RPG Musings Part 1: Who controls the story?

3 08 2014

I’ve had a lot of role-playing-game musings as of late and need a place to sort some of them out. This is the first of (hopefully) a multi-part series on pen-and-paper RPGs. While there are a lot of things to talk about from crunch to fluff to the relationship of this genre to other forms of geekery (e.g. tactical war games, LARPing, etc), I want to start with story.

Lately I’ve been looking at systems that allow for more story telling without overtaxing anyone person at the table. Several systems seem to be “story optional.” As much as I love them both Iron Kingdoms RPG Core Rules and Pathfinder seem not to care about the story. You can play each as basically skirmisher board games without any problems. This has forced me to look at the problem from different angles and look at other systems for help.

So who controls the story in your typical RPG? There are several possible answers here.

1) One one level, there’s the game master/dungeon master. The persons who are “running the game” obviously have a lot of control over the story. They at bare minimum tell provide description and colour to a scene and arbitrate the rules of an encounter. However they might also be the game designer (or at least the game tinkerer who has adapted a scenario to fit the party or larger story arc).

Some systems, such as the Fantasy Flight Star Wars Edge of The Empire RPG Core Rulebook, place even more of the story in the GM’s hands by having them improvise story elements based off of dice rolls. What does it mean that a player succeeds with a disadvantage? Well, that’s up to the GM to show. The GM in such systems either has too much power over players or becomes fatigued by the system forcing them to do too much.

2) On another level the story is also in the hands of the players. Players (at least should) have names, backstories, hopes and dreams, and other narrative hooks that help tie them to each other and the adventure. These narrative elements can (AND SHOULD) influence the story in the mind of the GM.

Some systems put an amazing amounts likewise put even more of the story into the players’ hands. I recently ran through the beta of Dark. It’s a fascinating system that forces the players to come up with a narrative explanation of why they are using the skills/abilities/card that they are to overcome a certain obstacle. My gaming group had some problems with this, but the idea is sound.

Another two systems that builds player story building into the very fabric of the mechanics are the Fate: Core System and the Cortex Role Playing Game System. I’ve played both and like them. They allow for the players to build the narrative with the GM. Always a nice bit

3) Of course, if you are using a pre-generated adventure/module there is a game designer somewhere in the background here as well. This is often where issues of rail-roading come into play. Indeed, if you are in an established world (Eberon, Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, Star Wars, etc.) there is even more of an issue. Does what the players and GM are doing change the canon? Are the players always relegated to the periphery of the world with only voyeuristic glimpses at Yoda or Drizzt?

Dark puts too much onus on the players. Star Wars puts too much on the GM. Fate just seems to overtax everyone from what I can tell. The best I’ve played with has been Cortex. However, that’s might be a function of the group I’ve been in more than the system itself.

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