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"Roleplaying is all about telling the GM's plot." A common misconception?

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There seems to be going around this expectation that roleplaying focused mainly on telling the GM's story, almost like the GM is the movie/theater director and the players are the actors for characters in the play and have to follow the script and move it along.  I think this is a fundamental flawed conception about roleplaying games. Not so much that you can not tell a story in an RPG, but that you are neither telling the story of the GM nor does it need necessarily need to be the big focus of a game. If your focus is just telling a story then you might as well just play a well-written Campaign of Descent or Imperial Assault. Those are telling stories without trouble.

To get maybe my point a little better across, something from Matthew Colville, which imho nailed this in his Story vs Adventure video. 

(And ironically that guy is a DnD GM, a game notorious for degrading into a tactical storytelling dungeon crawler.)

Am I wrong with calling this a misconception or is there a good reason for perceiving the game as a movie or taking  storyline over characters' agenda? 

Edited by SEApocalypse

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I agree. No better way to make me feel like a game is wasting my time than when I see the railroad appear. I don't know if Colville is the best ambassador for this because he plans and uses encounters with wargame detail, even down to needing the right props and creatures ahead of time because of his big story combats. 

I do heavy world prep but light adventure prep, that way the players can do what they want, and I have some idea what is there or could be there, but I am not resenting them deciding not to fight What's his name The Vile in a big pre-made map battle with miniatures and what not. 

To me as a player, no story is interesting unless it was my idea to engage in it, period. 

This topic is often hard to discuss because it seems to carry this counter: So am I just supposed to not plan anything? If you don't make an adventure then nothing cool will happen.

That is the fear of the Story GM, the Novelist GM who wants to essentially have players be actors as you describe. 

But in reality the answer is that you can have vague notions or logical consequences, you just can't pre-ordain them and make the PCs follow that path. Even if you don't coerce them, having the sense that there is only one path to adventure makes the rest of your world useless. So to me it's about not committing until it's time to commit, and being able to travel light as a GM. 

 

Edited by Archlyte

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What my big group did (before babies appeared and ruined everything :P ) worked really well.  I, as GM, wanted to be able to prepare things so that the sessions tan more smoothly.  The characters wanted freedom to explore the world and tell their own story.  So what did we do? 

We communicated.  When we reached a point where the party might go one of several ways, I'd ask them, out of game, which path they were going to follow.  They'd tell me, and I'd prepare that, with the necessary surprises and twists to keep it interesting. 

This is often where backstory comes into play: we all want to have fun and be part of a story we wrote together (at least my group did; your experience may vary), so tell me what motivates your character.  What do they want?  What are they running from?  I'll take those pieces, put them together, and make a story that your character (and therefore hopefully you as well) wants to follow.  And if there's a major diversion from the expected (and believe me, there have been), we'll talk about where the group will go next so I can be ready once they get there. 

Seems to work out :) .

Edited by Absol197

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Roleplaying is about telling a story. The GM is the guide, the players are the actors, and there is/can be a lot of improv that all are feeding on and creating from. If roleplaying isn't telling a story, then why is it so fun to tell the story of what happened to others, or even relive it with the other players after the adventure is over?

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I would have to say with my group of 5, the story is why we are all there. My team agrees that if we are handed a pen and paper rpg and then told "ok your character wakes up where ever he would now do stuff". Then the GM sits and looks at us expecting us to just poke about to produce some sort of entertainment. That results in boredom because there is no goal or driving force to do anything at all but maybe dink around which is by default boring.

I prep the overall theme and setting, give them a goal through the characters i play. Example: Build up our rebel cell to free ourselves from the empire. is the main overarching goal but also present more direct and immediate problems. Example: We need to buy a Y-Wing(we have a pilot with nothing to pilot) but are a bit short, so we need to hit this money train for the imps. After that is when i let the players loose to find their own path to that objective.

So story and reason to make our characters actually do things other than just poke about is extremely important.

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32 minutes ago, Absol197 said:

We communicated.  When we reached a point where the party might go one of several ways, is ask them, out of game, which path they were going to follow.  They'd tell me, and I'd prepare that, with the necessary surprises and twists to keep it interesting. 

This is exactly what I do in the game I'm GMing. I enjoy doing some prepwork beforehand to have enough things up my sleeve to keep things interesting for the players, regardless of the choices they take. I try to ensure that any time there is going to be a major choice the players will make that will drastically send them in a different direction, it's happening towards the end of the session so that the characters can discuss the merits of each option, gather intelligence, and then make their choice so that I have a week to prep things for the next session. Occasionally this results in shorter sessions (~2 hours instead of our normal 3), but no one seems to mind, especially since it ends things on a good narrative beat. Then, I can set up enough situations that might occur in the next session that makes it easier to run.

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In the interest of being fair and real, I should add that there are people who are perfectly ok with playing out a pre-planned adventure. Either they don't care that they have no other real choices or their buy-in is so great that they are fine with whatever happens in the session. I'm not one of these people, and even in video games if I feel channeled into paths I lose interest. The bank accounts of many a developer who makes a linear game shows that there is a good chunk of people who will take this kind of limited variety game with no replay value and love it. 

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Whether or not you are telling a story, a story is the result. How this comes about is largely dependent on the players and their characters. Some groups are going to be self motivated and go find their own brand of trouble whether the GM makes a story or not. Some groups are going to need that story to drive their adventure. Sometimes those are the same people in different settings.

Like Absol said, communication is the key here. The players tell the GM what they want to do and the GM should at least give an idea of where he wants to go with the adventure. This is a constant iterative process starting from session 0 thru the end of the campaign. This is also a collaborative process in that the GM cant force the narrative and the players shouldnt completely ignore it. 

My personal procedure as a GM is to have a very bare bones outline of a story ready for session 0, then when the players make their characters see how their characters fit into the story. As the game progresses I dangle hooks for the story adventures, but also make side quests for their character ideas. Luckily, I have been playing with the same group for the better part of three decades so it isnt hard to get them to bite on my hooks.

A story is a way to give direction to the random walk most adventurers take, not a set of rails to control them.

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45 minutes ago, Banditks said:

"ok your character wakes up where ever he would now do stuff". Then the GM sits and looks at us expecting us to just poke about to produce some sort of entertainment. That results in boredom because there is no goal or driving force to do anything …

I may argue here that your group has no characters at all. Instead of creating characters at chargen, your group seems to consist of fakes, because a character can not be without goals and motivations.
And don't get me wrong, I am all for having prepared GMs, and I am all for having GMs helping the players to find motivations for their characters. Guidance is nice. Still story can't be a reason why a person is doing something. It might be the reason why a piece of paper exists, but it's not what the moves a character that is created with the help of that piece of paper. 

Disclaimer: I don't want to criticize anyones way to play. If it is fun to you, more power to you. I am criticizing the quoted statement, because it seems to be false and a case of correlation != causation. I am big on the narrative parts of RPGs (character development, plots, etc), maybe even too big. 
 

7 minutes ago, SavageBob said:

Story versus adventure... It's semantics. "Story" doesn't have to mean "railroad," nor should it. Improvisational theater is a thing for a reason. There's scaffolding in place, but that's different from a railroad.

True. Absolutely. 
But at the other hand going onto a mountain bike trip can be a great adventure, while being a completely poor story. If you focus on the poor story, you might miss out on a great adventure. 

 

Edited by SEApocalypse

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2 hours ago, SEApocalypse said:

There seems to be going around this expectation that roleplaying focused mainly on telling a story, almost like the GM is the movie/theater director and the players are the actors for characters in the play and have to follow the story and move it along.  I think this is a fundamental flawed conception about roleplaying games.

For some it is, for some it isn't, and there's wiggle room either way.  Debating whether it "is or isn't" is pointless, classic wrongbadfun.

Personally I tend to find sandboxes boring, the games seem less about character and end goals, and more about equipment and other bean counting.  Yawn.  But I'm not going to tell someone they aren't "roleplaying" just because they do it that way.

As noted above, the phrase "telling a story" doesn't have to mean railroading, it depends how tightly wound each event is with the overall story arc.  I take a very loose approach to storytelling in that there is an overall plot and end goal target.  There are key NPCs who are doing their thing, but how or when the PCs interact with the events or NPCs is up to them, it may never happen.  The PC's actions can certainly alter the trajectory of the plot (though as yet they've never altered the end goal), in which case I go back to the drawing board.  Rinse.  Repeat.

It is important that the group are on the same page about what kind of roleplaying game it is so the players can decide whether or not they're interested in the first place.

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3 hours ago, SEApocalypse said:

There seems to be going around this expectation that roleplaying focused mainly on telling a story, almost like the GM is the movie/theater director and the players are the actors for characters in the play and have to follow the story and move it along.  I think this is a fundamental flawed conception about roleplaying games. Not so much that you can not tell a story in an RPG, but that you are neither telling the story of the GM nor does it need necessarily need to be the big focus of a game. 

Then what is the focus of your game?  If there is a narrative structure, that's a story. Every game module has a story to it.  The printed material has a starting point, scripted characters (the npcs), and a scene flow from beginning to end.  It's even got a climax and resolution, almost like it's a *gasp* story being told.  How is this different from telling a story, because that's exactly what it is, yet you are trying to say it's not.

 

 

3 hours ago, SEApocalypse said:

If your focus is just telling a story then you might as well just play a well-written Campaign of Descent or Imperial Assault. Those are telling stories without trouble.
 

What are you even talking about??  Where are you getting this idea that telling a story means you don't have trouble?   Seriously what do you think a roleplaying game that is "telling a story" actually plays out like, compared to whatever your idea of a "normal" game should be?  I really want to know what you seem to think is happening at a table that is using this flawed conception about roleplaying games.  So please, tell me how it differs so I can actually see what the heck you are talking about.   Because as it stands, you aren't making any sense to me with this discussion.   You say that telling a story railroads your players, but if there is no story then what?  They're just doing individual encounters with no connective tissue at all?  How is that any less railroading them?   Please clarify.

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20 minutes ago, whafrog said:

For some it is, for some it isn't, and there's wiggle room either way.  Debating whether it "is or isn't" is pointless, classic wrongbadfun.

Personally I tend to find sandboxes boring, the games seem less about character and end goals, and more about equipment and other bean counting.  Yawn.

See my disclaimer: "I don't want to criticize anyones way to play. If it is fun to you, more power to you. I am criticizing the quoted statement, because it seems to be false and a case of correlation != causation."  


@KungFuFerret If the video did not get the point across … I am afraid my language skills are not good enough to make that point any better. That's the reasons why I used it in my post in the first place. 
But the question after our focus is easily answered: Adventure and character play, which often creates a story which does not align at all with the pre-written script. Alas personal preferences are besides the point. 

Lastly, to get a misunderstanding out of the way: I was not saying that telling a story means not having trouble, I was making the point that thematic board games or cooperative miniature games can tell pre-written stories just fine. Roleplaying a character, a unique personality with motivations and goals,  seems to me one distinct difference between those genres. 

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Sea, I think there might be some misconceptions as well on what having an RPG be a "story" means, and what we're talking about.  I would think that very few of us who consider our RPG experiences "stories" would liken it to a board game like Imperial Assault.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The story of an RPG is not a story that the GM wrote beforehand that the players are walking their characters through from narrative beat to narrative beat.  In fact, for myself and my group, who consider our games mostly story-based, 90-95% of the story is unwritten by the time session 0 happens, and a good third to half remains unwritten by the time the campaign is a quarter of the way over.

As a GM, I can hardly be expected to write the story of Ciaeyre* the halfling outrider, thrown into the world by her tribe on a furtive mission carrying a dire artifact, and her travels with Yenhand the gnomish nightmare spinner and the elven thief he captured and brainwashed into being his traveling companion, without first meeting these characters and knowing what drives then, and what kind of story is to be told BY those characters.

There is a story, yes, but the finale of the story is set by the players and the characters they created.  The GM simply builds the road to get those characters from where they start to where they want to be.  And if the players or characters don't like the scenery the road is traveling through, they can (and should!) find a different path to build that road along.  In the campaign I was referencing above, the story that ultimately got told, and one my group still refers to as the best campaign they'd ever been in, could not have been told by a different group of characters, because the story was built around those characters.

Games like Descent or Imperial Assault, on the other hand, the missions are the same no matter who runs through them.  The identity of the characters is essentially meaningless, because the same missions would happen regardless of who was there.  Sure, they might be accomplished a different way, but the result of that "scene" is a foregone conclusion.  Which isn't a story.  At least, not in my opinion.

 

* I can never remember how to spell this darn halfling's name :P !

Edited by Absol197

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4 hours ago, Archlyte said:

I agree. No better way to make me feel like a game is wasting my time than when I see the railroad appear. I don't know if Colville is the best ambassador for this because he plans and uses encounters with wargame detail, even down to needing the right props and creatures ahead of time because of his big story combats. 

I do heavy world prep but light adventure prep, that way the players can do what they want, and I have some idea what is there or could be there, but I am not resenting them deciding not to fight What's his name The Vile in a big pre-made map battle with miniatures and what not. 

To me as a player, no story is interesting unless it was my idea to engage in it, period. 

This topic is often hard to discuss because it seems to carry this counter: So am I just supposed to not plan anything? If you don't make an adventure then nothing cool will happen.

That is the fear of the Story GM, the Novelist GM who wants to essentially have players be actors as you describe. 

But in reality the answer is that you can have vague notions or logical consequences, you just can't pre-ordain them and make the PCs follow that path. Even if you don't coerce them, having the sense that there is only one path to adventure makes the rest of your world useless. So to me it's about not committing until it's time to commit, and being able to travel light as a GM. 

 

Says the person imposing penalties on players for their characters not behaving the way the GM wants....

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5 minutes ago, Absol197 said:

Sea, I think there might be some misconceptions as well on what having an RPG be a "story" means, and what we're talking about.  I would think that very few of us who consider our RPG experiences "stories" would liken it to a board game like Imperial Assault.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The story of an RPG is not a story that the GM wrote beforehand that the players are walking their characters through from narrative beat to narrative beat.  In fact, for myself and my group, who consider our games mostly story-based, 90-95% of the story is unwritten by the time session 0 happens, and a good third to half remains unwritten by the time the campaign is a quarter of the way over.

As a GM, I can hardly be expected to write the story of Ciaeyre* the halfling outrider, thrown into the world by her tribe on a furtive mission carrying a dire artifact, and her travels with Yenhand the gnomish nightmare spinner and the elven thief he captured and brainwashed into being his traveling companion, without first meeting these characters and knowing what drives then, and what kind of story is to be told BY those characters.

There is a story, yes, but the finale of the story is set by the players and the characters they created.  The GM simply builds the road to get those characters from where they start to where they want to be.  And if the players or characters don't like the scenery the road is traveling through, they can (and should!) find a different path to build that road along.  In the campaign I was referencing above, the story that ultimately got told, and one my group still refers to as the best campaign they'd ever been in, could not have been told by a different group of characters, because the story was built around those characters.

Games like Descent or Imperial Assault, on the other hand, the missions are the same no matter who runs through them.  The identity of the characters is essentially meaningless, because the same missions would happen regardless of who was there.  Sure, they might be accomplished a different way, but the result of that "scene" is a foregone conclusion.  Which isn't a story.  At least, not in my opinion.

 

* I can never remember how to spell this darn halfling's name :P !

Basically this.   I am one of the "storytelling GM's" referred to above, and for me, it's a very simple thing, that is completely NOT like what you are describing SEApocalypse.    

I have in fact, used the very phrase "roleplaying is like theater, where the GM is the director, and the PC's are the actors"  however you seem to have forgotten one thing, that even professional storytellers acknowledge.  Input from the other people involved.  No story that is produced, ends up the way it was at creation.  The actors will frequently provide input on how they think the character should be, or how they think a scene should play out, given the motivation of the character, etc.  I've lost count of the number of commentaries I've seen where the director/writer will say something along the lines of "So I had this scene storyboarded to go like X, but after speaking to Actor 1, it turned out that it would be much better, and serve the story better, if it went like Y"    

This is pretty much what happens at the dreaded "storyteller" table.   I have a basic story idea, which is no different than a module's opening setting, I give them some basic plot elements "You are a group of Rebels on Coruscant, your cell was tasked with gaining information on a local Imperial officer, to be used later", and then I basically leave it to them to improvise (almost like it's improv theater), how that plays out.  

Sure I've got some basic plot points that are in mind down the line, but again, how is this any different from a module, where Scene 1 is Junkyard, and then Scene 2 is Spacestation They Learned About After The Junkard, etc?

You seem to think that storytelling translates to "You will follow my plot points with NO deviation!", and that's just not how it is.  That's just an indication of a Bad GM, not Bad Storytelling.   

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6 minutes ago, Absol197 said:

Sea, I think there might be some misconceptions as well on what having an RPG be a "story" means, and what we're talking about.  I would think that very few of us who consider our RPG experiences "stories" would liken it to a board game like Imperial Assault.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The story of an RPG is not a story that the GM wrote beforehand that the players are walking their characters through from narrative beat to narrative beat.  In fact, for myself and my group, who consider our games mostly story-based, 90-95% of the story is unwritten by the time session 0 happens, and a good third to half remains unwritten by the time the campaign is a quarter of the way over.

I get that. My own preference for RPGs is heavily narrative driven. 
My reason for the OP is that GMs makes the argument that GM's plot comes before character. To show an example: (not specifically to Lord British, just because in recent memory) 

On 6.12.2017 at 6:52 PM, LordBritish said:

I would say that the simple thing is to impose a limit because you're making a movie. Each set is meant to be a scene where the character is doing something

There are other examples in which GMs letting off steam about players who don't follow their story, or I even could use Ferrets example of pre-written adventures which are basically a script with a starting point, scripted NPCs and a fixed scene flow from beginning to end (choo, choo ). Now I know enough about Ferret to know that this is not what he meant and he explained it better in his next post, but stuff like that seems to come up quite often in the forums. And that's my reason for starting this topic in the first place, though maybe I should have used plot instead of story in the title. 

 

6 minutes ago, Absol197 said:

Games like Descent or Imperial Assault, on the other hand, the missions are the same no matter who runs through them.  The identity of the characters is essentially meaningless, because the same missions would happen regardless of who was there.  Sure, they might be accomplished a different way, but the result of that "scene" is a foregone conclusion.  Which isn't a story.  At least, not in my opinion.

Certainly it is a story, just not one driven by the characters personalities.
But your point about it "essentially meaningless identifies and forgone conclusion" is exactly my point about GMs who overemphasis their story, over the characters' goals and motivations.  

 

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Hmm.  It seems we're on the same page, then.  Mostly, as I think Ferret pointed out, this isn't a problem with story-driven games.  It's a problem with poor GMing.  Or possibly it stems from a GM wanting to make the leap from the adventure-a-day, episodic style of play with no overarching goal or drive to story-driven game, but misinterpreting that goal as meaning they had to write the story in advance.

While some of it might be GM power-tripping, my feeling is that, in general, it's GMs learning this new style and not getting it right the first few times.  GMing is tough work!  Especially if you're trying to craft an immersive, engrossing narrative.

The only other thing I'd mention is that LordBritish's quote about making a movie doesn't necessarily mean that he's referring to the GM-written story that the characters ride through.  A character-centric and character-driven story can be just as movie-like.  In fact, most of my best campaigns have been movie-like, it's just that the scenes are mostly written by the PCs, I just choose the camera angles so that they look cool :) .  I don't recall where that quote originally came from, so context might dictate which is the actual answer, but without context it's not, by itself, indicative of which style he meant, only the type of narrative framing.

Edited by Absol197

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5 hours ago, SEApocalypse said:

There seems to be going around this expectation that roleplaying focused mainly on telling a story, almost like the GM is the movie/theater director and the players are the actors for characters in the play and have to follow the story and move it along.  I think this is a fundamental flawed conception about roleplaying games. 

Pray tell, what do you hope to get from roleplaying games?  I think everyone gets something a little different, but I think telling a story is at the heart of the hobby.  

 

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24 minutes ago, themensch said:

Pray tell, what do you hope to get from roleplaying games?  I think everyone gets something a little different, but I think telling a story is at the heart of the hobby.  

You know, I think I clean the OP a little up :P

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My prefered method? Structured Sandbox-ish. I come up with a bunch of stuff for the players to do - "The hutt patron wants them to find and acquire MacGuffin A on Tatooine, MacGuffin B on Bespin and and MacGuffin C on Ryloth" - and then figure out what the bad guys will be doing, assuming no Player Interference. And then throw some complications into the mix, like MaCguffin B was stolen, MacGuffin C is guarded by Old Nemesis Bounty Hunter and so on. Then it's up to the players to figure out how to do all that*. You want to steal a drill-miner to tunnel into Jabba's place and steal MacGuffin A instead of spending some cash outright buying it? Great, go for it.

*In the meantime, I've also sorted out some likely avenues of approach. If I were a player, how would I crack this nut - and come up with some structure and ideas to flesh those approaches out.

Because players standing around going "What do you want to do?" "I dunno, what do you want to do?" is boring to me.

Edited by Desslok

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You've gotta provide some direction, plot hooks, and a setting or most PCs will be baffled. There is supposed to be a contract among players and GMs in that they're at the table to be adventurers, and you're there to provide the opportunity.

As the GM I'm either making a broad environment, like a port city, space station, whatever and populating it with a plethora of faces to talk to and threads to pull, or it's Murder on the Orient Express and the goal is clear. In either case I'm providing a story. If I don't it's random encounters and meandering around I guess, which frankly would get boring for me. I get to have fun too as the GM.

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I don't think that a pure sandbox will work at most tables, it takes a lot of creativity, buy-in, and setting knowledge that a lot of players just don't bring to the average RPG table.  If not everyone at the table can contribute on equal footing, then some folks could get left out.  So I do what others have described and I like to call a "clockwork sandbox" wherein I have things running in the background that give the illusion of a living universe and also provide plot points for our heroes.  They have full agency to chase whatever wild hair they desire but their action or inaction has tangible results in their world and at some point that action will turn around to bite them.

Few people play roleplaying games just for the element of make-believe.  Conflict is at the heart of it, as it is with a story.  

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