Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Mixing narrative

While normally I link to other blog posts because I want to discuss the core message of that post, sometimes I can't help but be more interested in a side remark. In a post on Critical Hits the author mentions "the thorny problem of delivering story at the gaming table while at the same time pulling story from the players". That struck a cord with me, because it is one of the principal issues I see for my upcoming new campaign.

Computer RPGs don't have that problem, because they don't attempt to integrate player narrative. There is pretty much only the story the devs want to tell, with only minor variations like side quests left to the player. The strength of a tabletop role-playing games is that the DM isn't the only contributor to the story, which incidentally keeps the game more interesting for the DM. Players can make actual decisions that change the course of the main story, and they all have their personal story that can be interwoven with the main story of the adventure.

As a DM any contribution to the story by the players should be welcome. The mantra of DMing is to never say no, say "yes, and ...", just like in improvised theater. But assuming that your campaign *has* a story, the issue becomes one of getting players to contribute to that story without them destroying it. I failed in that in my previous campaign in one adventure, where the players somehow decided near the end of the adventure to rather run away than to pursue the main villain, thus killing the end of the story that I wanted to tell.

The trick is to find the right balance between what a MMORPG player would call theme park and sandbox. If you provide an endless stream of events that happen, the players can only react and don't have much freedom to contribute their own story. But if you leave them with no clue and expect them to come up with a story, the results usually aren't great either, unless you have a very much narrative minded group full of impro specialists. So your job as a DM becomes to provide a framework, a world full of NPCs who are performing your story, but with enough freedom for the players to choose how to engage with that story. And then sometimes you need to force them to act by creating a situation which requires some action.

"Pulling story from the players" can also involve adding stuff to your story that wasn't originally in there. Some story hooks for the players can easily be prepared: You know the background of the characters, you know your NPCs, so you can devise a reasonable link between the two. Not every NPC has to enter a story as an unknown character, one of the player characters might have a previous relationship with him. And you can foresee how an NPC would react to visible clues, e.g. an NPC cleric reacting to a player paladin of the same faith. Just be careful as DM that you provide story hooks for different players, and not always the same, so nobody feels excluded. The trick is then to use those interactions with the NPCs to draw the players deeper into the main story, but simultaneously allowing them to contribute their part of the narrative by giving them freedom on how to react to their personal connection with that NPC.

The upcoming campaign is probably the most difficult I've ever directed as a DM. Let's see how I fare in this challenge!

Wouldn't simply providing an incomplete narrative suffice? Bear in mind, I've never conducted a table top campaign.

I understand your biggest issue is the investigative sections of your campaign. Certainly, evidence in the way of clues is presented, and a crime of some sort has been committed. Your players are then left with the task of piecing it together, yes?

How about not telling them the motive? Have ancillary npc type characters suggest that a motive is important, but not speculate on what it is. Let the players naturally gravitate to the "why" when the they have the "what" and some of the "how."
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