On Destiny and Chance: The Storyteller’s Dilemma Part I

by Alex Jackl

 As a Game Master (GM) we have many roles: storyteller, director, author, and sometimes even armchair psychologist. There are many areas that we can discuss in terms of pulling apart the things that a GM does. In this blog I would like to focus on the nature of the stories we are engaging the player in.

 To set the context, let’s look at where Role-Playing Games came from. Fundamentally they came from board games, which morphed to strategy/war games. These games had some consistent structures:

1.    They tended to be a “setting” about either:

a.    a single event or series of events: a battle, World War Two, the Christian assault on Jerusalem; or,

b.    A type of event like knights fighting over terrain, assaulting a fortress, buying stuff and making money.

c.    This scope is the opposite of what we would call an “open world” like most role-playing gaming scenarios and campaigns now a days.

2.    They resolved conflict through some mechanism of randomness - usually dice.

3.    You won by beating someone else in a conflict of some sort.

 These structures are woven into the fabric of role-playing games. There are many modern games that attack these structures and break free of them but the vast majority of role-players are playing games still dominated by this way of thinking.

 Now we get to the Storyteller’s Dilemma: most players use movies or great books that they have read as their model for what they are looking for in a game. I always wanted to be Ged from Earthsea, or Darth Vader. Those movies and books tend NOT to follow the structures of war games:

 Oops - Luke Skywalker rolled a “1”. I guess Vader wins.

The question becomes: how much of the game do you let be driven by rules and dice, and how much by a storyline created and woven together by you and the players.

I am a fan of dice. I believe randomness helps break up a GM’s tendency to tell the same stories given the same stimuli. Randomness brings a sense of spontaneity and challenges the storyteller to weave events together in a way that more profoundly models how real life works: stuff happens, then you react. However, if you feel that it is your job as a GM is to create a great story you need to constantly make choices about when you use dice, when you empower the dice, or when you flat out ignore them.

I think dice are powerful for deciding which player notices something, or to resolve contests of skill, or to just drive a plot decision where you could go either way. Despite the importance of dice, I believe the story is paramount. It is the duty of the GM to know what the character’s are trying to achieve and then deliver a path for them to achieve it. You cannot let the Emperor win because Luke rolled a “1”. Not that it couldn’t be interesting to run the rebel Jedi’s fleeing underground in the Emperor's Death Star dominated empire. You can turn failures into fascinating plots. In fact many of the best plots are driven by failure. But the player’s must be satisfied and grinding their hopes into dust because a dice roll was 5 instead of 15 is a nonsensical way to run a campaign.

However we storyteller’s are full of bias. Of course we have favorite player-characters (shhh- don’t tell anyone), favorite NPCs, and favorite kinds of situations. The rules and the dice are a way to manage some of those biases.

There are no clear answers. It is critical for a GM to know what kind of story they are telling and, more importantly, why?