Player vs Storyteller Driven Plots

by Jennifer Knighton

In the twelve years or so that I've been gaming, I have seen all styles of storytelling on the parts of the people running the games. I have played table top, LARP, and MUSH roleplaying games and each one has been a unique experience. Some storytellers give you a setting and let the game be completely driven by the players' creativity, while others run very structured games with specific plots that the characters find themselves following. I have found there are restrictions and benefits to both and many players seem to prefer one over the other.

One of the best games I have ever played in was a LARP that was written and designed by the storyteller. The plot was very specific and a lot of work was put into creating the world, characters, and conflicts. The players were free to move within that world and create their own dynamic of infighting and internal conflict, but the external was completely storyteller created. Every player I spoke with afterwards really enjoyed the detail and work that he had put into the game.

When storytellers put a lot of work into creating an interesting and dynamic plot and world for players to play in it becomes like a puzzle, trying to find the answers. Those of us who love a mystery tend to be drawn into this kind of gaming. It's like taking part in a really good novel that just draws you in.

On the other extreme, I played in a tabletop version of Traveler that was entirely player-driven. It allowed the players free reign over where we went and what we did. This was exciting because we were only restricted by the societal and operational limitations of the game and by our own creativity.

This type of gaming allows for more creativity on the part of the players. They come up with their own little plots that involve other players as well as themselves and often build upon each other. This offers a lot of room for character development that may be lacking in storyteller driven plots.

I asked a few of the people I play with on a World of Darkness MUSH called Metro: Toronto by Night for their opinions on this subject and received some interesting answers. One player responded with, "It's a tough call, really. Player-driven plots tend to exist for the sake of simply existing. They run because people are active. If the players are not active, the player-driven plot ends, and no more begin. ST-driven, tend to have the benefit of existing for the sake of the players. They have definite ends, and thought-out rewards and risks. The downside is that they can end up centered around a single character or a small group of characters, leaving the other PC's feeling useless. Or, worse yet, if there's a significant power-difference, and the ST has to compensate by beefing up the problems, then the lower-powered chars find themselves severely overmatched, and only the powerful ones can get involved. Notably, all of these problems with the ST driven can be circumvented by the ST and the Players. Honestly, the best one, is a blend of both, thereby keeping everyone active, and involved." Another had a definite opinion, "It depends on some plots. I like plots that start with staff, and then are driven by players... it gives players interesting things to do that are not just the 'norm'." However, yet another player disagreed. He prefers player driven plots because, and this is an issue sometimes with MUSH's, when staff changes there can often be problems with plots that were being run by the previous storyteller.

I spoke with one of the staff members on the MUSH as well and he had a slightly different perspective, seeing the issue from both the storyteller and player point of views. He said, "I prefer staff-run plots, primarily because staff-run plots do not involve nearly as much room for creative misinterpretation as player-run plots. In almost every combat scene I've ever run where PCs were fighting each other, they bickered and argued and fought with me over rulings. More than once one person or another refused to accept what I said was my final word and kept on bitching. That's when I'm the staffer. If I were another player I'm certain I'd get wild conspiracy theories, threats and bizarre claims of persecution. A staffer has the authority to say, 'this is how we're doing it, and if you don't like it you can get the Hell out.' I like things that way."

Looking at the pros and cons and the various opinions of those I've spoken to on the issue, I think the best plots are probably combinations of storyteller and player driven. The storyteller has the power to bring in sweeping changes in the overall world that the characters inhabit, bringing in color and details to the game, while players keep the plot alive and add layers. Both styles run the risk of falling apart if players or storytellers quit or go on hiatus in the middle of the plot, but that's a risk we run in large games. Every game is different and has different levels of player and storyteller control over the plot. This adds to the creativity and uniqueness of the games and makes years of continued roleplaying far from repetitive.

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