Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

Don't really agree with this bit. D&D is a quite limited game! Later editions have branched out SOME, but it's fundamental paradigm is designed to motivate a specific sort of setup where GMs provide specific pregenerated challenges and the PCs navigate them specifically to achieve a certain type of win conditions. It really has almost zero support for anything else, even in it's most modern form!
What you say is true: The D&D Rules have always been limited. If you play the game by only the rules, that is a hexcrawl "wargame", as that is all the rules cover.

But see.....that is not what happened. People took D&D and made it more: more then the sum of it's rules. People started to act out the game, and play roles. People role played. Beyond the rules.
 

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Don't really agree with this bit. D&D is a quite limited game! Later editions have branched out SOME, but it's fundamental paradigm is designed to motivate a specific sort of setup where GMs provide specific pregenerated challenges and the PCs navigate them specifically to achieve a certain type of win conditions. It really has almost zero support for anything else, even in it's most modern form!
Wow, no, not at all. It's like you and Bloodtide are gazing at one another through a mirror.

I'm still waiting on my copy of Burning Wheel to arrive via post. Hopefully more useful comments soon.
 


andreszarta

Adventurer
I’ve had such games simply by playing Apocalypse World by the book. I’ve had such games playing Burning Wheel as written.

‘Getting there‘ involves two things - doing what those games say, instead of deciding they can’t actually mean what they say and substituting in what you do when D&D is silent on the matter.

And trusting the players to develop characters which have something interesting and worthwhile to say.

Neither of these things are necessarily easy. New groups and new players will find them much easier. But they are perfectly achievable provided a group is open and willing to new ideas, with participants who want to grow and learn.

There are some loud extremists who have normalised totally GM-driven play to the extent that they deny any alternative exists. But they’re easy to spot, and so easy to avoid both to play with and as advisors.
Lovely! I feel like your post really shifted the conversation in this thread away from pure speculation , which was very fundamental to reach an important yet somewhat obvious resolution: system matters.

To wit: Design by committee may get you a "player driven" campaign, but it does little to ensure "strong stories".

That's why you have rules for resolution. Not fully disagreeing with you here! I think there's both strengths and drawbacks in designs by committee just like you suggested before this response. When approaching something like story creation by way of player-empowered creative collaboration, you need rules to help you accomplish some things that are kind of essential for "strong stories":
  • Introduction of content that is totally unexpected yet inevitable given the previous circumstances. Vincent alludes to this here when he says:
If all your formal rules do is structure your group's ongoing agreement about what happens in the game, they are a) interchangeable with any other rpg rules out there, and b) probably a waste of your attention. Live negotiation and honest collaboration are almost certainly better.

(This goes along with my answer to Mo here about the Wicked Age's owe list, and maybe see also reward the winner, punish the loser.)

As far as I'm concerned, the purpose of an rpg's rules is to create the unwelcome and the unwanted in the game's fiction. The reason to play by rules is because you want the unwelcome and the unwanted - you want things that no vigorous creative agreement would ever create. And it's not that you want one person's wanted, welcome vision to win out over another's - that's weak sauce. (*) No, what you want are outcomes that upset every single person at the table. You want things that if you hadn't agreed to abide by the rules' results, you would reject.

If you don't want that - and I believe you when you say you don't! (**) - then live negotiation and honest collaboration are a) just as good as, and b) a lot more flexible and robust than, whatever formal rules you'd use otherwise.

The challenge facing rpg designers is to create outcomes that every single person at the table would reject, yet are compelling enough that nobody actually does so. (***) If your game isn't doing that, like I say it's interchangeable with the most rudimentary functional game design, and probably not as fun as good freeform.
(Emphasis mine)
  • Sustained conflicts of interest, with fit opponents that won't back down until something irreversibly and consequentially changes the nature of their dynamic. Here Vincent outlines the following:
The only worthwhile use for rules I know of is to sustain in-game conflict of interest, in the face of the overwhelming unity of interest of the players.

...
Let's say that you're playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he's a nice guy who's had a rough time of it. The problem is, there's something you're trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won't get to say what you're trying to say.

Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.

I'm the GM. What I want more than anything in that circumstance - we're friends, my heart breaks for your poor character, you're counting on me to give him more and more grief - what I want is rules that won't let me compromise.

I don't want to hurt your character and then point to the rules and say "they, they made me hurt your character!" That's not what I'm getting at.

I want, if I don't hurt your character, I want you to point to the rules and say, "hey, why didn't you follow the rules? Why did you cheat and let my guy off the hook? That sucked." I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. Often and hard.

We have a shared interest in the game - we both like your character, we're both interested in what you have to say, we both want things to go well. We also have an ongoing, constant agreement about what's happening right this second - that's the loody poodly. The rules should take those two things and build in-game conflict out of them.
(Emphasis mine)

Committees are often very bad at unifying vision.
This I am not so sure.

The argument in the posts I've linked to above presupposes that when we talk about Design by committee we are talking about a functional arrangement of design by committee, right? Those instances in which all participants are willing collaborators, with the right disposition to purposefully unify their vision towards coherence. This naturally requires skills like listening, accepting what others offer and endow, being curious about other peoples ideas, showing excitement about other peoples ideas, reincorporating, compromising, etc... Classic improv stuff. They are creative muscles you build and get better at, but they necessarily demand that participants join this process with the right mindset.

When we engage in this process, in good faith, we get good unified vision. I report this, Vincent Baker reports this, Ron Edwards reports this and I think most of the Story Now crowd here would also report this. Take that unified vision and use it to build strong stories? Tips in the paragraphs above.

However, if we are not doing any of those things; if we are lacking empathy, ignoring others' input, dismissing their ideas, showing disinterest in their thoughts, refusing to compromise, and monopolizing conversations, we are no longer in the realm of functional design by committee, this is totally dysfunctional and we are better served by abandoning the pretension of a committee altogether.

It's not seeing the forest in the trees sort of thing. The whole game is an illusion. See these games were made as an alternative to D&D types games where the DM has all the power, and the players just play along. With the rules of these games, it feels like limits are placed on the GM and it feels like the players are given tons of power. And a GM that wants to can really lean into the whole "ask question thing" with "react to the players thing" and act like they have a blank slate in mind for everything. This gives the players the illusion they are all powerful and in control of the game, and making the GM just play along.
But, like it's not an illusion...they ARE in control of the game. Collectively. And it's not just the players, it's the GM too. All players are IN on the act of creation at any given moment. How could they not be?
 
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But, like it's not an illusion...they ARE in control of the game. Collectively. And it's not just the players, it's the GM too. All players are IN on the act of creation at any given moment. How could they not be?
The players have chosen to play the game as players so they traditionally only control only have slight and limited control over one single character. The GM controls everything else.

Few players create anything other then vague suggestions, and even fewer would ever create some form of documentation for the GM to use.

Unless your talking about a game with no player characters or one where the players can just free from alter the game reality at will.
 

Clint_L

Hero
There's a thread about this on the D&D sub-forum, but over the years I have increasingly ceded control of my D&D games to the players, at least when playing with veteran players, and it's increased the fun factor significantly. I like when they do some world building and now my creativity is being spurred by theirs.

D&D is not the ideal RPG for that, but it tolerates and even thrives with a much higher degree of player input and control than you might think. It's a matter of taste for the players and DMs, though. I have players who really just want to focus on their character story, and others who are much more engaged in cooperative world-building.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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?
Jumping in without reading the thread. Sorry if these are redundant.

I really can't handle railroading or illusionism on either side of the screen. To me, the referee should never undermine player agency by engaging in either railroading or illusionism. An open-world sandbox is my ideal way to game. As the referee, there's lots of tools to use. As you say, fronts and progress clocks are a great tool. Check out Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the Alexandrian blog posts on prepping situations instead of stories. Prep events and locations.

Besides those, focus on what is under your control as the referee. You literally control the entire world and all the NPCs in it. Prep factions and villains with goals and motivations. Give them reasonable goals and motivations. Their plans should make sense and not include or rely on the PCs' actions. They should take some time and are easily represented by clocks. Make lots of these and give them various length clocks. They keep advancing towards their goals regardless of the PCs' actions. If the PCs ignore the villains, they reach their goals and the world changes as a result. And, of course, the villains change their plans based on the PCs' actions.

Use mini bosses and lieutenants. Maybe one per tier of play. The big bad is for the top tier of play. But they have lieutenants that harass the PCs at lower levels. Each of these is working toward their own goals and the big boss' goals. This gives you a good buffer between the big bad and the PCs. Otherwise you end up with a level 20 boss attacking level 3 PCs...which is lame and no fun for anyone. The mini bosses can be threats and the PCs can take them out without you needing to scramble to come up with a bigger bad after the PCs kill the big bad.

You can do a lot with theme. Work with the players to tie their backstories into the themes you want to hit on. Or use the PCs' backstories to inform the themes you bring in and repeat. Tie your events, locations, villains, etc into your themes. Just be sure to vary the themes. If you've already hit the "family" theme a few times in the last few sessions, you should switch it up to something else.

A lot of it comes down to simple action-reaction. For every action the PCs take, there should be a reaction by one or more NPC, villain, faction, etc. The reaction should match up with the action. If a thief steals, they should be hunted down and put in prison or have a hand chopped off, not murdered in the street. If the thief kills a city guard to escape, then escalate to kill on sight. Etc. Likewise, the big bad 20th level villain doesn't storm in after the PCs first interfere with the big bad's plans.
 

andreszarta

Adventurer
You are drawing a false dychotomy between this:
The players have chosen to play the game as players so they traditionally only control only have slight and limited control over one single character. The GM controls everything else.
and this:
Unless your talking about a game with no player characters or one where the players can just free from alter the game reality at will.
It's not that players either have slight and limited control over one single character or, if not, then they are free from alter the game reality at will. I'm gonna call these your A and your B. There is a kaleidoscope of different ways authority at the table can be distributed, and if we think of the ones presented above as though they are the only possibilities, we miss out on the nuance that can be created in between but also within these categories.

For instance, between and among these categories, we have:
  1. Shared narrative control: All players have some level of control over the narrative. They can introduce new story elements, create NPCs, or even alter the game world's logic. The GM still has the final say in resolving disputes and maintaining coherence in the story.
  2. Resource-based authority: Players have a limited pool of resources they can spend to influence the game world or narrative. These resources could be action points, tokens, or some other currency. The GM still controls the overall narrative, but players can use their resources to shape the story in meaningful ways.
  3. Character-focused authority: The authority is primarily given to the players' characters, with the GM taking on a more supporting role. Players are encouraged to explore their characters' goals, motivations, and backgrounds, driving the story forward with minimal GM intervention.
  4. Consensus-based decision-making: Instead of the GM having unilateral authority to make decisions, the group collectively makes decisions through discussion and consensus. The GM still acts as a facilitator but has no more authority than any other player.
  5. Challenge-based authority: The GM sets up a series of challenges, puzzles, or encounters for the players to overcome. Players have the authority to choose how they approach and solve these challenges, but the overall narrative is still driven by the GM.
  6. Scene-based authority: Each player has the authority to frame and control one or more scenes during a game session. Players can decide what happens within their designated scenes, with the GM providing structure and guidance as needed.
  7. Mixed authority: Different types of authority are assigned to different players or aspects of the game. For example, one player might have authority over the game world's history, another over NPC creation, and another over the overall narrative arc.
The above is not meant to be a real taxonomy. It's meant to illustrate what possible arrangements there are where it's not either A or B but somewhat of a mix. They are also not mutually exclusive, there are overlaps. These are not real categories. Also, they suggest pretty boring design.

That was between and among, now lets look at within, specifically within slight and limited control over one single character:

1. You could have something like FFG's Star Wars, where PCs mostly operate from the limited perspective of their characters but can use destiny points to introduce narrative twists, enhance actions, or alter the story in meaningful ways. These are diegetically connected with the "abilities" of the character as they are meant to represent their connection to the force, a very real and impactful layer of reality in the galaxy.

2. You could have something like classic old school D&D where PCs mostly operate from the limited perspective of their characters but where their real world creative solutions to the challenges posed by the GM have a significant impact on the game world.
Player: "Can I spread some of the troll's snot in my boots to make them super sticky and have and easier time climbing the wall?"
GM (whose agenda is to reward creativity): "Yes" or "lets roll for it"!

You might not have noticed, but the player in that example just invented fiction outside of his character's limited perspective, namely that troll's snot is a sticky enough substance to climb walls. This is a particular and very rewarding form of collaborative world building I'm almost sure you recognize. The GM has an open invitation to allow troll's snot to be a valuable substance in the world, or to allow players to collect it as an adventuring resource.

3. Believe it or not, Apocalypse World.

By the book AW has this to say:
Apocalypse World divvies the conversation up in a strict and pretty traditional way. The players’ job is to say what their characters say and undertake to do, First and exclusively; to say what their characters think, feel and remember, also exclusively; and to answer your questions about their characters’ lives and surroundings. Your job as MC is to say everything else: everything about the world, and what everyone in the whole damned world says and does except the players’ characters.
It's completely under the GMs prerogative to ask if they want to have players to contribute any details to the fiction other than what their characters think and act. No questions asked? Then no answers given. No new fiction built that way.

Players in AW don't control anything but their characters, but within that control their characters they have tremendous power to determine the ways things go for them. Take a look at my driver's ability Eye on the door:
Eye on the door: name your escape route and roll+cool. On a 10+, you’re gone. On a 7–9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind or take something with you, the MC will tell you what. On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.
As a PC, I get the power to feint, and I easily get out of conflicts depending on what my priorities as a player. It is not a completely reliable currency. Sometimes I get out and that's it. Sometimes I'm forced to make a difficult choice to leave. Sometimes I fail and I have to get out like any other PC. I have not invented fiction outside of my player characters limited perspective. I haven't altered the universe in any way. I have acted in a diegetically logical way and the outcome follows logically from everything that has come before. But the macro-effect that my contribution has, the way my ideas are incorporated into the story, is that now the story has to accommodate to the fact that I am out of that conflict and cannot be brought back in. The focus on the story for my character shifts and I am now able to move on to something else or have to deal with something else and the rest of the table follows me onto my next conflict.

I, as my player character, without ever leaving the confines of their own perspective, without ever "breaking immersion", without ever considering or contemplating any notion related to things "story structure" or "the story we are writing together", have unequivocally, irrevocably said "Hey, everyone, I'm moving on to the next scene". If we are playing by the rules that should not seen as disruptive, but that is a feature of the game, just like old school's troll's snot.

So you see, saying that slight and limited control over one single character can mean a plethora of things. Do you mean 1, do you mean 2? Do you mean that characters can only perform one physical action at a time? That the number of steps needed to achieve certain outcomes is up to the GM?

Illusionism can happen in any of these, and I include the more indie versions of authority distribution. I find common ground with you there. In the past, while learning story gaming I have been a bad illusionist GM too! (Mostly because I was not fully playing by the rules even thought I thought I was.)

However, once again, to your suspicion that the way in which other kinds of roleplaying have to work is by necessarily defaulting to a more obscure way of illusionism where players think that the are all powerful and in control free to declare anything at any time but secretly the GM is still in control, I say: No. That's not it.

Story Gaming is functional, is collaborative, and can be played with slight and limited control over one single character or not, we've seen both kinds be successful.
 


For instance, between and among these categories, we have:
  1. Shared narrative control: All players have some level of control over the narrative. They can introduce new story elements, create NPCs, or even alter the game world's logic. The GM still has the final say in resolving disputes and maintaining coherence in the story.
Except this is false. Sure a player can sit back and randomly "oh, um that guy over their is a half troll wizard". So, wow, the player "added" something to the game...by saying a couple words. So, does the player make this character? Does the player put down in text or writing ANY time or effort? Sure the player can randomly make something up, BUT then the player passes ALL off to the GM to do all the work.

  1. Resource-based authority: Players have a limited pool of resources they can spend to influence the game world or narrative. These resources could be action points, tokens, or some other currency. The GM still controls the overall narrative, but players can use their resources to shape the story in meaningful ways.
So this is just some game rule, so whatever the rule says. Most games have a weak bonus or such, so not a big deal.

  1. Character-focused authority: The authority is primarily given to the players' characters, with the GM taking on a more supporting role. Players are encouraged to explore their characters' goals, motivations, and backgrounds, driving the story forward with minimal GM intervention.
Ok, a player can be encouraged to think....but that gives them no control over the game.
  1. Consensus-based decision-making: Instead of the GM having unilateral authority to make decisions, the group collectively makes decisions through discussion and consensus. The GM still acts as a facilitator but has no more authority than any other player.
This is beyond pointless. All the players vote to have immortal characters or a billion gold bars or whatever...and will always out vote the GM. It makes the game a bit if the players can just "vote" past and over everything.
  1. Challenge-based authority: The GM sets up a series of challenges, puzzles, or encounters for the players to overcome. Players have the authority to choose how they approach and solve these challenges, but the overall narrative is still driven by the GM.
So..this is is just a normal game?
  1. Scene-based authority: Each player has the authority to frame and control one or more scenes during a game session. Players can decide what happens within their designated scenes, with the GM providing structure and guidance as needed.
This works fine for the random scene, where each player just alters game reality to make a "cool scene" with no logic or consistent flow. This happens, that happens and this and that happen...then the game is over.
  1. Mixed authority: Different types of authority are assigned to different players or aspects of the game. For example, one player might have authority over the game world's history, another over NPC creation, and another over the overall narrative arc.
Though yet again, I'd point out the player "assigned" to do a task will do little or no work even close to that of a GM.

No. That's not it.
I get that it feels good to say everyone in the game is equal. But just saying it does not make something in the game. The GM has to do a TON of hard work. The player just half pays attention and says whatever their character does occasionally.
 

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