Tabletop RPG: Storytime or Playtime?
I (and possibly others) find that the most difficult aspect of being the GM in a tabletop RPG (henceforth know simply as RPGs in the context of this post) is letting go of the reins. On the flip side, I think many players also find it difficult to take those reins. The so called “power” of the RPG is that it’s a collaborative story which is moved forward by both the GM and the players. Does it actually work like that? In my experience, not always, and if it does, the question is: does the experience remain “a story” or does it turn into something else?
The big caveat is that RPGs don’t need to have an end. Like life, what’s got the current focus is just a point on a timeline that for all intents and purposes has no visible end. When the players have achieved their current goal, the GM can present them with another…and then another…and another. Each of these “adventures” becomes a story within a greater “campaign” set in the much wider “game world”, a construct that insinuates that there are millions of stories going on at any given time.
A story, then, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Published modules follow this, in part because there’s no real way to make a truly open ended module. Yet there are tons of gaming groups out there who will tell you without prodding that their group has been playing the same characters in the same game world for years without considering the question of “are we done yet?”
Are these adventures stories if people “play the way they are supposed to”? And by this, I mean with the players driving the direction, and the GM filling in the foundation underfoot as the party rushes ahead? Consider as an analogue a baseball game; it has rules, players have positions and purpose, and things continue until a definitive end is reached. Contrast that to kids on a playground; they don’t have a goal except for “having fun” and would keep playing forever if their parents didn’t collect them and take them home. The first offers a driven “story” that trends in a single direction, while the second is more of an aimless wandering that only ends when people agree to end it.
This isn’t to say that stories can’t exist on the playground, but from a GM perspective, it’s incredibly hard to maintain a specific narrative if the players are exercising the agency they are allotted to the full extent that they’re able. Every GM has at least one experience of how he or she set up an elaborate showdown or situation that they were intensely excited about, only to find the players turning 180 degrees away from the encounter to do something totally unrelated. If a GM’s job is to respond to players, then the GM has no choice but to put his or her plans on the back burner and follow the players.
In this respect, the players are making their own stories, but at what cost? Standing at the foot of the mountain carved in the visage of a skull, lava pouring from the eye sockets while dragons wheel about in the air above it, the party…turns around and decides they’d rather explore the sewers of the nearest major city. If the whole point of the adventure was to infiltrate that mountain and defeat the Ancient Evil, then that story is left untold (for now). Instead, the players are exercising their ability to go anywhere and do anything…and are putting a massive stress on the GM to come up with a whole new set of encounters, purpose, and reward because of the the party’s newfound wanderlust. There’s no doubt that the players know that “the point” of their adventure was to get into that mountain (it’s the kind of meta-thinking that is actually OK in an RPG), and their agency gives them the right to do anything else, and while the GM can come up with ways to get them back on track (abandoning their role in defeating the Ancient Evil will certainly have repercussions that will invariably find the party), are the players purposefully subverting “story time” in exchange for “playtime”?
In closing, I’m not condemning the more free-form gameplay; it’s how I used to play when I was younger, having been one of those GMs/players who just kept the ball rolling week after week without a defined purpose except what we happened to come up with. I have concerns now, though, as I personally find it more difficult to be flexible in how I’m able to respond to player agency that moves away from the “goal” of the session. I’d love to be part of a freewheeling group where the session starts with “what are we all going to do today?”, regardless of whether it’s the GM or the party who asks. In light of that, I find myself reliant more on very specific details, whether it’s the helping hand of a published module or my own homebrew concepts. I figure that if the GM is going to lay down a “hook”, then the players should very strongly trend in the direction that the hook leads, even though it flies in the face of the agency that RPGs provide.