Playing a Story in a Believable World

For far too many games, as both player and GM, I have found myself in one of two dreadful scenarios.  Most often a game is so tightly bound to a plot line that any deviation is brushed under the table to make way for The Plot to push and shove me along into the next scene.  In the other possibility I find myself in a world so grand and so wide that I am left to explore and find my own plot hooks but the GM fails to spin these into believable or dramatic adventures.

My hope is to see more games (and run more games!) that can better blend the two.  Is it too much to ask for freedom and a great story?  I intend this article, and perhaps others to follow, to help me realize what aspects of my games have accomplished this, and I can pass those realizations to others.

The Truth is Only an Illusion

The truth is that no matter how much I want to run a game allowing my players to do anything they’d like to while at the same time advancing the story I want to tell, this is hardly realistic.  I think the trick is to lead by the hand, not by the earlobe.  Players need to feel like the choices are decided by them, not for them.  Every NPC ally, every mission, and every monster killed should not be thrust upon the party, but instead should be a choice the players are allowed to make.  Odds are unlikely that the players are going to turn down the wealthy landowner’s plea to save his daughter.  The simple act of letting even one player give voice to accepting the mission can mean a lot.   Now it is a charge he has chosen for himself, and that is going to be important as the journey stretches on and fatigue may set in for player and character alike.

The obvious question becomes, how can you pull this off?  Certainly not a simple answer, the reality is that every GM, player, and character that player may have, is going to need to be drawn in a different way.  For the purposes of this article, I think it’s more fruitful to consider the fantasy game party dynamic as an example.  I’ve played and even run sessions in several games where the adventure begins with something along the lines of, “You are travelling North from Startington, where Lord Nobodycares sent you on a mission to investigate Mountainmine, a place where his workers have been mysteriously disappearing!”  Not only is this poor use of cliché, which is something I’d like to write on later, but the players are given neither hook, nor emotional investment to rope them in.  Instead, the first step as GM should be to establish the characters as part of this world.  Nobody is born as a 20 year old adventurer with silver armor and a claymore, but for some reason games always begin at that point.  Why not step it back just a half-step to weave them into the story?

Perhaps you have a Dwarven warrior who has spent special points to make sure his character is the best stonesmith he can be at level 1; I say reward that.  Let’s have him contracted from the start of the game to build foundations for the homes in Startington. He depends on the stone from those mines to get his work done, and has noticed in the last couple of weeks that supply has been thin.  The party’s Half-Elf mage might be visiting her human heritage brother, who happens to work in the mines, and suddenly he has gone missing.  From here you can start playing with your level of depth on the hook.  The aforementioned Lord Nobodycares might put out a call for heroes, or for a less cliché aproach, you can drop the hint that the townsfolk have grown very concerned and a town hall meeting has been called.  At the meeting an irate citizen demands that someone step up and put an end to the town’s suffering, and what good heroes (with a little something personal at stake) wouldn’t offer to help?

This same technique can be carried on into other adventures, now with the added benefit of actually role playing the character investment.  You can bring in recurring NPCs met on previous adventures that later get into a bit of trouble, merchants whom the characters have formed good relationships with might spread rumors of treasure troves, or perhaps the mine flourishes, once more opening caravan routes to new cities where adventures can bloom with a realistic connection.

The point of it all is that the players took it on themselves to step into the fray.  You haven’t just told them they need to fight evil and save the day, you made them heroes, but in truth you knew they would be all along.  Choice is an illusion, and it can go far deeper than the example listed above.  Hopefully this is a good starter to get you going.

Afterword

I’d like to do more articles on this greater concept; the task of building a believable world and telling a story within it.  I think there is a great deal to be said about Tone, Theme, Continuity, NPC Relationships, Equipment, Time Use, and the benefit of Subtle Cliché. It is important to note that not one sentence of what was said above or below will apply to every game or gamer.  Blogs cannot tell you what experience can, but my goal is to shed some light on what may otherwise be missed.  A little freedom goes a long way in keeping players interested.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with some DOs and DON’Ts on the matter:

DO allow players to say no to your plot.

DON’T let your plot end just because players turned it down.  Let them feel the weight of the choice and all its consequences.

DO give a little personality to NPCs, even if they have nothing to do with the plot.

DON’T write-off potential player interactions with lesser NPCs because you are too excited or distracted by the “important characters” in your own story.

DO let players explore characters and places beyond your story.

DON’T let players waste time if there really is nothing to be found.

DO go against the mold sometimes, even if the above is your norm.  Maybe one adventure in a campaign should find the players forced into a choice they wouldn’t necessarily make for themselves, just to make them appreciate the times they do get to choose.

[tags]Game Mastering, rpg, role playing, games[/tags]

17 thoughts on “Playing a Story in a Believable World

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  1. I think this article is spot on. Too often GM’s get bogged down in their own creation leaving the characters to basically be lead by a nose ring through the story. Great advice on balancing the two extremes!

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  2. I’ve gamed with Nundahl for years and all I have to say is (by internet protocol) FIRST! and FAKE AND GAY! Other than that his method of running a game generally gets the ball rolling fast, and the personal involvement of the characters back story into the plot keeps players there. The challenge to the GM and players is to keep these side plot threads and background stories an interesting web of details instead of a knot of confusing BS.

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  3. Nundahl, If you must associate with a Nordic god, Please make sure when he claims 1st post, he’s not third. It makes the pantheon look bad.

    😉

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  4. Quality piece, sir. You bring up some excellent points. I think you may have missed; however, is saying YES more often to your players as a GM. Nothing can cut a player’s enjoyment shorter than a GM who continually cuts them short.

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  5. I’m typically more a modern-type system gamer (Cyberpunk, old WoD) but I’ve played several fantasy settings and campaigns and this advice is true of pretty much any game where your players are actually interested in more than just a dungeon crawl. Sure, if you’ve got a bunch of people sitting around the table who really want to see just how many orcs they can take in one go, some of the character background is maybe less important. But having played in several campaigns that lasted for up to three years, both the player and the GM need to be on the same page about where the character came from, where he’s going, why he’s even interested in hanging about with all these other ugly louts, or the game ends swiftly and badly.

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  6. Richard, it’s funny that you mention that. I specifically avoided putting that in my article. Saying “YES” is fantastic advice, and really does make all the difference in the world, but I’ve seen “say yes” on every RPG blog since D&D 4th Ed came out. I know the mentality predates 4e, but it was well put in the 4e DMG (one of the few redeeming qualities of the book) and since then has been repeated everywhere I turn. No doubt people still haven’t seen that advice, and it can change some games, but I wanted to try to get by without having to bring it up. Thanks for taking the time to say it yourself though, I think it really did change my gaming dramatically when I started “saying YES”.

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  7. “But having played in several campaigns that lasted for up to three years, both the player and the GM need to be on the same page about where the character came from, where he’s going, why he’s even interested in hanging about with all these other ugly louts, or the game ends swiftly and badly.”

    Absolutely correct, Pocketbach. It is really easy to confuse or assume what the player wants as a GM, or alternatively as a player mistake what the GM is going to give to you. Communication is KEY to a good gaming group, but that’s a whole new article for me to write …

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  8. Good stuff demi-viking in need of a hair cut.

    I feel if you have a good group of players they will do plenty to carry the story in whatever direction it ends up going. Be flexible, if you just let the game just happen it will be more fun and less stress for everyone.(It is a game right) Also if you have a player that likes to yell “Shenanigans” punch them in the FACE the first time they play and quickly toss them from the playing table never to return.

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  9. “Also if you have a player that likes to yell “Shenanigans” punch them in the FACE the first time they play and quickly toss them from the playing table never to return.”

    Sound advice, Grumpy.

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  10. If you’ve got a bunch of people sitting around the table who really want to see just how many orcs they can take in one go, some of the character background is maybe less important. But having played in several campaigns that lasted for up to three years, both the player and the GM need to be on the same page about where the character came from.

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  11. “…both the player and the GM need to be on the same page…”

    Absolutely! The article really set out a goal for long campaign world immersion, hack and slash games are a different sort of thing entirely.

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  12. Very sound article. And on the subject of players who tend towards hacking and slashing, I think letting loose the plot leash that would pull them from battle to battle can yield very interesting benefits. In the last year I have run games with several players new to table top RPs who tended towards simple and… more violent characters. I decided to play on their combative tendencies by changing confrontations that were otherwise scripted battles by giving them more control over whether or not it turned into a fight. As a result, they actually put more RP into their characters and pushed the plot in different directions.

    As for giving characters motive, this article is absolutely spot on. My personal favorite technique is the “Escape from New York” theme, thinking of a universal scenario in which any player, good or bad, would be compelled to adventure.

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