• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories


I think Supers are often a very similar kind of situation where a lot of scenario parameters could be set by the GM but still leave things very open, and here often the stuff that actually matters isn't the fights against the bad guys, but the heroes identities, relationships, etc.
Marvel Heroic RP addresses this directly, by putting all that "stuff that actually matters" into the Milestones for each hero.

log in or register to remove this ad

That sounds to me like a campaign hook. The players are given their sendoff by an NPC, or just as the opening narration, and then they are on their own. Being part of an organization is their background, but they are not being managed by an NPC.
To me, that's a scenario hook. After they returned from Tibet, they had a talk with their boss about strategic priorities, and then went to Mumbai to see if they could interest Tata Airline in running flights to Lhasa. As one of the party used to be a noted actor in Mumbai theatre, he came up with a plan to invite a relevant person (and his family) from the airline to the theatre and talk to him there. That went fairly well, although with no commitments at that stage. It was when they got out of the theatre that they heard the riot, and decided they'd better do something.

Previous scenarios have included "There's a Nazi expedition in Tibet and we have word that they're coming back to India. See if you can intercept them and keep them from leaving the country until war breaks out and we can arrest them." and "There's a report from the North-West Frontier that an officer who was distributing subsidy funds to the tribes was robbed . . . by an angel. Find out what's going on and do whatever's appropriate, please."

Those are hooks. When you have one group of PCs to do occult policing for the whole of India in early WWII, they have to be pretty self-directing. None of these scenarios have been less than 500 miles from their HQ in Delhi, and the long-distance communication is all by telegraph or wireless telegraphy. 'phone service happens within cities, at most.

I prepare substantially more information about what's actually happening, so that I can improvise fairly seamlessly when the players start interacting with the situation. I was not expecting them to manage to stop the riot, but they made some amazing oratory, politics and theology rolls. Some of the things they said will have consequences later.


I strongly disagree with this description. The goal is to put players into the position of being characters within a story, and definitely not the audience. Relatively linear stories, especially those of the narrow, broad, narrow structure I like to tell, do not turn the players into non-participants. Even very linear stories don't have to turn the participants into a passive audience.

If the story that the characters are in is not specifically their story... if they can be swapped out for another set of characters with little about the story actually changing... then isn't there an element of separation between that story and the characters by definition?

So that may well be your Platonic Idea of a great RPG campaign but understand it is probably far from most player's idea of an ideal good time.

Even if it's true that most players don't want this, so what? This is what a specific poster is saying he'd like to try and do. Who cares what most players want? I'd only worry about @Yora and their players.

For as long as I've been reading about gaming, there has always been this faction that has argued that open ended, (what's now called) "no myth", player driven, character driven RP is the best form of game and that in fact, that's what the players really want and bad GMs who are frustrated novelists are just keeping them down. And in 40 years of RPing, that has absolutely never been my experience. The vast majority of players both from their observed in game preferences and even surveys of "What do you want the next campaign to be like?" prefer games that are driven by GM narrative, GM created obstacles, and GM driven stories. They do want the freedom to find their own ways around those obstacles, to make their own plans, and respond to the narrative how they want to, but they do not - decidedly do not - want to put in the effort to make their own fun.

It's always amazing to me how the players who don't want to put in any effort always wind up with GMs who know that's what they want! Such a happy circumstance for all involved!

I always try to leave room for player freedom, and frequently how the PC's go from A->B is not something I ever anticipated. They will in the micro level always throw me curveballs. But I've never once had players that wanted to actually lay their own rails and invent their own goals and play in the sandbox. My suspicion is that if you have those sorts of players, you will know it and if you open the gates then off they will go. And likewise, if you don't have those kinds of players, then no number of open gates is going to convince them to get off the pasture or away from the comforts and ease of discovering the story I've imagined for them to play through.

So the thing is, ultimately if you want a player driven campaign, it's ultimately up to the players, and to having the sort of players that both want to drive the story and actually have the ability to do so. And for me, they also would have to have enough skill at creating motives for themselves, and planning things, and setting up interesting goals that I could play along with it, riff off of it, and enjoy what they are doing. For example, if they just want to on a hex crawl safari and it never comes more than kill the monster of evening and take its stuff, I'm going to get bored quickly. But if they have something actually interesting they want to do, and enough of their own ideas of how to get there, then I'd be happy to riff off that myself. It's just in 40 years of gaming absolutely never happened with any players I've had.

Don't you think this is a maybe a chicken or egg type situation? That the expectation that the GM is going to bring the story makes players passive? Or do you think it's passive players that make the GM have to bring the story?

Maybe if the mechanics and procedures of play promote player-driven play, then maybe players would become more proactive? And then the more proactive they become, the easier it will be for them to play that way?

If the default expectation is that the GM is the one who comes up with a story and the players simply play through the story, why would players expect things to be different?

I particularly want to caution against the false idol that is "no myth". It's one thing to let the players drive the story. It's another thing to use this as an excuse for doing no work yourself.

I particularly want to caution anyone reading the above that it's nonsense.

One particular problem I would have with the idea of a player driven campaign, is that I think it's probably suited only to tables with 1-3 players, and not the 4-6 players that have been more the norm for my gaming. The number of players you have at your table is the biggest restriction on the sort of games you can run successfully. The more players you have, the less the game by necessity can be about exploration of character and individual characters story arcs and goals and the more you have to have some overriding and overarching unity of purpose. Either that, or you have to have an entire crew of players that are both talented enough thespians to entertain everyone else at the table, and also patient enough to just sit and watch for long periods of time. The problem I foresee with player driven and character driven games is that above about 3 players, you'll almost certainly develop a lack of unity in the goals as each player separately pursues their own story arc - essentially you end up with a bunch of players who want to ride railroads in different directions. I've seen this happen, and you can somewhat get around it with troupe play, but as a third constraint, the campaign will suck up more hours than most adults have to spend.

I generally like to run a game for 3 or 4 players max, regardless of the system, but that's not always possible. I don't know if I agree with your take here as I've run low-prep games with 5 players and found it to be no more cumbersome than running D&D with that many players.

I think part of what helps here is when players actually care about characters other than their own. I think that's easier to do when the character is more than just a collection of combat stats with a coating of personality traits. When their goals are central to play, meaningful to them... when there are actual stakes in what they're trying to do. That allows for more effective spotlight rotation among characters. I've had entire sessions where 3 player characters were never together, and we simply rotated around the table, focusing on each character in turn.

It's much easier to maintain engagement when the players have a say in what play is about. This seems pretty self-evident to me.

And on that topic, if you really want to run a sandbox well I think the fundamental think you have to remember is a well run sandbox always requires more work than running a linear game. You have to do more preparation work and not less preparation work. Because by definition the GM running a sandbox is willing to prepare a lot of things with the expectation that they will never use them. The amount of understanding of the setting that you need to run it so that it's not an empty row boat world, however that depth of understanding is made and recorded is just going to be a ton of work.

This is simply not true. I had a much harder time running Tomb of Annihilation than I did running my campaign of Spire. I absolutely did not need to prepare a bunch of material that went unused for Spire. Aside from some stat blocks, the only thing I used as prep was a one page relationship map. That's it.

There are games that work differently that allow for low prep play that's every bit as engaging as heavy prep. You don't need to do hours of preparation for all games.

This post is prompted by yours. It contains some reiteration, and some responses to other things posted in the thread.

The OP sets out a particular goal for RPGing, based on a particular sort of critique of some "mainstream" approaches. The goal is to avoid RPG adventures and campaigns that overwhelmingly take 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, to avoid the PCs being pawns for other NPCs, while also avoiding stories that are short and not very much interlinked with each other such as sandbox-y dungeon crawling to hunt for treasures or explore the magical wonders of old ruins. The OP wants ongoing conflicts with regular antagonists that takes place on a grand stage and revolves around the PCs struggling in an ongoing conflict against groups of NPCs, and also wants the players' ideas, plans, and decisions determining what path the story will ultimately take.

So suggesting dungeon-of-the-week sandbox play is not helping the OP get what they want. Nor is suggesting a GM-authored world or timeline, in which the players', in play, acquire information about the world and/or the goals of the antagonists that drive the timeline and thus potentially alter the timeline. I think the reasons for both these assertions are obvious: the former is a version of the stories that are short and not very much interlinked with each other which the OP wishes to avoid; the latter is not a game in which the players' ideas, plans and decisions determine what path the story will ultimately take because the GM's ideas about the world and antagonist timelines play a huge role in that respect.

The OP asks "What's been happening out there in the world of player-driven narrative games?" and the answer is the techniques for achieving precisely the goals that the OP asks for were developed around 20 to 25 years ago, and are readily available in a variety of published RPGs. The systems I think of are HeroWars, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World and MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic. Torchbearer might also do the job, although it's not quite as obviously suited to the "grand stage". I'm pretty sure Dungeon World could do the job, though I'm not as familiar with it. I don't know exactly what direction Cortex Prime takes that system in, but it's probably suitable too. Fate can also probably do what the OP wants it to. You (@hawkeyefan) have pointed to other systems that I'm even less familiar with - eg Spire - that are suitable. No doubt there are dozens, even hundreds, of others, which apply various versions of the techniques that (as I've noted) are now a couple of decades old.

TL;DR: The OP asks a definite question, and there is a definite answer available. The answer is not relative to "playstyle preference" or "here's how I do it". It's a perfectly straightforward matter of fact.
Good points. So, I think you've mentioned most of the games that I'm pretty familiar with which aim to do this in a 'narratively focused' game. You did leave out 4e D&D. Not everyone figured out to play it in a narrative mode, maybe because WotC itself was a bit ambivalent about emphasizing that mode of play. The other system that springs to mind is FitD, which is particularly well adapted (at least in its most common form) to 'Group Conflict' or at least the story of the PCs as a group with its own distinct agenda, etc. The only issue I have with FitD in this capacity is its dice pool mechanic seems to only be good for a certain range of values (past about 5 dice things start to break down). I guess that just means game designers would need to put the 'epic stuff' in by other means if you wanted to create a really long-running 'Saga' using those rules. It can certainly support a year-long zero to shakers and movers kind of thing as-is.

As I posted before, I think these games are mostly at their best when there's a sort of meta-plot on the one hand, and character goals on the other. They will intersect, but the 'big picture' doesn't necessarily have to shape how the PC's own personal stuff plays out, or at least not in terms of how the personality of the character is shaped.


This makes me incredibly sad. I would love to play in an "absolute freedom" sandbox with other dedicated players, yet I find myself being the DM whenever I get to play (rarely enough, unfortunately), and mostly to run pre-published adventures.

Finding a group that has collectively unusual aesthetics of play, and getting to play when you are normally a GM are the intersection of two very rare things.

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Finding a group that has collectively unusual aesthetics of play, and getting to play when you are normally a GM are the intersection of two very rare things.
I think it's probably possible to sell a group on a West Marches style of play, but they probably need to read the articles, etc., on the style rather than just popping the question when people are expecting to play an adventure that afternoon.

I don't know @reelo's players, but I find that adults with responsibilities and busy schedules tend to find the West Marches approach appealing, since it means people can drop in and out without games being derailed or anyone feeling guilty.

Well.... sort of. I mean, this is the basic thesis of Star Trek, right? I mean, Star Fleet Command orders the Enterprise to go to Planet P and do things X, Y, and Z. Yet somehow Kirk is in charge and does whatever HE thinks is best, even if he sometimes has to directly contravene his orders. He seems to have a LOT of leeway! Certainly in a narrative type RPG sense he's plenty empowered to address the themes in play. Or take the other goto example, Stargate SG1,
This does not work for a lot of players though. The half of players who don't role play in-universe much or not at all. If your a player role playing a character that is a willing member of a group and a higher up of the group orders you to do something: you do it. There is no Star Trek/Stargate epsiode where the characters whine and cry like babies because they don't want to do something and they demand another mission. Though this is common with a good half of the players out there.

And no matter how you wrap it up: It is still just the DM telling the players what to do.

This makes me incredibly sad. I would love to play in an "absolute freedom" sandbox with other dedicated players, yet I find myself being the DM whenever I get to play (rarely enough, unfortunately), and mostly to run pre-published adventures.
It's similar all over. I find the best game is one where all the players pick something they want to do and then dive into full emerssion deep role play to do it. Sadly, this does not happen often. To often many players only think they want to do something, but as soon as the game starts they discover it might take work and effort and bail out.

100% times worse, is the players will just have the characters sit in a bar and ask the DM, "um so are there any quests to do?"

But for some positive advise: if you really want any type of player, you really just have to make them. By far it is much easier to find a non gamer and teach them to be your sort of player. A lot harder is to de-program a current gamer. Either way it will take a lot of time. And most often you can't just "talk" to the person for a couple minutes and suddenly change them or have them see the light. And as most players will be unwilling to do anything else, the only way to do this is during game play.

I should stress it will also only work if the player wants to change.

Remove ads