Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

pemerton

Legend
I see a lot of fantasy RPGs driven by the imperatives of fantasy novel plots, which are almost always grandiose. I think those sorts of stories almost always need to railroad the players
I don't see why.

I've run more than one FRPG involving a "grandiose" plot, without needing to railroad the players.

after all, if you have to stop the BBEG to save the world, then that's going to determine almost every choice that you make.
This is a description of the in-fiction situation. The "you", the "BBEG", the "world", the "choices", the "have to" and the "determine", are all elements of the fiction. It tells us nothing about who has authored that fiction; but railroading is all about authorship.
 

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Clint_L

Hero
What if the players don't want to take on the world-ending big bad?

I don't think railroading is all about authorship. I think when the stakes get to a certain point, the player choices and story beats become obvious. Failure becomes not an option. Superhero movies all have different writers but more or less the same plot because the underlying assumptions of the "save the world" story are narratively constraining.

Maybe they don't have to be. But that's what winds up happening, over and over.

So, I think railroading can come from an author. But it can also come from genre, and from narrative stakes.

So I intentionally avoid genre cliches, keeps stakes local, and stay away from end of the world scenarios precisely because I want the players to make choices generated by their own interests, and how they see their characters story playing out.
 


Clint_L

Hero
Okay, I'm finding this a bit pedantic. We can quibble all day long about the nature of authorship; I take a very untraditional view of it, at least within the humanities, and see it through an evolutionary lens. My underlying point is that once a story gets too apocalyptic it is very difficult, as a practical matter, for the players to drive the narrative. Which is why we see the same story over and over.
 

pemerton

Legend
Okay, I'm finding this a bit pedantic. We can quibble all day long about the nature of authorship; I take a very untraditional view of it, at least within the humanities, and see it through an evolutionary lens. My underlying point is that once a story gets too apocalyptic it is very difficult, as a practical matter, for the players to drive the narrative. Which is why we see the same story over and over.
I'm not being pedantic; I'm disagreeing.

For instance, suppose that the players establish the nature of the threatened apocalypse: now they are the ones driving the narrative.

I think you are making assumptions about who gets to author what bits of the setting, and the stakes, in RPGing that - in a context of player-driven campaigns with strong stories - won't hold good.
 

I think there is a HUGE blind spot for this sort of thing in most ENworld discussions, which with metronomic regularity go Character immersion => No control over fiction outside my own character => near-total GM control over shared fiction.
I have the impression that there are multiple related things called "immersion." Some examples I see, like this, make sense if "immersion" consists of a strong concentration on the character's background and thinking, trying to frame everything in terms of their personal psychology and drama.

That's not what immersion means to me. Trying to relate everything to background and psychology feels more like soap-opera to me. What I try to do with "immersion" is inhabit the entire person of the character. That includes background and psychology, of course, but includes their skills and abilities, and all their other available resources, be they material, social or organisational.

So my influence over the fiction outside the character comes from the character doing things: making plans, buying or otherwise acquiring equipment, asking NPCs and the other PCs to do things and creating details that the GM has not specified, but seem plausible. This approach can be carried out without leaving "actor stance," or otherwise breaking immersion. It does require a fair amount of concentration, but it pays off, for me, in being more enjoyable.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I have the impression that there are multiple related things called "immersion." Some examples I see, like this, make sense if "immersion" consists of a strong concentration on the character's background and thinking, trying to frame everything in terms of their personal psychology and drama.

That's not what immersion means to me. Trying to relate everything to background and psychology feels more like soap-opera to me. What I try to do with "immersion" is inhabit the entire person of the character. That includes background and psychology, of course, but includes their skills and abilities, and all their other available resources, be they material, social or organisational.

So my influence over the fiction outside the character comes from the character doing things: making plans, buying or otherwise acquiring equipment, asking NPCs and the other PCs to do things and creating details that the GM has not specified, but seem plausible. This approach can be carried out without leaving "actor stance," or otherwise breaking immersion. It does require a fair amount of concentration, but it pays off, for me, in being more enjoyable.
That is what I mean by immersion as well. I'm a simulationist.
 

pemerton

Legend
I have the impression that there are multiple related things called "immersion." Some examples I see, like this, make sense if "immersion" consists of a strong concentration on the character's background and thinking, trying to frame everything in terms of their personal psychology and drama.
I don't know which examples you mean. Could you say which ones you are referring to?
 

Here's my approach to making a comparatively open-ended, sandbox style campaign. I'll use my current home game as an example.

I knew the players were going to be arriving in a bustling, mercantile coastal city, Nicodranas (I'm using Explorer's Guide to Wildmount), so before the game I came up with a bunch of different story threads. One involved the usual jobs board lead on some work, which might lead to a relationship with a local Archmage who has some jobs that could use doing. Then there are some other events going on that they might notice in the newspaper, or pick up rumours about - a disappearance at the theatre, an attack on some street folk, a stolen relic from a shrine, ta kind of thing.

I don't plan any of these out in much detail. Instead I build out the setting with some interesting locations and NPCs, lots of whom might link to one thread or another. And on the first game in the new setting, the PCs just sort of poke around until something grabs their attention. They are also following up on their personal story, so that can also lead to unexpected events.

Once the players start developing a particular direction, I narrow my attention for the next session. In this case, the PCs wound up taking a job to go help out a village on the edge of the nearby wetlands, which relied on harvesting frogs until some kind of creature had recently started terrorizing the workers. That was all I had going in, so before the next game I came up with an antagonist and gave them some motives: a local hag didn't like the villagers starting to over harvest and hurt the ecosystem of her beloved swamp, so was using her froghemoth to scare them off. Okay, the PCs eventually made their way to her hut and confronted her, sort of haggling but ultimately getting into a fight and killing her beloved froghemoth before she plane shifted and escaped. The party returned to the village to deliver the news but also decided the hag had a point so decided to intimidate the villagers to stop the over harvesting. End session.

So for the next session, I just ask myself, what would the hag do next? She's a hag, so a typical behaviour might be to haunt someone's dreams, slowly weakening them until they die, so that's a decent starting point. But I don't use alignments, so why would she do that? Just vengeance? That's a bit thin, but hags also like to bargain, so what could she get? Plus, the party kind of get bonus points for helping out on the frog over harvesting. So she starts in on the old dream torment gimmick but uses it as leverage to get the party to agree to find her a new pet and help her reunite with her long lost sisters, while one of the party members countered that she also wanted help with a possession issue she'd been having (total player side invention that she'd been hinting at for awhile) and now they are off to find the hag's missing sisters.

Phew. That's a ton of story, and that's only the half of it, but aside from my bread crumbs everything is driven by player choices and NPC backstory. None of it had to happen - I don't have some sweeping campaign narrative, and had the players simply made a different choice at any number of points, the current story would be completely different.

So for me, the key is to not write plots, but to write locations and NPCs with wants and needs, and then see what the players do with it.
Been hobnobbing with Vince Baker lately? lol. I mean, all of this could have come practically word-for-word from Apocalypse World 2e (I don't know about 1e, never read it). Obviously there's a bit more 'system' to it in AW, but its still explained in almost exactly the same way. VB says "don't write story! Instead write NPCs, situations, backstory, and threats." (I'm paraphrasing slightly, too lazy to go dig up the exact quote).
 

So I guess my thing is that I see a lot of fantasy RPGs driven by the imperatives of fantasy novel plots, which are almost always grandiose. I think those sorts of stories almost always need to railroad the players - after all, if you have to stop the BBEG to save the world, then that's going to determine almost every choice that you make. I greatly prefer smaller stories driven by character wants and needs, both on the part of the players and the NPCs. It creates stories that emerge out of our role-play and that create character depth and emotional resonance. And because the plots are truly cooperative, I get to enjoy finding out what happens.

Until last weekend, I had no idea that hag had sisters, or that one of them was now living with a group of yetis and caught in some inter-yeti politics (yep, that's happening). And now I can't wait to see where it goes.
Personally, scale, in the absolute sense, isn't important to me, nor do I think it makes much difference in terms of play or system. Mervyn Peak's famous fantasy trilogy, which is every bit as detailed and elaborate as LotR, Gormenghast, takes place almost entirely within the confines of the castle itself!
 

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