In response to me tweeting that game masters should not plan campaign arcs, regular commenter and friend, Jimmy, asked:
“Then I have a slight request/idea. What about an article about how to best to get that player-driven story?”
I immediately agreed because it feeds my ego when people ask me these types of questions. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve discovered that my answer is remarkably simple. So simple that it may even appear to be facetious. The best way to get your players to drive the story is to let them create characters, then put environments, challenges, and rewards around those characters. As your players tentatively explore the small world which exists around their characters, alter the world in response to their actions. Improvise and build on what your players do to expand the world around them and give them new goals to explore.
To sum up the above: just do what a game master does, without the story part. The story-crafting part of being a GM is unnecessary, and wastes a lot of energy. Players usually have a good idea of what they’d like to do next, and if they don’t, I’ve found that a very tiny nudge is usually enough to set them running. And as they run, the story unfolds from their actions.
The trick of a player driven story is the kind of story you get. If you approach tabletop RPGs expecting traditional narrative structure, this method will disappoint you. Stuff like “plot arcs,” which “build” to a “climax” rarely occur. Emotional payoff is rare, and anticlimax is common. If you were to read the story of one of my games in a book, it would seem directionless and random. It would have a shifting cast who have shifting goals. For a few months they’re trying to master a difficult spell, but they lose interest before completing that, and decide to spend a few months exploring an ancient castle instead.
I don’t chronicle my player’s adventures as an ongoing narrative. Rather, I gauge the success of my game’s story by the stories I hear my players relating after the fact. The anecdotes which light up their eyes with the retelling. Like that time they conquered an entire tower full of bandits even after being imprisoned and forced to improvise their weapons. Or the time they met that crazy guy who lived in a dungeon and took him back to town so he could watch their house while they were away on adventures!
But just because the GM isn’t the driving force behind the story, doesn’t mean the world can’t have cool stuff going on in it fore the players to discover. In fact, I happen to know that the princess of one of my game worlds is plotting to overthrow her father with the assistance of one of his generals. The general thinks he’s manipulating a spoiled 15 year old, but only her father knows that she’s a powerful enchantress. He took the precaution of obtaining protective wards for himself, but failed to similarly outfit his advisers. This has allowed the princess to cloud the general’s perceptions, and guide his actions towards her own ends. To boot, she has a powerful red dragon under her complete control, which she’ll use if things turn against her. My players might encounter this story any number of ways. The most notable are that the dragon’s Aunt–an ancient red–is infuriated by her nephew’s subjugation and has been raiding human settlements (unknowingly aiding the princesses’ schemes). Additionally, the general has been financing a number of bandit groups to destabilize the kingdom and foster discontent with the crown.
Some might call that a story, but I would not. It’s a situation which exists in the game world, for the players to do with as they will. Perhaps they’ll find it, solve the mystery of the princess’s treachery, and confront her in a climactic battle. Maybe they’ll just poison her food, or tell the king to watch his back. Maybe they’ll help her claim the throne in exchange for land ant titles. Or maybe they’ll never find out about this plot and instead spend their time looting ancient crypts of their gold. They certainly seem happy with that for the moment.
I recognize that this style of gameplay is not for everyone. For many, tabletop role playing games are a means of sharing a narrative. It’s serious-minded improvisational theater. I myself once viewed RPGs that way. But over the years I came to realize that tabletop RPGs were not satisfying to me as a storytelling medium. Between players who didn’t want to get into character, and the tremendous effort involved in guiding a narrative without outright railroading, I ultimately just found tabletop games to be stressful. Now I just respond to what my players want their characters to do, and I find I’m much happier for it.