Who Drives: GM or Players?

Posted by on March 14, 2011

There are a lot of interesting theories out there about what a “story” means within a role-playing game.

The simple view sees the GM as the controlling narrator, with the players reacting to the GM’s story. In this view, the players are fundamentally passive, struggling to overcome the GM’s challenges. The PCs are trying to survive or otherwise get past the current obstacle.

This is an outdated paradigm, though a lot of games default to it.

The other extreme sees the players as controllers, with the GM providing a world and antagonists for them. Systems like FATE and Amber feature this much more collaborative, player-driven game.

This is great in theory, but rare in practice. It requires skilled players who are committed to an uncommon level of attention.

So we seek the middle ground. I’ll call it the quasi-collaborative system, in which the GM and players collaborate on certain aspects of the game, while others are kept in the GM’s hand.

What should be kept only for the GM? The plot, the antagonists, and encounter design.  Again, players could collaborate on this, but in practice it doesn’t happen, and it’s hard to maintain tension when the players know every detail about their enemies.

Everything else–setting, system, etc.–can be agreed upon by group consensus, though anything left undecided will be the GM’s purview. Doubtless, there are many details that the players simply won’t care about; the GM is free to fill these in.

This still leaves plenty of options open for player collaboration. In a recent game, the players ended one session at the entrance to a necromancer’s lair, after being asked by the captain of the guard to return with proof of the necromancer’s activity.  I asked the players for suggestions of the kind of proof they could bring back. They gave me some ideas, which I incorporated into the lair.  The tension of the lair remained high, since the danger lay in getting to the proof, not the proof’s specific form.

Also, of course, player choice can dramatically change the plot. PCs may knock out an enemy instead of killing it. They can ask questions that you never thought of.

So, the story is driven primarily by the GM, with the players as important accessory drivers. In my experience, it works well.

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