True confession time, I’m a gamer. Have been for close to 40 years and it’s a hobby I still enjoy. There’s something about making a character, writing background, and rolling dice that makes for an enjoyable evening. In that time, I’ve played the whole gamut of games, including a big foray into minis, collecting the Ravenloft setting books for 2nd Edition D&D [more on this later], and my current love of narrative RPGs [FATE and Dungeon World as examples]. I work for a game distribution company [board games, RPGs, that little CCG called Magic, and other stuff you might find in a card or game store. I always thought about being in the “industry” and my job gives me a good overview of how it functions, for better or worse depending on the day. That’s my background and frame of reference for the next bit.
My approach to gaming has always been more about the story than the min/maxing of characters. Even as a GM, I wanted to tell a story of the characters and worked to frame that around the bigger picture of the world. Looking back, it was an unfair thing to do to my players. I was trying to get them to dance to my jig without giving them enough motivation or insight on how things worked. And that’s on top of trying to plan for what players will do. The logical and sensible path? Hell no, we’re going to cut through the Swamp of Sinking Death and tackle this Mire Lich Drake we keep hearing rumors about. At 3rd level no less. I’d rather herd cats and leads me to my current outlook on games and running them.
It's a simple rule that I work by: Let the players choose and adapt on the fly.
Back in the day, I’d have set up a grand scheme and a bad guy with big plans, then set the players to go fight him/her/it. And off the rails they’d go, chasing whatever seemed to grab their interest at the moment and ignoring the plot. Even if I presented it with bells, whistles, gold, and magic, they were doing their own thing. That lead to more than a bit of frustration on my part and theirs. They had no investment in the story and I had all the investment in the story. Most of my campaigns were short-lived as a result and never satisfying to the extent I wanted.
A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast announced they were releasing a new Ravenloft module/campaign setting for 5th edition. I’ve been watching the recent books and not bought them for variety of reasons. This one might get me to spend a bit of cash to support my favorite hobby. There’s something about it that makes me just want to dive back in. Somewhere I have the original module along with the sequel [which had nothing to do with the Strahd]. All this got me thinking gaming and how story figures into the hobby.
Narrative-style games aren’t new, but they’ve enjoyed a spike in popularity over the last decade. It gives control to the players to tell their character’s story. Dungeon World goes to the point of not having the GM roll any dice. Sure, the GM will still need to build the world and create interesting people to interact with, but he or she is no longer the sole source of story. Each side collaborates in the game and both are better off for it. Letting go is hard, but well worth it.