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Player-authored plot in RPGing

pemerton

Legend
This thread is a sequel to Who authors the shared fiction in RPGing? It deals with matters that have come up in the same of the same threads that prompted that one, or older but relevant threads like Beginning to Doubt That RPG Play Can Be Substantively "Character-Driven".

I think that it is possible for the plot in RPGing to be extensively player-driven/player-authored.

In referring to plot I'm following the usage on this old thread from another site, which uses the following labels:

Content - also backstory, ie established facts/events, major and minor, in the setting and situation;​
Situation or scene - ie the context in which the PCs (and, thereby, the players) are called upon to declare actions;​
Narration - how a scene unfolds, including what happens when players have their PCs do things;​
Plot - moments of revelation and/or development in play, where the "drama" of play is located.​

These four things are related to one another - framing a scene involves presenting some content (maybe a place, maybe some NPCs, maybe an event); resolving a scene obviously involves narration; and moments of plot are the upshot of content, situation and/or narration: a moment of plot might itself be part of framing a scene (eg "You enter the king's chamber and see a masked assassin about to stab him with a dagger!") or might be narrated as a consequence of an action (eg "You pull off the assassin's mask - it's the chamberlain!") or might be a mere presentation of content that is neither situation nor narration (eg "While you rest up having returned from your mission, you hear news in the streets - the chamberlain has been apprehended assassinating the king.")

What counts as plot is not "objective" or "neutral" - it depends upon what is taken as interesting or relevant in the play of the game. Hence why my example in the previous paragraph is of a revelation about an assassination rather than, say, a revelation about a new ant infestation in the innkeeper's meat safe. Maybe in a very insect- or food-oriented game that could also count as an example of plot.

For plot to be meaningfully player-authored, the player has to be contributing to the content that is revealed or developed, and to what makes it meaningful/interesting/relevant. This means that if the GM is the one who is narrating the revelation, s/he has to be drawing on elements that the player has brought into play and/or made salient. One way this can happen is if the player has an influence over scene-framing, and hence is able to bring those salient elements into play. But that is not enough: s/he also has to be able to influence what is then revealed, or how those elements develop, via action declaration. Otherwise it will be a GM-authored moment of plot.

If the player is working with GM-authored elements of content (eg GM-established places, GM-established NPCs, etc), player authorship of plot is still possible, provided that the player is the one who invests those elements with meaning, and via action declaration is able to shape the revelation or development.

Conversely, what marks a bit of plot as GM-authored is if revelation or development is established by the GM (eg the GM is narrating consequences of action declarations, and that narration isn't reinforcing some element of content or meaning that the player has brought to the game). This can become even clearer if the content (places, NPCs, etc) that is the subject-matter of the revelation or development is GM-established.

Here is an account of five sessions (about 10 hours) of play, with the moments of player-authorship of plot called out. The system is Burning Wheel. I'm the player; my friend is the GM. I've sblocked for length.

* First, I build the PCs - Thurgon, a knight of a holy military order (the Knights of the Iron Tower), and his sorcerer sidekick Aramina. The GM tells me that we're starting play on the Pomarj-Ulek border - that's a bit warmer than I had expected (in my initial conception Thurgon is rather Germanic) but I roll with it. The backstory I've written for Thurgon includes that "Thurgon left the Iron Tower only weeks ago. The Knight Commander of the order sent him forth into the wilderness. He does not know why." And also that Thurgon has not set foot there in Auxol, his ancestral estate, for over 5 years, since he left to take service with the Iron Tower.

* Now there are some ambiguities in Thurgon's background as represented by some build elements: there is an Affiliation with the Order of the Iron Tower; and also a reputation as The Last Knight of the Iron Tower. So it's not clear if the Tower has fallen, or is falling. The GM doesn't push for certainty in that respect. Instead, he starts fairly low-key and as one might expect: we (that is, Aramina and Thurgon) are travelling along the river frontier (between the settled lands of Ulek and the wilder lands of the forest and the Pomarj), where there are old forts of the order (now abandoned) and also abandoned settlements.

* At one of the homestead, I declared a couple of checks: a Homestead-wise check (untrained) to learn more about the circumstances of abandonment of this particular ruined homestead, which succeeded, and hence (in this case) extracted some more narration of backstory from the GM; and then a Scavenging check, looking for the gold that the homesteaders would have left behind in their panic and which the orcs would have been too lazy to find. Unfortunately this second check failed, which meant that Orcs from a raiding party had virtually infiltrated the homestead before I noticed them. Here we have an attempt at a player-authored plot moment, but the failure tilts the balance of narrational and hence situational authority back to the GM. The fight with the Orcs engaged Beliefs and Instincts, so there were local moments that expressed Thurgon's character in this bigger GM-established context.

* The Orcs (as the GM narrated things) were part of a larger raiding party, with mumakil. I think the GM was hoping I might chase the mumakil, but I have no animal handling, animal lore etc and so the mumakil remained nothing but mere colour. The larger raiding party was chased off by a force of Elves, again narrated by the GM. I wasn't surprised that Elves should show up - my GM loves Elves! I tried an untrained Heraldry check to recognise the Elves' arms, and failed - so the Elven leader was not too taken by me! In this there was cross-narration by me and the GM, but it ran in the same direction: as I was saying (in character) that I don't recognise the Elven leader's arms and wondered who he was, he (spoken by the GM) was telling me that he didn't like my somewhat discourteous look. I don't know what, if anything, the GM had in mind for the Elves, but one of Thurgon's Beliefs was (at that time) that fame and infamy shall no longer befall my ancestral estate. So I invited the Elf to travel with his soldiers south to Auxol, where we might host them. The GM had the Elf try and blow me off, but I was serious about this and so called for a Duel of Wits. Unfortunately my dice pool was very weak compared to the Elf's (6 Will dice being used for untrained Persuasion, so slightly weaker than 3 Persuasion dice vs 7 Will dice and 6 Persuasion dice) and so despite my attempt as a player to do some clever scripting I was rebuffed by the Elf without getting even a compromise. Here we have a player-authored plot moment. Although it ended in failure for the PC, it was all about what I as a player had brought into the situation. I'm pretty sure the GM hadn't anticipated this. So I don't know what he anticipated for the Elves' departure, but in the game it followed my failure to persuade them to join me.

* In the course of discussion the Elf did mention that one Orc - who may or may not have fallen in battle, he wasn't sure - was wearing a shield bearing the crest of the Iron Tower. I think the GM was expecting me to pursue this Orc, but I didn't, for two reasons: (i) having been rebuffed by the elven leader, I wanted to head off in a different direction, and (ii) I was a bit worried that Aramina is too squishy for hunting Orcs!, and Thurgon's pretty vulnerable too to being swarmed. So Thurgon and Aramina road off to the northwest, following the river.

* The GM wanted to skip a few days, but I insisted on playing out the first evening, as Thurgon and Aramina debated what to do. Aramina - being learned in Great Masters-wise, believed that the abandoned tower of Evard the Black lay somewhere in the forest on the north side of the river (a successful check, initiated by me as her player), and wanted to check it out (and find spellbooks!). Thurgon persuaded her that they could not do such a thing unless (i) she fixed his breastplate, and (ii) they found some information in the abandoned fortresses of his order which would indicate that the tower was, at least, superficially safe to seek out (eg not an orc fortress a la Angmar/Dol Guldur). My notes are a little incomplete here, but I think we resolved this as a Duel of Wits with me scripting for Thurgon and the GM for Aramina. This was a player-authored plot moment.

* We now did the travel-for-a-few-days montage and the GM told us we found an abandoned fortress of the Iron Tower. This situation was framed by the GM, and he introduced a lot of content, some of it in response to multiple failed checks on my part and some as part of his ongoing framing. But the key event was when Thurgon and Aramina found themselves magically trapped in a crypt of dead knights of the Order, one of whom had gone made and lingered on as a skeleton. The GM kept trying to goad Thurgon into a fight with this skeleton, but I refused on the grounds that I (which is to say, Thurgon) would not turn on one of my Order, even a twisted skeleton. A Duel of Wits was lost by Thurgon, and an initial prayer to reverse that outcome failed too. But then Thurgon and Aramina found some books, including a prayer book (I think this must have been a Scavenging check) and guided by the book Thurgon performed rites for the dead and then was able to succeed on a prayer of Purification to free the skeleton from its curse. And so we were able to leave. This was a GM-framed situation, with a lot of GM-authored content, but the crucial plot moment - a victory of peace and prayer, rather than arms - was player-driven. We also had some clues about a magical fiery assault on the fortress - this was GM-authored, responding to some my failed checks.

* We then travelled to Evard's Tower. A successful Circles check for Thurgon enabled us to meet Friedrich, a former knight of the Order, who took us down the river on his raft to where Evard's Tower is. This was all player-authored, although not itself a major plot moment.

* The GM also introduced another NPC around this point, travelling on the raft too. This NPC was an echo back to a NPC from another campaign of ours. The GM clearly liked this idea (he'd hinted at something similar with the Elves) but I wasn't interested. The GM took the hint and the NPC left the scene in fairly short order. At Evard's Tower we encountered a demon - this was the GM's introduction of a content into a situation that was otherwise player-established (ie the presence of the Tower). The demon was looking for information and compromises, as the GM had it ask questions and hint at things that pertained to the information that we had learned in the abandoned fortress, but my approach here was the opposite of what it had been there: Thurgon would not compromise with a demon, and fought it to a standstill (its summoning ended, and it departed the scene). As a result the GM decided that Thurgon had gained a new Reputation, and Infamous Reputation among demons as an Intransigent Demon Foe. This was a plot-moment which was instigated by the GM - a demon at the tower - but which was player-driven. And the GM recognised this with the decision about the Reputation.

* Aramina had tried to call down a Rain of Fire on the demon but failed and Taxed herself into unconsciousness. Thurgon made sure she was safe, and then explored the Tower while she was unconscious. He found letters that implied that Evard was the father of his mother (with whom he has a Relationship from PC build; and who, as per the backstory I wrote, still lives in Auxol). I can't now remember whether this was a narration of failure (seems more likely) or success, but it was driven by a Scavenging check. Thurgon burned the letters in the campfire - this was in part because he has an Instinct When camping, always ensure that the campfire is burning. This was a plot-moment that was player-authored. The GM's role was one of mediation: wending together the Thurgon-Auxol/family and Aramina-Evard/spellbook strands, using the letters as the device for that.

* Once Aramina regained consciousness, a series of misadventures flowing from the campfire led to the Tower catching fire. Thurgon wasn't able to put out the fire; but the burning down of the Tower did reveal its basement. This was clear GM situational authority, retaking the "initiative" on the back of a sequence (five, I think) of failed checks. In the basement we found fairly rough iron - Orc work, it seemed, perhaps to build something - and some sort of magical circle. Thurgon was able to identify it as a teleportation circle (my successful check, but from memory the GM's content). Thurgon then used his Ritual skill to try and open it, conjecturing that it led to Auxol or the vicinity - how else could his mother have sent letters to Evard when she was young? But that check failed, and so the GM explained that it led to an (unfamiliar) cave. Aramina was able to tell (by reading the symbols of the circle) that it travelled 100 miles east. The was eager for us to go through, and narrated the circle as flickering as if the portal was about to close. But I wanted us to go and get our gear that was still upstairs, and so made another check for Aramina to alter the symbols so as to hold the portal open longer. This failed, and so the portal collapsed shut. And further misadventure (consequent on a failed Scavenging check to try and find coin in the basement) led to the basement also collapsing when Thurgon shoved something that had already been damaged by the fire. There are two real plot-moments here - the circle being opened but then closing before we could explore it; and the burning and collapse of the tower. The latter was clearly GM-authored consequent on failed checks. The former flowed from player decisions made within the GM's framing of a teleportation circle.

* We decided to head East the old-fashioned way. A successful Circle check revealed Friedrich returning back down the river on his raft. Looking at the map, we (ie the GM and I) agreed that Thurgon and Aramina would disembark at a particular point. This also happened to be back in the general vicinity of Auxol, and so Thurgon kept his eyes open for friends and family. A Circles check was successful again, and so Thurgon and Aramina came upon Thurgon's older brother Rufus driving a horse and cart. As plot-moments, these are definitely transitional with rising action at the end, rather than climaxes. They were player-authored. Rufus was described in my written backstory (as having mundane interests, including a mistress in town), but as I have not purchased a Relationship with him, a Circles check was necessary to meet him.

* The interaction with Rufus was quite intense. As described by the GM, it was clear to Thurgon that Rufus was not who he had been, but seemed cowed - as Rufus explained when Thurgon asked after Auxol, he (Rufus) was on his way to collect wine for the master. Rufus mentioned that Thurgon's younger son had married not long ago - a bit of lore (like Rufus himself) taken from the background I'd prepared for Thurgon as part of PC gen - and had headed south in search of glory (that was something new the GM introduced). I mentioned that Aramina was not meeting Rufus's gaze (as per one of her Instincts at that time), and the GM picked up on this - Rufus asked Thurgon who this woman was who wouldn't look at him from beneath the hood of her cloak - was she a witch? Thurgon answered that she travelled with him and mended his armour. Then I switched to Aramina, and she looked Rufus directly in the eye and told him what she thought of him - "Thurgon has trained and is now seeking glory on his errantry, and his younger brother has gone too to seek glory, but your, Rufus . . ." I told the GM that I wanted to check Ugly Truth for Aramina, to cause a Steel check on Rufus's part. The GM decided that Rufus has Will 3, and then we quickly calculated his Steel which also came out at 3. My Ugly Truth check was a success, and the Steel check failed. Rufus looked at Aramina, shamed but unable to respond. Switching back to Thurgon, I tried to break Rufus out of it with a Command check: he should pull himself together and join in restoring Auxol to its former glory. But the check failed, and Rufus, broken, explained that he had to go and get the wine. Switching back to Aramina, I had a last go - she tried for untrained Command, saying that if he wasn't going to join with Thurgon he might at least give us some coin so that we might spend the night at an inn rather than camping. This was Will 5, with an advantage die for having cowed him the first time, against a double obstacle penalty for untrained (ie 6) +1 penalty because Rufus was very set in his way. It failed. and so Rufus rode on and now has animosity towards Aramina. As the GM said, she better not have her back to him while he has a knife ready to hand! This was a player-initiated situation. Most of the content came from the player - the GM embellished a little. It was definitely a player-authored plot-moment, although it didn't work out quite as I (and the PCs) had hoped.

* The PCs The characters continued on, and soon arrived at Auxol,. The GM narrated the estate still being worked, but looking somewhat run-down compared to Thurgon's memories of it. An old, bowed woman greeted us - Xanthippe, looking much more than her 61 years. She welcomed Thurgon back, but chided him for having been away. And asked him not to leave again. The GM was getting ready to force a Duel of Wits on the point - ie that Thurgon should not leave again - when I tried a different approach. I'd already made a point of Thurgon having his arms on clear display as he rode through the countryside and the estate; now he raised his mace and shield to the heavens, and called on the Lord of Battle to bring strength back to his mother so that Auxol might be restored to its former greatness. This was a prayer for a Minor Miracle. A mix of resource expenditure (including "raising the death flag") and lucky rolling meant it succeeded. So a beam of light shot down from the sky, and Xanthippe straightened up and greeted Thurgon again, but this time with vigour and readiness to restore Auxol. The GM accepted my proposition that this played out Thurgon's Belief that Harm and infamy will befall Auxol no more! (earning a Persona point). His new Belief is Xanthippe and I will liberate Auxol. Turning back to Aramina, I decided that this made an impact on her too: up until now she had been cynical and slightly bitter, but now she was genuinely inspired and determined: instead of never meeting the gaze of a stranger, her Instinct is to look strangers in the eyes and Assess. And rather than I don't need Thurgon's pity, her Belief is Thurgon and I will liberate Auxol. This was the most dramatic plot-moment of the five sessions. It was largely player-authored (PC backstory, plus the Relationship meaning I can meet Xanthippe whenever fictional positioning permits), and while the GM had an idea of where it would head I was able to seize control and begin the process of redeeming Auxol.

* There are various loose ends - the fate of the Order (as came out in the interactions with Orcs and Elves, and the abandoned fortress); the connection of the Order to the demon at Evard's tower; Evard's relationship to Orcs, and to the demon, and to Xanthippe and hence Thurgon; and who is Rufus's master? These are all GM-authored content (as a player I can't surprise myself with my own content, only my action resolutions!) But they orbit around the Beliefs and goals of my characters.

This actual play shows player authorship of plot taking place. It also illustrates, in a practical context, some of the general points made earlier in this post. It can also serve as fodder for further discussion/analysis if anyone is interested.
 

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DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
As far as I'm concerned, the "plot" of a story is what the protagonists do... and the protagonists of a roleplaying game are the player characters.

As a DM, I am not only not responsible for establishing the plot of the game, I don't have the prerogative to do so. It's my job to show up to the cooking show with eggs, milk, sugar, frosting, seventeen different cake mixes and it's my job to get out of the way and let the players bake the cakes they want. It's not their job to bake the cakes I want, or delicious cakes, or even technically proficienct cakes; it's their job to bake cakes I couldn't have dreamed of. It's their job to bake cakes that keep me awake at night, wondering if everything I've ever known about pastry has been a lie.

And the thing is, you don't need good players to do this. Any old player off the street, small children and old duffers at activity center who never heard of D&D, can deliver the goods once they understand they're not supposed to not ruin my day.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I think that it is possible for the plot in RPGing to be extensively player-driven/player-authored.
Well in the sense that the players decide what the protagonists do, it kinda has to be. The GM decides what the NPCs and the world do. But it's about the PCs, not the NPCs, so the players are driving at least 50% of the story. At least, unless the GM is just reading a novel to them! :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think that it is possible for the plot in RPGing to be extensively player-driven/player-authored.

Sure. I give no argument to this.

I add, though, that authoring plot themselves is not the only thing players typically want out of games, so getting satisfying results takes some understanding of when and how to have players author plot.

This is especially true in the "moments of revelation," you mention. I know lots of players who have difficulty having authentic immersive emotional roleplay moments surrounding revelations they themselves have authored.

Take, for example, Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. To the player, the quality of the, "I am your father!" moment varies depending on whether the player makes that revelation, or the GM does it.
 

Pretty classic Story Now. I think BW focuses really heavily on working out relationships mechanically, from what I can see, and what I remember of Mouse Guard. Anyway it seems like both the player and the GM are contributing to the plot.

I WOULD probably define plot a bit more generally, but I think the focus being more on decision points than how the whole thing shapes out in a general sense is basically a peculiarity of RPGs, in that there really is no overarching narrative direction, things can go anywhere. So plot becomes more focused on those specific moments, which get played out, and there is really no way to say where that will take you later, which might be more of a concern to an author or a screen writer.
 

pemerton

Legend
Pretty classic Story Now. I think BW focuses really heavily on working out relationships mechanically, from what I can see, and what I remember of Mouse Guard. Anyway it seems like both the player and the GM are contributing to the plot.

I WOULD probably define plot a bit more generally, but I think the focus being more on decision points than how the whole thing shapes out in a general sense is basically a peculiarity of RPGs, in that there really is no overarching narrative direction, things can go anywhere. So plot becomes more focused on those specific moments, which get played out, and there is really no way to say where that will take you later, which might be more of a concern to an author or a screen writer.
The two bits I've bolded are why I have focused on "plot-moments" ie particular moments, in play, when a revelation or development occurs. By focusing on those moments, as discrete events at the table, we both sidestep the issue of "overarching direction" and also can home in on who authored which.

I'll illustrate that last point by referring to the actual play example in the OP:

* Evard's tower burns to the ground and collapses. This is largely GM-authored. The presence of Evard's Tower in the ficiton at all, and the fact that the PCs are there, is player-authored. But the destruction of the tower is GM-authored, narrating the consequences of various failed checks.

* There are a number of moments which are co-authored but involve the player taking control of authorship from the GM - so the process of authorship at the table has a trajectory that corresponds to the dramatic trajectory of events. (Vincent Baker calls attention to a similar sort of correlation of trajectories in his example-of-play in the Apocalypse World rulebook. I think the correlation is even clearer in these BW examples because of some system differences that I'm happy to elaborate on if you like.) Examples of this include the skeleton knight in the crypt, the teleportation circle, and the debate with the Elf captain. In the first two, the GM has framed a situation and as it has unfolded has fed in more and more content. But the sequence of player action declarations has meant that what is actually at stake, and how it ends up, reflects player contributions and priorities in respect of revelation and development. With the teleportation circle, it's interesting that that is the case even though the final check in that scene is a failure; because the GM has narrated that failure not by introducing more content, but simply by letting me (the player) turn to engage other established elements of the framing (ie the rest of the stuff in the tower basement). The elf example is a bit different again, because the GM introduces basically all his content up front: there's an Elf captain who has lead his band to rout the Orcs, and he was part of a broader dynamic in the scene where the GM was clearly generating pressure for the PCs to pursue the Orcs. But by starting the Duel of Wits I was able to change the whole context and meaning of the scene, which became about whether or not the Elf captain will support Thurgon's agenda of restoring Auxol to past glory. Even though I (the player) failed my checks, the scene ended up being about that - and the Elf captain's refusal to help - rather than about what the GM was interested in (ie the PCs pursuing Orcs).

* There are moments which are basically sole-authored by the player, with the GM's job being to inject appropriate content and consequences to honour the player-driven framing and action resolution. Examples include the debate between Thurgon and Aramina about whether to head straight to the tower, the encounter with Rufus, and the encounter with Xanthippe. I also think the letters in the tower fall into this category, although this required probably the greatest degree of GM authorship to fill the interstices, as the two PCs' dramatic arcs - sorcerous towers and fallen families - had to be woven together, and its the GM who has the capacity to do that.

authoring plot themselves is not the only thing players typically want out of games, so getting satisfying results takes some understanding of when and how to have players author plot.

This is especially true in the "moments of revelation," you mention. I know lots of players who have difficulty having authentic immersive emotional roleplay moments surrounding revelations they themselves have authored.

Take, for example, Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. To the player, the quality of the, "I am your father!" moment varies depending on whether the player makes that revelation, or the GM does it.
The Empire Strikes Back example is hard to analyse in the abstract - if we imagine it in a RPG, is it a response to a failed check (say, to cow Vader) or a successful one (say, to prompt Vader to reveal the truth)? Either is conceivable if all we have is the narrative of in-fiction events, but at the table these would be different things. They would also be relevant to whether Vader's pronouncement establishes a truth about what Vader believes or what Vader wants Luke to believe or (as things turn out) what is actually the case.

On the more general point, I think that you (Umbran) correctly identify one key GM function in RPGing: to adduce the content. But that isn't the same as the GM authoring that content, or authoring its development. When Thurgon returns to Auxol and meet Xanthippe, it is the GM's job to frame things - which he does, by having her appear frail, and chiding Thurgon for his absence. But as a player I (i) seize control of the momentum, by declaring the prayer before we get into a Duel of Wits, and (ii) I succeed on my check and hence get the resolution I was hoping for.

Had the check failed, then I don't know what the GM would have done, but he would have had to narrate some unhappy consequence; and it seems pretty certain to me that, if things had turned out that way, the reunion with Xanthippe would not have been a solely player-authored plot-moment.

I think this drives home the centrality of action resolution, at least for "story"-oriented RPGing. If action resolution has "teeth" both on success and on failure, then it become an effective tool for distributing authorship. And it means the stakes of rolling the dice are high, because no one knows, until they land, whose conception of what happens next will come to pass!

I also think it shows that your concern, about the emotional force of player-authored plot-moments, can be easily overstated. If the player is asked to narrate the resolution in advance, I fully agree. That's lame. But if the player is asked to stake the resolution on the dice, then I think it is no different from the classic D&D saving throw roles, except generalising across a wider range of dramatic possibilities than just averting sudden death.
 

pemerton

Legend
As far as I'm concerned, the "plot" of a story is what the protagonists do... and the protagonists of a roleplaying game are the player characters.
I don't think this works very well as a conception of "plot" in RPGing, because unless (to borrow @Morrus's phrase) the GM is just reading a novel to the players, then the PCs will do some things that the players choose. And hence we conclude that the players are always authoring the plot of a RPG, and we can't draw distinctions that can be valuable to draw.

That's why I've focused on where the content comes from, and where the meaning/significance comes from, and who gets to narrate what happens next. These are things where we can talk about who authored them - GM or player(s) - in various moments, and hence see whether or not we have player-authored plot.

To again use the actual play in the OP as a source of examples:

* The burning and collapsing of the tower is not a player-authored plot moment, even though the narration of that by the GM is prompted by the need to narrate outcomes of declared (and failed) actions;

* The fight with the Orcs in the abandoned homestead is not a player-authored plot moment. The GM has established the homestead. In narrating the consequence of a failed check, the GM has introduced the Orcs. And by having them attack, he's also established what's at stake in relation to them (ie beating them in a fight). I as a player declared my actions for Thurgon, which included taking steps to protect Aramina (who is very squishy if angry Orcs get too close), but the plot at this point - Thurgon and Aramina have to fight off Orcs, who attack them while they are investigating an abandoned homestead - is clearly GM-authored.​

I don't think these plot moments become less GM-authored because the actual play at the table involves resolution of my declared actions.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
You're probably right that my (somewhat dogmatic) terminology obfuscates meaningful decisions, but I would point out that in your exampe, the DM introduces the homestead-- but who went to the homestead? The DM introduces orcs as a consequences of a failed roll, but who failed the roll, who failed the action that introduced the orcs as a consequence?

You say that Thurgon and Aramina have to fight off the orcs, but do they? Can they not attempt to evade them, and flee? Can they not attempt to cut a deal with the orcs? Can they not attempt to lure all of the orcs into the homestead before they burn it down with all of them inside?

There's an important distinction to be had between "player authored" and "DM authored" content, and it's a blurry enough line without my refusing to acknowledge it. But it's likewise an important perspective for both official and homebrew adventure design that players can choose to engage with content, regardless of who authors it, in any way they please-- up to and including declining to engage with it at all. It's an important perspective to remember that players and PCs are not supposed to do anything, and should not be expected to do anything, except show up to the table willing to do something.
 

The Empire Strikes Back example is hard to analyse in the abstract - if we imagine it in a RPG, is it a response to a failed check (say, to cow Vader) or a successful one (say, to prompt Vader to reveal the truth)? Either is conceivable if all we have is the narrative of in-fiction events, but at the table these would be different things. They would also be relevant to whether Vader's pronouncement establishes a truth about what Vader believes or what Vader wants Luke to believe or (as things turn out) what is actually the case.

On the more general point, I think that you (Umbran) correctly identify one key GM function in RPGing: to adduce the content. But that isn't the same as the GM authoring that content, or authoring its development. When Thurgon returns to Auxol and meet Xanthippe, it is the GM's job to frame things - which he does, by having her appear frail, and chiding Thurgon for his absence. But as a player I (i) seize control of the momentum, by declaring the prayer before we get into a Duel of Wits, and (ii) I succeed on my check and hence get the resolution I was hoping for.

Had the check failed, then I don't know what the GM would have done, but he would have had to narrate some unhappy consequence; and it seems pretty certain to me that, if things had turned out that way, the reunion with Xanthippe would not have been a solely player-authored plot-moment.

I think this drives home the centrality of action resolution, at least for "story"-oriented RPGing. If action resolution has "teeth" both on success and on failure, then it become an effective tool for distributing authorship. And it means the stakes of rolling the dice are high, because no one knows, until they land, whose conception of what happens next will come to pass!

I also think it shows that your concern, about the emotional force of player-authored plot-moments, can be easily overstated. If the player is asked to narrate the resolution in advance, I fully agree. That's lame. But if the player is asked to stake the resolution on the dice, then I think it is no different from the classic D&D saving throw roles, except generalising across a wider range of dramatic possibilities than just averting sudden death.
I'm not sure this still squarely faces the point @Umbran is making. If the player is the one resolving the question of his character's relationship to his father, by providing the statement "I am your father" in the voice of Darth Vader, the argument is this is taking the player out of character. Now, in BW presumably there must be some sort of belief involved here to test, at least implicitly. So, how could it play out? If you, in character, aren't bringing it up, then it must be the result of some failed check, but then the GM would probably introduce it. I am not sure how BW would actually produce that scene! I guess it would be a 'Battle of Wits' or of some other attribute, which the character loses? I just more wonder if we're mostly talking here about limitations in BW's approach brought about by the fact that it never WOULD take you out of character like that.

Now, the Dungeon World equivalent would have to be either Discern Realities inducing the GM to produce this content as something true and potentially useful in answer to a query, OR as a soft move in the course of play. The PLAYER could introduce it, but ONLY as part of an "ask questions use the answers" process initiated by the GM. I'd note that such a moment is not always in character. That is, the GM can address a question at a PC (presumably from the mouth of some other character) OR address it to the player, but players are normally not addressed during 'action' in the game. They might answer questions, but AFAICT from my play of DW, the GM only does that in a situation where framing direction is sought. It happens canonically in 'Session 0', but after that its a bit less clear. My practice is never to do this IN A SCENE, but only prefatory to framing one. However it is kind of grey, since there are things like the 'Journey' and 'Downtime' which are MOVES, by definition, but which are also more overall framing devices and could contain many scenes. I guess it is an open question if every journey that gets any table time MUST be 'dangerous' and thus a move, probably so canonically!

Anyway, again, in DW no player WHILE RPING will interrupt with "Oh, Darth Vader is my character's father!" It can only come from the lips of the GM, or else be something the player literally told the GM would be part of the scene beforehand.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm not sure this still squarely faces the point @Umbran is making. If the player is the one resolving the question of his character's relationship to his father, by providing the statement "I am your father" in the voice of Darth Vader, the argument is this is taking the player out of character.

So, the issue I've seen isn't so much about "taking out of character".

It is akin to the difference of opening a present you didn't know about, and opening one that you bought and wrapped for yourself. Reveals are emotional and surprising to the audience, but not the author.
 

You're probably right that my (somewhat dogmatic) terminology obfuscates meaningful decisions, but I would point out that in your exampe, the DM introduces the homestead-- but who went to the homestead? The DM introduces orcs as a consequences of a failed roll, but who failed the roll, who failed the action that introduced the orcs as a consequence?
Well, the players only choices here are those presented by the GM. GM says "there is a homestead", sure the players can say "nope, not going there" but then the ball is back in the GM's court! At some point there are a finite number of meaningfully distinct actions the PCs could take in terms of "we are going on to a new scene now." Each of those is a 'menu choice' presented by the GM, unless the players decide to attempt to take control of the narrative. Classic RPGs don't give that option, so the story still comes entirely from the GM in that type of system.

In terms of going into the homestead, sure, but again there's a finite menu of options that are genre appropriate, etc. It isn't action declarations that make it possible for the players to get control, it is the way BW allows action resolution to be told by the player, not the GM.
You say that Thurgon and Aramina have to fight off the orcs, but do they? Can they not attempt to evade them, and flee? Can they not attempt to cut a deal with the orcs? Can they not attempt to lure all of the orcs into the homestead before they burn it down with all of them inside?

There's an important distinction to be had between "player authored" and "DM authored" content, and it's a blurry enough line without my refusing to acknowledge it. But it's likewise an important perspective for both official and homebrew adventure design that players can choose to engage with content, regardless of who authors it, in any way they please-- up to and including declining to engage with it at all. It's an important perspective to remember that players and PCs are not supposed to do anything, and should not be expected to do anything, except show up to the table willing to do something.
Right, so I think the difference between trad and Story Now, at least in how I've seen it, WRT the plot is that trad games are menus of choices, the GM writes the menus, the players only pick from those. At best they 'pick' a choice the GM didn't write down, and he pretends he did, and serves up his rendition of that.
Story now games universally, IME (albeit perhaps limited) provide that when a player attempts an action, they get to describe the desired outcome of success, and the only bounds on that are genre and maybe willingness of the rest of the table to accept whatever the player offers.

Now, in some game systems this stuff can be limited to specific sorts of actions, or require the spending of meta-currency, or whatever. Pretty universally though, the GM is disallowed from saying 'no'. Its not HIS STORY to present, there is no preordained path at all. A LOT of traditional RPG players insist there's no difference, oddly, which always bemuses me, lol.
 

So, the issue I've seen isn't so much about "taking out of character".

It is akin to the difference of opening a present you didn't know about, and opening one that you bought and wrapped for yourself. Reveals are emotional and surprising to the audience, but not the author.
Right, but I am pretty sure that the GM can still throw those out there in any system (well, the ones I know well enough to talk about). Yes, a player could engineer "Luke, I'm your father!" in DW, pretty much, but it is far more likely to come from the GM. I guess what I would say on top of that is, the 'Luke player' probably signaled this sort of thing was coming via his backstory and maybe in other ways. At least the GM recognized it was not ruled out by anything the player stated previously.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Right, but I am pretty sure that the GM can still throw those out there in any system

Sure. Maybe you got the idea that I was arguing against something? I'm not.

I said that there's good need for knowing when and how to do player-authoring. That's all.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Here is an account of five sessions (about 10 hours) of play, with the moments of player-authorship of plot called out. The system is Burning Wheel. I'm the player; my friend is the GM. I've sblocked for length.
There's a key element here that no-one else in the thread has yet remarked on: you say above that you are the player, rather than a player, strongly implying this was a solo game.

This makes a huge difference, almost regardless of system.

I've been running a boatload of solo games for the last year-and-a-bit, and in those games (as opposed to more typical play with several players and a GM) I find it's far easier to take whatever the player comes up with and just work it in, as clearly that's what matters to said player at the time. And this is in an otherwise quite traditional game and system.

And I can do this because I don't have to worry about balancing player input or whether I'm prioritizing one player over another or showing favouritism or any of that; or whether what's being added is good or bad for party/troupe play, etc. There's only one player, and thus only one set of player priorities.

As soon as there's more than one player, I know my own focus very quickly turns to party-as-a-whole priorities rather than those of an individual player; in part to reduce the risk of my favouring or over-prioritizing someone wihtout realizing it.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
There's a key element here that no-one else in the thread has yet remarked on: you say above that you are the player, rather than a player, strongly implying this was a solo game.

This makes a huge difference, almost regardless of system.

I've been running a boatload of solo games for the last year-and-a-bit, and in those games (as opposed to more typical play with several players and a GM) I find it's far easier to take whatever the player comes up with and just work it in, as clearly that's what matters to said player at the time. And this is in an otherwise quite traditional game and system.

And I can do this because I don't have to worry about balancing player input or whether I'm prioritizing one player over another or showing favouritism or any of that; or whether what's being added is good or bad for party/troupe play, etc. There's only one player, and thus only one set of player priorities.

As soon as there's more than one player, I know my own focus very quickly turns to party-as-a-whole priorities rather than those of an individual player; in part to reduce the risk of my favouring or over-prioritizing someone wihtout realizing it.
Yeah, no, this isn't a key point. Sure, solo games are solo games, and you get to focus entirely on one player. But adding more players does not require that the game move to troupe-focused play at all. Apocalypse World, for instance, runs just fine with everyone doing their own thing and interacting when they bump into each other. Priorities can be all over the play, and competing.

The focus on party priorities is a function of the game design. D&D (and many other games as well) build the unit of contest on the party -- encounters are party things because the combat engine is based around action economies and covering weak spots with redundancies. Because of combat being the primary way to resolve things with finality in these games, combat becomes the center-pin of consideration: it's always an option and often the best one to get what you want. This means I need to have a party, and that then pushes the game into requiring consensus building to keep the party together and aligned so that the primary resolution method works. Nothing wrong with this, by the way. However, if you change that resolution to one that's centered on characters, and doesn't require a party to engage in resolutions with finality, then you don't need to seek consensus or share goals to maintain a unit that can successfully drive resolutions to final outcomes.

In other words, if a character can always (attempt to) resolve an issue and do so with finality, you don't need to balance a party.
 

pemerton

Legend
There's a key element here that no-one else in the thread has yet remarked on: you say above that you are the player, rather than a player, strongly implying this was a solo game.

This makes a huge difference, almost regardless of system.

<snip>

As soon as there's more than one player, I know my own focus very quickly turns to party-as-a-whole priorities rather than those of an individual player; in part to reduce the risk of my favouring or over-prioritizing someone wihtout realizing it.
On this, I agree with @Ovinomancer. Multiple players don't have to necessitate party play.

And I'm not talking here just about fancy modern games. In our Classic Traveller game the PCs pursue their own agendas to a notable degree. They are often physically proximate with one another, because they travel in the same starship(s); and some of them have shared goals. But they're certainly not a many-headed hydra!

There is a GM skill in achieving an inter-weaving of these things. In the OP, the example of the letters in Evard's Tower shows the GM demonstrating this skill, by making Aramina's wizard-ly agenda intersect with Thurgon's family-and-heritage agenda.
 

pemerton

Legend
If the player is the one resolving the question of his character's relationship to his father, by providing the statement "I am your father" in the voice of Darth Vader, the argument is this is taking the player out of character. Now, in BW presumably there must be some sort of belief involved here to test, at least implicitly. So, how could it play out? If you, in character, aren't bringing it up, then it must be the result of some failed check, but then the GM would probably introduce it. I am not sure how BW would actually produce that scene! I guess it would be a 'Battle of Wits' or of some other attribute, which the character loses? I just more wonder if we're mostly talking here about limitations in BW's approach brought about by the fact that it never WOULD take you out of character like that.
I don't think it's that hard for BW to produce that scene. For reasons I'll explain, I think it would most likely be a variation on my second category of the three set out in my post #6 upthread.

First, it's easy enough for a PC to have a background involving a mysterious parentage, and a Belief along the lines of I will realise my father's destiny or something similar.

Second, there are skills that are relevant to that sort of content: Ugly Truth ("the singular and unique ability to strip a situation or argument to its bare, naked core"); Family Secrets-wise (the first skill on the Bastard lifepath); other Wises; Persuasion or Interrogation to extract an answer to a question; etc.

In the Empire Strikes Back, we already have it established that Luke's father, a great Jedi, is dead; and that Ben has said that Vader, a fallen Jedi, killed him. In order to have the revelation scene take place, I stipulate the following about the processes of establishing this initial fiction:

* Luke's player has established, as backstory, a relationship with Ben Kenobi and a description of Ben as someone who knew his Jedi father, who is presumed to be dead;​
* The player calls on his relationship to hep with the Sandpeople fiasco;​
* In the ensuing interaction, there is some free roleplay; there is the revelation that Ben was Obi-Wan, a Jedi, which also reveals that an earlier suggestion that an important person was dead was (it turns out) false; Luke's player succeeds on an appropriate check to have Ben be in possession of his father's light sabre (eg Jedi-wise) and given the established relationship Ben gives it to him;​
* Luke's player then asks, in character, how his father died, and this is framed as a check - maybe Luke's Persuasion vs Ben's Soothing Platitudes - which the GM, playing Ben, wins, explaining that Luke's father was killed by Vader.​

Now we cut to the scene in The Empire Strikes Back:

*The events of Star Wars have led Luke's player to author a Belief for Luke about confronting Darth Vader;​
* The fight with Vader has been taking place, being resolved via Fight! But there is a lull, probably due to Luke's player failing a Steel check;​
* The GM free narrates Darth's remark to Luke, and Luke replies "He told me enough . . . you killed him!";​
* Luke's player wants this resolved as an Ugly Truth check, to force a Steel check by Vader which might rebalance the situation (and perhaps there is a FoRKing in of Family Secrets-wise or Jedi-wise or whatever other appropriate skills might augment the check);​
* Luke's player fails the check;​
* The GM narrates Vader's response, "No, I am your father."​

In the context of BW I think the revelation has to be a failure result, because it cuts so strongly across the PC's Beliefs. Hence why it has to be a variant on my second category - instead of co-authorship by way of the player seizing the momentum from the GM, it is co-authorship by way of the GM seizing the momentum from the player. The player has provided the core components: Luke with a mysterious Jedi parentage; Ben as his mentor; the initial prompt to have Ben tell the truth about his father, which failed; the opposition to Vader, established by the player's authorship of a Belief; the attempt at stripping Vader's evil bare with the Ugly Truth check. But the failure at that last moment allows the GM to turn the tables.

At that point, just as we had an assertion from Ben (via Soothing Platitudes, say) so now we have an assertion from Vader. What locks it in? A subsequent Force Sense check by Luke's player (which in mechanical terms would be similar to Aura Reading) - whether its a success or a failure on that check would depend on how Luke's player has responded to the revelation over the next few minutes of play.

In the climax of Return of the Jedi we then get to see a fully player-authored plot-moment, as Luke's player succeeds on the check to turn Vader to his side rather than vice versa, and Vader defeats the Emperor. Part of the lead-up to this is the revelation that Vader still has good in him - which would be the result of a successful Force Sense check by Luke's player.

EDIT: I think this post also speaks to @Umbran's point about wrapping your own present. Different systems have their own dynamics, but in BW it's roughly the contrast between good news (there's still good in him) and bad news (not only is your enemy and the killer of your mentor your father, but your mentor lied to you about it). And the use of check at key moments means you don't know in advance what you're going to get - every time you shoot for good news you might get bad news. (Which goes back to what I said in post #6, about the centrality of action resolution.)
 
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I think BW is a bit meticulous for me, lol. Playing it would be interesting, but I think its not the game I would excel at GMing. PbtA games seem a bit more visceral and 'loose' in terms of how things can be worked out. Moves are more focused on the actions vs the motivations, at least in DW (other PbtA games not so much, you could certainly write one like Monster Hearts that focuses almost entirely on emotional/mental states).

Even in the case of a game like MH though, there's less specificity in terms of leveraging specific traits (like Wises) and more on simply ACTING in the fiction, from what I can see. Motives are important in say DW, but I think there is more just 'playing' and then working out the details. At least for me.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
PbtA games don't put the same emphasis on knowledge type skills, that's for sure. They exist, but dont fill the same play space as wises in BW, IMO anyway.

Other games, like The Between, place almost no emphasis on knowledge skills and rely instead on player authored how-do-you-know-this type exchanges. The Between is a mystery/monster hunt that also places the duty of weaving clues into theory entirely in the hands of the players, which I find very interesting.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yeah, no, this isn't a key point. Sure, solo games are solo games, and you get to focus entirely on one player. But adding more players does not require that the game move to troupe-focused play at all. Apocalypse World, for instance, runs just fine with everyone doing their own thing and interacting when they bump into each other. Priorities can be all over the play, and competing.
Which as written sounds like an exercise in herding cats. :)

My issue there - and it happens in my game all the time as well - is that when one player/PC is doing its own thing it often means at the table that no-one else is doing anything. There's only one of me, and I don't multi-task all that well.

Also, in-game time and timing is very important to me; and if the possibility exists of characters bumping into each other while doing their own thing I need to keep very close track of who is where, when. Doable, sure, but it can be a nuisance sometimes.
The focus on party priorities is a function of the game design. D&D (and many other games as well) build the unit of contest on the party -- encounters are party things because the combat engine is based around action economies and covering weak spots with redundancies.
The covering-weak-spots piece also applies to exploration, which seems a generally downplayed element in some non-D&D systems.
Because of combat being the primary way to resolve things with finality in these games, combat becomes the center-pin of consideration: it's always an option and often the best one to get what you want. This means I need to have a party, and that then pushes the game into requiring consensus building to keep the party together and aligned so that the primary resolution method works. Nothing wrong with this, by the way. However, if you change that resolution to one that's centered on characters, and doesn't require a party to engage in resolutions with finality, then you don't need to seek consensus or share goals to maintain a unit that can successfully drive resolutions to final outcomes.
Sure, I get this. However unless the players do a fair bit of metagame co-operating this could - and in my case probably would - very quickly become cat-herding; with each character doing its own thing in exclusion of (or even in direct opposition to) what the others were doing.
In other words, if a character can always (attempt to) resolve an issue and do so with finality, you don't need to balance a party.
I'm not talking about balance within the party. Of the various posters on these boards I'm probably close to the bottom of the list of who cares most about in-party balance. :)

What I'm more talking about is two things:

--- at-the-table (or "spotlight") balance, not so much in terms of actual spotlight time but in terms of which character's goals etc. get resolved first and which have to wait, in concerns that one player's PCs end up consistently getting resolved first (or at all) while others do not. In other words, I'd prefer not to allow GM favouritism to rear its ugly head.
--- trying to find ways of getting the party/group to stay together in the fiction, such that I'm running one 5-or-6 character party most of the time rather than 5 or 6 one-character parties. Having them split up now and then is fine; having them always splitting up makes me wonder why we're all at the same table....even more so as I'm adamant that if someone's character goes off and does its own thing the other players not know what's being done (or said) until-unless there's an in-fiction means of their characters getting that info (usually, by the "away" PC returning and reporting).
 

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