The Question: Are players entitled to the stories they want to tell in the games we play? Are GM’s entitled to the stories they want to tell?
My Answer: I don’t think players or GM’s are entitled to their stories, especially if they’re preconceived because I don’t think the game should have a preconceived plot, plot being defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern. People call it emergent gaming where the story or plot emerges from play. I think all gaming should be like that and we should just build frameworks to assist us in creating these stories. I’m pretty sure this idea is the point of rule books and modules, to help us create the frameworks to tell stories. I think it’s my biggest problem with most people who play living campaigns. They don’t understand that modules are frameworks for storytelling. Once you change your perception of them from being a plot to a framework to create a self-contained story you can manipulate them any way you would like. I suppose this needs an example.
Let’s say you have a city adventure and the first beat of the module has you learning of a thieves’ guild who’s taken a golden fist and the owner has hired you to get it back. The second beat involves a little street work and information gathering. This beat has a couple of divergent points which lead to encounters with the thieves’ guild and battling through the guild to a final confrontation with the guild leader who is defeated and the golden hand is retrieved.
If we want to have emergent storytelling in a module, be it a living campaign of some sort, a Paizo Adventure Path, or a mega campaign we need to know a few things:
- The beginning and ending points.
- The important NPC’s and why they’re important.
- Any locations the scenario can’t do without which I don’t think would be any since you can always change a location to fit the situation the story calls for.
In this module we have a beginning and an ending which is get the job and the golden hand is retrieved. The important NPC’s are the leader of the thieves’ guild since they have the golden hand and the man who hires you since he starts everything off. Everything else is up for grabs meaning it can be changed if you so desire. The thieves’ guild hall might be an important location but may not be dependent on the actions of the PC’s. Actually, as I think about it, if you’re comfortable winging it all then you only need the starting scene which introduces the scenario and the end goal, in this case, gaining the golden hand. If you’re not comfortable just winging everything then having some of these locations lying around to use and extra NPC’s to pull on to help guide the players in the right direction can be very useful. One tip, games often have that emergent play feel when the players are given the free rein to create instead of being forced to follow a module from beat to beat. Let’s take a look back at our example.
Just after the introduction one of the players gets the idea to talk to a guy he knows in the city named Rommy Ten Rings. Rommy a friend of one of the players and knows the guild they’re looking for. They next ask Rommy if he can get them into the guild, their plan being to become members of the guild to steal the golden fist from inside the operation. Rommy agrees if they cut him in on the reward they get from retrieving the golden fist. Next Rommy introduces the players to a lieutenant of the guild as an illegitimate crew who’s trying to get a start in town. The lieutenant gives them a test job. Finish it and get a meeting with the big guy. Now the PC’s need to do this job to get what they want. Instead of theft they go to the person they’re supposed to rob and ask be loaned the object for a period of time. The players also give the person the cost of the item as collateral. With item in hand they return to the lieutenant who brings them to the big boss and are initiated into the guild. Being initiated gives them the chance to scope out the guild hall, its defenses, and learn the location of the golden fist. Now the PC’s can prepare to steal the hand and the item they rented. How they do it is up to them and the rest of the complications that occur during the attempt are up to the GM but in the end the players got, or didn’t get, the golden fist.
If we look at what was described here the players created a situation the GM responded to while always keeping the goal of the scenario in mind to their decisions. The GM complicated situations. The players responded with choice and creativity. This back and forth, while always leading to the goal, created an experience within the premise of the scenario but very different from what was originally given. These are the things we can do to create a sense of emergent story. So no. I don’t think players are entitled to their stories nor is the GM entitled because story and plot needs to happen at the table, not before. After all, we play the game to see what happens. Don’t we?
I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about these ideas so please drop a comment here or on the Facebook page.
Chris “The Light” Sniezak