14 Oct GMing Lessons #14: My Gaming Revolution

I have been gripped by a gaming revolution.

It’s not mechanics (though they help). It’s not setting (though this, too, makes a big difference). Rather, it’s playing style.

Namely, I have totally changed my concept of action, and what’s interesting in a story/scenario/adventure. Instead of action taking the forefront, it now takes a definite back seat to the story.

This may sound old-hat to some. Maybe it is! But really I can only talk from my own experiences in gaming. It’s totally subjective. And for me this is 100% awesome.

Ironically, for the last ten years all of my games have been heavily influenced by story. Plots, counter-plots, overarching themes, intelligent villains, games within games…and yet there was always regular action. I now believe that that action was a bit too regular.

Somewhat bored with endless combat, no matter how dynamic or tactical (I mean, there can be too much of a good thing, right?), I started musing over a new type of scenario. One that would take me out of my depth and make me stretch myself as a GM – a story based campaign, with action relegated to a “maybe” rather than a certainty.

And my players wholeheartedly jumped on board. They have always enjoyed our games. With the creation of Immersion over the past six years now, the campaigns have always been exciting, fresh, dangerous and characterful. But we have been evolving our playing style more and more into the character, the story, the roleplaying instead of rollplaying.

But this new change, this leap, has been even better than we thought. All of a sudden, the players were developing really meaningful histories. Stuff that directly influenced game play now (like, “Oh! I think my character has killed someone really powerful, because they murdered his master – but that then pissed off all my former allies. Might give me a good rep though, right?”).

Circumstances (which, if you play Immersion, you’ll know mean the backgrounds and surrounding situations the character is in – resources, contacts, allies, wealth, etc.) suddenly became incredibly important. This was a game of politics, allies, vendettas, dark secrets, and hidden terrors. This was a game that allowed a cast of characters to build and build, adding layer upon layer of interest – and the pcs grew as well, with their contacts, allies, histories, lists of friends and enemies and so on.

To date there hasn’t been a combat. But the game is intense and has a brutality to it that lends it an air of immediacy. Just because you haven’t swung a punch yet doesn’t mean you might not get executed in a coup by a power group you pissed off a few sessions ago…stay on your guard.

The thing is, this sort of game doesn’t need to be just for politics. It could even be for those interested in adventure, combat and even war. I know that sounds like there would just be combat all the time – but there wouldn’t! Not if you played it right. It’s a matter of fully breathing life into the setting, working out how things actually exist there. There’s a reason people aren’t murdering each other every second day – there are consequences to such actions. There’s a certain equilibrium. Even when two sides are “at war” or “hostile” to each other, there’s usually very little open combat. Ever wonder why William Wallace’s battles were like 12 years apart? I did. It’s because a lot can happen in between each battle. A lot needs to happen. And all of that provides for awesome roleplaying.

The thing is, RPGs are not like computer games or movies, really. They’re far more like a novel (or even a TV show). Any novel worth its salt will have the action take a back seat to what the novel’s actually about…a story.

Okay so maybe this isn’t new and exciting to everyone out there. But it’s a new look at it for me, so I’m excited! I mean heck, story based games, per se, are what I’ve always run. But it’s the focus that’s changed – away from combat, and onto character!

Related:  GM Tips #20: Cooperative Storytelling Is the New Black

I think combat, adventure and action will always play a key and integral role in my games – but now they’ll be like the punctuation marks. I like them, but I shouldn’t overdo them or they lose their meaning. Making them well placed will increase the tension, further the story and provide for real excitement.

If you find this as exciting as I do as a concept, here’s some basic things I’ll be doing to enhance my story based games from now on:

  • Focus on the region, the people in it, their conflicts, trials and tribulations. Try to see how this could directly and indirectly affect the pcs.
  • Remember that everyone views fighting as a risky, dangerous venture. Generally, people threaten, posture, politick and use wars of words far more than they actually fight. Have your NPCs act like real people and do the same (when they do fight, it will probably be when they have to or when the odds are firmly in their favour).
  • Most people don’t fight to the death. People want to live.
  • Think outside the box. There should be reasons why pc’s can’t directly attack and kill their enemies – and vice versa! Force your pc’s to use their wits.
  • When pc’s do resort to violence, it also be a wrong choice. Killing people or seriously injuring them can get the pcs viewed as criminals and pyschos, not to mention can end up killing the wrong people! Ensure they understand the ramifications of their actions, and choose their actions wisely – there’s a time and a place when violence will work in their favour.

Think of this as a book or tv series (think Game of Thrones – a series showing one continuous storyline, not Stargate, which is just a whole bunch of vaguely connected episodes), where the story takes place over an extended period of time, allowing plot to build, interest to gather, and then occasionally explode into moments of vivid combat.

The other side of the coin would be a movie, where all the story is condensed into a very short period of time. There’s usually a lot of action and the plot unveils itself quickly. This is not my preferred method, though it is great for very short campaigns (which are also great fun).

Then there is the computer-game model, which is based around killing very large amounts of foes. Even a game like Skyrim has very little story compared to the Game of Thrones novels – and far more personal killing of things. And that’s fine, because it’s a computer game. But I think that while this is also really fun (and popular – D&D has, to some degree, this basic model of play, focused around combats), RPGs can really shine much more when they are treated like a novel, and given the space to fully develop and flesh out, before the fighting begins.

So what do you think? How do you like to play your games? Leave your comments below.


  • Pete Petrusha
    Posted at 15:22h, 27 June Reply

    Great article, I think play styles are something that we rpgers need to identify and talk more frequently about. I think that there is an rpg for everyone and a play style for everyone. If you don’t like rpgs, you probably haven’t played your game or your style yet. Speaking of play styles, do you think if people identified more with the style they played that players would be more inclined to try new styles or stick with the same?

    • Oliver
      Posted at 01:48h, 29 June Reply

      Hiya Pete!
      Yeah totally, play style is a very important thing to learn – one size certainly does not fit all, even in the same system! Not sure about your question though – could you elaborate a little more? 🙂

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