Help me understand: GM writes the plot

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  • David, let me gently challenge an assumption that I see in your post.

    The direction and endpoint set up in advance does not have to be created by the GM alone. I've played plenty of games where there was a "plot" to follow -- sometimes obvious and explicit, sometimes unspoken. All of our Pulp Space games, for example, have had very strong plotlines that we followed scrupulously. However, none of those storylines were created by the GM alone, as an exclusive GM job.

    I could be wrong about my assumption. If so, you can pretend I'm talking to someone else. :-)
  • Posted By: HituroThe substance is that I'm wondering if there is a difference in the quality of the story between something that emerges during play, as it tends to do in a story game (let me qualify that, one where you don't decide the story arc in advance), and something that actually has a direction and endpoint in advance.
    I actually see a different assumption, that there is a dichotomy between story that emerges during play and story with a defined story arc. My experience is that story that emerges can definitely have a "direction and endpoint" that it is driving toward. For example, our recent Blossoms are Falling game is focussed on a family that has fallen on hard times and its struggle to win back prestige and honor. We may fail in that endeavor, but we all know what the PCs are going to be pushing for and pushing for hard. Of course, we all created the situation in our first session. All of the beliefs and instincts and traits revolve around the situation. All the characters are tightly wound up in its resolution. While we may not know each scene before they are framed, we do know that we either will or will not bring the family back to its former glory.

    By the way, I think we also need to give Storn a big SG welcome!
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: HituroNow roleplaying games are manifestly not novels, but that doesn't mean they can't gain something of narrative direction, coherence and drama from having a plot of some sort to follow. I'm not sure if they do, or what, just a suggestion
    Actually, (good) novels go the other way around. To give the plot coherence, direction and drama those are centered upon one or various themes, that are shown in the actions of the characters. This really has nothing to do with the way a novel is written, but with how it read (the writer may know from the start how it is going to end or may not).

    If you have theme, and characters invested in it (like in noclue's example) you're bound to have a more novel-like experience than if you have a pre-planned plot or storyarc. For example, if you've read published scenarios for Vampire The Masquerade you might remember there were some notes about the theme of the scenario, that were supposedly shown in the way the plot was structured. However, in AP a story about loss could turn out to be about nothing specific due to the fact that the actions of the PCs could not enforce the theme or even work against it, and so you had a more chaotic, less oriented experience.
    Posted By: John HarperThe direction and endpoint set up in advance does not have to be created by the GM alone.
    I'm going to take this a bit out of context from your post: Players can railroad too. A player may Force his vision of the story on the others. The whole group could railroad together (and consensually). I don't really think those alternatives differ essentially from "GM writes the plot".
  • Correct away John and Noclue, I wasn't trying to present my musings as something definite. I'm well aware that player created / collaborative / emergant narrative can have directionality, and endpoints too, but I am wondering if they have the same quality (that's quality as sensory nature, not a measure of worth) as ones created in advance.

    To make this more specific. I have participated in, and GM'd games which were all about improvisation. There was no plot set in advance, just on the fly creation of story as we went along. These were fine, but I have been aware that sometimes when I improvise the result is just not as good as things I have sat down and planned in advance. The names are less cool, the imagery is more stereotypical, the relationships between characters are less complex, the plans of the NPCs are simpler and less cunning, and sometimes simply stupid (because *they* should have been planning in advance, or were smarter than me, or both!), there are often more farcical or stupid elements, because I don't have the chance too look back on my ideas and edit them to something more in keeping with the theme.

    Now maybe everyone else is better than this than me, or maybe I'm not always bad, or maybe the pleasure of co-operative and on the fly authorship of the story overwhelms such niggles, but I've still been aware of them as a difference between what happens when I prepare and what happens when I improvise.
  • David: I've definitely seen that tendency for improv to lack depth or resort to farce in lieu of dramatic themes. I have actually wondered that same wonder. Can a story now experience provide the tightly structured experience that I enjoy in a tightly plotted novel, or is it prone to drift and sprawl and wackiness because of the demand to make shit up at the table?

    I've learned from playing PtA and Blossoms the amazing power of the pitch session and the clan burning session to create tightly woven plot assuming there is a group of like minded players who are not in a rush to get through character creation. So, I think it depends on how well the game system focusses on weaving the PCs together and to the theme.
  • David: I've definitely seen that tendency for improv to lack depth or resort to farce in lieu of dramatic themes. I have actually wondered that same wonder. Can a story now experience provide the tightly structured experience that I enjoy in a tightly plotted novel, or is it prone to drift and sprawl and wackiness because of the demand to make shit up at the table?

    I've learned from playing PtA and Blossoms the amazing power of the pitch session and the clan burning session to create tightly woven plot assuming there is a group of like minded players who are not in a rush to get through character creation. So, I think it depends on how well the game system focusses on weaving the PCs together and to the theme.
  • There is an incident that sticks in my mind, from many years back in my GMing, back while I was at school I think. For reasons I don't remember I was meant to be running a session of a fantasy game (I think it was my own homebrew system of the time) and I had done absolutely no preparation at all, and this was at a time when I carefully prepared everything. The characters were in an inn and I had to make something up. The next thing I knew there was a bar fight, and one of the patrons had turned out to be a demon, and soon people were dead ... characters were dead and any notion of a continuing story was shot too hell! The whole thing was messed up because I lost it when I was on the spot.

    That was the first time that I really realised that when I improvised stuff I was rubbish at it. Over the years I got better, and now I know that even with no preparation I can generally improvise something largely indistinguishable from my average preparation ... but still not as compelling, or exciting, or as image-full as my best preparation.

    I notice that the solution of quite a few story games is to constrict the sorts of stories you can tell to a few types (or one) so that the arc and direction of the story becomes a lot clearer even without preparation.
  • I have to wonder if part if the issue is that, when you're playing a game where only the GM really has room to improvise (i.e., narrative say), you're obviously going to be pretty hit-or-miss unless you're an improv master.
  • Perhaps so buzz, but even together you may not develop any improvisational mastery. There is the addition of shared ideas, riffing off each other, mutually reinforcing enthusiasm, and so on, which can compensate though.
  • We're off-topic at this point, but I want to say there are games that give you a lot of help, and games that don't.

    Still, diff'rent strokes and all. :)
  • This conversation has evolved far beyond it, I think, but there is one sort of GM writes the plot play that was neglected, at least explicitly, though it was mentioned in passing on a few occasions.

    Railroading < Illusionism is a fairly accepted idea. But here's where we jump the tracks, when we go to mix-ups and Open play styles.

    Participationism is Railroading/Illusionism, only functional. The players are aware that their decisions don't have much effect on what happens, but they're okay with it, and in fact want it that way. They are free to play their characters without having to worry that they make a "wrong" decision which will lead them down a path the GM was unprepared for, or that the GM will have to "save" them from. They just play, interact and follow the cues they're given. The key to such play is trust. They trust the GM to come up with a story they'll enjoy being a part of.

    Even this is frequently mixed up with elements of Open Play. Most times that I've seen it, the player decisions that have effects are usually during character creation; The player states, explicitly or implicitly, what sort of character they want to play, and the GM crafts a story to give the player the experience they want, within the overarching story. Other times, the player makes a decision, believing themselves to be chasing the GM plot, that is so VERY much cooler than the idea the GM had in mind, and the GM will run with it, rewriting whole swaths of the story to fit. The GM who does this may keep this information to themselves, making them seem like an even more awesome GM than they necessarily are (though the GM who is willing and able to do this IS a better GM than one who is neither), or they may share this with the players, furthering the illusion that player decisions drive play.

    I've enjoyed this sort of play on many occasions, mostly before I had any idea of these concepts, but they're not my preferred method of play. My preference, as both GM and player, is to have active players (or myself) driving the story, putting the GM in a reactionary role, acting to provide adversity to overcome, and emphasis for the important aspects of the characters. A good game where I was largely driving, although following a player-originated storyline, was once utterly turned on it's head when another player entered, grabbed the story by the throat, and told it where it was going. I had to react to the actions of the players, adding grease to the wheels but never having to push or pull to make the story move. I loved it.
  • edited October 2007
    Even Participationism can be tricky, though, depending upon how you approach it.

    "Look, I want to run a dungeon crawl, and I want it to end with a big showdown with a Big Boss type deal, right? Also, I don't really feel like allowing for a Total Party Kill, although I'm certainly willing to allow casualties the closer you get to the big showdown".

    [Incidently, this is almost the clearest I've ever stated my preferences in Trad-Game GMing]

    If the potential group of gamers says "Yes!!" to those conditions, is this Participationism? If I go with the same philosophy, but fail to state it outright, am I into Illusionist territory? Am I railroading?

    I still don't know the answer to that...
  • Participationism doesn't require up front disclosure, though I imagine it'd certainly be clearer. The defining factor of participationism is that the players accept that the GM is calling the shots, and are fine with it.

    Basically, you're still railroading/illusionism-playing, but your players like it that way. The best indicator of this, when you're not explicit in the way you suggested, is that the players are engaged and enthusiastic about the game, even when it is obviously railroaded to an outsider or to the GM.
  • edited October 2007
    David, if you're saying that there are two forms of play, improv, and pre-planned plot, then... well I could even disagree that pre-planned is better in these cases. But I don't have to. Becuse it's a false dichotomy.

    I too labored under the belief that you had to have a plot, because otherwise you had nothing to work from, and things tended to fall apart. That there was no third option.

    But it turns out that you as GM can come to play well-prepared to run the game in a way that's not going to fall apart, but which, in fact, has no pre-prepared plot. You just prepare other stuff.

    For one, having lots of good NPCs is an excellent start. Giving them motives and agendas is better. Putting them into conflict with each other, even better than that.

    You should come to play with a "Plot" if that plot means that it's the set up that exists before play. Yeah it's also possible to run good games completely improvisationally... but nobody is suggesting that's better than coming to the game well-prepared.

    All I and others might be suggesting is that you do not come with an end-point in mind. Because, frankly, if I wanted to experience a novel, I'd experience a novel. I play RPGs in order to participate in a collaborative endeavor.

    What's interesting is that, since playing this way, the plots we've had are far, far better than the ones that I had when I pre-planned how things would go. Waaay better. Because we have many authors, not just one.

    The ideal is not to have the GM come and just let the players do whatever they want. Not nearly. Even in improvisational games, we fully expect the GM to have at least an equal role in determining how the story goes, if not a far greater one than any player. The only difference between this and pre-planned plots is that the GM is making up their contribution the same way that the players are, based on what he feels would be cool to have happen next.

    So my advice, at least, is:
    1. Come to play without an idea of how the situation will work itself out.
    2. But have a situation that has to work itself out.
    3. Work the situation out between you and the players.

    All we're advocating, and I think everyone actually agrees in all but precise measure of how much, is that you want to ensure that you're giving your players something entertaining to do. If you're forcing a plot to come out, there's a good chance that you're denying the players an opportunity to participate in a way that they may well enjoy.

    Mike

    P.S. Lance, as I originally defined the term, Participationism has no illusionism. The GM controls everything quite openly. I posited it as a possible form along an axis opposite from illusionism.

    Ex:
    GM: "OK, the man wants you to take his quest, you're going, right?
    Players (in pro-forma fashion): "Yup!"
    GM: "OK you say goodby to him, get your stuff together and head out on the road, and decide to make camp later that night by a stream. The camp is attacked, and one of the characters is dragged off. You give chase..."

    Basically the GM reads a script, and the players just nod and, perhaps, fill in some color at times like dialog (as long as it fits the directions of the script).
  • If that's your definition of the term... Then I have to say that I dislike your definition, and will hereafter replace it with my own.

    It's kind of like reality, in that respect.

    Because, seriously... What you're describing in that brief little exchange doesn't seem functional, whereas what I've thought of as Participationism, and what I've seen that fits my conception of the phrase (on many, many occasions) is functional and fun; a valid form of play. There's a D&D campaign that I would dearly love to be a part of that I frequently point to as a exemplary example of the form of play I described above as Participationism.

    Now, you coined the phrase, and what I said above aside, I'll stop using it if you're adamant on your original definition, as opposed to my evolution... But either way, I think that's a discussion for another thread. It's just that your definition shown here doesn't seem usefully different than plain ol' railroading, just with consent added in.
  • I have to agree that that so-called 'Participationism' exchange would suck to play, and I consider myself (any my group) quite Participationist. "The GM controls the plot" means that the players control *something else*, not that they do nothing at all but smile and nod. They might not even be particularly interested in the plot at all (cf 'DM of the Rings'); the plot could be immaterial to why they're there; to what they're contributing to play. A good GM might be entertaining, and a bad GM might be boring, but that's only a fraction of the fun to be had while roleplaying.
  • Posted By: lpsmithI have to agree that that so-called 'Participationism' exchange would suck to play, and I consider myself (any my group) quite Participationist.
    Well, it sounds pretty much like how my EotLQ game is going, and the players have been very positive so far. They know that the published adventure I'm running is railroading them through a plot...because I told them. They are far more interested in letting all those "cut scenes" go by so that we can get to the combats, which is the part they really love.

    And I can say that it has been WAY more fun for me than the published adventures we've used where the DM acted as if there wasn't a plot we were being railroaded through. There's no wondering if the the "dinner theater" the DM is presenting might actually be a decision point or just flavor to flesh out the villain (or, more often, let the DM indulge in his acting training).
  • Yeah, I did this. I did this hugely, with the game that gave birth to Fate, even: Born to be Kings.

    It went on for twenty-three well-documented sessions and my players occasionally tell me it was some kind of grail like experience. I think, to some extent, we keep wanting to figure out how to recreate it.

    I definitely, definitely authored the plot here. But I didn't consider what I authored to be sacrosanct. Just because I set up a story and put it into motion and had a lot of control over how everything was framed, I gave the players plenty of power to take the plot out behind the shed and sodomize the hell out of it. I did my level best to return the same in kind with new developments in the plot.

    I'm betting that somewhere in there someone might declare "But the GM wasn't writing the plot!" -- Bollocks. I most certainly was. Great authors steal, after all; if the players had good ideas, I fucking well stole them. (So here, John, I'm saying I think it's entirely possible that you've played in games where the GM wrote the plot, but you wouldn't ever call it the GM writing the plot, therefore, it's entirely possible you're using different language than other people are to describe the same thing.)

    There's also an element of authorship of setting that I afforded the players that, while not plot-writing on the part of the players, definitely gave me the raw stuff to use when building the plot; I drew a great big map of the land of Amber and put a lot of empty spaces on it with borders around it and then had them tell me what was there. This gave them a ton of buy-in and control over the setting, but still left the plot in my hands. To see what they wrought, check out the atlas which is full of material they wrote and partially-completed map I made in Illustrator.

    I didn't consider the plot to be linear. I used Personal Brain to create and associate all of the elements in the plot that I had in mind -- think of it as a relationship map, but connecting events as well as people. I hung MP3s off of those events and always had an appropriate soundtrack if (if; not when) the events ended up happening in the game. I made on-the-fly changes to the plot when I realized something more interesting was happening in play.

    But in the end, as something I had authority over, the plot was mine, as the GM.

    Not once was this a case of the players "showing up to be entertained by the show the GM puts on with his NPCs". I think that's a pretty myopic way of looking at it; I think that's only true when the GM's being a dick -- i.e., when he's not using his authority over the plot to include the players.
  • As for as being a tradional GM goes there are different ways to go about it, but all of them have some common elelments. The GM keeps the arc of the mystery alive for the players. He has as much input in the plot as any individual player. He creates continuity and keeps the various plot points moving when the story lags.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesYou should come to play with a "Plot" if that plot means that it's the set up that exists before play. Yeah it's also possible to run good games completely improvisationally... but nobody is suggesting that's better than coming to the game well-prepared.
    Well that *is* what I would mean by plot Mike, sorry if I gave any other idea. I might prepare a few plausible scenes in addition, with no assumption that they would ever see play, but I wouldn't be scripting out what I expected people to do.

    But I don't think this suggestion answers my question. Even if I only plot out a number of NPCs and their motives I am still assuming that the players will actually interact with these NPCs. In a totally player led and plotless game there is no way I can make that assumption. They can just walk away from any background I have prepared and do something else, and then we are back to improvisation.

    Now I find that players don't generally do that, except out of spite, because they know they are playing a game and they make allowances for that. They *could* walk away from the King's plea to rescue his daughter and become the owners of a floating brothel in another country ... but they don't because they understand that know that there is a game, with a setting, and a story direction, and that it just won't be as good if they do. (Or that it *might* not be as good). At the very least they check to see if leaving to buy their floating brothel is going to give the GM a breakdown ... and if not they may be nice and give him a little while to do some *new* preparation.

    Basically its a play contract to accept some element of plot direction and railroading so that you can actually play.
  • Posted By: HituroIn a totally player led and plotless game there is no way I can make that assumption.
    RPGs that use some sort of flag mechanics for players helps mitigate this, like, a *lot*.

    Otherwise, yeah, it can happen, especially if you're flying blind when doing your prep. I.e., don't have any input from the players as to what they want to do.
  • I agree about the flags, after all even in a very plotted game the GM is most likely to write a plot that he thinks is going to appeal to the players and their characters. He isn't going to have a plot about rescuing the princess unless thats the sort of thing that the characters care about and the players would be interested.

    Sometimes flags aren't much use for preparation though. If I know that you care about the struggle of the working classes against the system I may think that my plot about oppressed mine workers is going to get your attention, but maybe there is some other thing you'd much rather do to help the poor. Or maybe your character just isn't in a mood to engage in the class struggle right now, and instead they want to go home and reconnect with their aging father before it's too late :)
  • edited October 2007
    Sweet! Design discussion about Born to be Kings! I recommend those campaign notes to all my friends. I think it's a very relevant example here.

    That "Damn it, the GM is grinning again" thing that pops up regularly in those transcripts? The whole recurring "Oberon is painfully inscrutable, and knows it, and all but rubs it in his kids' faces", and how the players react? Those are signs of "GM-written plot" firing on all cylinders, and the players loving it.
  • Posted By: iagoI didn't consider the plot to be linear. I usedPersonal Brainto create and associate all of the elements in the plot that I had in mind
    Fred, Personal Brain is way cool. Thanks for the link!
  • Posted By: Hituro If I know that you care about the struggle of the working classes against the system I may think that my plot about oppressed mine workers is going to get your attention, but maybe there is some other thing you'd much rather do to help the poor.
    Sure, although one way you fix this is to say up front that you want to run a game about the struggle of the oppressed mine workers and see if they bite. I think the difference here is that we agree, to help out the poor overworked GM, to certain limitations ahead of play, and ask the players to construct characters that will work within that situation, but don't constrain the direction they take it in play.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: SweeneyToddSweet! Design discussion aboutBorn to be Kings! I recommend those campaign notes to all my friends. I think it's a very relevant example here.

    That "Damn it, the GM is grinning again" thing that pops up regularly in those transcripts? The whole recurring "Oberon is painfully inscrutable, and knows it, and all but rubs it in his kids' faces", and how the players react? Those are signs of "GM-written plot" firing on all cylinders, and the playerslovingit.
    You have it pretty much exactly, dude.

    Oh! And there's something I didn't mention in there.

    I never put a problem in front of my players with a single solution -- or honestly, even any predetermined set of solutions. I just made problems for them, and was game for any solution their wicked little minds turned up.

    Flexibility is entirely compatible with GM-written plot, really. Mandatory, for it to be "good GMing", perhaps.
  • I don't know what I have to do to accomplish this, but I nominate this thread for Best of Story Games.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: iagoSo here, John, I'm saying I think it's entirely possible that you've played in games where the GM wrote the plot, but you wouldn't ever call it the GM writing the plot, therefore, it's entirely possible you're using different language than other people are to describe the same thing.
    I agree. This thread has shown that there is a wiiiiide spectrum of stuff that falls under "GM writes the plot." Seems that some people identify with that phrase as the thing they do when they play (are are pretty heavily invested in that identification) but I would not have called it such.

    Great, great thread, folks.
  • edited October 2007
    Lance... it seems odd that somebody would want to take a neologism like Participationism, and alter the meaning of it. But if it's important to you, then go ahead, do what you will.

    The term isn't important. What is important, which you're missing, is that the terms were created to delineate between games where the GM was controling the plot and trying to hide it, and games where the GM was controlling the plot, and not trying to hide it. My example is extreme just to make the point... actual participationism could include a lot more participation. But the key is that the players would know openly that they had no control over where things were going and that the GM could, at any time, do whatever he needed openly to get the plot going where he needs it to go. That includes controlling the PCs at times, because, frankly, that's neccessary to full plot control done in the open.

    If they're using any illusionism, then it falls into the category of illusionism. It's as simple as that, under my definition. [Edit: since it's a spectrum, you can have some play that's hidden, and some that's not, and you could say that your play is somewhere in between on this line... that's part of the model too]

    Further, when I postulated Participationism, I did it because somebody had said that they played this way, and that they thought it was functional. Even like in my example. If you don't think that's a functional form of play, you're welcome to your opinion, and I would agree with you that I would hate to play that way. But that's just how you and I feel, and if we tell these theoretical people that their form of play is wrong, that's us being fascists, right?

    Now, that said, I can't actually confirm after the fact that the reported sort of play actually occurs, or that the people playing it like it. But as a part of the potential spectra, we have to assume such for the model, if only to make what illusionism is understandable.

    Note that there is another spectrum in this model of control that speaks to whether or not the players are actually consenting to the GM's control. If, in fact, the players are not consenting to this form of play that is otherwise GM controlled and out in the open, the play is railroading (as opposed to GM control in secret using illusionism where the players don't want this, which is "Secret Railroading"). Or, put another way, yes, Participationism is "railroading with consent." If that makes any sense, given that the useful meaning of railroading is taking away choice without consent.

    You can use the term however you like, I'll just have to make up a new one to label my phenomenon, then.


    David, you can argue all you like about how the sort of play that I'm describing will play out, but I have literally hundreds of documented sessions of play using these techniques that say otherwise. Once again, you're making a lot of assumptions about the form that just aren't there. But one thing I can tell you simply is that, if you give players fun stuff to respond to, even if you don't have an expectation as to the response, the response will be fun. Players aren't dumb. They only make bad play when they aren't given good material to work from. You don't have to force players to make the right choice in a scene to get a good scene, or to be able to craft the next good scene. Simply ain't so.

    Mike
  • How I used to GM back in the day, when I wasn't just reading a module:

    1) Come up with a setting with some potentially epic elements

    2) Tell players about the setting

    3 + 4) Players come up with characters, maybe to specifically fit with some setting element, maybe in isolation from it. In the same timeframe, I come up with some sort of initial plot-activity to bring the characters together.

    5) Notice what the players liked to do, what niches the characters occupied, et., and start crafting more story elements to fit.

    6) Repeat 5, ad nauseum.

    In some ways, I was trying to tap things like keys, though in a really crude and sometimes unproductive way. "What made you think I wanted to do X?" "Because you did Y last week!" "Wow, I don't even remember Y..."

    The problem I ran into, trying to play long-term games, is that things would become character-driven, then a character would just drop out. The effect was like a wheel falling off a car. I had developed backstory, NPCs and other stuff concerning ex-Princess Penelope's quest to win back her throne, but Ralph's got a new girlfriend so won't be playing anymore. Crap.

    My best GM moments were on MUSHes, and tending to be crazy, on-the-fly stuff. I'm playing out plot X with this group over here, and plot Y with this group over here, and it suddenly occurs to me that there's no reason why the hidden menace of each plot can't be the same entity, and then WHAM! Cross-talk, more involvement of the MUSH as a whole, people crediting me with having thought all this out weeks ago when it was really a sudden, sleep-deprived inspiration.

    Sometimes the off-the-cuff stuff would go off in bad directions, though. Improvising my way into a corner, or worse, a really boring corner. It could be hard to change direction. Is there a tool in the kit for, "You know, that whole scene really sucked. Can we pretend it didn't happen and try something else?"

    Another MUSH plus was that players tended to go off on interesting tangents. I think a lot of it was the medium. The stillness of a computer screen when no messages are coming through may ahve made some players initiate actions just to fill the blankness. And there was something about not having a bunch of players looking at me all the time
    that made creativity a little easier.
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