This is the third article in a series on Israeli RPG theory. The first article in the series was “Your character does not exist“, and the second was “Everyone is a GM“.
One of our writers, Daniel Andrey Fidelman, summarized the classic article The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast in the following way: the GM has complete control over the story; the players have complete control over the PCs; the PCs are the main characters in the story; wait, what?
While M. Joseph Young aimed to mitigate this dissonance, we went the other way: there is a clear contradiction here, which means that at least one of the assumptions is flawed, or isn’t described accurately enough.Â And we think the culprit is the word “story”.
So what is a “story”? In the context of roleplaying games, we usually find people use it to indicate one of three meanings, presented here in the order of events:
- A story is the GM’s plans for the fictional events;
- A story is the fictional events as they unfold during the session; or
- A story is the things that happened in the last session or campaign, as told in retrospect by the participants in the game.
Let’s have a closer look at each meaning, but from the bottom up.Â
The Post-hoc Story
The third meaning of “story”, the post-hoc story, sees a lot of use. The Dragonlance Chronicles tell the story of what happened in a campaign. The recap at the beginning of a session tells the story of what happened in the previous one. Yet this interpretation is not very interesting to us, since it exists only after the fact, and therefore can’t be of much use during the game.
Of course, we have uses for these stories as GMs – they let us know what is important to our players, what left a mark, and what we should emphasize or use to plan our next moves. Having our players recap the events helps us know what to focus on in upcoming sessions. When we choose a framework for a campaign, or plan for a session, we can even consider what tone or pacing we’d like this eventual story to have, and let that destination guide us along the way. And telling those stories and reminiscing is simply fun.Â
But it all pales in importance compared to the game sessions themselves, the decisions we make during them, and the tools at our disposal that help us run the game. After all, it’s just the post-hoc story. So is the “truly important” story the one unfolding during the play?
The Story Machine
The second meaning of “story” covers the things happening during the session. This meaning is the one that properly doesn’t exist: In real time, the story can hardly be identified. Looking at the events as they unfold, we find an endless amount of detail that we wouldn’t consider a “story” – think of a shopping session lasting two hours of play time, or an argument about how the characters actually move from point A to point B. Both are examples of events we will probably not include in the post-hoc narrative of events; In the post-hoc process we extract the interesting bits, to wind up with what we tell after the session.
Still, if asked in real time, we’re likely to say that we’re experiencing “a story”. Something allows us to take the scrambled events of a real time session and combine them, completing the picture of a coherent narrative. The human mind is a wonderful “story machine”: people seek to organize everything into narratives, which include both what already happened and speculations about the future. They try to compare with familiar stories in order to predict the upcoming events. These predictions form expectations.
Say that, in the first session of a campaign, there’s a random encounter in which the party encounters bandits. One of the bandits rolls a critical hit and kills an important NPC – a PC’s sister. Then, the bandits retreat into the forest, seemingly no longer relevant to the adventure; the random encounter has ended. The GM didn’t present the bandits with any specific intention, they’re not part of some planned event. But she shouldn’t ignore the players’ expectations: they now expect to take their revenge. If the bandits don’t appear again, the players’ expectation will remain unresolved. In the process, we’ll be neglecting a potentially powerful emotional development.
This brings us to the realization that when we’re searching for a story, we end up with expectations. What matters when we run a game are the expectations the players develop. Regardless of their source, how they were developed, the expectations are what we should be monitoring, planning for and fixing the game according to. Instead of trying to figure out the story we’re allegedly telling, ask yourself what expectations did you create, and how will you be able to answer them. Because during play time, the expectations are all there is. They exist. The story does not.Â
The Planned Story
We are left with the planned story. It exists as a way to prepare a roleplaying game: sometimes we “plan the story for the upcoming session”. But we shouldn’t. It’s a mostly inefficient, and sometimes destructive, way to plan a roleplaying game (although, as always, there are exceptions: railroading can work well in certain contexts). “The story” in this sense should not exist.Â
In a recently published adventure, the PCs come to a troubled city. The captain of the guard offers the PCs a position in the guard, to have them help with the trouble. If they refuse, the game breaks down: the captain sends 20 guards to check with the characters why their players are ignoring the story. It’s an example of how “prepping a story” can lead to problems during play time, when we come face to face with “the impossible thing before breakfast”, or have to rely on the players buying the conceit and going ahead “with the story” because they know they are supposed to.Â
So the post-hoc story is mostly irrelevant; the unfolding story does not exist – there are only expectations; and the planned story should not exist. What, then, are we left with? What should we do instead?
Resolving the Dissonance
Justin Alexander suggests we “prep situations, not plots”. In a nutshell, it means we’re not planning a sequence of events, but rather a rich and interesting situation we can put our PCs in. Another famous approach is the one preached in Apocalypse World: “play to find out what happens” – being aimed primarily at GMs. Combining the Alexandrian and Apocalypse World, we’d say that the right way to do it is to prepare situations that make you want to find out what happens. We can afford to do it because we know that the story machine of our minds will turn the potential drama in these situations into a full-on experience.
Stories are a basic psychological need. We find ourselves thinking them up whether we like it or not. Even if we pay no attention to the “story structure” our minds will organize the facts in a story-like fashion. That’s what we’re evolutionarily wired to do. We can afford focusing less of our attention on “the story” coming out nicely. The stories can take care of themselves.Â
So focus on the important parts: prepare situations in order to form new expectations, or in order to react and respond to existing expectations. Don’t worry, the “story machine” will make it all come together – after the game, you’ll have a great story to tell.Â
In the previous article we suggested a shift from “the GM” as a role to “GM-ing” as a practice. Our resolution for the dissonance presented in The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast does something similar. We suggest a shift from the object, “the story”, to the practice: the players form expectations regarding the narrative; the GM plans situations that interact with the players’ expectations; the result is a story, but only a post-hoc one. The end.Â
(This article is a joint effort by a big group of Israeli RPG theory writers. It was graciously edited by the illustrious content editor Eran Aviram, with helpful comments from Itamar Karbian, Yotam Ben Moshe, and Haggai Elkayam Shalem.)
Reading these articles, something that strikes me is a disconnect between the “consider the players first and foremost” advice in the first article and lack of focus on group discussion/consensus in the rest of the content. There are a lot of content tools available when doing your Session Zero that are designed to increase the kind of communication and transparency that this theory seems to pursue. These tools can do so much to prevent the disengagement and “squirrelly” behavior described throughout this blog series.
Related to that, many elements of these theory articles hint at the value of communication, but the solutions offered seem to remain grounded in an assumption that the GM is fundamentally separate from the players. Head-scratchers like “how does a GM prepare to fill their role when players will always do their own thing” aren’t problems at all when players (including GMs) have honest, frequent communication around what they want from a game. Truly collapsing the GM-player divide feels like a critical step that this game theory hasn’t yet integrated!
I agree here, mostly, but I think we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Absolutely prep interesting situations that make you want to find out what happens. Absolutely don’t FRET about the story in-process. I have found, though, there is something gained when you consider story structure and pacing at the table.
Have you ever experienced an unsatisfying story in any medium? Where you’re shouting at the screen, “oh, come on” or, “wait, what? Where did he come from?” A lot of these moments come from breakdowns in story structure.
Knowing, for example, that getting new information or characters after the beginning of act III can make a story feel like a gotcha or a deus ex machina; that the midpoint is a good place for a reveal that recontextualizes the story; and that the characters should have a goal and a motivation to pursue that goal by the close of act I can all help the GM guide decisions about what happens next.
I submit, with no data to back it up, my opinion that most people can accurately answer the question, “is this part of the story” with reasonable accuracy, in the moment. We all know that the shopping trip is a necessary evil, not a gripping drama. I believe, with no supporting evidence, that frequently asking oneself, “is this part of the story” throughout the game session will also lead to a better story.
The brain does a lot of heavy lifting post hoc to shape the story, I’m not denying that. I AM saying that roughing out the shape during the game can lead to a better result in post production.
That’s cool… but my game absolutely does have a story. It also has a waiting list.
If the GM’s imagination wasn’t involved then the setting wouldn’t be nearly as important as it is. I’ve never GMed a game in anyone else’s setting. It’s always a world I create. There are so many plot layers in my game my wife has threatened to start a spread sheet so she can keep it all straight. A story based solely on what the characters do will rarely be that complex.
The player’s actions at the table affect everything, which is why I don’t write my adventures too far ahead of time, and I tweak the next adventure based on what happens in the last game before it.
I run my game in 33 part story arcs. During that run of 33 adventures, I have 9 or 10 major things which have to happen, and they usually need to happen in a certain order, but they don’t have to occur back-to-back. I might hit 2-in-a-row, and then the PCs take a huge left turn and it takes 3 or 4 more adventures for us to get to the next plot point… but we do get there. The rest of the world is churning on, evil plans are coming to fruition, whether the PCs are paying attention or not.
If that’s not your kind of game, that’s cool. But my players love it, and, as I said before, I have a waiting list for people trying to get a seat at my table. Two of my players run games that are a lot more sandboxy, and I play in them. They’re great games, but I’m the GM about 95% of the time.
The point is there’s no right answer except what works for you. There’s no one right way to play these games.
I specifically avoid calling anything I create with respect to a game “the story” what I create is “the setting”. There most of the setting is dynamic to one degree (geography) or another (the NPC they are currently interacting with) The story is what the players remember about having their characters interact with the setting.