Letting Players Tell Their Story
I’ve been meditating recently on what we mean by “collaborative story telling”. Clearly we’re talking, here, about the way in which the creativity of the GM and the creativity of the players interact at the table, but I wonder if it’s as simple as saying it, or if it’s deeper than that.
Specifically, when I’m building a campaign to be played, I have a rough idea of the plot of the story I want to tell. However, other than reacting to things going on the in the world, I’m not sure what input the players have on the story. What kind of opportunities for authorship do I present them. I have mentioned before the power of player authorship and how it can lead to some rockmost moments, so I don’t think I’m squashing their creativity and ability to express it in the story. However, I think the next time I’m sitting with a player making their PC, I’m going to ask them, “What is the story you want to tell with this character?”
In the past, I’ve tried to guess what the stories a player wanted to tell about their character were, but that seems imprecise and somewhat presumptuous of me. If I ask, I envision them saying things like, “I want it to be the story of him buying off these disadvantages to do with trust and lying,” or, “…of her bringing her father’s killers to justice,” or, “…of spreading his devotion to the Dual God to the heathens in this region.” This would help me look for and build opportunities for those stories to occur in tandem with, if not tightly integrated into, the story of the whole campaign.
Now, just as with a player’s character ideas, I think you have to play referee a bit. If the zealous preaching about the Dual God will be disruptive and unfun because the “heathens” have a strong culture and are zealots themselves, then you have to find a way to guide the player. I think you’re entirely within your rights to tell a player that an idea sounds cool, but that something about the setting makes it less cool. You needn’t explain it to them, just like other aspects of their character. Asking a bunch of questions to find out what about the idea is most appealing to them might lead to other, better ideas.
Finally, I’d be wary of being too married to an idea. It wouldn’t hurt to say this to the player up front; when the wheels hit the road, neither one of you knows where the campaign will ultimately go. If the player wants to call an audible and tell a different story, that’s perfectly fine. The goal is to help figure out what kinds of opportunities they’ll be looking for to let their character grow, not about locking them into a choice they made before they could really know anything about the setting.
As a quick example, I played a character named Tamlin in a fantasy/old west campaign that Stewart ran. Tamlin was very big on fitting in and would pretty much suck up to anyone who he thought was “cool” in an effort to get them to like him and let him hang around. This led to a lot of incidents in his life where people took advantage of him or got him into trouble. I thought his story was going to be about him finding a group of people who wouldn’t take advantage of him and he’d learn to respect himself a bit. Instead, his story turned out being about the terrible things that can happen to you and how doing things people ask you to is always bad. He picked up a mild phobia of being alone and a strong don’t-tell-me-what-to-do streak. The mid-course change wasn’t bad at all, so there’s no reason to try to avoid that kind of thing.