Friday, May 19, 2006

Story Is Structure

"Story is structure." -- William Goldman

For a story to succeed, it needs structure. This structure either comes from the GM, or gets distributed among the players. Some gamers enjoy loose structures, others want more rigid structures--but if you want a story, you need some type of structure.

There are many parallels between how people structure their games and how authors plot their books. If you read several writing books, you'll quickly find that different authors have different theories. Some claim you should make detailed outlines and pin down all the information about your world before you begin. Others insist on a looser style. They want to start with a blank page, and just start writing. Let the story emerge organically. Often, the proponents of both sides argue that their way is the only way. In truth, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Each writer needs to find their own balance, and most writers fall somewhere in the middle.

Outlining typically results in a better plot in the first draft. The story emerges in a well-organized, thought out manner. You can also uncover many problems with the story during the outlining--allowing you to fix them early, or preventing you from wasting time on an ultimately flawed idea. The downside is, if the outline becomes too strict, it can make the story feel lifeless and sterile. To be successful, the writer must use the outline as a guide but allow the story to drift where it will.

Freeform stories often have a more organic, more lifelike feel. They also typically need extensive editing. The first draft is really a discovery draft, letting the author explore the ideas. One of the real dangers of freeform stories is that the author will reach the end and find that there is no real story. This is a particular problem in the RPG context, since your ability to edit is very limited.

Traditional games tend to fall in the outline-everything camp (what I'll call highly structured games). The GM has absolute control over the world. The players act within the GMs world--and often the structure severely limits their choices. In the worst cases, the GM imposes the plot upon the players. The structure becomes so stifling that any spark of story suffocates and dies.

Many newer, Forge inspired, narrativist games fall at the organic end (loosely structured games). This includes several Gmless games. The games tend to be more democratic--players have a greater role in creating the world around them, and the story emerges from the player's interactions. In the worst cases, the story has no center and just falls apart. And, with several different people contribute to the story, it can be hard to fit all the pieces into a coherent whole.

Similar to the writing examples, neither gaming style is inherently better than the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. And, I suspect, the best stories come from the middle.

For me, GMless games make me uncomfortable. I like knowing that there is one person at the table who will ensure all the loose ends get tied up. One person who knows all the mysteries. Who can dole out important clues.

I don't trust that a well-plotted story will just emerge. Too many things can go wrong. In my experience, GMless stories are often lack coherence and focus brought by a GM. Worse yet, as a player, I either find myself competing with other players for control over the game's direction--or I just shut up and become too afraid to contribute anything. Neither approach is healthy or fun.

Now, in full disclosure, I must say that I have never played a published, GMless game. My opinions come from ad-hoc experiments. Many people enjoy GMless games. But I need more structure.

On the other hand, I also don't do well with stifling games. My character's actions should have a visible impact on the world. My decisions should matter. I should be able to contribute NPCs and locations, as long as they don't contradict those things the GM has already established.

I also feel that the GM has obligations to the players. As I mentioned in a previous essay, you can't bring a pistol on stage, unless you're going to shoot someone later on. If my character's background introduces a younger sister, then I expect the GM to bring her into the game. She should be captured, turn evil, whatever. The GM must weave these character-introduced elements seamlessly into the overall story.

OK, I will take off my writer's hat and put on my Computer Science hat for a minute. I've worked a lot on AI and Alife. Chaos is a commonly recurring theme. Too much randomness and the system falls apart. Too little and it smothers and dies. Somewhere in the middle is the Goldielocks mixture--that's where interesting things happen.

Tracy Hickman compares this to gripping a handful of marbles. Squeeze too tight, and the marbles pop out between your fingers. Too loosely, and they roll everywhere. I suspect he cups his marbles a bit tighter than I do mine--but it's still a good metaphor.

Interesting things often happen at boundary conditions: water at the freezing point melts and re-crystalizes in interesting patterns. Similarly, I feel that there's a fuzzy boundary condition between highly structured and loosely structured games. Here, the players have enough freedom to become full participants in the story, but the GM has enough authority to impose structure.

For me, this is where stories happen.


Anonymous Thomas Robertson said...


One of the things I find troublesome in discussing roleplaying is the comparison of the narrative generated by roleplaying with the narrative generated by static media forms (such as writing of film-making).

It seems clear to me that static narratives are inherently more coherent because they are editable. They are simply more focused and easier to keep structured.

It seems then, that since we do roleplay, and do so at least partially to generate narrative, there must be some advantage to be found in the more dynamic narrative generation of roleplaying.

That isn't to say that we have nothing to learn from the art and skillset of generating static narrative, but I do think that we should be extremely careful of any analogies we might make since they must be missing something important.

In more personal news: why do you feel comfortable with one person having the responsibility to tie up all the loose ends? Wouldn't it be pretty functional to simply assign some of the loose ends to each player so that they can be tied up that way?

Also, in my own experience with high-GM-authority games, the GM still never knows everything. There are always things that the players create, or just haven't told him yet. So it's not like he can have a serious master plan...


4:38 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

At some point I want to talk about the differences between writing and gaming. They are different, and they have distinct strengths and weaknesses. So, yes. We need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions. It's like confusing a metaphor for reality.

Obviously, I do feel we can learn a lot about running good games by looking at advice on creating other forms of art. Many of the basic issues are the same. A good plot is a good plot, regardless of the medium. But as we examine these techniques, we need to think about how (or if) we can apply them to gaming.

In brief, the three largest differences between RPGs and writing seem to be 1) RPG games cannot be edited, 2) RPGs are social events 3) in an RPG, the audience are also participants.

#3 argues strongly for a freeform style of play. #1 argues strongly for a structured style (high-gm-authority). #2 puts limits on both (through an implicit or explicit social contract). There are problems with both extremes, of course. If your playing a freeform game, you're gambling that a story will emerge from everyone's contribution. There's no guarantee that your actions will build up to anything meaningful. If you're playing a high-gm-authority game, you're gambling that the GM will be able to keep all the juggling balls in the air, without dropping any (as well as their ability to create a good story).

For me, the best mix lies somewhere in the middle--cal it a weak-gm-authority game.

As for my own experiences, I am very, very picky about GMs. I can GM for just about any gaming group and still have a good time--but as a player, it's much more difficult. Having said that, I keep finding GMs who do an outstanding job.

I think its a matter of suspension of disbelief (which probably also deserves its own essay). Basically, for an audience to enjoy a story (any story) they must believe the story is possible. One of the author's main rolls is to convince the audience. Obviously, different people have different thresholds. Some can watch a typical action movie, and enjoy it at face value. Others will find the lack of realism continually distracting, turing it into little more than a comic farce.

For me, having a GM that I trust lets me relax and suspend disbelief. I know they will take us someplace interesting. Here, the GM is more like an editor or perhaps a gardener. They plant the seed in high-quality top soil. They make sure the story has enough light and water. They pull the weeds, add support when necessary, letting it grow big and strong.

On the contrary, I have real trouble suspending disbelief in the GMless experiments I have tried. I am all too conscious of the fact that no a priori story (or story seed to be more precise) exists. Just like the poor person whose mind constantly points out the impossible feats in an action movie, my mind worries at all the flaws in the emerging story (and there will be flaws and inconsistencies--consistency is very hard, even for trained professionals). As a result, I cannot enjoy the game.

If the same game unfolded with a GM I trust at the helm, I might have enjoyed it very much. It is purely a matter of trust--a matter of my willingness to suspend disbelief.

Here's a typical situation. Let's say my character finds a book with exotic runes on the cover. As I pick it up, all the hairs on my arm stand on end, and a cold tingling runs down my spine.

Now, in a GMless game, this is one players contribution. Any player can pick up this element and build upon it--in which case, I cannot solve the mystery behind the book, since no solution really exists. I am all-too aware that, at that time, it is an empty clue. There is nothing behind it. As a result, I have no faith that the story element will be a piece of the final story, and therefor I have difficulty investing in the idea.

Sure, the player who introduced the clue may have a plan for it. But, if any player can build on the idea, then any player can introduce new elements that contradict the original player's concept. So, again, I either have trouble investing in the idea, or I worry about contributing to that plot line myself, since I don't want to step on the original player's toes.

Finally, if each player has absolute control over a part of the game (so the player who introduced the clue can follow it through uninterrupted), then you really don't have a GMless game. You have a game with multiple GMs. Here, I have no faith that this clue (and the resulting subplot) will have any relationship to the main plot. Actually, I have no faith that there will be a main plot at all. If there is a main plot, doesn't that mean one player is the main GM?

If the same clue crops up in a game with a GM I trust, then I have no problem investing in the scene. Even if the GM doesn't yet know the true story behind the book (meaning, again, there is no mystery to solve), I trust that--by the time we get to the end--it will all make sense. Furthermore, I will help ensure that this loose end gets tied up by actively pursuing it in the game.

Having said that, I would enjoy a GMless game more than most high-GM-authority games (there are a few high-athority-GMs whose games I enjoy in small doses). A GMless game may even be better than a low-GM-authority game with a GM I don't trust. But, if I had my choice, I would rather find a GM I trust.

Bottom line is, each of us needs to look at not just what we want from gaming (Game, Story, Realism, Etc.), but--if we want story--we must also look at those things that prevent us from suspending disbelief. I don't trust emerging stories. Others have no problem with them.

By examining and understanding our own limitations, we can both focus on those games we are most likely to enjoy, as well as possibly overcome some of the baggage that otherwise gets in our way.


10:55 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Robertson said...


This is going to come across as pretty critical, and I guess in some ways it is. Let it be known that I mean this in a respectful way, and that these are lessons that I learned the hard way...

You're confused about something important. Well, multiple things, but one is big and immediately applicable (the others are a bit more esoteric). You say:

Even if the GM doesn't yet know the true story behind the book (meaning, again, there is no mystery to solve), I trust that--by the time we get to the end--it will all make sense. Furthermore, I will help ensure that this loose end gets tied up by actively pursuing it in the game.

This is a trust issue, which you identify really well. It's a question of whether you trust the GM to work with you to wrap this clue into the plot. Notice something important here though, you will be working with the GM to help resolve this plot item. It's not that you trust the GM on his own, it's that you trust the GM to work with you.

Now, imagine that you trusted everyone in your group to work together the same way. You're not worried about working at cross-purposes with the GM, and I'd bet that it's not just because he can over-rule you when he wants. You trust the GM to take your ideas and his own ideas, and together you'll make something cool.

Why can't that same trust extend to everyone? I mean, I do see that there is some worry that you might end up with a fragmented plot if everyone has equal authority, but that strikes me as a worst-case scenario.

The people I play with, we work well together. We riff off one another's ideas. And in the end, our stories are better for having collaborated. We all trust one another the way you trust a good GM.

We trust one another to work together, and to try to make sure our plot ideas mesh, and to keep from stepping on one another's toes, and to be clear about which elements are just ideas to riff on and which ones we have bigger plans for.

It strikes me that you're conflating trusting another player to work with you with trusting someone who is "in charge".

Does that make sense?


10:22 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Trust plays a role, to be sure. But I really think there's more going on. In part, I have muddled two ideas together: suspension of disbelief and structure.

Let's first look at suspension of disbelief. It's not really that I trust a GM--it's more that a GM makes it possible for me to believe in the story. If I ever get the feeling that the GM is just making things up as he goes along, then bam! My ability to suspend disbelief is shattered. To truly enjoy a game, I must convince myself that any cool element in question is part of a bigger structure. Knowing that it will likely grow into a bigger structure is not enough. I must believe--at that moment in time--that the GM knows what he is doing.

The GM may be making things up as they go along. That's fine, as long as they're talented enough to pull it off. As long as I'm convinced. In a GMless game, I can never shake the knowledge that we're just making it up as we go along. I can never, really suspend disbelief.

The ability to suspend disbelief, or more importantly the inability to suspend disbelief can be triggered by any number of elements. It's not limited to trust issues. For example, I love steampunk. If I'm playing in a fantasy game, and the Dwarves invent steam-powered mecha, I think it's cool. I can instantly invest in the idea, and invest in the story. Another player I know hates these. Introduce one into the game, and he instantly loses the ability to suspend disbelief. Modeling "reality" in games is often an important feature in someone's ability or inability to suspend disbelief. Too often a person who wants realistic (whatever that means) games is labeled as a simulationist--more interested in the simulation of reality than the story. This is a gross oversimplification. The player in question may be interested in story, they just require a certain amount of "realism" before they can suspend disbelief.

OK, back to structure. Story is structure, and the type of structure you use will influence the type of stories you can tell. By necessity, GMless games have a looser, more dynamic structure. This has good points and bad points. On the good side, the game is more dynamic, often more energetic and organic. It's like improv jazz. A lot of energy, a lot of excitement, with the different musicians riffing off each other's contributions. On the down side, the loose structure has more trouble with consistency, continuity and depth.

A highly structured game, on the other hand, is more like an intricate symphony. The structure can be much more complex, more involved, more deep. But it can feel mechanical or stifling.

Take the plot twist example from your blog ( As you stated, the techniques I mentioned only work with a GM. Someone who knows the deep currents moving under the surface, and can produce meaningful clues at dramatically appropriate moments.

So, the structure we choose must support the types of games we want to play. Do you want the dynamic energy of a GMless game, or the rich depth of a GMed game? For me, the perfect mixture seems to be a GM with some authority--but who is responsive to player contributions. You may have a different mixture. Neither is necessarily right or wrong.


1:51 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Robertson said...


I'm glad you brought up my plot-twist article, actually. If you read through my discussion with Mendel in the comments, you'll see where I learned the lesson I'm talking about here:

You don't actually need the GM to be in control, you only need to find a way to achieve the mindset where you think he's in control. He could be making everything up on the fly, and as long as you didn't know, you would feel that sense of structure.

So, I'm suggesting that you don't actually have to have a GM, you just need to figure out some way to get that feeling that you get with a good GM. Now, it might be impossible to do that without a GM, but at this stage I'm not convinced that this is the case.

I guess I'm saying, "I see what you're getting at, I think, but I don't think a GM is necessary."


12:53 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

I agree completely with Mendel's post on your blog. I use the techniques he describes a lot in my own games.

However, there is an inescapable logic problem when you don't have a GM. I think this is an inherent weakness of the GMless gaming style. It's not a fatal flaw, by any means. And many people (maybe most) won't be bothered by it at all. But it bothers me.

Take the plot twist. Could you have a plot twist in a GMless game? Sure. The party is proceeding along with assumption A. One of the players realizes that an alternate assumption (B) also fits all the clues the party has at that moment. He decides to spring B on the rest of the party. Bingo, plot twist.

Let's assume the player is really good, and can remember all the clues accurately enough to ensure assumption B is completely consistent with the game to date (something that is much, much harder than feeding out consistent clues, knowing in advance that you are building to the A/B plot twist).

There is still a logical problem here. I cannot get that "Wow, I was wrong all along" feeling. I created some of those clues. I know they weren't originally intended to lead to B. I am all-too aware that B is a recent creation set over the existing game, not an original plan from the beginning. This greatly weakens the effect of the plot twist for me.

If there's a GM, then it is logically possible that this was his plan all along. And a good GM (as I define them) will always give the impression that they are building off a larger, deeper story--even when they're playing off the cuff.

Let's look at similar example from fiction. Some people hate (and I mean violently hate) anything written in first person. And they're right. There are some logical problems with having a story told entirely from the "I" point of view. Think about it, it easily takes six to ten hours to read a novel out loud. Could someone really tell a story, with that level of detail, uninterrupted for that long?

Personally, I love first person stories. I admit there is a logic problem--but it doesn't concern me. I love the immediacy of the stories. I get wrapped up in them. The weaknesses of the form (unless handled poorly) are invisible to me.

But, if I had a friend who hated first person novels, I wouldn't recommend one to them.

So, you may not need a GM. Right now, I do. Two years from now--who knows. If I find the right group. If they bring enough to the table to cancel out this problem. Maybe.

I'm willing to experiment with the GMless style. But, right now for my regular games, I want something I know I'll enjoy.


3:03 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Robertson said...


You may be right that you need a GM, but once again the example you provide doesn't convince me that a GM is necessary to do what you're talking about (maybe he is and I'm missing it though...)

I mean, what if the player who springs the plot twist has been planning it the whole time. He's been dropping clues the whole game, and most of the clues he uses are his own. Some of them just happen to be made up by you, but he got this really sly smile on his face when you introduced them since he was anticipating twisting them to his purposes.

Is it harder to plan a plot twist when you're not in a position of GM authority? Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me, but I'm not convinced it's true.

Is it impossible? Of course not. Further, I don't even think it's improbable.

You still might be (probably are) right about needing a GM, but I think that's psychological more than it is a desire for a certain type of play that you can't get without one...


8:29 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

To me, there is a fuzzy division between emergent games and planned games (with the probable existence of hybrids along the border).

Either a game is truly emergent--meaning the story arises from the relatively equal contributions of all the players. Or the story is planned, meaning the conflicts (though not necessarily what would traditionally be called plot) is planned out in advance by one player with smaller contributions from the others.

When I'm talking about GMless games, I mean purely emergent games (or games that are ideally emergent). If the main story arc is planned by one player, then you have a de-facto GM, even if he does not officially have that title and authority.

My comments are therefor based on the inherent weaknesses of emergent stories. Here, players shouldn't be trying to plan out events in advance--but should be reacting to the contributions of each other. In my experience, trying to plan out a story arc in an emergent game leads to one of two problems--either I end up struggling with another player for control over the story arc, or I end up suppressing my ideas and let someone else lead. Both feel dysfunctional to me.

I feel like I'm repeating myself. Let me just say, in closing, that in a purely emergent story I cannot have the warm, safe, comfortable feeling that the story is in the hands of a master who is going to help it grow into something worthwhile. I am too aware that we (the entire group) are building it moment-by-moment. That knowledge limits the type of stories that I can believe in (no plot twists). Furthermore, my concern that without any centralized control the story will lack continuity makes it harder for me to suspend disbelief.

Yes, it is largely psychological. But it is based on actual differences in the gaming styles--and on actual limitations of the emergent form. And, as always, your milage may vary.


2:52 PM  

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