New DM Handbook: Your Story Doesn’t Matter

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DMThis is going to be by far my most controversial post, which I believe says a lot. Based on my observations, it would seem that the mentality among Game Masters is they have a story to tell, and the players are there to play in it. It’s simply impossible for that to be any farther away from the truth. The players are there to tell the story, and the GM is there to facilitate it and set the stage.

Perhaps I should start from the beginning. A lot of this is going to be steeped in literature, literary devices, and literary criticism, as well as genre and media distinctions.

Author vs Narrator

First and foremost, literary criticism takes the time to distinguish between author and narrator. In some cases, such as Gulliver’s Travels, it’s very clear that Johnathan Swift isn’t Lemuel Gulliver. It’s essentially storyan epistolary novel, consisting of journal entries of Gulliver’s observations. Literarily speaking, the distinction is less clear in Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s The Yellow Wallpaper. Hers is a diary, but from an unnamed narrator, and a story that paralleled Gilman’s life to a very strong degree. Her life didn’t turn out the same way as her unnamed narrators (which is obvious for those who’ve read the short story), but it did come from a place of knowing. Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (which is the basis for the film, Apocalypse Now), is similarly autobiographical. That being said, not every story has such overt narrators. Most just use the omniscient third person to narrate the story.

The narrator, whether they’re a direct voice or an omniscient third person, is not the author. Regardless of whose voice it is, the narrator still exists within the confines of the story. They’re the membrane that surrounds the story, which sits between the author and the audience, but the narrator doesn’t exist outside the narrative. They don’t have a voice of their own. They just relay the events as they unfold in the most factual ways possible.

There is such a thing as the unreliable narrator, which is used explicitly in The Yellow Wallpaper, but for storythe sake of brevity, that’s an unnecessary rabbit hole. The point is that the narrator is confined to the rules that the author sets forth. If the author wants to inject bias into the story, they provide a narrator that can be subject to bias. If the author doesn’t want a particular element revealed, the narrator doesn’t reveal it. The author may choose to include foreshadowing, but the narrator only shows what the author wants the audience to see.

Why this Matters

There’s a huge distinction between author and narrator, between storyteller and narrator. For roleplaying games, the campaign is the party’s story, not the GM’s. They’re the ones telling the story with every action they take, every roll they make, and every role play. The GM is there to facilitate the story. They provide narrative options, populate the world, and narrate actions. Narrative options include the plots GMs devise, and they can entice the players to follow, but a plot isn’t a story. A good GM uses the same tools any author would, enticing their party to follow that thread, but the story is still told by the party.

Lost in Translation

This is going to be largely anecdotal, but there’s a lot to be said about it. Based both on personal experience and attempts by several studios, translating between different mediums is difficult in the best-storycase scenarios. It’s all too easy to utterly fail. Movies based on established video game franchises are an easy model to look at (really, as are video games based on movies). As of writing this article, the best-case scenario that has been released has been one that wasn’t bad. Even early reviews of 2016’s Assassin’s Creed indicate the record will continue unbroken.

Up until 2000’s X-Men, comic book movies were equally hard to translate. Even then, arguably comic book movies aren’t actually translated from comic books, but movies that follow similar characters and storythemes. Their serialized nature and short format make them closer to a television series, or specifically about the length of a 30-minute episode, which is why comic book cartoons always did well.

Why this Matters

TableTop RPGs are an entirely different medium. Their rules for storytelling are just as different as those between video games and movies. Trying to tell a story in a TableTop using the same conventions as you would even in a video game, much less any straight narrative, doesn’t work. This is partially due to the fact that no matter what you put in front of players, they’re the ones that choose to bite off on it, or whether they interact with the story in the way that you geared it to be.

What Matters

RPGs are an extremely different form of storytelling in that the author, audience, characters, and narrators are actually a blend of the GM and the PCs. It’s the players’ story, so your story doesn’t matter, but the world you construct is central to the players’ story.

DM

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

10 Responses

  1. drunkenminotaur
    | Reply

    Idiotic article. I’e read the literature you are referencing and I find your analysis lacking. DMs do a lot more than just present a world. I highly encourage my players to be free within the world, but I plan encounters as the backbone of the story. Also, I’m a poet and a fiction writer. You cannot say that author is always separate from narrator. Allen Ginsberg, William Blake, and Milton are just a few of the examples of an autobiographic narrator that exists both in and out of the literature.

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      I’m going to leave a lot of this alone. Partially because the implication (based on context) is that I’m building on fictional literature (unless you believe Paradise Lost is autobiographical, which needs to be an entirely different conversation), and partially because I’m almost graduated with a bachelor’s in English (with concentrations on literary and rhetorical criticism) so I’m too burned out to go through everything piece by piece. Also, I’ve done my share of writing in the past, including short stories, poems, and playwriting. I’ve also started working on a comic book series that I’m working with an artist friend to submit to get published, and I’m working on my first novel, so unless you are a published writer or poet, we’re on the same level.

      However, that’s not what I want to address here. I wanted to talk to you about your approach to the conversation. If your goal is to engage in discourse about my assessment, then I’d suggest a different approach. To start, calling something idiotic isn’t going to get people to listen to you. It’s going to automatically put the person in a defensive mode, which shuts down any viable conversation. The aggressive tone does the same thing. It makes the listener feel like they’re being attacked, which also shuts down conversation.

      Here’s my suggestion. Engage with your audience. Instead of attacking them, find a common ground. Once your audience feels like they can connect with you, you can go on to talk about the subject in a manner that’s inviting for people to listen to, otherwise known as substitution and transformation. Never stop cycling through that process each time you broach a new subject. You want your audience to continually being engaged in the process.

      Also, it’s okay if you don’t agree with your audience, or they don’t agree with you. Sometimes the discourse itself, and the learning and understanding of other views is all you need. You can refer to my article about one of my conversations with Scott Garibay as a point of reference.

      Finally, explain your reasoning. Just shouting it isn’t really proving your point. Explain why your points are valid. I broke down my reasoning, cross-referenced them, and provided very specific examples. When I referenced “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Heart of Darkness, I used them to support each other, talking about the distinction between author and narrator, it was to point out that while their experiences heavily influenced their stories. Those stories are not actually autobiographical, but, as any good work of literature does, they convey truth, and in those cases by exaggerating the facts based on their very real experiences. When you’re explaining your reasoning, do so in that way, in an effort to strengthen your arguments, which will also make people want to listen to you, and not just be willing listen to you.

      I hope this helps you in further discussions. Have a good day, and stay nerdy.

  2. Wintry Blade
    | Reply

    Thank you for providing a well-thought perspective on this. I think all DM’s & GM’s can, at times, fall into the problem of all but eliminating character freedom for the sake of their story. For the players, it can get tedious when they feel all but helpless to do anything other than toe the line (and many decide to over react when this feeling creeps in). It reminds me of the genre of cinematic games that bobbed up some years ago where you do little more than walk your character from one beautiful scene to another.

    I think it is helpful to have grand stories cooked up and well versed prior to starting a game, and then allow the players to evolve matters. That way, you can easily pick and pluck from your brain what makes sense to use at the time, and even quietly allow events to transpire at other times and places while the characters are away. I try and cook up grand stories of what is happening right at the moment to get my mind in a place where I can then layout the meat: what problems am I going to throw at the players?

    Again, thanks for this article. It was a fun read!

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      Thank you. You make a lot of very good points. Obviously, that’s largely what I was getting at. As DMs, it’s our responsibility to provide direction for the players, but it’s up to the players to take actions based on the setting that the DM provides. If they don’t do things in ways that we designed, that’s fine. The entire group, players and DMs alike, are working together to tell a narrative. Protecting your story for the sake of the players takes away from what D&D is, and what it can be.

  3. Doug
    | Reply

    Controversial? Hardly. Any one who has run a session in any tabletop rpg knows that the players must come first. While my story may have numerous ingenious plot hooks, plot twists, story acrs and charatcer arcs, they will all fail to perform their various functionsd if the players are made to feel that they are just along for the ride. If the players need to tell a Terry Pratchet style story and I keep forcing a J. R. R. Tolkien style story the obvious result will be dissapointment and frustration for all.

    Weather it is Mage: the Ascention, Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthuhlu, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy or any other format, the first rule is to always provide a vehicle for the players. A good Storyteller, Loremaster, GM, DM will set up a world that has multiple avenues open to the players. The players then reveal to an attentive Storyteller what story they are trying to tell and how they are trying to tell it. Once this is revealed, my job becomes easy. I need do no more than provide them a stage on which to tell their story.

    Is one of the player characters searching for a lost sibling? Why not have that sibling enter the story as a bandit captain? Plot twist: The players have just accepted a contract to bring the bandit captain to justice. The big reveal here can be the town mayor that hired the players is corrupt and the bandits are operating in a Robin Hood fashion. Admittedly not very original, but if that is the kind of story the players are looking for a good story teller will provide the means for them to tell it. It’s not controversial, it’s just good hosting.

    • Doug Vehovec
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment! It sounds like you are of a similar mind as the post here. There’s still plenty of GMs out there who run games to tell their own stories so I would stand by the “controversial” tag in the sense it could surely find public disagreement.
      At any rate, Nerdarchy certainly advocates collaborative storytelling in our roleplaying games! Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment, we appreciate it.

      • Doug
        | Reply

        Ah! So that’s why the “controversial” tag. O. K. Now I get it. In that vein (or perhaps vain?) “controversial” works. Looks like we’re both on the same page of the DMG.

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      I’m going to assume that you haven’t read any of my other articles.

      When I wrote the article initially (in December 2016), outside of Nerdarchy, a lot of what I was seeing online was very much so about the DM telling the story, and the players being characters in it. Granted, that was before Matt Mercer and Satine Phoenix had started doing DM Tips on Geek and Sundry, and I hadn’t even heard of Matt Coleville yet. From my perspective at the time, I was expecting a lot of backlash. I got some at the time, such as the first person who commented on the article, but the tone of the hobby has changed since then, or at least from what I’ve seen.

      Still, you and I are in agreement about the principles of the argument, which I’m glad to see.

  4. MarkyD
    | Reply

    Anyone who has dm’d (or played) will undoubtedly have faced exactly this issue. I’m not entirely sure where I stand to be honest. Too railroad (one stop – DMs story) and it can feel frustrating and pointless. Players have to be able to effect the world they are in and their decisions must have consequences. On the other hand, too sandbox and the games are rushed and shallow in my experience. Not to mention painfully slow as everyone sits at the table, looks blankly at each other until someone says “so yeah, what were we going to do today?”

    In the campaign I’m currently running I have tried to hit a midpoint (probably erring more to DMs story if I’m honest). At character creation I involved myself with each individual player, suggesting slight amends to backstory elements, adding extra characters and embellishing their story in apparently minor ways that I already had ideas for use. I then gave each player a pdf setting a final scene to their backstory in story form so they and I had something solid to refer to.

    Then I went about forming my overarching story which would link in some minor and some major ways with their characters backstories. These links would (potentially) be revealed in a series of adventures that I prepare based partly and loosely on cues the players give of their characters desires/intentions.

    So yeah, my – the DMs – campaign story, but each player should feel that this story is THEIR story and that each of them is integral to it rather than just bit parts coming along for the ride.

    • Doug Vehovec
      | Reply

      I enjoy the evolution process as a DM, learning and adding to my repertoire. Mike Mearls had a really interesting Twitter thread recently with some good insights.
      Answering the 5 W’s helps me immensely, whether for a single session or a campaign. From there I make bullet points of things I feel are important, and a short intro to set the scene for the characters.
      Then I just do my best to immerse myself along with the players and see where the story goes. Between sessions I consider what happened at the table and adjust from there.

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