Narrative Control in Tabletop Role-playing Games

         Role-playing games can be viewed as the cooperative creation of a story. However, who makes that story? In most traditional tabletop RPGs, there is a perception that the game-master (GM) has having greater control over the story than others players -- though not total. However, how is that control achieved?

.... perhaps cite Ron Edwards division of leadership, and the Collective
Endeavor essay on dividing direction ....

         My suggestion is that in practice, the GM wields authority primarily through indirect social pressure -- not by direct in-game mechanics. In most cases, the players are perfectly capable of totally derailing the GM's plans by how they play their characters. However, out of respect for the GM they do not. Instead, they pick up on meta-game cues for where the GM intends for the adventure to lead, and follow it.

         This resolves a vital comparison between role-playing games and stories in other media. In books and films, the personality, actions, and dialogue of the central characters are critical to the story. Note that in film, it is often the lead actor who is the biggest draw -- even though they are generally acting out plots and speaking lines written by others. Within an RPG, the players have vastly more power than a traditional film actor. They write their own lines and decide on their own actions as well as portraying their characters. Despite this, players are often considered of minor importance relative to the GM. Many analyses of story in RPGs observe the GM's vital importance, and conclude that the most vital parts of the story are the task resolution, the actions of NPCs, and the background. I believe that this misplaces the focus of story.

         Note that there is nothing wrong with the GM guiding the action of PCs, nor is there anything wrong with distributing the GM's power over background or resolution. However, these can be attempted based on a flawed understanding. Understanding meta-game social cues may help improve either of these.

Examples of Cues

         The most obvious case is the most traditional: the dungeon. It is a well-known tendency, often mocked, of having the PCs come to the entrance to a dungeon -- and then proceed past it to go to the next town.

Illustration from Dork Tower
Illustration from Dork Tower


         However, this is only the simplest example of this happening. Particularly in non-dungeon modules, the GM is constantly giving signals about where she intends the adventure to go. There are many different types of cues, including the following:

  1. Location or item descriptions are often cues. i.e. If something is described in detail, it is known to be important. The PCs are expected to pay careful attention to it. If they instead ignore it, then it is considered a slap in the GM's face.
  2. NPC advice or requests are often GM cues. This likely will not involve breaking character -- the NPC generally has a good reason to give the advice or make the request. Rather, it stands out because bad advice and/or insignificant requests are not normally played out. For example, how often do the PCs receive job offers for jobs that don't make interesting adventures?
  3. Repeated questions to the player are a common cue, as in "Are you sure you want to do that?" This can be helpful to the PCs, but helping the PCs is generally guiding. Often this is to make sure that they aren't "stuck" -- when by stuck they mean not progressing along the predicted path.

Breaking from Cues

         We should look in detail at cases where the PCs break from the GM's intended cues. ....

Types of Control

         Given the phenomenon of cues, we can try to break down the .... So we should break down the We should look in detail at cases where the PCs break from the GM's intended cues. ....


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Apr 11 11:54:00 2007