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A lot of my gaming friends and I are into gaming as a storytelling experience. I tend to talk about improving games and focusing on the story at the table. That is how a lot of my games go. However, some of the recent books I’ve been reading, some of the movies I’ve recently seen, and some of the games I’ve run in and played in highlighted something that bounces around my head from time to time: Good stories do not always make good game experiences.

A great example of this is Shamus Young’s take on Lord Of The Rings versus “Standard Gaming Group", DM of the Rings. Following the story to the letter the group has no fun. Sure Shamus intentionally creates friction and plays up gaming stereotypes for the sake of humor but he makes the good stories do not always make good games point in a great way.

Reflection On  Story In Two Sessions
Two of my recent games illustrated the Good Story vs Good Game concept  in a very big way. One of the games drug a bit, despite being full of action scenes, and was not getting a lot of love from the players. However, looking at the session from an outside perspective, it came together like a well composed plot with a fleshed out story structure. Another game I ran made no sense from an outside perspective, but the players were involved in every aspect of the game. Pieces of the plot didn’t flow together correctly, the characters stepped over major plot points, the discovery phase had  information that was too easily obtained. It would have made a terrible movie, but was a great game experience.

So, was the sub-par game a result of the story being too central to the session? Was the good game good because of the story being disjointed and the focus being on the gameplay itself? Correlation does not equal to causation. I don’t think the good story negated a good game, and I don’t think the bad game didn’t leave room for a good story.  The relative failure and success, being the fun the group had, were the result of many different pieces of the gameplay experience.

Narrative Structures
Role-playing games are narratives. If they weren’t then they would be board games that focus solely on the mechanics. However, they are not solely narratives. Role-playing games are too interactive. Most forms of traditional storytelling, such as books, movies, and spoken-word stories, are created and disseminated by one person. The story structure is laid out beforehand and does not alter as it is being told. Interactive stories, like choose your own adventure type books, video games with open options, and of course role-playing games, are malleable and alter with the experience. The people participating in the experience change the way the experience occurs.

Many of the same narrative structures are used in traditional and interactive stories, but when talking about interactive stories the narrative structures have to become malleable to the interaction of everyone participating in the story or the enjoyment of the experience is lost. The same exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement that so many stories are based on does not inherently create enjoyment at the gaming table.

A Good Story And A Good Game
So what can be done to make good stories and good games?

  • Keep The Narrative Tight But Not Forced – Since role-playing games are narratives as well as games, they require there to be a narrative element that flows in some fashion. It has to make sense as a story, otherwise the players will look back and go what was that about? The gameplay itself might be fun, but the players might question the meaning behind any of their character actions. A good way to keep a tight but not forced narrative is to change it in response to the players’ actions. Don’t setup the story as it will be, just the motivations of the antagonists and the likely tools they put into use or that could be used against them. Fill in the rest as the players create it. Once the players are done, reveal anything that occurred “off-camera” for the players if it won’t impact future games .
  • Earning The Story – Players like a good story, but being players in a game they tend to like to earn it. Story pieces that progress the plot forward are generally better received when they are part of a challenge that the players overcome. Getting a piece of information necessary to the story should be something the players work for or receive because of a good idea.
  • Challenge, Loss, Redirection – In most traditional stories it is assumed that the protagonist will win. In role-playing games it is also assumed that the players will win, but that isn’t always the case. Many different things will challenge the players and they won’t always overcome those challenges. In order to earn the story the players should be challenged, but if they fail a challenge this should not end the progression of the story. Redirect the situation so that the players can overcome the challenge in a new way.
  • Know What To Play Out At The Table  – Many mundane things that happen in a story are not worthy of time at the table. They can be short-formed or hand-waved away. However, mundane things can be used to build the story and the action. A trip to resupply is not always exciting or relevant enough to be played out, unless it is integral to the plot of the game. Deciding what element should be played out and what ones should not is a matter of determining their relevance to the game and the level of fun that can be had by playing them out.

What tends to be more important in your games, the execution of the story or the playing of the game? When do you have the most fun, when focusing on the story or when playing out the game? What do you do to make story and game intertwine?

7 replies
  1. Patrigan
    Patrigan says:

    I do it differently. I let every player create a character with a personal background. Then we created a reason for them to stick together. And then I took each of them separate and started discussing their future. Standard procedure, obviously.

    So then we start playing. The first few sessions will work upon what we had created before. Afterwards, however, things might drastically change. We will review the past sessions and I will write a story to reflect what happened, with some changes to make the session more story and less game (like lasting injuries). This way, during the next session, we have a beter story to work upon. Some players get to play a bit differently (again these lasting injuries which makes them suffer some penalty are an example).

    The players also have the possibility to redo some of their mistakes or to add something they forgot. I also have the possibility to pass some extra information they could find useful.

    We hope that in the end we actually ahve a real story, like in a book, to remember our DnD.

  2. deadlytoque
    deadlytoque says:

    The more “story” you prepare beforehand, the less “game” you have at the table, and therefore the less fun.

    An RPG produces story by creating room for the structure of the story to grow. Traditional RPGs are basically terrible for this, with the odd exception of the pure Dungeon Crawl. If a GM writes a big epic plot, and then tries to shoehorn the PCs into it, it will be a mess that will aggravate everyone — the players because they can’t do what they want, and the GM because the players don’t want to enjoy his big plot.

    The best ways to avoid this are

    1) The “open” story, wherein the GM only sets up the background and environment, and then lets the players explore at their own pace and preference — this is why dungeon crawls generate great “stories”, in the sense that a well-constructed dungeon will let players gain reward at the right pace, suffer setback, and ultimately triumph over seemingly-impossible odds.


    2) The story-game. A story-game, as best I can figure the definition, is a non-traditional RPG where the game mechanics themselves reinforce storytelling qualities rather than concrete mechanics. Dogs in the Vineyard is a common and excellent example, since in Dogs a trait called “A corrupt preacher chopped off my finger 2d6” is just as valuable and useful as “My pa taught me to shoulder a rifle 2d6”, and where you can get long-term “damage” in the form of relationships with other characters and places. This means that in any given conflict, the players are going to be scouring the sheets for ways to bring their traits into play, and thus elements of their character’s story.

    This can be adapted to trad games in a shoehorn kinda way by getting “plot hooks” from players beforehand. Get everyone to write down three cool things their character might do (Cassius steals the governor’s horse and rides hard to deliver the intercepted message; Cassius finds himself a pawn in the political game between the king and the cardinal; Cassius faces his greatest fear: the ogre that killed his parents). Once you have everyone’s hooks, see which ones can be used together, and then structure your “story” around that.


    3) Shared narrative control. Whether you let players describe the outcomes of their own actions, even if you haven’t had anything prepared (“Spot 16” “You succeed” “I see an orc assassin climbing up the wall!” “OK, just let me grab stats!”), use Dirty Dungeons, or use a narrative control shifting game like Houses of the Blooded or Polaris, letting everyone at the table have a turn pulling the story in the direction they like is a good way to a) ensure that everyone is satisfied with the story, and b) you get the creative power of everyone at the table making the story, rather than just one.

  3. Robert
    Robert says:

    To me, the threefold model has always been more about “these three elements are important” rather than “pick one of these elements and try to move closer to it”. For me, balancing the three is the overall goal.

  4. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    My sessions are heavier on being a good game; as much as I’d like to make the session more interesting with good pacing and tight scenes, it rarely works out that way. The overall “story” usually makes sense overall, but the specific details that get emphasis strongly depend on the players’ approaches, as does the path taken, and essentially everything above the overarching plot level.

    On Sunday we played a one-shot game of Spirit of the Century that was a more coherent story. I suspect that several factors contributed: the game featured only two players, it was the first session (when GMs often lead more while players figure out their characters), and play focused on two sharp prompts.

    Despite the above, a significant subplot developed that surprised me– a rivalry with the nobles in the Raja’s smoking room. It was a great scene that revealed a lot about the character and it sprang up on the spot. In retrospect, the tensions it added to the story and character revelation were essential to the story, however unplanned they were as game prep.

  5. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    As someone who believes that stories mostly come about through actual play rather than written verbatim ahead of time, I like one and four of the articles main suggestions.

    The motivations and goals of NPCs are key. How the players interact with the NPCs is key. By loosely writing a framework for the plot idea, the game can have more of a focus on player action or inaction and their conflict or alliance with NPCs.

    I very much agree that some things don’t need to be played out. If the players want a shopping trip, let them deal with it quickly and without the need for a scene detailing every little thing. But have a scene if something important is going to take place.

    I’ve even fast forwarded to the end of a large battle because the outcome wasn’t in doubt and there was no chance of failure. A short narrative description filled everyone in on what happened and moved the game forward to the next scene, which was more important.

  6. storybookknight
    storybookknight says:

    Speaking of the story/game dichotomy and DM of the Rings, http://www.darthsanddroids.net/ is people taking a generally crappy story, i.e. the Star Wars prequels, and turning them into a reasonably interesting game – which then makes for a good story.

  7. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I’m alright with thinking of GMing as storytelling, but I think a good storyteller responds to his or her audience. A storyteller picks up on what the listeners are interested in and elaborates. Sometimes the listeners will volunteer something “Oh, Captain Hook, didn’t he have a parrot?” and a good storyteller knows it’s better to incorporate it than to wave it away. A storyteller knows when the audience is bored, and either spices up the story skips to the exciting bit.

    These techniques are less apparent in Western culture which is highly literate, and therefore a story is understood to be the same in every telling. In oral cultures, every telling is a different take on the same framework.

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