Recently I’ve been noodling on the role of agency in RPGs and balance of power between GMs and players as it relates to narrative.

I tend to like RPGs that yield strong narrative - interesting stories that have satisfying arcs and conclusions. Sometimes great stories will emerge from players’ actions alone but often it’s due to the GM using storytelling / improv skills to weave something together.

At a high level, the GM has three option for story generation:

  1. Use a pre-written module / adventure
  2. Write a custom adventure on ones own
  3. Make it up on the fly

I’ve never written my own adventure but I’ve played a handful of pre-written ones. At their best, pre-written adventures are works of art; they have compelling antagonists and interesting hooks that motivate the players without feeling forced. The good ones allow players to make meaningful decisions with long-reaching ramifications.

I’ve also led a handful of sessions with improvised narrative, using this guide. These adventures also had good stories, though running them is an exhausting (but fun!) juggling act of trying to weave the players world-building and actions into a cogent story with a satisfying arc.

Most of the games I’ve played lean heavily on the GM to shepherd the story but there are also play styles that lean heavily on the players. This can be completely independent of game system, though the rules often nudge a group toward a specific style of play.

I’ve created a breakdown that looks at the different types of RPGs that emerge depending on the level of agency (how much influence) the players and GM have in setting the overall story. The degree of Narrative Agency is somewhat orthogonal between the two groups so I’ve broken it out into four buckets.

Low Player Agency / Low GM Agency

In this case, neither the GM nor the players are influencing overall story. This is most common in a hexcrawl or sandbox game where the GM acts like more of a referee than a narrator. Oftentimes, random encounter tables or procedural generated dungeons are used to shape a session of play. While players have a lot of freedom in where there charters go and what tactics they use, there isn’t much control in establishing the high level arc or story of the world.

Film critic Roger Ebert has a great quote:

Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.

I think this holds true for RPGs, too. Without strong Narrative Agency from players or GM, it’s almost impossible to create a story with an interesting villain.

Low Player Agency / High GM Agency

This type of balance is common in pre-written adventures - the story is mostly written. Players still have tactical freedom but lack control over how the larger arc evolves. At it’s worst, this style has the GM ‘railroading’ the players from one bit of story to the next, with players lacking any meaningful decisions.

This method can yield interesting stories but ultimately fails to make the most of RPGs as a medium. Player choice and open-ended creativity are some of the best parts of a tabletop RPG and set it aside from films, books, and computer games.

High Player Agency / Low GM Agency

In it’s extreme, this style game can lack a GM entirely or have players share the GM role (e.g. Fiasco and Archipelago, respectively). Other RPGs have a GM but include rules that explicitly give players Narrative Agency. They can set the story in the direction they want (not just through character actions) and the GM acts more as facilitator than story architect. One possible downside to these stories is that the shared authorship can lead to a less cohesive plot and careless storytelling might harm internal consistency.

High Player Agency / High GM Agency

In this case the players and GM are collaborating on the story creation. Players might create chunks of the story but the GM weaves them together in interesting ways. This seems to be the spirit of the Powered by the Apocalypse games (e.g. Dungeon World, Apocalypse World). It has a very improv / jazz feeling in the back and forth between GM and players. In this case, players can start with a sandbox but for whatever part of the world they choose to engage in, the GM will create an interesting story / villain around it.

This style hinges on players trusting the GM and following leads / hints and also the degree to which the GM can incorporate the players’ impulses in a coherent manner. I've GM'd some Dungeon World games like this and it is exhausting but fun.

I’ve also seen this work well with pre-written adventures. When I ran the D&D Starter Set, my players made plenty of crazy decisions and I had fun figuring out how the consequences of their actions would shape the world and overall arc. The adventure guidelines were a huge help in making sure the villain and other factions responded in a way that was internally consistent and yielded a decent overall story arc.

In either case, having high GM Agency means that ultimately one person owns the vision for the story. A skilled GM can change their secret vision on the fly but the new vision has to stay consistent with the story so far (both in PC / NPC actions and overall arc.

Example: based on the opening questions and initial actions, the GM might have a final showdown / set piece in mind. If they players make a beeline for it and get lucky, the GM can turn it into the Act 2 reveal of a bigger threat. The revere is true too, if the players are taking their time, the GM has to make something interesting / menacing / relevant wherever the players are looking.

Final Thoughts

I like RPGs best when both players and GM have lots of agency. The players drive the story in interesting and unexpected directions and the GM ensures that the plot ties together in a satisfying arc.

Running a game like this without a pre-written adventure is fun but extremely challenging to pull off. There are some amazing pre-written adventures but there’s also a ton of drek.

I think there’s room to create better scaffolds for GMs to run sessions that yield stronger stories. The no-prep one-shot guide I linked to earlier is a step in that direction. Another tool is the framework of ‘Fronts’ from Apocalypse World (adventure outlines with ‘impending doom’ and ‘grim portents’). Still, I think there’s room for plenty more GM tools to assist in story creation.

Given my previous interest in games and story (e.g. Plotypus) this is definitely a theme I’ll return to again and again.