roleplaying games

Stories in games

I’m not going to bury the lede here: roleplaying games are not an effective way to tell a story that the GM alone has written. When you write a game with a narrative in mind, you will spend the entire time fighting the players to get on it.

The key word, there, is not “story”, it’s “written”. RPGs are wonderful story-telling devices, provided that everyone understands the extent of their participation. And admittedly, that extent varies depending on what game you’re playing.

One criticism I’ve heard of Apocalypse World is that it either “neuters the role of the GM” or “forces control away from the GM”. Have to be frank here, these arguments really make no sense. First, in a mechanical sense, the GM of Apocalypse World or any other Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game is given, essentially, omnipotence. While the GM is held to a strict set of asymmetrical rules, they are not bound by any of the rules that the players are. And even if one assumes that the asymmetrical GM rules in a PbtA game take undue power away from the GM, it’s power that they don’t need and most of the time shouldn’t use.

The reason this is relevant to story is that PbtA games establish their strict roles (both GM and player as well as player-specific delineation through playbooks) in order to encourage a gaming group to share the roles in storytelling in what has been observed to be a productive way. Players overlap too much, and the louder one steals the spotlight? Playbooks are singular, niche protection is all but guaranteed. Players use rules lawyering to get what they want? The GM isn’t bound by those rules, tough cookies. GM forcing players along a set path? The mechanics of the game will fight them every step of the way.

The downside to this, as I considered earlier, is that each PbtA game can only really tell one subset of stories, usually linked by genre. To have the freedom and flexibility to step outside those pre-determined sets, one must also give up a degree of the mechanical rigidity that establishes and protects storytelling equity. To tell a wider and wider range of stories, one must use fewer and fewer mechanical backstops.

There is a range of narrative mechanics emerging from games. One one end is PbtA. To use a specific example, The Sprawl establishes a number of corporations, which have large impacts on the setting. It determines the arc of interaction between characters and these entities (the corporation clocks), the availability and frequency of secondary conflicts (Threats and Directives), and the possible outcomes (in short, Retire or Die). As proven through the prevalence of dystopian, Cyberpunk, and more broadly hard-boiled fiction over the last century, you can tell a lot of stories within this framework. But you’re going to be hard-pressed to tell something else, like a story of rag-tag heroes overcoming a great evil in their fantasy world (though someone wrote that game in PbtA too, it’s called Fellowship).

In the middle is Fate. Fate has specific conflicts decided by players and the GM at the beginning, and rules about how those progress. There are also rules about how characters influence events in the world via Fate points. Despite all of these narrative mechanics, Fate is still very much a traditional game, and engagement with the mechanics is bound more by social contract than by limitations actually imposed in the ruleset.

On the other end are most traditional games, like D&D and GURPS. There are no rules to determine how a story goes in these games, and it’s pretty much up to the GM. It’s why D&D has both given us the incredible flexibility of the nearly plot-less sandbox, while simultaneously producing the meme of “rocks fall, everybody dies” to describe games which fall into untenable (but more importantly un-fun) situations driven by one or more rogue elements in a group.

I think about this range because, at the end of the day, I desire a return to more open-ended environments, even if it’s not as immediate as my next campaign. The one thing that has made my current Apocalypse World game so incredibly successful is that I’ve encouraged the players to help me tell the sort of stories they’re interested in. While I’ve already contemplated merely replicating that in another PbtA game, I will eventually want to run something else. There are some things that are easy to bring along…Fate has character creation that slots very neatly into the PbtA session zero mechanics, for instance.

But the big thing is that I will not be able to sit back and let the game rules develop half the story for me. While I’ll need to return to actually writing a game once I am running something else, I will also need to consider how best to give my players the narrative control that gets them invested. Most of the PbtA agendas and principles still can apply to any game, namely “Play to find out what happens”. Beyond principles, though, it’s up to me to figure out what my games need to make “playing to find out what happens” not only work, but really shine.

And this is where I need my writing again. Worldbuilding is the big thing I need, as it establishes what the world looks like and what the conflicts are. The interesting thing here is that playing PbtA games and having the opportunity to think about how conflicts are integrated into the setting has made me realize how little worldbuilding I’ve done, especially from whole cloth. In short, by mechanizing the conflict levers games like Apocalypse World finally show you how much of the writing is done for you. Going back to doing all of that writing myself while trying to maintain the level of player interaction with the story I’ve come to desire will be a unique challenge.

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