Being A GM Is Not Being The Storyteller

This post is something I was thinking about when I was building yesterday’s post and I was going to put in the why I like being a GM was because I like telling a story and then I realised that this is not really the function of a GM.  In fact the GM’s role in regards to stories is quite different and this is going to contradict some of my early blogs that I have written.

I once asked what sort of GM are you.  Were you the GM that creates his adventures to tell his stories or were you the type of GM that started with a concept and just let things run their own course.  I know now after truly thinking about it that the first type of GM is likely to be a bit of a disappointed GM in the long run and the reason is the GM does not tell a story, they just enable it.

A diagram for the GM to see the difference between linear and interactive stories
Thanks whatgamesare.com for the image. A forced story in a game is completely linear where a good plan for an RPG plot should look far more interactive.

I am going to use an example here that is specific to my Earthdawn PBeM campaign and it is going to contain MAJOR spoilers for that game and the direction that it is headed in and has always been heading in.  If you are a player in that game I would seriously think twice about reading this blog as it may ruin the game for you that we have been working on for a decade or so!  That is because this game is one I set up so I could tell a story that I had always wanted to see told in this game.  I have only recently decided that if that story is to be told by me I need to write it out as some fan fiction or in a book format because an RPG is not the place for me to force my story on players.  It is my place to build an environment where the players tell their story.

Let me give you the brief outline of my story and then let me relate that tale to the reality of my PBeM game.  If you don’t really know much about Earthdawn let me preface it by saying it is kind of Cthulu meets fantasy where civilisations have spent ages hiding in holes and perverting themselves to keep the big evils from killing them all.  The elves of the land perverted themselves horribly with blood magic to stop this occurring and became monsters themselves.  The story I wanted to tell was that of the truth of the elves horror and perversion where a group of heroes save them from eternal damnation.  It starts simply where the mayor of a small settlement has a block of oak that was polished and shaped like a heart stolen from her abode.  It was a family heirloom and she sends a group of the most trustworthy and strong to find it and return it to her.

A possible story design created by a GM
Thanks sarahhaney.blogspot.com for the image Planning for player actions can take some time

In the journey chasing the thief they finally catch up with her and find that she was working for a secret organisation who believed the item was not a simple heirloom but a powerful magic item that threaten the existence of many.  The handover had already occurred and the players lose track of the item but find that there is a scholar far to the north who knows of the abilities of this item and would perhaps know those that covet it.  Along their travels they meet with a strange, enigmatic figure that recurs many times through their story, right around the time that their suffering is greatest or when their actions cause great suffering.  He is known as the Corinthian and the party do not know if he is a benign benefactor as their problems seem to ease after his presence but they are unnerved by him.  In reality this being is a Horror construct and he is assisting his master feed off the suffering of the party and those around them.  But more importantly he is tracking them as he knows what they seek and realises if it can get a hold of it that it will be eternally set by feeding off the suffering it connects to.

The journey north is filled with increasing episodes that foretell the story of the fall of a great civilisation.  They each mirror the fall of the elves symbolically at the very minimum and each has the heroes come in and solve the issues, restoring at least a part of the glory to the people they help.  When they finish their trip to the north they find that the wise man they seek is actually a Great Dragon that once ruled the wood that contained the elves.  They find that he is upset at the corruption the elves brought on themselves and wants to return them to their original condition.  They also find out that the Queen of the elves wishes to avoid this at all costs and seeks to subvert this.  In fact the elves themselves are the ones that have taken the Oaken Heart as it is the key that will restore the elves and their wood to their former glory.

Further to this, and the most surprising thing is that the players also meet the core pattern of the wood that has sought out the Great Dragon for its assistance.  there is a great tree in the centre of the wood called Oak Heart and it is dying.  the tree magically forms an avatar of itself and sends it to the Great Dragon as its last hope.  The players meet with this, realise what must be done and enter the wood to get back the item and restore the wood regardless of the Queen’s and Horror’s plans.

So that is the story that I want to tell and I had thought I was doing it via the game.  But I have come to realise what I am actually doing is setting up a story framework.  I am not telling the story, my players are telling their character’s story by selecting what plot hooks they take and which they don’t.  During this time they have taken complete steps off the path that I have presented to them that leads them the quickest route to the story.  I am proud of myself that I have created entire segments around this though it detracts from my story but I am also ashamed of myself as I have then almost immediately placed something in their path that pushes them back to the story framework of my tale.

A picture of characters from different genres for the GM
Thanks learntabletoprpgs.com for the image.  Remember the players are the main focus of the game and you as the GM should accommodate their actions or desires.

A good GM must realise that they are there as a referee and an enabler.  They adjudicate on rules but they also present complications for the players to react and act on.  The story as such is something that is borne completely out of the player’s and GMs interactions together so as a GM you must realise that you HAVE to meet the players half way.  It is their story just as much as yours.  If anything it may be more theirs as they play the leading antagonists of whom the camera is always focussed.

It is true though that you can lead the players from point A to point Z on a gigantic campaign and have them believe that the story is theirs when in reality it has just been you leading them through what you want to see played out.  I do not think for a second that any of my PBeM players would actually feel manipulated in any way and would feel that the story has played out in the manner it has simply because of their and my interaction.  In fact if they knew what I had done they may actually say “I don’t care, I enjoyed the game” and that is fine but there have been elements where a player has rebelled and not wanted to play by my rules and splintered.

This famously happened in the game with the one original player I had from the very first game in the year 2000.  He decided his character wanted to follow a different path and I resisted him for a long time and tried to convince him that he should remain with the main thrust of the campaign for his own good. He was adamant though that the character would not stay with the main campaign.  As he is a good friend of mine I eventually relented and made a game revolve around his character and he created a new character to join in with the main thrust of the game.  I wronged that player.  As soon as he declared what his character wanted to do I should have respected the decision and enabled it rather than fight it for the couple of months that I did.  It was his character and his characters story.

I have had this happen a couple of times more but somewhere in me I realised I was at fault for this and should enable the split.  In the future cases I simply allowed the character to leave graciously and not splinter for another game as the PBeM is rather time consuming when you get into it.  But it was about then that I realised that it was no longer my story.  It was the players story and I was there to help them see it out and reach the conclusion that they would find.

Blood Elf from Earthdawn, one of my favourite games to GM
Thanks pandagaminggrove.blogspot.com.au for the image of the Blood Elf!

In essence it is kind of like running an Adventure Path and have the players fail in the final (6th module) and then make up characters just to see it through.  That is not the story.  The story is that of the characters that failed.  It is not overly realistic to expect a bunch of fresh faced high level adventurers to pop into the same story at the last moment and finish what the other characters started.  The story ends in failure and that is still a story worth telling.

If you are starting to design a game because you want to “show the players what happens when…” then you are trying to tell a story and you need to be prepared that the players just do not want to have a bar of that story.  But if you start designing a game because you “wonder what happens after…” then you are likely to succeed as you are posing a question and allowing your antagonists to answer it for you and for themselves.  This type of attitude is likely to have the players wanting to find out as well.

I hope this helps new GMs see that there is a difference between setting up a story framework to designing a story with a set ending.  Players can be unpredictable and if you design a game with a linear plot expect to be caught short.  If you design some guidelines to a plot and allow the players to take it on in any way they see fit you will be much more successful.

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