Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The OSR Version of the "Story Game"

This post, over at Carjacked Seraphim, got me thinking again about something that's a regular topic across the RPG blogosphere...a topic that I might not have commented on before. That's about to be remedied.

I'm going to try to make sense. Since I have such little time for RPG musings these days, I feel like I don't have enough time to write in as cogent a manner as I would like. Therefore, I'm never quite satisfied with my treatment of topics I want to discuss...never satisfied that I clearly communicated what was bouncing around my brain. Oh well, enough caveatting. Here goes:

One of the sacred cows of the OSR is the "sandbox" style of roleplaying, where (in my definition) the GM creates an open world for players to wander hither and yon as they see fit. I am a believer in this style of play, and even wrote one of my rare substantive posts (damned lack of free time!) about a pitfall that unwary GMs can encounter when running sandbox campaigns (i.e., sometimes GMs can forget the value of consequences stemming from players' actions).

The topic I want to focus on is a widely-perceived division between sandbox campaigns and "story-driven campaigns," in which (my definition) GMs create a "predetermined" overarching plot that the characters react to/interact with. Many gamers equate story games with railroading, but I'm not sure it's that simple. Sure, in the hands of a careless GM, a story-driven campaign can devolve into players living out a frustrated novelist's unpublished opus. But I think that fate is not inevitable.

There's a tangent in here about how some RPG systems lend themselves to sandbox play and others to story-game play (I suppose the White Wolf World of Darkness games are the paragons of the latter style), but I won't get into that here.

I argue that a sandbox campaign is a type of story-driven campaign. But instead of the story being fleshed out significantly by the GM at the beginning of the campaign, the story unfolds over the course of play. Indeed, if done right, the full "story" of a sandbox campaign isn't known until the end of a campaign.

I suppose my current point (others may resurface from the quagmire of my brain at a later date) is that gamers should see that play/campaign styles are not that different from each other, if one takes the time to look.
I guess that was a lot of build-up for a statement that was pretty short. I feel that there was something more I wanted to say but can't formulate the thoughts into words. Again, I'm having trouble finding time to focus and craft longer posts, but wanted to get the thoughts out there, to get some thoughts from the community. I hope I'm not just stating the most obvious facts in the world.


  1. But your point was well made and now that you have formulated it, I do believe that I am in agreement with you.

  2. It's *not* obvious and that's why it's often forgotten, or overlooked, I think.

  3. Thanks for chiming in, chaps. I was thinking more about the interaction between player and GMs, and how this is traditionally considered by some to be a sort of "cooperative storytelling." Again, the story unfolds in a way that is surprising to both players AND GM. They must have game sessions together in order for the story to emerge. Thus, this is the real reason that GMs must pay attention to creating consequences for player actions: because that's the GM's part of the shared storytelling bargain.

    1. And if the GM is not good at giving having player actions create repercussions, good or bad or large or small, then that to me is just hurting the vaunted "player agency" grail that is also a part of what the OSR holds dear.

    2. Hmm, I think I need to write a sequel to this post of mine. Yes, player agency should not just be about letting players do what they want, though that is one important part. It's also about giving the players the benefit of a reaction to their actions. Because without a reaction to their actions, I would argue that their impact on the GM's campaign world is greatly diminished. So a good GM doesn't just "sit back and take it" when it comes to player actions. A good GM takes what the players do in the world and gives it ripples, other words, the GM breathes life into those actions, bearing them out in unexpected ways. A bit like real life, no?

  4. A good DM needs to make use of his players' reactions.

    I enjoy this for story telling since the human imagination can only come up with so many distinct personalities.

    "How would so-and-so react in this situation?"

    By having player characters, you get to see how so-and-so might react, then adjust the adventure as necessary to accommodate that reaction.

    As a DM, always expect . . . the unexpected. ;)