Saturday, October 1, 2011

Caveat Lector

The last few entries have been about storytelling in roleplaying. I thought it critical to mention here a point of clarification. The debate over the amount and nature of storytelling that should be a part of roleplaying games is heated enough to declare exactly where I'm standing.

First and foremost I don't tell you how to play your game. Noone should. Your game should be fun and engaging for you and your crew, noone else's crap matters one whit. So keep that in mind. I am not disseminating gaming advice from on high here. Noone should really do that. A recent conversation I had with one of the gaming world's founding fathers, Rob Kuntz, made me aware that noone should do that--not even him as one of the last torchbearers. His advice seems to be that there should be no limitations on the game's possibilities. "The future is wide open" as Tom Petty would say. So when I speak in terms of absolutes on storytelling it is a rhetorical device, nothing more. It is not a philosophical statement of any finality. Except perhaps within my own perspective.

So what kind of storytelling am I talking about? Well I can tell you what it's not a little easier than I can what it _is_ exactly. The best way to experience my gaming flavor is to sit down and my table for awhile. So by storytelling I do not mean a story I write that I think the players might like to participate in. Nor a story in which I try to write parts for the PCs run by my players. There is no outline of events beyond the setting and background I have created. My job as GM is to create place. I tell myself all sorts of stories within that place. And if my GMing comes close at all to fiction it is in the reams of notes and mental imaginings that I create within my world or setting. But as world creator I can't be too attached to these creations or the world in which they are in. I have to maintain a certain distance from the desire to control all events therein. That is because the majority of the active participants in the world are not me. They are the players and their actions will dynamically affect my world.

In one school of thought (and I almost called it "old school", but I don't like that term anymore) the GM is as neutral as possible and the game is simply the player's taking actions and the GMing arbitrating results. That there is no "story", only a place or location or adventure awaiting the PCs introduction. that the players will make decisions to interact with that setting and it's inhabitants, but no linearity of creation exists.

Another school of thought fosters the idea that players desire to be a part of an epic struggle or tale. And that it is the job of the GM to guide PCs through the events that are a part of that story. That the story drives the game instead of the players. Players interact with the story and not so much the setting in which the story takes place.

For my part I strike a middle ground between these two. There are events constantly unfolding in the campaign world. Some small and insignificant, others epic and world spanning. PCs become involved in those events to lesser or greater degrees. But the game doesn't focus on campaign events per se, but rather the lives of the player characters. And inasmuch as each life is itself an epic of struggle between opposing forces the PCs lives will be as well. It is my job to weave a story out of the PCs lives. Whether they choose to become involved in the assassination plot to kill the emperor and summon a God-King, or to hang out at the city's river docks and get in brawls and cause mayhem there. Either path leads to a story, and neither more engaging than the other. Both are engrossing, filled with danger and intrigue and treasure to be won. The Emperor's assassination will still be attempted, the cult will still seek to summon their new regal deity and the thugs and smugglers will still prowl the docks. Events will affect the PCs directly and indirectly. But the story is where the player characters are at, in what they choose to do. It is my job to focus on events that directly affect the players and help their stories unfold.

I may have spent months writing out the behind the scenes structure of the Emperor's holdings and political landscape. But the story is where the PCs are, not where I want them to be. For this reason much of my planning is loose and constantly in development. A GM must be prepared to unfold the landscape between games based on where the PCs last decided to go and what they last decided to do. But the next installment in the story happens when the session begins again and the PCs decide to take action.

That's the kind of story I'm talking about. And for me gaming wouldn't be gaming without it. We've all been in games where the story is no more engaging than the planned encounters on the paper. And those games can often be dry and lackluster. And we may have also experienced those games where it is so obvious where the GM wants us to go next, that we could simply have him tell us instead of deciding for ourselves. This I call railroading. Just as unimpressive are those games where a GM is so wedded to the idea that PCs make all the decisions he will wait around giving us nothing to work with in order to make informed decisions. Those adventures often feel as if we have to write them for the GM.

The games I prefer and the way I game is to invite PCs to enter a world where danger will confront them at every turn. Where the happenings in the world around them are real and in constant motion, and open to their influence and input. Where each life is a tapestry unto itself and they all weave into the greater story of the imaginary world history that is the creation we are all a part of.

Just wanted to make that clear.


ADD Grognard said...

And no I haven't abandoned ye, I have been lurking and finishing DEEP DELVE. It's up and running if you want to take a gander.

BTW: Very good series of posts. I see your conversations have yielded even greater insight. I think it goes without saying that having a chance to talk to the first wave is invaluable no matter who that might be but the one I feel might have really shook the foundations was Hargrave...I wish I had had the chance to speak with him.I won't miss another opportunity.

Chris said...

Hey Welcome back ADDG! Good to hear from you. No, I knew you were lurking about, just likely very busy.

And yeah, I never really imagined having a chance to talk with any of the "founders", as I don't get to any of the big conventions. And our conversation was enlightening. I'm still trying to type up all we spoke about and get it back to him for his perusal.

The storytelling posts are really built out of two ongoing conversations. One with my brother who is on here as Master of Grey Skull and with Rob. Rob would like to extend the conversation and I look forward to that.

I'm gonna shoot you an email soon so be looking for it.

thanks again ADDG, you've been very supportive. I'll be sure and take a look at Deep Delve too.

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