The Story Is The Thing

While I was brainstorming ideas for a system project I’m currently alpha designing (no, that’s not what this post is about, but yes, you will get to see some ideas as I have them) at work last night, I was running through various mechanics from games I’ve either played, or simply read but still have sitting on my shelf that I might be able to adapt, borrow, or outright steal for this new design.

This, inevitably, led me to thinking of more than a few of the games that I have run and played in over the years, all the way back to my days as a young gamer opening one of the 2nd Edition AD&D boxed sets nearly a decade and a half ago. In this trek down memory lane, I noticed an interesting dichotomy between myself as a player and myself on the other side of the screen, using whatever appellation that particular game uses for the person running it. (Author’s Note: I’ll be using the term GM for when I speak of said person, as it is largely the most universal and genre/game neutral. Feel free to insert whatever term you want in its place. Or, if you don’t want to do that, just imagine a happy bouncing bunny and move on.)

When I’m sitting on the player’s side of the screen, I could honestly care less about what game it is I’m playing as long as one thing is satisfied. I’m only truly enjoying myself when there is a good story being told, either by the GM or by the group as a collective. The system could be the worst one designed, but as long as that condition is met, I’m generally a happy gamer.

The first campaign to jump to my mind is one that I played in my freshman year of college (2004 to early 2005). The game was using, and was my first introduction to, the 2nd Edition rules set of Returner’s fan made Final Fantasy RPG. I’m guessing by the number of cringes I just felt that some of you are familiar with it, and of what an absolute train wreck of a rules system it could be. Regardless of any of that, I was having a great time playing, because the story that was being told was fun, engrossing, and engaging. The climax of the first major and a particularly nasty double cross from a couple of the major NPCs had me as a player literally quaking with rage. That’s how invested I was in the story. When I was sitting down at the table to play, I wasn’t sitting down to play Final Fantasy. I was instead sitting down to play “our story” and that’s one of the major things that kept me coming back week after week on top of the friendships I was forming at the time.

Though, it sometimes isn’t the story of the game itself that will capture me, but the story of the characters involved. A great example of this is one that I could regale you with stories of for hours, but that’s a topic for another conversation entirely. Several years ago (right around the fall of 2007) I was involved in a DND 3.5 game with some established friends, several brand new players and a new to the area, but very experienced GM, through my school’s Gamers Club. It wasn’t the story of the campaign itself, though new and interesting elements were being added every day, but instead the story of the characters involved that we as a group of players were telling that kept me in my seat, not wanting the session to end. In fact, I actually may have gotten choked up as a player while my character made an impassioned speech trying to convince one of the other characters to stay with the group and join against the obviously repressive force that was employing us.

There’s a fine line however, between a GM weaving a great story, and railroading. One game that I was involved in during high school crossed this line right before the game fell apart from several of the players having severe knee jerk reactions to being forced to follow a certain path. I was willing to play along at the time to see where the GM was planning on going with it, but looking back on it now with the benefit of years, I can see just how badly it was executed. There was even an attempt to give us the illusion of choice, but all that would have done in the end was kill half the party through either total level drain or resulting in some of them being a lower level than those that had made the “correct” choice right away.

The crazy thing is the change that takes place when I’m sitting behind the vaunted GM screen. No longer is it the case that I don’t give a hoot about what game we’re playing. Suddenly, I’m the one being forced to make all of the necessary rulings that crop up. I’m much more comfortable running a handful of systems at the time. Right now, as you might be able to tell from the major theme of the blog, it’s Star Wars Saga Edition. I’ve tried to break into 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, but there’s so much system bloat at this point that it seems like a wasted effort (though I may be checking out the Essentials boxed set, but that’s neither here nor there). When I first started it was 2nd Edition AD&D. After that, we moved into 3rd Edition and then 3.5 and my comfort zone stayed there for some time. Sure, I’ll run an occasional one shot of one of the games I’m more familiar with on occasion, but for any long running game, it’s usually a fall-back system.

And suddenly, when I’m the one in the pilot’s seat, the importance of a good story can sometimes get away from me. It’s suddenly something that I have to force myself to keep in mind when I’m planning for the next session. I’m suddenly much more concerned with making the whole thing feel more organic and making sure the rules flow smoothly and keeping track of NPCs in and out of combat that I sometimes forget that the PCs aren’t just here to play a game. And they definitely aren’t here to watch me fumble with rulings in my head. They’re here to tell a great story with my help.

And that, I know is my biggest failing and something I know I need to learn to correct at the table. It’s almost like a small case of performance anxiety. I can quote you rules out of the book and run a character with the best of them, but for some reason, when I get behind the screen, I become more reserved, and most of those rules that I’ve internalized disappear. It’s as if I’m somehow afraid that when the framework I’ve got hits the table, the players won’t enjoy the story I’m helping them to spin. The question I then have to ask myself is: why, then, would they still be sitting at my table? The answer to that of course is: they wouldn’t.

So, it’s definitely time to take those lessons learned, good and bad from past games and apply them to my own games. Because it isn’t a specific NPC or how I handled combat that one session that they’re going to remember and retell for years to come. The story is the thing, after all. The system is just a means to arbitrate and reach that end.

And, to finish this off with a now famous quote: “That’s the real trick, isn’t it?” But in this instance, it doesn’t cost anything extra.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Story Is The Thing

  1. Jim Gallant

    I know how you’re feeling dude. I have done much the same thing in my games I’ve run. I’m getting so old, I can’t remember any rules anymore… The thing I remember when I’m setting up and running is to remember the Rule of Fun: None of this means enything unless the players and GM are all having fun. Sometimes the story is sacrificed, sometimes the players wants, motivations and bodies are sacrificed. But if everyone has fun, it’s OK. Like you said, the players come to help you make a good story. Let them tell it too – don’t make it just your responsibility.

  2. Xphile

    I’ll second the “I know how you feel” aspect. Sometimes I feel like I’m not really giving my players enough story, especially since they are all newer players (Well I guess our campaign has now lasted a year), but then I’ll have someone comment that they’re excited about the next session. Its usually then I realize that it is all about having fun. Some groups may want novelesque stories, some many just want to bash the hell out of something and some just want to go with the flow.

    The hardest thing is the performance anxiety of running a game. Heck, if I was to stat myself out I’d give myself an 8(-1) in Charisma. Luckily my players work with me to tell the story, so all I need to do is create the macro story for them to run around in.

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