion, and personal interpretation.

To begin, it’s important to realize that there is a continuum of “collaborative” games with different levels of player control involved.

At one end of the continuum you have games like Burning Wheel which uses “Beliefs” which help define what the game should involve or issues the player wants to explore. Essentially these are what are known as flags in the “theoretical” community) and “Instincts” which are automatic actions/reactions which the player predefines and which control the narrative in certain ways.

For example, an instinct might be “When threatened, I draw my sword.” This is an automatic, instantaneous reaction in mechanical terms which means when the PC is surprised by an enemy, he draws his sword and is essentially never caught flat-footed or unarmed in normal situations. Wow, that’s powerful! But wait…. what happens when the town mayor threatens to throw him in jail? Guess what, he draws his sword. In other words, the instinct predefines certain narrative bits and acts as an advantage in some situations and in others can act as a complication. In my opinion and experience, this is a very cool thing for me to have access to as a GM and I try to incorporate the concept in to a lot of my games, including games using Savage Worlds – I tend to sneak these in slowly on players new to the concept so that they don’t get too overwhelmed by a “non-rulebook rule”.

We can then move along on the continuum to games that involve shared narrative in which the lines between players & GM are blurred in that all share in narrating the outcomes of events. Cold City andDogs in the Vineyard would be an example of this type of game. The GM determines the plot and directs the action but when it comes to conflicts (which include physical, verbal, mental, etc.), the players have the opportunity to narrate the outcome of the conflict, including its consequences. The GM here gives up more control over the outcome of the individual situations, but does not give up control of the story. A good system (CC & DiTV are both good systems), has rule mechanics to control this exchange and guard against a rogue player from completely destroying the story.

For example, in CC the narrator must incorporate the actions and level of success/failure of each participant in to the narrative. Thus, if a player obtained a “mediocre” result when he attempted to shoot the monster, he can’t describe his character “blowing the creature’s head off, spraying its brains across the room.”. Ultimately the GM moderates this process but usually, once players understand and are comfortable with the system, you don’t really have major issues and at most you might have someone stretch things a bit too much in which case the group or the GM might step in. At other times, the narrative just fits despite the dice and so you go with it even if it’s not 100% true to the results of the conflict mechanics. If you have a jerk at the table who can’t or won’t follow the rules, there’s no system that can help you and I would argue that even with something as rigid as D20 he’ll be a problem (i.e., He’s probably the min/maxing, power gamer who works hard to derail the story any chance he gets).

Finally, there are the collaborative games in which the whole group works to create the plot, determine the antagonist, and then generate the story together. Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, and My Life with Master are examples of games where player involvement in the narrative and creation of the story is much heavier. On the far extreme of this type of game you have story games like Polaris and The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries where you do not even need a GM and where all the participants are on equal footing. Again, good mechanics are critical to the success of this endeavor.

So now that I’ve explained that there are different levels of narrative control, I’ll focus on a specific example of how one game (Cold City) handles it.

In CC, when you resolve any conflict the participant who “wins” gets to narrate the results of the outcome. In other words, they describe what happens during the conflict and what the results are. The winner is determined by the dice and are not simply arbitrarily determined: The opponents roll the dice and the person (typically player vs GM but not always) that wins the conflict gets to perform the narration: They have the right to narrate what happened in the scene, with certain limits, as determined by the degree of success determined by the mechanics of the game.

Narration is guided by several rules: They must incorporate all the traits and issues that have been used to add to the dice pools. They must also take into account the the level of success they achieved on the dice. The CC rules give some rough guidelines for these but there’s nothing elaborate because ultimately it’s up to the GM, and I would argue the group as a whole in most cases. It might be obvious but just in case it isn’t: If the GM wins a conflict, he narrates the outcome. Thus, the GM is still part of the narrative process too during conflicts.

Ok, so to get to the heart of the question: How do you keep players from derailing your story (or plot)?

  1. In systems like CC they can’t: The mechanics apply to conflicts only, not the overall story. They could shape the story, but they can’t really alter it in any significant way. Instead you just give players some control over the narrative of what happens in individual scenes and let them shape the nature of the outcomes. IMO, as a GM this is awesome because it lets the players take a little more ownership in the game, takes some work off your shoulders, and continuously gives you feedback/hints on what the players want. One of the laws of good GMing (it’s probably in Robin Laws book) is “Give the players the game they want.”
  2. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about it: If the ultimate story is good and everyone has fun, who cares if they derailed your master plot? In fact, I would argue that if it bothers a GM, he is not ultimately interested in what the players do but instead just seeing his home brewed version of the “Lord of the Rings” play out like he planned. This leads to all kinds of malpractice including fudging rolls, railroading, dead ending player choices, and use of deus ex machina maneuvers.

The notion/model where the GM generates the story/plot and the players just play bit parts is flawed in my opinion and often leads to railroading, whether it is overt or covert. Many GMs think they’re giving players a choice but ultimately they are just playing their own little egocentric story and pretending the players are actually shaping the story. I realize this is going against the established canon of the typical model of how a GM functions, but if you give the “throw the predetermined storyline out the window” approach a real try you’ll find it very liberating.

This does not mean your games are plot or story-less: That would be a disaster. What I’m saying is that you come up with an overall theme or idea and then let the game’s developments, the player’s wants, the character’s flags, and the thrill of the moment to shape the story so that it develops organically rather than having a rigid, predetermined story that must be adhered to.Ok, so I’ve pontificated long enough. If anyone wants me to write more on this subject, let me know and I’ll try to explain some of the concepts and ideas in more detail.