18 September 2015

"The Story"

You know what bugs me?

When people look at "the story" as being some sort of separate entity from whatever it is that you're doing during the game. The story happens at the table- if it's the players getting slaughtered, or them discussing whether or not to travel down another level or stay where they are and explore more, that's the story.

I write this in response to a post on r/rpg where a player writes, essentially "when play slows down and your players are hesitating, do you narrate ahead so that the story moves on?"

Why would you do this? There's nothing wrong with hesitation. There's nothing wrong with "slow play." And most importantly, obviously, "The story is what happens at the table."

I'll detail these one after the other, for clarity's sake, and for anybody that's managed to stumble here wondering what I'm talking about.

First, there's nothing wrong with hesitation. If your players are hesitating, it means they're not sure. It means they're looking for more information, or trying to build a consensus, or simply weighing their risks. There's no need to rush them! Let them stew a little, and you can even add thumbscrews if you want- adding more pressure is a lot of fun, and one of the most basic ways to wring drama out of any situation.

That said, sometimes your players are going to waffle, whether it's because they're new and unsure, or if they have been burnt before by going in without a solid plan. Like any game, players will learn how to best get what they want out of it. If there are lots of traps, then they're going to look for traps a lot. If there are a lot of ambushes, they'll extinguish their lanterns and send their scout around to flank. Players will learn how you like to run games and adapt their responses to that, and you should learn how your players enjoy their time. Ideally, you should be alternately challenging and surprising each other in equal measure, and then when you've hit that solid medium, you should both be happy with the way things are. [1]

And I'm not saying that you, as the GM, should ignore what you enjoy either. Your enjoyment is just as important as any other player's, and you have a right to be bored with what they're doing. But you're not in an equal relationship, here. [2] And part of being the GM means that you don't overstep your authority in a way that the players don't enjoy. This partition is different for every player and thus, for every group. You need to find the middle here.

Alright, now lastly: "The story is what happens at the table." There's this weird notion among people who came to tabletop gaming from video gaming that story is separate from medium. I'm here to tell you: that's wrong, and if you think that way, you need to stop it. There is no story that the players are not a part of. Full stop.

Let me explain.

If you write a Tolkien-esque backdrop for your story, full of ancient evils and long-dead heroes and legendary swords, none of it matters one bit until your players interact with it. Just like how the history of the American Revolution doesn't matter to me except when I'm wondering why we speak English or why our government has three parts, the thousand-year reign of the Archlich Xaxxax'x literally couldn't matter less until it impacts your players in some fashion. Say, by reanimating its corpse, or stumbling upon its tomb.The orc king's mighty armies don't matter until they attack the town that the players were going to travel to, causing the guards to bar the town gates and refuse entry to those without cause. Now it matters. [3]

Makes sense, right?

Viewing the story as something other than what happens during play is just plain silly and needs to stop. You're (probably) playing a game where a handful of players are playing individuals that run around creating or solving problems. Everything in the game is about what they do, where they are, and what happens around them. Every mechanic is dedicated to what they can or cannot do, or else who they are. Your game is about the exploits of these characters. Why oh why would anybody think that's not 100% what the story is about?

Nobody watches the Lord of the Rings and says it's a story about Sauron. It's not- it's about Sam and Frodo, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, and a little bit about Gandalf and Eowin and Galadriel. Nobody reads Fahrenheit 451 and says the book is about society. [4] It just doesn't follow.

The story is what you spend most of your time talking about. That's it.

[1] This is a basic facet of human interaction, but somehow people forget that the GM-player relationship is literally just a set of interpersonal relationships, the same as having a friend or romantic interest. When both sides are contributing to create a positive whole, the relationship is healthy. When one side is not getting what it wants, abusing its power to trample over the other side is not fucking healthy. I really can't stress that enough. If your response to "I am bored with this" is to say "OK it's done now and we're on to what I want to do" then you're abusing your players' trust. I am willing to argue this point. 

[2] In a traditional GM / player split, the GM has more authority over pretty much everything, and wisely using this power is what separates a GM whose players are having fun and a GM whose players are just sort of enduring play. I've written about this before (somewhere) but the GM / player relationship has a lot in common with a D/s relationship, in that one side is intentionally ceding power and formally recognizing the other as being "in charge" for purposes that suit both of them.

[3] If you're still not sure, try it out in a game. Write down "the orc king's armies are massing" on your notes. Hint to it, if you want, when the players are in an inn, or have a herald shouting the news on a street corner. Alright, so the players have been exposed to it. Now cross it off. Didn't happen, orcs got defeated, whatever. Hey look, nothing changed for your players- unless they ask about it or pursue it.

[4] In a sense, it is about those things, but, again, it's about the background to the characters as it affects them. We don't learn about the benefits of the society Guy Montag lives in as it is constructed, or about the conditions of factory workers, or the economic superstructure of such a world. All we know is how Guy is shaped by the conditions he finds himself in- the same thing we find in your standard D&D game. The story is about how a group of characters reacts to the situation they find themselves in, and that's it.

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