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New DM Handbook: Your Story Doesn’t Matter

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.


Joshua is bad about talking about himself, but won't shut up about anything else. A nerd since birth, he's experienced a lot of the culture. A gamer by nature, a writer, an actor, a film lover, an English major, and a recent discoverer of Dungeons and Dragons. Currently, he lives in Oregon, where his primary focus is to write novels, hopefully get a comic book series published, and maybe try his hand at making a very entry-level tabletop RPG game. He's always had idiotically lofty goals.
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Story vs Rules in a Roleplaying Game and Why You Can have both

Solnar Swift Arc - Tabletop Roleplaying Game - Impact Rolling

There is a long standing argument between which is more important in a roleplaying game, and for the record I always side with the story if I must choose. That being said, I just wanted to chyme in with a few tidbits of advice on this age old war. You see, both sides are right and in the end, both sides are wrong. Because much like the guy debating on apple or blueberry pie, you may have both.

roleplaying game story vs rules dungeons and dragonsStory Trumps Rules

In every roleplaying game, there is times when the storyteller wants to achieve a narrative not supported by the rules. Maybe the antagonist has achieved godhood, or maybe you just came up with something really awesome. There is always a time when you just need to go beyond and this is when the story trumps the rules.

The good about it is that the story trumping the rules allows for the never ending supply of story. Times like this is what begot Raistlin of Dragonlance, the many planes of Dungeons and Dragons, and most of the greatest moments of our gaming careers. Your imagination becomes the rule, the fun of the group the goal. As Gary Gygax once said, “You don’t have to be original, just entertaining”. What the great one means is, feel free to draw inspiration from any source. I myself love to hear music of a genre that matches the them, and from there I am inspired to write amazing stories. Take it as far as you want, but don’t forget…

The bad side of story trumps rules is that you end up with Mary Sue’s that can do everything under the sun in such a manner that the group is frustrated or worse, not having any fun. I think we have all heard the horror stories of a storyteller who favors one player or an NPC over everything else. Yeah, I have had it too. One DM consistently put in an all powerful NPC into every single game and it drove me nuts. Every game I was like, “well what anime character am I going to have to deal with today?” It is frustrating when the story over-rules every single effort of the player, and this can kill a game very quickly.

How story should trump the rules is not to be the reigns that lead the story in a precise path, but instead be the road without lines. Let the players surprise you, support a fantastic idea, let the storyteller take you where you never imagined you could go. The key is, to make sure the fun is there, if it isn’t, why are we even playing? One should never dread going to the game table.

roleplaying game story vs rules dungeons and dragonsWhen Rules Trumps the Story

Now the rules are important and are a large part of what makes the game different than kids pretending to be Power Rangers (oh those were the days). Knowledge is power, knowledge of the rules can be ultimate power. The down side is that rules alone are not enough to make a game. They need a spark of imagination or the game gets boring fast.

The good side of rules is that they provide consistency and a fall back when there is disagreements between differing imaginations. The rules is what allows you to mitigate all the ins and outs of disagreements that can not be solved by fanboy arguments. Batman versus Superman can finally be answered when you have rules laid down that dictate how the physics work. This can also allow you to figure out how each player, faction, etc. measures against threats both within and without. This can be an invaluable boon to storytellers as they can design challenges that will be all levels of difficulty.

The dark side of the rules is the infamous rules lawyer. This bugger, this annoying turd, is the one who treats the game like a competition of numbers. They would rather prove they know more about how to “work the system” than prove they know how to work as a team. The fun of the group is secondary to their superiority and you end up wanting to blast them with OC spray. None the less, the rules lawyer can be the storyteller or the player and you never know who is who until you start.

Conversely, the rules can be wielded by the rules sage or lawyer. Much like the Philodox and Theurge of world of darkness, they are the ones who would use the rules to teach all those they come across how a system works. I have had very few of these in my life but amazingly I have two in my current group. Josh and Avery are amazing resources as I learn two new systems to date (Mutants and Masterminds, and Warhammer 40k). The thing is, and even I forget this, is that anyone, rules sage/lawyer alike, can occasionally get the rules wrong. Maybe they are learning alongside you? Well be gentle with mistakes; to err is to be human, to forgive is divine.

raptors_scout_marineWhy not have both?

Now here is the modus operandi that I most identify with. Why can’t rules be what supports and explains a story? There is no reason you cannot find a rule and build a story behind it, like I did with my rave powered superhero in Mutants and Masterminds was inspired by the supplements of light and sound powers that Josh provided me. The character ended up being amazing fun with an amazing story behind her (I flip a coin or roll a die for character gender every time). You can also come up with a concept and find rules that support it, building your style of roleplay and way to make your story with each bit from either side. This is a lot like my 40k character for Avery’s Deathwatch game. I came up with a sniper and guerrilla warrior. Well lo and behold I am pointed at the Ravenguard and from them to the Raptors. I found my home, my play style, and the character just sprung to life with every toss of the dice. Funny part is I originally planned to be a librarian but the dice were not kind to me in that regard. I ended up with stats for a tactical marine and I went with that. Ended up being a lot of fun to play this guy who needs no mojo to do what he does, it is all skill. The concept was changed by the rules and made better for it. These times are magic, but you have to keep an open mind to create them.

Well all, that is my thoughts on the matter of story versus rules. Both have their points, and both can be fun in moderation. I sincerely hope this helped someone out but for now, I am going to bid you adieu for I must go back to bed. I am sick today, and writing this was very taxing. I meant to write about vampires today but, this was on my mind. Please forgive the divergence. I hope you have a wonderful day.

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Stay Nerdy,


Nubz hails from the American Pacific Northwest where he has spent the last 24 years living the gamer life and running campaigns of all kinds. Through this he has managed to sate his acting bug and entertain many. Now a father, he wishes to pursue writing to leave a legacy in Nerd culture for his offspring to enjoy.