Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Story: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 22

This episode of Play on Target takes on the question of story and how that comes together in play. I’m really happy with this episode. We record several weeks before putting the podcasts up, so by the time I hear it I’ve forgotten exactly what we addressed. Usually I sketch out a list of points and ideas and then listen. Those that we don’t touch on I write up a little for these blog posts. This time we hit just about everything. I hope that’s useful material- if only to build confidence. I suspect much of what we discuss confirms experienced GM’s thinking. I didn’t always know this stuff. I railroaded players; I got angry when they seemed to be deliberately getting off track; I overprepared my material and wasted energy. I’m in a constant process of recovery- even as I uncover new mistakes to make at the table.

We talk about things from the GM’s perspective, but what’s the players’ role in story? When I’m playing I try to keep three things in mind: my character’s tale, the other PC’s stories, and the GM’s plot. My story’s easy. If I can connect what’s happening to it and that’s not going to bring things to a halt or cause problems then I do so. Can I reference something in my past? Can I investigate a troubling detail unsettled? Can I go see a significant NPC? Usually I expect the GM to signal the right time for those moves. More often I simply try to work in my character details into statements: “I was trained in a low-rent chantry, this ivory tower magical college freaks me out” or “I can sympathize with him since my father cast me out as well.” Parallel to that I’m looking for when my fellow players put those details out there. Can I play on those? Would it be appropriate to ask questions about them? Do they seem to want to explore those more fully? I try to pay attention to what matters to other PCs. Then when we have a question about what to pursue I’ll suggest we follow those lines. They become engaged, I get to hear more about their concept, and hopefully they’ll reciprocate in the future.

The relationship to the GM’s more complex. Most GMs don’t want to railroad. That’s such a dirty word that they’ll bend over backwards to avoid that. That can lead to players with no sense of where the interesting bits actually are. As a player I want some signposts: signals that the GM has some cool stuff waiting in different players. It shouldn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but more of an Easter Egg Hunt with lots of presents and surprises spread around. I listen for those kinds of signals- but if I hear them, I want to handle that with caution. Despite their power, a GM can be a timid beast. If they lay a signal out there and the players immediately pounce, a skittish GM may fear the party thinks they have no choices or accept simply because they’ve submitted to being on rails. Just as players need both choice and the illusion of choice, players need to buy into and support the illusion of choice. They need to debate options- even if only minimally. As a player I want to see something of the story the GM’s come up with: the incidents, places, and people. And then I want to mess with that and put myself squarely in the center of the action.

Action and change makes story. Players need to take actions and acknowledge how the environment the GM presents affects their choices. Interact with the backdrop, say what you like, and be proactive.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at