Over my nearly 40 years as a GM, I have changed the ways that I have created stories at the table. Similarly, what I look for in games has changed as well. At different times during my tenure as a GM I have been a storyteller, and other times I have been a story facilitator. Both have created amazing times at the table, but both are different experiences and need different things. So today, I thought I would look at these two styles with a little more depth and talk about their needs, the experiences they produce, etc.
Laying Down Some Definitions
In order for us to get started, I need to establish the main terms for what we are talking about since neither of these terms is universally understood or accepted in the hobby. So for the rest of this article, we will work from these terms.
A storyteller is a type of GM who crafts a story to share with their players. The player characters are the protagonists of the story as the storyteller guides them through it. Through play, the characters experience the story. On the good side of this, the players have agency and are able to influence the conclusion of the story. On the bad side of this, the players are on what is often referred to as a Railroad, where their actions do not affect the outcome.
The defining trait of the storyteller is the idea that the scenario they are running is a story that they are telling to the players, and that they have some idea of the outcome/outcomes of the story when it concludes. Their job is to make that story unfold and guide the players through it. The players are to play their characters and move through the story.
The story facilitator, or just facilitator, is someone who sees their job as helping the group, as a whole, create a story through play. They often have the idea of a plot or challenge, but not much beyond that. Through play, the characters will figure out how to resolve the plot or challenge, and the GM is there to engage the rules and to add things to the developing story to keep it from going stale. On the good end of this, the facilitator brings an exciting challenge to the table and works to keep things moving along, nudging things when needed. On the bad end, they come to the session with very little and push the work onto the players to make things happen at the table.
The defining trait of the facilitator is the idea that they have an idea of how things will start, but are totally open to how the story will end. Their job is to set things up, and then make way for the players to determine how things will end. They are equally as surprised as the players in how the story turned out.
We Are Not Dealing In Absolutes…
No one is 100%, Storyteller or Facilitator. We are always some blend of these. Perhaps you are a Storyteller who at a point in the game when the player’s actions have changed so much of the story, flip over to the Facilitator and guide the game to its new conclusion. Or perhaps you are a Facilitator who really likes to create a story by crafting very specific plots and situations and uses your moments of facilitation to build upon the story you have in mind.
…But we have Preferences
Without a doubt, you have a preference, which is comprised of some combination of these two approaches. That preference can change over time, it can change with different games, etc. That is perfectly natural. Sometimes our general preference changes, because how we derive enjoyment from RPGs changes. Other times our general preference can change because who we are changes, again leading to how we derive enjoyment from RPGs. The group you play with can help determine your preference. If your players are the kind who enjoy participating in a story, then their enjoyment and in part your own may come from a more Storyteller approach. In other cases, the game itself may make the choice for you. If a game you enjoy requires the GM to be more of a Facilitator, then you may find your joy in that role.
The Influence of Group And Game
As mentioned above, the group you play with and the games you play may lend themselves to different styles. The truth is any group and any game can be played in either approach, but there are more optimal configurations depending on your overall preference.
When you are more Storyteller…
You will enjoy games where the majority of narrative control remains with the GM — games where the GM sets scenes, narrates the outcomes of skill checks, etc. These are sometimes referred to as more traditional games. Think of something like D&D where the GM has the narrative control and the players embody their characters. Games of this style work well for the Storyteller because they have the most control of the narrative and can use that to tell the story.
In terms of players, the Storyteller does best with a group of players who are more focused on the actions of their characters rather than the flow and structure of the story. With this character focus, these players are ready to embody their characters and react to the world. This allows them to play their part in the story and react to the story as the GM unfolds it before them.
When you are more the Facilitator
You will enjoy games where the narrative control of the game is more de-centralized, with the GM having some of the control and the players having some as well. The GM may still set scenes and such, but the players will be able to help shape those scenes as well as help to create upcoming scenes. Think of something like a Powered by the Apocalypse game, where the 7-9 result of a Move gives the players ways to shape the narrative of the game, but there is still a centralized GM role.
In addition, you may also enjoy games with a fully decentralized GM role, where an even larger amount of narrative control is spread out among the players. Think of something like Fiasco, where there is no GM, but there can be a player who is more familiar with the rules to help facilitate the game.
In terms of players, the Facilitator does well when paired with players who also have an interest in shaping the story; their focus is less on their individual character but more on the story that is being told. These types of players readily enjoy having narrative control and using it not to “win” the game, but to make the game “more interesting” even if that results in endangering their character to do so. These kinds of players are the ones who want to take an active role in shaping the story and will work with the GM to make that happen.
My Own Preferences
In the 40 years I have played, I have been both a strong Storyteller and a strong Facilitator. In the ’90s and early ‘00s, I went through a phase where I loved being the Storyteller and crafting stories that my group would play through. We played a lot of traditional games, then, and my group was very content to play in that style. We created a lot of great stories during that time.
In the early 10’s I had an experience in my d20 Modern game that showed me how much I enjoyed improvisation. You can read more about that in Engine Publishing’s book Unframed. After that, I had a gradual shift in preference from Storyteller to Facilitator. I started playing more indie games where the GM role was decentralized.
Today, I have reached a point where I am very unscientifically 70% Facilitator and 30% Storyteller. I appreciate creating an overall story for my campaigns, but within the session, I enjoy facilitating much more. My main source of enjoyment is playing along with the players to see where the story goes, and ending a session as surprised as they are with where the game went.
To that point, I still enjoy a lot of indie games, but I run plenty of traditional games as well. I like indie games that have a GM role, but then share out some of the narrative control to the players, so I play a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse games. For the more traditional games I run, I need more random tables to help create the uncertainty of what will happen next. It is one of the reasons I enjoy the traveling mechanics of Forbidden Lands so much. It is very much a traditional game with random elements that come up that I have to facilitate.
You have a preference as well. Are you a strong storyteller, crafting masterful plots of intrigue and adventure, or are you a strong Facilitator looking to guide your group through their session making a story by laying the tracks in front of you as you go? More likely you are somewhere in-between.
What is your preference? What kinds of games work best for you? Is your game group in alignment with your preference as well?