In this post you’ll find several separate ideas smashed together to make a unique (far as I know) add-on system, which transplants directorial narrativism based on informed choice and stated unknowns onto a system of your choice. Don’t worry, all these scary words will be explained. Ideally, it will provide players with a structured way to step out of their actor role and into director’s seat for a moment at a time, while also providing the GM with a structured way of soliciting player input. It steals liberally from games mentioned below, and others besides them. It is simple and untested. Use at your own risk, report back. I call it “Directed”, making resulting games Directed D&D, Directed Dark Heresy, or Directed Whathaveyou.
What is it about? Imagine. It is the start of a typical adventure. The party has arrived into a new town, located the local tavern, and found a mysterious hooded stranger there, about to dispense a quest. If your players are anything like mine, they get ready to interrogate the stranger, and pick up dice to roll Sense Motive or its equivalent. Then the GM raises her hand and announces: “The stranger will, in fact, betray you; but trust him anyway, it’ll be fun!” …What? Lets back up, all the way to theory. Or, if you’re impatient, skip to the rules.
In tabletop roleplaying games, only things established at the table exist. Things written in your character sheet probably exist, too, but supposedly they’ve been vetted by the GM. A character’s backstory exists inasmuch as it informs their behavior. But until it has actually been brought into play, be it via flashback or having a past acquaintance visit, it is malleable. Similarly, the GM may have extensive notes and intricate plot happening behind the scenes, or just a few core ideas about locations and NPCs, but they all can change at a whim, without players being any wiser. Some GMs may stick to their notes, and it may be valid for some types of games, but in general, the game itself wouldn’t care. Until something has been established at the table, it is unknown. It is anything and everything.
With me so far? That’s a pretty basic fact of shared fiction. Taking it just a bit further, we can see that everything that’s yet to happen is also an unknown, and game mechanics are used to determine it. Can you hit that goblin? Will you get lost in the forest? Should you trust the hooded stranger? Many of these unknowns are not that important as they only affect a few seconds of characters’ time, and most often are resolved with goblin dice. But others can affect the course of an entire game… and are also often resolved with goblin dice. Ah well.
Some games use unknowns, notably Apocalypse World (which I still haven’t read yet, but I’ve read one of its descendants, tremulus, and from what I understand they handle such things similarly). In fact, this whole idea was largely inspired by it. One of the maxims of AW is “play to find out what happens”. It advises the GM to avoid defining everything during their preparation, instead leaving some things Unknown, with a capital ‘U’. Or maybe that’s just tremulus. Either way. This was such an unusual approach for me, that I’ve asked about it on RPG.SE. And while I didn’t get an answer I could accept, it did make things clearer.
In traditional RPGs (read: D&D), the GM is in the director stance, while players are in either actor or author stance, depending on their preferences. That means that players are confined to their characters when it comes to influencing the world, while the GM has the keys to the whole fictional world. When and if players want something to happen to advance their character’s story, they assume director stance by proxy, asking the GM to introduce it, typically in the discussion between games. Perhaps you need to join an assassin guild to qualify for that prestige class, so you ask the GM to present you with an opportunity to find them some day soon. Or you contribute scenes you’re interested in to a pull list.
Character creation can also play a part in determining rough shape of events. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, characters have milestones that list several iconic moments that would advance their story, and it is up to the GM (or Watcher) to introduce such events. Taking a favored enemy: lycanthropes in D&D sends a strong message as to whom you want to fight. Story flaws in Ars Magica communicate what kind of trouble you want your character to deal with.
This is well covered by Daystar Eld in “Creating meaningful choices as a GM”, so I’ll be brief. Having unexpected and unintended consequences happen to characters is a good way of driving the story, chaining one adventure to the next, one scene to another. But it doesn’t allow for character growth, as they’re not actually making a meaningful, informed, tough choice. In some ways, presenting characters with such choices to see how they react is what RPGs are about. Having introduced the distinction between actor and director, we can now extend the concept of informed choice to directors. The characters would never choose to be betrayed, but their director may think it’s a neat idea. It is up to the director to put the character in a tough choice situation… Or just string them along in a cascade of terrible consequences. Knowing the likely consequences beforehand lets the director decide.
In the course of preparing for the game, the GM creates several Questions. They can be thought of as plot hooks with barbs. These are leading questions that will have to be answered some time during the game. Perhaps you’d even want to write them down on an index card, and literally put them before your players. “Why are the orcs migrating into human lands?” “What’s not in the king’s treasury that should be there, and what’s in there that shouldn’t be?” “Who is the hooded stranger working for?”
Present these questions to the players as soon as they become relevant. This means the players will know something’s amiss in the treasury or that the stranger is up to no good. Characters won’t. They can also be used by players as cues for foreshadowing.
Because anything that hasn’t happened is unknown, these Questions are not special. They merely serve to guide the story, presenting interesting (though still undefined) occurrences. More Questions can arise during the game, and nothing’s stopping the GM from asking them.
Optional: GM may declare a Question to be a Mystery. Mysteries cannot be answered by Propositions (below), until the GM revokes that status at any time. When a Mystery is declared, the GM gives the party a Story point.
These points represent directorial powers. As the main director, the GM has an infinite supply, while players can earn and spend them through Propositions. Players own tokens as a group, and start with one: they’ve already agreed to the original story premise the GM offered. During the course of the game the GM should endeavor to provide the players with a number of Story points at least equal to the number of Questions she asks, and to let them always have at least one, if possible. Players, in turn, should endeavor to get most of those points by accepting GM’s Propositions.
Optional: when a player spends a Story point they make a note of it. That particular player cannot spend any more Story points until every other player has spent the same amount. This is to prevent more active players (e.g. me) from dominating the game.
When the GM or one of the players wants to answer any Questions or, in general, create a fact out of an unknown, they make a Proposition. To do so, they describe their idea in a phrase or two, outlining its core and what would follow from it. “Wouldn’t it be cool, if… This would lead to…” If everyone agrees to it, the proposing player gives a Story point back to the GM, or proposing GM gives players a Story point. Proposition is a story hook that everyone wants to take on board, a twist that everyone wants to take part in. At its core it is “I have this idea for where the story should go next, would you like to do it with me?”
If the Proposition is accepted, it becomes an established fact and the play continues. If it is rejected, the rejecting party may make a counter-offer Proposition, following the same procedure. Alternatively, if the Proposition concerned an as-of-yet undetermined outcome of a conflict, it can be resolved according to whatever rules the core system offers.
GMs should primarily use Propositions when they want the story to go a certain way. It is honest railroading. It will often, but not always, involve characters failing. If the GM wants the party to get lost in the wilderness because she has a cool encounter planned there, she can just say so. If they have to get lost in the wilderness because it is the only adventure on offer, they don’t get a choice, but still get the story point. Another time to make a Proposition is when you’re unsure if the players would actually want to play that story. Perhaps they don’t want to have their characters’ loved ones threatened, or their flying ship stolen. By making a Proposition and explaining the likely outcomes, you allow them to make an informed choice and buy in.
Players should primarily use Propositions to provide answers to Questions, taking the story where they want it to go. They can use it to introduce the elements they want to encounter, be that an assassin guild they want to join, lycanthropes they hope to fight or a childhood rival they would like to best (or be bested by!). While existing Questions have been created by the GM to guide the creativity of players, players can also introduce their own unrelated ideas via Propositions, answering unasked Questions. The king could have a dark secret because the GM asked a Question about it, or because a player Proposed he should have one. Players can also use Propositions when they know better than dice what the outcome of a conflict should be, in which case they should do so before dice are rolled. Just as the GM can Propose that a villain escapes, the party could Propose that the villain gets caught.
Best answers lead to more questions. “A surge in ooze population has caused orcs to migrate from their historic lands, but what caused that surge?” “A single piece of paper with three-fingered hand is left in the king’s treasury. Who or what stands behind that symbol?” When a player poses a new Question (or several) to replace the one they’ve answered, they earn another Story point to replace the one they’ve spent. They are doing exactly what we want – driving the story forward.
It is also possible to provide a single answer to multiple Questions: “the hooded stranger also works for the three-fingered hand”. As long as the group agrees to these answers, it still costs only a single Story point.
If an answer inadvertently creates an inconsistency in the established events that is later discovered, it calls for another Question to explain it: “how could he be spying on us if he was killed a week before?”
No one has asked any questions yet, obviously. So I’ll answer the ones that came to my own mind.
- Wouldn’t players use these Story points to benefit themselves? Well, yes. It is their game too, and if they think they deserve a break, why not. Seeing as most Story points given out by GM will involve bad things happening to characters or something they care about, this actually provides a rhythm of ups and downs. That said, I expect they may surprise you, eagerly piling misfortune onto their characters to truly take them to the breaking point.
- What if what players Propose is stupid or contradicts what I have planned? Then don’t accept it. That said, if they all accept it and you don’t, you may want to re-examine your approach or change your plans.
- Doesn’t this rob the GM of their power? It does at that, by empowering the players. Think of it this way: you had to shoulder all of the plot advancement and story element introduction on your own. This way you get to share the load.
- Should the GM make a Proposition every time they introduce a new element? Nope! Not every new element is an important hook that players may or may not accept. It is left entirely up to the GM. This is less of an issue with players, as they have a very limited supply of Story points.
- What about the element of surprise? Yup, you’ll lose that if you let players make an informed decision about whether or not their characters should be surprised. Again, use your own discretion: you don’t have to use these rules all the time. If you deem surprising players to be more important than empowering them, just do so like you would have before.
- What if a Question was left unanswered at the end of the adventure? It may have been not that interesting to your players. Offer them a choice to save or discard it.
- How does this work with X system that already has Fate/Plot/Hero/Action points? These systems may, in fact, overlap. I think mine is a bit higher-concept than others, but perhaps I’m just ignorant. If your system already does this – congratulations, I’ve just re-invented a bicycle that you don’t need.
- It sounds terribly freeform, with players grabbing control of the story as they see fit. Why bother with rules at all if you’re going to allow that? Rules provide structure. Structure provides constraints. Constraints bolster creativity. Creativity leads to the Dark Side. Errr…
- What if a Question has to be answered right now, but the party is out of Story points? That’s a tough one. I suggest making sure the party has at least one Story point at all times for this exact reason. But if they’re freshly out, it’d fall to the GM to provide an answer to their own Question, and pay a Story point for it.
A few final notes
Fundamentally, Directed is about players establishing a fact out of the Unknown that surrounds the game, and having everyone agree to it. All of Proposition and Story point uses are expressions of this idea. Regular game rules accomplish some of the same things by determining the outcome of conflicts – before the conflict is resolved it is unknown, and everyone has agreed to abide by the rules at the start of the game. Traditionally, GMs do everything else, creating facts as they see fit and, again, everyone has agreed from the start that the GM has that power. Directed provides a structured way of sharing the work and joy of creativity.
While GM gives a lot of creative power to players, they still play an essential part. Questions provide the GM with a way to guide the creativity of players, shaping the Unknown without specifying it. It is all about phrasing. Looking at the initial example, there are several ways in which it could be handled. The GM could make stranger’s trustworthiness a Question. Or she could make a Proposal of stranger’s betrayal, while leaving his true motives as a Question. Or perhaps the stranger is trustworthy after all, yet the Question is “What goes terribly wrong at the conclusion of the task?” It is up to the GM to decide how much of the story these Questions will determine, how much of the creative control they’re comfortable with giving up.
Hidden somewhere deep inside this is a game without a GM as such, where all the players act as directors as needed. But that will have to be further pondered on.