First of all, computer RPGs are good. Let’s just get that clear from the start. In fact, some of my best friends are computer RPGs. But we all know that they are a pale imitation of the tabletop hobby. They’re a cheap high to get you by until your next hit of the real thing. The biggest virtue of computer RPGs is their availability. You don’t need a group of friends or a GM to play. You don’t have to set aside time and coordinate schedules. You just need a console or a computer and a game.
Because of this ready availability, there are a lot of people who have played computer RPGs that have never (or seldom) played tabletop games. While most of the differences between them are apparent, and people can adapt accordingly, there are a few subtle behaviors that video games instill and reinforce that can be disruptive at the game table.*
Breaking the Game is Bad
The single defining characteristic of computer RPGs is that your character gains experience and gets better over time. In most games, they also gain new and better equipment and/or new abilities and powers. If it’s a good game, the choices that you make about which equipment to use and which abilities to develop are meaningful choices, which means that some combinations are more effective than others.
This is a really great system, because it rewards the player in two ways. One, their character is more effective and more powerful, and as we’ve mentioned a few times here at Maximizing Rockmost, being good at things is fun. Two, the player gets a sense of accomplishment because they “solved the puzzle” of which choices were good ones. Essentially, most computer RPGs have a puzzle element built in to them.
When they carry this tendency into the tabletop game, things can get a bit hairy. The rules systems that govern tabletop games are, on the surface, very similar to a video game. The player makes choices about which abilities and/or equipment to use, and some of those choices are more effective than others. If, however, one of your players seeks to “break” the system by exploiting holes in the rules or combinations that are particularly powerful (often called min-maxing) it can break the play experience.
One way that it breaks the experience is that it breaks the verisimilitude of the experience. Abusive skill choices don’t tend to be “I’ll play a traditional knight with a sword and a shield.” They tend to be more like “I’ll play a multi-classed fighter/conjurer with a specialization in force magic and dual-handed scimitars.” Since the player is optimizing for effectiveness instead of flavor, they create a character that doesn’t mesh with the setting. It’s jarring, and it makes it harder for all of the players (especially the person playing the maximized character) to achieve that optimal state where you lose yourself in the story and forget that you’re a bunch of people sitting around a table rolling dice.
The other way that it’s jarring is that when a player manages to break the game, they are usually significantly overpowered compared to the other players. This makes for really miserable gameplay. Either the GM keeps sending bad guys at the players that the fairly-built characters can deal with and the broken character dispatches effortlessly, or he sends suped-up bad guys that challenge the broken guy and makes the other players pretty much useless.
The World Does Not Revolve Around You
Do you know who the single most important person in a computer RPG is? Your character. In the video game, the goal is to make sure that you, the single player, have the best experience possible. This is, without a doubt, a good thing. When you sit down to play the tabletop game, however, you are no longer the most important person. There are some number of other players there with you, and their experience matters as well.
This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s an easy thing for people to lose sight of. What’s fun for one player might not be fun for anyone else, and they may be so wrapped up in their fun that they don’t notice that everyone else is miserable. This is obviously bad for the other players, but I also think that it’s bad for the problem player as well. The best moments of the tabletop hobby are the times when everyone is contributing and having fun. I strongly believe that player is having less than the optimal experience – by doing what they find fun.
A Totally Different Animal
The reason that computer RPGs teach bad habits is that tabletop role-playing games have a dirty secret – they’re not actually games. In a game, someone wins and someone loses. In a tabletop RPG, the players aren’t competing with one another, and they (hopefully) aren’t competing with the GM. Tabletop RPGs are their own unique thing, a strange combination of improvisational storytelling and puzzle-solving and probability. It’s an odd combination, but a highly successful one. That combination requires other people to work, and so when you port it to a video game some things are lost in the translation.
*I’m explicitly not talking about MMOs here. I’m sure that they have their own set of interesting foibles and habits, but I don’t know enough to espouse on them.
Much like any other creative endeavor, there are a lot of things that you have to get right to make a good campaign. You need good players who are both reliable and engaged. Those players need to be playing characters that they find challenging and fun. You need a setting and a story that gives those characters something cool to do. And as a GM, you have to be prepared and on your game. You have to keep the action moving, keep all of the NPCs and details straight, and set the tone.
If you do all of those things, you’re going to have a good and enjoyable campaign. But even if you accomplish all of them, is doesn’t guarantee you a great campaign. You know that it was a great campaign when people are reminiscing years later about their characters and those awesome things that they did. Part of that is that the GM did a good job of maximizing rockmost – they made decisions and created situations that enabled fun things to happen. But there’s more to it then that. A really great campaign has a heart. The heart of the campaign is the overriding theme, the thing that gives it continuity and makes it feel like more than just a series of events.
Examples of Success
In Ver Jattick, one of the campaigns that Dann ran, the heart of the story was its history. The setting was one that he had played in years before with his friends. For our campaign, he moved the setting forward a few hundred years, so that the actions of his old players were now history and legend. When he described the city, it sounded like an old local giving directions: “Well you go up to Old Barney’s place, and turn right. Then you turn left where that barn used to be before it burned down.”
By itself, that history would have been a cool feature, and would have made the setting more interesting. But the thing that made it better, that took that history and made it the heart of the campaign, is that it pervaded everything. The characters all had dark pasts that tied them somehow to the larger story. The larger story involved uncovering atrocities that happened thousands of years ago. Some of the characters that were PCs in the old campaigns were still alive, though transformed by the years. The history of the place was inescapable. Consequently, when the story reached its epic conclusion, we felt as though the things that we were doing mattered. We felt like we were writing a new chapter in the history of Ver Jattick, and that our actions would determine the fate of generations to come.
In Kjemmen, the campaign that Ben is currently bringing to completion, the heart of the campaign is the feeling of deceit and immorality that pervades the setting. It’s a city built around the corpse of a fallen god of death, run by dark priests and warring nobility that more closely resemble mob bosses than refined lords and ladies. Every person in Kjemmen has a vice; no one is pure, everyone can be bought and no one can be trusted. There are no good guys, just some people that are less bad than others.
Ben did a terrific job of making this feel real for the players. He gave the NPCs believable vices, and let them be revealed without being too obvious about it. The players were betrayed on all sides, and learned the hard way that no one could be trusted. In time, they internalized this feeling, betraying and distrusting one another. In most cases, having a pervasive aura of evil and distrust between the players would be a bad thing, but in this case it was a terrific success.
The heart of the story doesn’t have to be an abstract idea. I ran a fantasy campaign a few years ago in a setting called Bakad. The original seed for the campaign was that I wanted to try a world with unusual fantasy races and no humans. The whole story took place in and around a single city, and that city was ruled by an undying vampire named Toruf-Tar. I always felt like that campaign was kind of a failure. I had two threads in mind for the story, and I totally screwed one of them up and ended up dropping it. The final battle at the end mostly had the PCs standing around and watching while other people did things that were important. My players, on the other hand, loved it, and I’ve never really understood why.
I think it might have been that I accidentally gave the campaign a heart, and that heart was the vampire mayor. From the beginning, he had a certain badass mystique about him, and the players were always excited when the story involved him or one of his two vampire lieutenants. The branch of the story that I didn’t abandon, and that I originally thought was the less important one, was about one of his former vampire lieutenants that had betrayed him and was thought dead. As that story became more and more central, the campaign became more fun. In hindsight, it was obvious. Toruf-Tar was the heart of my campaign. He was what it was about, whether I recognized it or not. As events moved closer to that heart, they felt more significant and more fun.
An Illustrative Failure
A few years ago I ran a Fantasy/Old West campaign. The idea was to make it feel as real-world as possible, but with the addition of magic and fantasy races as stand-ins for the old west tropes. The Dwarves were the train engineers and barkeeps, the elves were the city folk from back east, he emancipation proclamation freed the orcs from slavery, the centaurs were the Native Americans, and so on. The campaign story was about a large, secretive construction project outside of town that was supposed to be an aqueduct but was really a cover for a secret gold mine. Oh, and the miners were being being tricked into unearthing an ancient hidden city full of terrifying monsters. The setting was cool, and the characters were great, but the story was weak. In hindsight, it just kind of felt tacked on.
The reason that the story was weak was that it had nothing to do with what made the setting interesting. The most compelling aspects of the setting were the racial and class politics represented and enhanced by the fantasy races. Not surprisingly, a lot of the best moments in the campaign came from scenes where that theme was central. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would try to find a way to make the story be about that instead.
For me, the lesson going forward is to add another criteria to the list of things necessary for a good campaign. Before play begins, I need to figure out what makes my campaign setting special. Then I need to make that a theme for the whole campaign, and come up with a story that emphasizes that theme. If I can’t find a theme, a heart, for my campaign, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Secondly, once I’ve found that theme, it should become a guiding principle going forward. In the same way that, when faced with a choice between two options I should be asking myself “What rocks most?” I should look at every major decision through the lens of the overriding theme, and make sure that I’m not straying too far off course. If I can accomplish that, I can hopefully turn a good campaign into a great one.
Over the years, I’ve heard many times advice against sharing campaign stories. Generally, it’s just as deep as the title of this post. Some seem to merely have memorized this piece of advice, but, of course, I’d like to take a little bit to analyze it. Picture, if you will, the stereotypical situation: While browsing the shelves at your FLGS, some fellow nerd notices that you’ve picked up the source book on Northern Halflings. As a way to introduce himself, he tells you how he once played a Northern Halfling back in the prior edition of the rules. In that campaign, his buddy Jeremy played a half-orc barbarian and was always saying inappropriate things. Once, they were sneaking into this Necromancer’s lair to get a gemstone to cure the citizens of the kingdom from a plague and when they got to the ritual chamber, it turned out that the Necromancer was…and at this point, no one but Jeremy and his friends knows what happens because you’ve zoned out while listening.
To be fair, we’ve probably all told a story about our friend Jeremy and his half-orc that’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand or that we let drag on too long, etc. But poor story-telling aside, it still seems as if campaign war stories are harder to tell well than other stories about your life. Why is that? I feel that there are basically two things at work, here.
Not Enough Context
Can you imagine picking a scene, or even a whole chapter out of your favorite book and trying to tell someone about the best part? How terrible would that be? For anything good to make any sense, you’d have to keep explaining everything in parenthesis: “Then Gandalf (he’s this old Wizard guy who always blahs and says bloo) says to Aragorn (he’s a Ranger (which is a group of guys who roam the north) and heir of Elendil (who was…)) that he’s got to reforge his sword at Rivendell (which is where a bunch of Elves live). See, the sword was important because…” Anything worth relating will probably need a fairly nuanced understanding of the material, but in the space of an anecdote you’re effectively just explaining the joke.
This is the you-had-to-be-there factor. It’s not that the funny (or whimsy or whatever) only existed in that moment, it’s that it relies on an intuitive understanding of some fairly complex relationships between ideas that really can’t elegantly be compressed. This could be solved or worked around by either figuring out how to make a (much) longer story entertaining so as to build up the intuitive understanding over time, or by being even more concise and abandon an attempt to convey something subtle.
Nothing To Care About
If you consider most campaigns, there’s not a lot of characterization (evidenced by folks’ tendency to describe their character by race and class, or whatever equivalent) and not a lot of plot. If the campaign is a series of went in that hole and killed that thing and got this loot, you’re just not giving another human being a lot of hooks to get invested in or people to relate to.
It’s not that there’s nothing to be invested in. The dungeon crawl style campaign is a mostly visceral experience. You can describe what you did in what order and what happened because of it, but if it’s mostly mechanics and dice rolls, then it boils down to a few sentences pretty quick and it’s very, very hard to convey that sense of accomplishment, or winning; that “and that felt good” aspect. Imagine someone who was very into extremely difficult jigsaw puzzles trying to tell you about their latest conquest. There’s no denying the accomplishment or their feeling of satisfaction, but there’s not a lot of narrative arc to the tale.
The Counter Example
This is not precisely a counter-example, but I have a friend (besides Stewart) who I have talked to about Kjemmen from a very early stage in order to bounce ideas off of, etc. Since he was around as the world was getting built and heard about the PCs as they were getting built and then heard the beginning of the story as it was unfolding… he now asks me for an update when we see each other. It was sort of a disorienting experience when I realized I was being asked to relate a campaign story. But I realized that the above two things don’t apply at all in this case.
First off, Kjemmen isn’t a dungeon crawl. The characters have personalities and goals and ways of thinking. The world is deep and (at least to me and the folks involved, including my only-sort-of-involved friend) interesting. The events of one session can have repercussions for a long time to come or represent the culmination of lots of various plot threads. So there’s plenty of hooks for a third party to get emotionally invested in. Secondly, I haven’t been trying to compress it. So all the subtle and complex relationships between ideas have been built up over time with him. If I say, “…and it’s not like Phethil would blah,” my friend will say, “God no. That would be insane!” without my having to explain why.
I don’t really view the telling of good campaign stories as a problem to be solved or anything, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions about how to do it right. However, I would like to draw your attention to the idea that a character-focused story has a lot more meat for people to get invested in and that this kind of thing is a hallmark of the Dann Campaign. This isn’t just true of third parties to whom you (or your players) are trying to explain some aspect of the campaign. This goes for you and your players. Without a character-based (or at the least a story-heavy) campaign, the emotional investment has to come solely from shared experience, problem solving and the like, which are purely meta-game concepts. On the other hand, with that focus on story, you can get investment in other people’s characters, in NPCs, in the culture of the game world, etc in addition to those meta-game sources of investment.
The other day, I read a post entitled Show vs. Tell: Why “Visual” is Not Optional by Aaron Diaz. I encourage you to go read the whole thing, but for those that don’t want to, or don’t want to right now, he talks about how the writing and the art in a comic cannot be separated and produce a good comic. He is basically asserting that the co-existence of the two is the hallmark of the medium and that if they don’t feed back into each other, then you’re not playing to the medium’s strength. He then shows a lot of examples of framing leading the eye and building up the information conveyed in words in a sort of symbiotic way, rather than just illustrating the action dispassionately. In another post, he talks about creating focal points and drawing the eye from place to place within a frame and how that can be used to make a comic awesome.
The thing that got me thinking, and inspired this post was that in those two posts (and several others), he refers to established understandings from academia about things like painting and writing. And he examines how their pairing in comics differs or augments the usual rules for those two things. It reminded me strongly of the whole RPGs as a Medium category we have on MR.
And it made me realize how little we have to fall back on that’s akin to painting and writing. We can look to acting a bit, but improvisational acting is the closest to roleplaying and it’s mostly used for comedy, so not all lessons there are relevant. We can also look to story-telling or oratory… whatever you want to call the art of telling a story aloud. But it seems to me that academia hasn’t spent nearly as much time talking about storytellers as it has about painters.
So I think that makes a stronger call for me (at any rate. I certainly welcome help) to pay closer attention to the things that are absolutely central to the rpg medium. I posted about the Circular 4th Wall before, which is certainly something unique to roleplaying. It seems like it’s more of a pitfall to be aware of, though, than a technique to hone.
So I’m officially starting out on a journey to identify the things that are not optional in good GMing. Especially the tactical things that really happen at the table, not in planning ahead of time. One very fruitful avenue that I feel I’ve ignored up to now is the oral storytelling aspect. I don’t know where this will lead, or if it’ll bear anything fruitful, but I’m going to find out and I’ll let you know when I come across something interesting. If you have any ideas you want me to investigate, let me know and I’ll plan a detour in that direction. Once I feel like I’ve identified the words-and-pictures-must-synergize of roleplaying, the next step is, of course, to figure out how to become good at that.
I was walking down the hall at work the other day and entered a room. Someone entered right after me, but I didn’t remember seeing him in the hall or hearing him behind me (it’s a very echoey hall). I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention at all. The other guy was probably walking down the hall toward me and I just didn’t see him. Somewhat randomly, I reflected that this never occurs in a video game. If you’re walking down a hallways in an FPS, you will see the person walking towards you. If you don’t pay attention to things, you get eaten by zombies.
But it’s not like you’re straining your abilities of attention. The world of a video game is crafted around the player; you are its center. So everything that you see matters in some way (otherwise it was a “waste” of art assets and programming time before release) and, for the most part, you see everything that matters. As with all things, this got me started thinking about roleplaying.
It Was There The Whole Time
There are tons of good stories out there that include elements early in a subtle way which, later, are revealed to be a big deal. In video media, this is especially easy, since you can put something in a scene, but not draw attention to it merely by ignoring it. For instance, two characters are discussing up-coming events while one does maintenance on a firearm at the kitchen table. Later, when the presence of that gun saves the protagonist’s life, it doesn’t surprise the viewers.
This is something that doesn’t seem possible in roleplaying. If you mention that there’s a shopping cart, then the players see it as a Shopping Cart. Suddenly they’re in this room with greyish, blurry details and there’s this gleaming, technicolor, high-definition shopping cart sitting there. It’s like a 3 second shot in a movie of nothing but a shopping cart. The importance imbued into anything explicitly mentioned by the GM is immense. However, if you don’t mention the shopping cart because when they walk in it’s not important, then they can’t use it to awesome effect on the spur of the moment later.
It Happened While You Were Out
You sort of run into the Circular 4th Wall, here, too. In a movie, the viewer sees everything that’s important, but the protagonists don’t have to. So it’s possible to show the audience that something exists in some subtle way, or that something happened, etc. and have the protagonists learn it later and react quickly to the information in some cool way. However, because players are both audience and actors, if they didn’t see something happen, then it sort of didn’t.
There’s a thing that a lot of inexperienced story-tellers use (or stumble into accidentally) frequently that I find really annoying: They lie to me. Often, they’re trying to show off how clever the protagonist is. But if the protagonist’s clever solution relies on information that I didn’t have to begin with, I can’t be impressed at how clever they are. There isn’t that moment of, “Oh man! I didn’t think of that. That’s brilliant!” It wasn’t possible for me to think of it because I was missing the necessary information. The world of the story that the work of fiction was creating in my head didn’t include those facts until, suddenly, there they were.
Anything important that you don’t manage to get in front of the players is a bit like that. If they learn about something right as it becomes useful (or, crushingly, right after), then they don’t have time to mull it over and really digest it. If you’re looking to surprise them, that’s one thing, but the surprises have to be entirely believable and fit snugly into their mental model of the campaign world. I spend not inconsiderable effort to make sure that news of major events going on in the campaign reaches the PCs’ ears, especially if they weren’t there when it happened. It can be a struggle to make sure it doesn’t become contrived, but it’s worth the effort. You know you’re doing it right if your players can tell the difference when they go to ground in some way and stop hearing about stuff that was going on before they went into hiding.
It Doesn’t Really Matter
This is a big one I learned from Stewart (though maybe he doesn’t know it) and it’s the other side of “they see everything that’s important”. Often, when we’re brainstorming ideas for what’s coming up in a campaign, especially when we’re just filling in details for stuff that’s been decided for quite some time, I’ll pitch some idea and he’ll say, “That’s cool, but I feel like if we do something like that, it should matter in some way.” The point is, he’s always trying to make sure that if the players invest time in something (or, more precisely, if we invent something that they’re likely to invest time in), then it shouldn’t just be filler material. This isn’t an MMO and they shouldn’t be grinding mobs just so they can get enough Magic Rat Pelts for what’s-his-name back in Startington for no reason.
This isn’t hard to do at least a decent job of. If you come up with a cool idea, but can’t figure out what it has to do with the main plot, cut it out. I’ve seen over and over that many of the things in this world that rock most are the things that don’t try to do too much or include material just to lengthen the experience. So write down your awesome idea and build your next campaign around it. The real trick with this is keeping it in mind at all times (which has apparently been Stewart’s job between the two of us). If you make up some detail about an NPC that will come up, it’s way better if the fact that the PCs learn that details is at least potentially useful to them later on.
I don’t, I think, really have a thesis, here. Mostly, I just wanted to muse on this idea of the importance of events and how you present them to your players. When I was discussing it some days ago with Stewart, he made some observation that was really astute. However, I’ve forgotten what it was. Maybe he’ll say it again in the comments, or maybe one of you will and make him look slow and foolish.
Prophecy is a really common trope in fiction. You most often see it in fantasy, but not always; case in point: this post was inspired by my thinking about the Oracle from my RPG Adaptation about The Matrix. This one presents some serious challenges when trying to run it in a roleplaying game. We’ll look at the challenges briefly and then I’ll propose some methods to mitigate them, but first, let’s talk about the trope a bit.
So How Does It Work?
Prophecy works differently in different pieces of fiction. You’ll have to decide how it works in yours. Is it all smoke and mirrors and a tendency for people to look for what they expect? Is it all written in stone and cannot be averted? Is it a glimpse of a possible future that, now with the power of forewarning, could be altered or averted?
You’ll also have to decide whether most people in the campaign know what the nature of prophecies is. If it’s written in stone, but the world is very similar to ours, most people will think that it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. If it’s all smoke-and-mirrors, then it might be that people think it’s either written in stone or something that can be (with difficulty) affected. These two decisions will have a significant impact on how prophecy plays in your game.
The first challenge that comes to mind is rather obvious: You’re not actually psychic. Stat and skill numbers can help you mimic playing someone stronger or faster than you but they help very little when trying to play someone smarter than yourself. Similarly, a die roll isn’t really going to help you know what will go on later in your game. What will the PCs plan to do? How will those plans actually fall out? No idea. So that’s hurdle number one and it’s rooted in the fact, again and as many such hurdles are, that roleplaying is an inherently cooperative medium. It means you can’t predict the other people at the table.
There’s another, somewhat related, hurdle you have as a GM. It’s entirely possible that you’ll have a player (as differentiated from the player’s character) who resents having the future told to him. He doesn’t believe in all that fate crap and is even more militant about it because it came from the GM. So you might have to deal with someone working against whatever prophesy you lay down in a meta-game sense.
Let’s make a short list. I think you have basically three main paths available if you’re wanting to use prophecy in a game: railroading, spoilers or vagueness. Railroading is, you know, the heavy-handed approach. You say something like, “The city will fall on March 13th,” and no matter what the players come up with or how well they pull it off, you keep coming up with newer, better reasons that it just wasn’t good enough and the city has to fall. This is not something I recommend. It seems like the fastest way to divert what should be an interesting discussion of free will and fate into a major case of player frustration. The PCs being frustrated and angsty that they cannot effect the world is fine. Players feeling that way is less fine.
Spoilers are not quite railroading. If you can manage a prophecy that has mostly to do with NPCs, then your predictive power goes up somewhat. So you could tell the PCs that one of the King’s closest friends will try to assassinate him on the Thursday after next. This doesn’t really force their hand or dictate their actions. And worded as it was, it doesn’t guarantee an outcome. This can be a little tricky, since you’re skirting the edge of railroading, but if you craft the wording ahead of time, you can be pretty certain of dodging that bullet.
Vagueness is the real-world fake psychic’s bread and butter. There might be “dark events” or “grave danger” or “blissful happiness” at some unspecified date in the PCs’ future. I mean–it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the characters in an adventure story are up for some grave danger in the near future. This one seems tricky to get right in that if you’re too obvious, the Players will see that you’ve told them effectively nothing and the prophecy looses it’s oomph.
In my current campaign, my players learned some time ago of a prophecy from some NPCs. The NPCs are a religious group that believe the prophecy has to do with one of the PCs. It goes more or less like this: A killer of men will slay a white lion, will leap through rings of fire, flee from those who praise him, be chased through the streets by wolves, dance amongst the legs of titans, ascend the unassailable wall, then climb a high tower at which point the God of Death will rise and, you know, end the world. These NPC priests consider this world ending to be a Good Thing. Also, the implication is that the tower and evil god are certain ones very central to the setting.
The PC in question had, in fact, killed a white lion, fled from people who’d praised him, leaped through rings of fire, been chased through the streets by wolves and dodged and flipped through the legs of stampeding elephants all by the time they finally learned about the prophecy. According to the NPCs, he’s got a wall to climb and a tower, then everyone can die happily ever after. The PCs, however, have learned of an assassin (an NPC) who is, obviously, a killer of men. He assassinated a noble who’s crest was a white lion on a field of red. He fled the scene where he’d been posing an an entertainer and received praise.
So what’ve we got in this prophecy? First off: The players don’t know if the prophecy actually holds any power. This is a setting where such things are possible, but these NPC priests do a lot of drugs, so who knows about them. Also, if it does hold power, they aren’t sure if it’s something that can be altered or not. Because some of them read this blog, I won’t say what the answers to those questions are, but you can see how answering the “How Does It Work?” questions can have an impact on your players.
Secondly, this is a mix of spoilers and vagueness. I intentionally worked it so that it was unclear who the prophecy pertained to. This is vagueness. It’s also a little spoilerey in that the thing says explicitly that this god will rise up and destroy the world. And they know that before that happens someone, at least, will have to climb that tower. Also, if you look carefully, you can see how I avoided railroading. First off, I worded many of the lines in such a way that the outcome of an event was not foretold, just the event (he’ll be chased by wolves). In other cases, I put the PC in question in a situation where the obvious course of action was to do what I had in mind for the prophecy (like killing the white lion and fleeing from those who praised him). And just in case something went weirdly differently than I expected (as happens so often in roleplaying), I left my self an escape hatch: The PCs didn’t know about the prophecy until much of it was “fulfilled” (quotes because it’s in doubt whether the PC doing that stuff actually fulfilled it or not), so if I’d wanted, I could have altered the prophecy slightly to fit how events fell out. That’s pretty much cheating.
Now, I won’t know until after the campaign is over, when my players and I are doing post-game analysis, whether this was a successful use of the trope. I feel like it’s served the narrative so far, but then I can see all the pieces and it’s sometimes hard to guess the effect from the point of view of the players who see a less complete picture.
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.