Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

Yora

Legend
One thing that has been bothering me for years now about stories in RPG adventures and campaigns is that it overwhelmingly takes the form of a more or less complete script being written that covers all the relevant plot points and sequence of scenes before the players even enter the picture. Written adventures have already laid out what will happen, in what places, in what order. The GM has a very good idea how the last scene of the adventure or campaign will play out before the players even make characters. Sometimes there are branching paths in the script, or a number of locations can be visited in any order or skipped at all, but even then the scenes that will happen have already been written. Maybe there will be NPCs who might live or die in a given scene, but either way they are probably not going to be relevant after that either way.
What these types of campaign do is to put players in the position of an audience that is being told a story. It doesn't make meaningful use of the unique aspect of RPGs that makes them special as a medium of the world and NPCs being controlled by a GM who is right there and can have them react to whatever the players could possibly want to make their PCs do. It also typically puts the PCs in the role of pawns for other NPCs, and in the worst case only bystanders to the story of other people. When we are playing an RPG and preparing a campaign, we have the unique opportunity to create stories that develop as the direct consequence of the players choices and decisions for their characters. If the outcome of a scene is already pretty much fixed because there already exists a follow up scene that depends on a specific outcome, I think we are genuinely playing RPGs wrong.

Now one solution to deal with this situation is to go all in with a sandbox approach. There's a map with sites of interests on it where the players can get points to advance their characters, and the players are completely free to go to whichever places they want, deal with anyone they encounter in whichever way they please, and whoever might live or die as a consequence of these encounters will not cause any disruption to the game. The limitation of this approach is that even though it gives players full freedom and can create really fun and memorable scenes or sequences of scenes, these stories are generally short and not very much interlinked with each other, other than having happened to the same PCs. It does not tend to generate the grand stories of great struggles and intrigue that we commonly see in fantasy and sci-fi fiction.
Dungeon crawling to hunt for treasures or explore the magical wonders of old ruins can be great fun, but ongoing conflicts with regular antagonists is a different type of fun and excitement that also is really appealing.

I think the platonic ideal of a great RPG campaign is one that takes place on a grand stage and revolves around the PCs struggling in an ongoing conflict against groups of NPCs, while also having the players ideas, plans, and decisions determining what path the story will ultimately take.

How can we get there?

I think the most helpful thing I've come across in that regard has been Apocalypse World with its Fronts/Threats system and Progress Clocks. But AW is certainly a "special" kind of RPG in every sense of the term and designed to be an almost no-prep game. Stuff just happens and we enjoy the ride as the chaos unfolds. Also a cool idea to approach campaigns, but I don't know how much this could really carry a campaign with a larger scope in mind.

I pretty much dropped the idea of planning story for campaigns when I made the turn towards sandbox campaigns, and I think before that I barely had any clue what I was doing as a noob GM who only knew D&D 3rd ed. and Pathfinder. So I'm still facing this with a pretty much empty toolbox of my own yet. What's been happening out there in the world of player-driven narrative games?
 

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pemerton

Legend
@Yora

This:
I think the platonic ideal of a great RPG campaign is one that takes place on a grand stage and revolves around the PCs struggling in an ongoing conflict against groups of NPCs, while also having the players ideas, plans, and decisions determining what path the story will ultimately take.
looks like it might just be a version of this:
One thing that has been bothering me for years now about stories in RPG adventures and campaigns is that it overwhelmingly takes the form of a more or less complete script being written that covers all the relevant plot points and sequence of scenes before the players even enter the picture. Written adventures have already laid out what will happen, in what places, in what order. The GM has a very good idea how the last scene of the adventure or campaign will play out before the players even make characters.

The way to avoid GM railroading is to avoid GM railroading. Which means you need some other method for introducing content.

In terms of set-up and backstory, the most obvious method is that it is the players who help determine what the ongoing conflict is, what the grand stage consists in, who the opposition NPCs are, etc. An alternative is to choose a setting where everyone at the table knows these things - eg Dark Sun (everyone knows the Sorcerer Kings and their Templars are the enemies) or MERP/LotR (everyone knows that Sauron and Saruman are the enemies).

In the course of play, you need techniques for establishing stakes and consequences that do not involve the GM reading from a pre-authored set of notes. There are some pretty well-known RPGs that exemplify this. In your OP you mention Apocalypse World. Burning Wheel is another one.

Here's an actual play report from a Burning Wheel session I played on the weekend. And here's a link to a thread about LotR/MERP RPGing I did that used MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic as the system. Neither relied upon GM notes to establish the sequence of events.
 

DrunkonDuty

he/him
I use a couple of different methods to achieve more player driven plots.

Sandbox settings give the players space to make decisions. But I've found that isn't much use until a campaign has been going for a while. I've never had a player who, straight out of the gate, would be that proactive. There's perfectly good reasons for this. The two I've encountered most are: players not knowing the setting well enough to engage with it this way. And players being trained to wait for the plot hook. Both of these can be overcome with time dedicated to the campaign.

Recurring NPCs. This is really an extension of sandbox settings. But having NPCs the players can interact with on a recurring basis, and who can't just be killed even if they oppose the PCs, can make for a very interesting game. Your NPCs need to be consistent. GMs need to keep away from the two great sins of: "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal;" and fridging the NPC as motivation. Recurring NPCs allow players to say things like "I know, we can go put the hard word on Barry the Barman. He always knows what dodgy deals are happening!"

Reactionary plots. Long ago I worked out that no plot survives contact with the players. NOR SHOULD THEY! What I tend to do is work out what my baddie wants and why, how they hope to achieve it, things they love, lines they will not cross, and maybe contingency plans if they're that sort of baddie. Then as the PCs do stuff the baddie reacts appropriately. This helps give the players the feeling that things are happening because of their actions.

Talk to the players! I know I've harped on about it a bit recently but my current campaign is very successful because in session 0 we all sat down and worked out what we wanted in the campaign. The players have given me both general and specific adventures and baddies to work with. This has far and away given me the best results in terms of getting player driven adventures.
 

I'm not so sure that PbtA cannot to 'grand theme' type games. I mean, maybe the specific mechanics of Apocalypse World are not geared to that, but lets suppose you had a game where there was a more wide open world, the one in AW is basically a doomed crapsack world where things only get worse. So of course it won't support long-term play.

OTOH you could play in, say, the Star Trek Universe, where things are very open ended and the characters are likely to have long successful careers, albeit filled with dangerous adventures. Dungeon World offers a more open milieu than AW, though I think it mostly envisages campaigns that wrap up after a certain point. THAT may be somewhat inevitable given the structure of player-motivated story trajectory. I think you could hew a bit closer to D&D though in terms of a bigger steeper power curve, etc. The 4e milieu would work pretty well, for instance, and you could build a PbtA sort of 3-tier thing like 4e has, though I don't know about 30 levels, that seems a bit crazy. Maybe 15 levels and a shorter 3 level 'Epic' or something?

Of course the participants could decide on a setup like that at the start, and even define what the central conflict is. Like if its the Primordials (chaos) vs the Gods (order) then it might revolve around questions of which is a more valid cause to support, or something like that.
 


The way I've found to handle this problem as a GM is to avoid too much scripting, and create situations, rather than scenarios. To get the PCs into those situations, I use a mission framework. The characters work for an organisation, usually an obscure branch of law enforcement or an intelligence agency, which can send them to the places where the problems are happening.
 

Yora

Legend
The problem with the players being given a series of immediate task by a superior authority is that it again limits the impact that player decisions to short term situations. They still go from point to point as they are being directed to by the GM as servants of NPCs who make the actual decisions where the story is meant to go.
It's certainly an improvement over an all railroad campaign, but still far off from the goal.
 

Panzeh

Explorer
So, it really depends on your players, as to how much they're willing to be self-directed. As others have said, they do generally need to get a feel for your world before they're willing to make stabs into the dark, so starting them off with more structure is always helpful.

To me, the reason why so much adventure content is specific, is because in preparation, the specific is much more important. You can absolutely mine linear adventures for stuff in them, but a vague pamphlet explaining where things are and shrugging is much more useless to me as a GM.

In general, though, if the system isn't generating challenges through its processes, the GM is going to have to be the one to come up with the challenges, and I think that does tend to need some kind of guidance. This is fine- remember, the 'how' is just as important as the 'what' in any game, so even if you, the GM, set the goals for the party, there's still a lot of room for things to change, things to happen differently, and for the PCs ultimately to be able to express themselves enough. I think that's the goal, really, letting the PCs express themselves the way they want, whether that's through total sandboxing, or doing their thing in a more guided experience.
 

babi_gog

Explorer
I would suggest that the "adventures" produced for Avatar Legends give a good balance. Set up the scenario, and then see where it goes.

For most of my campaigns, I tend to have the time line written out as what will happen if the players don't interact with it. Then I give them a semi-sandbox setting (a region map, a city map), with points of interest on it. As they visit and interact with point bits of the time line plot are there, players choice if they interact. Once they do effect it, then it's see what the impact is and rework the plan going forward, so action taken effects the ongoing plot, even if the players don't realise it (eg, always using the same set of spells/response to situation, then as word gets out about this people will turn up with counter measures against that response). This brings in the clocks and fronts aspect of the game.

Also I tend to run a campaign as a TV series, with every session being an episode. Some will focus on the larger plot, some will dip into the large plot but be more focused on "monster of the week", and some will just have a hint of the larger plot dropped in discreetly - and often is notices a few sessions later.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, it really depends on your players, as to how much they're willing to be self-directed. As others have said, they do generally need to get a feel for your world before they're willing to make stabs into the dark, so starting them off with more structure is always helpful.
My suggestion would be that, if one has the goals set out in the OP, the idea of the GM's world needs to be dropped. It's the group's world - as per my post upthread, either the participants all agree on a world (eg this the HeroWars approach), or the setting is built up together as part of the process of set-up, and then play (eg this is the Apocalypse World approach).
 

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