Where Does Story Come From?

A scene from Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack VanceThe argument that a game’s story emerges during play, rather than flowing from behind the referee’s screen, is by now a settled issue. The referee creates the world, and the players create the story through the actions they take within that world. Others have made this argument more eloquently than I can, and I have no intention of retreading that ground. However, recently I had a conversation which posed a further question: how can you get a consistent story to emerge during play?

I used to run D&D as a more narrative-driven game, before I was convinced by the argument above. There are a couple people who’ve said they’d like me to run one again. One of these people, my brother, is a player in my ORWA campaign. After a recent session, he and I sat for several hours chatting, and he complimented me on ORWA’s narrative. Apparently, ORWA is precisely the kind of narrative-driven game he’d been wanting to see me run.

I had to take a minute to wrap my head around why he would say that. From my perspective, ORWA didn’t have any more or less of a narrative than any other game I had run in recent years. There’s adventure in every direction. I don’t push the players towards any particular hooks. I have no plans for how the game will proceed, beyond the scheming of my NPCs. And those schemes are as thwartable as those NPCs are killable.

Simply speaking, I have no “plot” in mind that I’m trying to weave into the game. So why would my brother say that ORWA has a better narrative than other games of mine he has played?

At this point it occurred to me that the gameplay of ORWA has been following a fairly linear narrative path. Not because I planned for it, but because my players discovered a narrative thread and bound themselves to it. (A thread, I might add, that I never intended them to find).

Without going into too much campaign detail, at the end of their first adventure my players discovered a shadowy cabal of wizards called “The Internet.” They were warned, repeatedly, not to mess around with The Internet, but they ignored that advice and confronted one of the secretive wizards anyway. The players demanded better payment for the work they had done, and the wizard agreed, on the condition that the PCs subjugate themselves to the will of The Internet. Under this agreement the PCs are allowed to pursue their own interests so long as they don’t conflict with those of The Internet, and the PCs must be available to perform jobs for The Internet when called upon. The players agreed, and ever since then nearly every adventure has been a mission conducted in service of The Internet.

The players are not bound to this story. They could spend more time pursing their own goals if they want to. They certainly encounter any number of adventure hooks they pass up in favor of waiting for the next Internet mission. They could work to break free of The Internet if they wanted, but aside from a single exception, they don’t seem interested. I don’t know if they’re just being carried forward by momentum at this point, or if they’re eager to see what The Internet will do next.

Whatever the motivation, the fact is that the players found a story that they thought was interesting, and they stuck with it. Every week they pursue the story further, and it grows and evolves accordingly. There are regular characters with whom they’ve developed relationships, not because I’ve decided that those characters will be recurring. But, rather, because those are the characters who live in this corner of the campaign world. And it’s the corner of the campaign world the players have decided to spend their time in.

In the course of any normal D&D campaign, the players will brush up against countless stories. Most of those stories will serve as vignettes. They’ll last an adventure or so, and then the players will be on to something else. That’s fine, because the story that really matters is the story of the PC’s adventures, whatever those adventures may be. Eyes of the Overworld does not suffer for Cugel’s constant motion from one adventure to the next. A great story can be told through many vignettes.

But if you’d like to see a consistent narrative that grows and changes over the course of an entire campaign, there’s no need for the referee to impose that narrative. All that needs to happen is that the players need to pick a narrative to pursue, and stick with it. It could be their own narrative–establishing a kingdom, becoming famous adventurers, exploring some new unknown country; or they could latch themselves to someone elses’ narrative by joining a conspiracy, or a pirate band, or really just joining any organization at all.

The players create the story of the game with their actions. But this conversation with my brother has made me wonder if I’m doing enough to make my players aware of how far their power extends. Perhaps more adventures ought to end in the style of a spaghetti western, with the townsfolk asking the players to stick around and become the sheriff. That would give the players an explicit choice: would they like to see how this story develops further, or do they want to ride off into the sunset to find something new?


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One thought on “Where Does Story Come From?”

  1. This is an interesting set of points on a well worn topic you and I agree on heavily. The first part that’s interesting to me is that when I look outside the OSR DIY game community there still seems to be serious confusion and devotion to the idea of narrative campaigns that tell the GM’s story. Sandboxes are viewed as some kind of exotic hard to run beast where the GM must have a bunch of story-lines laid out that all bend around to some final confrontation. There is no trust in player capacity for decision making. I don’t really want to harp on this, but the idea that story should or even can be generated through play rather then a careful and rather fragile construct of predetermined character goals and specially prepared scenes to fulfill them is not a dominant one among today’s tabletop crowd.

    Second I do like the idea that joining factions is more then just “here’s some quests and some goodies for completing the last quest”. Factions should demand loyalty and an acceptance of their hierarchy after a while – the jobs aren’t just “raid the tomb of the unknown tyrant” they are also “go relieve this outpost somewhere and make sure you provide at least X GP per week from subjugating the newly conquered around it”. This attitude has served me well in getting players to pursue multiple goals and threads – factions that are reprehensible, or even just a bit weird seem to make players cautious, especially when they demand loyalty. I think it works especially well in a game with limited map space like ORWA or HMS Apollyon when they players can’t really get away from the factions they’ve ignored, wronged or cast aside.

    I do really like the ‘Western’ solution for a more open map game. Characters need to give things (mostly playing the character) up to avoid getting snared by comfort and a little drab bit of fame.

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