19 Sep GM Tips #20: Cooperative Storytelling Is the New Black
You remember a past long hidden to you, something hidden in the blackness of your mind, but suddenly dredged free: You stand amidst the blackened ruins of the once-great city of Nipirill. It has been attacked and ravaged by your armies. The strength of your hate burns like a smouldering coal even still, while you watch the final moments playing out. Men, women, children – the innocent along with the guilty. They are all to blame for what you have lost. While once you would have looked upon this with horror and revulsion, now you know only a thirst for more. A thousand such cities you would put to the slaughter and it still would not be enough to slake your thirst for vengeance. What they took from you is a burning ember inside your chest. You are dead, yet still you live. How can such a thing be endured?
Then, from out of the skies, come wingbeats and the shapes of the Silbarii – the sleek-prowed ships of the sky favoured by the Vithrim. Your comrades in arms. Your brothers, with whom you have shared a lifetime of trials and ordeals – always holding to the balance, always seeking that which is right. That was, until you lost everything, and realised the only way now was the path of blood. Foremost among the arrivals is the Skylord himself, striding forth in all his majesty and power, flanked by his greatest warriors and magi – men and women you know well.
“Ithorial…” the Skylord thunders, in a voice quavering with rage. He appears massive, his stature somehow growing as colossal power swells within him. You have never seen such fury, such agony and rage twisted on his face. “My brother… what have you done?!”
What do you say?
* * *
This is a bit of a snippet from a game I played the other day. It’s a one-player game, which allows me to really focus on the backstory of that character, making it really epic (epic is important… particularly as it’s an epic fantasy setting we’re running). One of the major points of the game is that the protagonist has amnesia, and quite a long (and dark) history behind him. He has to battle with his inner demons… and slowly but surely, is uncovering more of that backstory.
But yesterday I did something different. This time I let the player cooperate in the storytelling. It’s what we call Cooperative Storytelling, and it really is the new black!
This may sound a bit strange, but bear with me.
There are several styles in which you can GM a game. A very common style is where the GM just dictates everything that is occurring. The GM says what happened in the past, the GM says what you find, the GM says who the contact is that you know, and tells you how you perform your attack, etc. etc.
In many ways, this is inevitable. The GM is the Narrator, the Story Teller, the Referee… they need to determine how things pan out. Fair enough. However, in this case they’re not helping to make the story so much as having it presented to them (again, not always the case, but it can happen that way). They act a bit like a player in a computer game, watching what is presented to them, and then trying to “win” or respond in the right way…. This sometimes results in people being overly concerned with rules and in manipulating the game in various ways (like creating ridiculous characters or metagaming). They aren’t helping to make the story, they’re just having the story presented to them.
This can also result in players just not knowing what direction they’re going to take, not being interested in the plotline, not knowing quite what to do… etc. etc.
We tend to call this method “Autocratic Storytelling” because it’s a bit like having a dictator who tells you how things pan out (quite literally, the derivation of dictator is: one who speaks, or the one who tells how things are going to go).
This is the way that I have almost always run my games, and it’s the way that I copied from others. Again, not everyone does this, and not all games run this way (Fiasco is a great example of this not being the case), but it is extremely common in such games as D&D, Pathfinder, Rifts and so on.
On the other hand, I have recently found that there’s another way of doing things. That is where the players can take more of a hand in telling the story together with the GM. It’s a totally different style of play, though it can be done in many different ways.
For example, in Cooperative Storytelling, when a character makes a Investigation check, they might decide to characterise how they envision succeeding at the task. “So I hunt down my old pal Benny, the drug pusher, who I have a lot of dirt on. I go up to him, catch him as he runs, and say to him, ‘Benny, Benny, Benny… I think you’ve been holding out on me, old pal… now why don’t you tell me what I want to know about Mr Capinski’s mob boys and that disappeared girl. I know you’ve heard somethin’.'”
The GM would then play it out a little bit, rolling with what the player has created and adding to it. They make another roll or two, and all of a sudden you’ve got this really interesting situation. It’s far more interesting to the player, because they helped to create it. Benny is someone they understand.
Another example is in the one at the top of the article. I was running a flashback scene with the player, and I could have just said what happened… but instead I asked him what did he do? And he impressed me with his roleplaying awesomeness, playing it like a fiddle, and playing through an emotionally charged scene where, technically, he was the bad guy, and had done something terrible. But with him actually creating that scene, it was so much more charged with emotion, so much more profound – now it’s something that he really understands and will continue to feed into the character.
Have you ever had players attempt to fight something bad in their character, or that’s part of their storyline? You work out a storyline with them, and they’ve got some dark secret… but they kind of don’t want it to be too bad, and they keep acting like a good guy, even though they were a total bad guy at that time.
I find this cooperative storytelling tends to help with that. Because they have to think with the situation, and then help you to create it. You don’t have to just present it to them and then have them say, “Oh no way, I don’t want to have killed innocent people… I’m not a butcher! I’m a knight. There’s no way I could have done that!” Nuh-uh. Not if you set it up right, and get their agreement to participate in the storytelling.
How Much is Too Much?
Some players might decide to take this and run with it to the point that you decide they’ve gone too far. They only barely succeed on a check, but decide they want to do a double barrel roll, and gun down three opponents. Well, clearly that’s not realistic. The way to handle this is to just gently say, “Well, looking at the number of successes you got (or, looking at how well you rolled), that’s really not feasible. You’d need to have rolled blah for that. Instead, it’s probably more likely that you bounce into the room, skid across the floor, shooting wildly, and scramble up behind cover as return shots come pinging past you.”
If they understand the way the game works, they’ll run with that, describe how they do it, and just get better and judging how actions work.
A Different Aim
There’s a different mindset when playing a game cooperatively. Rather than just looking at the game as some sort of obstacle they have to compete with, players start to look at it as a cool story that they want to tell. You’re all in this together, and ultimately you’re all trying to make a story that is epic. Particularly when running a universal game like Immersion RPG, it’s very easy to create combat-powerful characters. However, the objective is no longer just about creating the ultimate character. Instead, it’s about telling the sort of story that you want.
That’s not to say that you can’t create epic characters. However, your objective should be less about just kicking butt, and more about making something cool. Getting epic backstories worked in, giving characters flaws like amnesia, dark secrets, enemies, old wounds, jaded attitudes, cynicism and so on.
There are plenty of movies out there with poorly created characters who can kick and punch and kick butt all day long… and generally we just don’t care about what happens to them. The truly great movies (and books), are about really interesting people, with history, strengths and weaknesses, and problems that create interest. Would Tyrion from Game of Thrones really be so interesting if he was a tall, combat machine covered in muscles? I don’t think so. The whole interest of his character is his disadvantages, and how he uses his incredible intellect and wit to deal with the discrimination, misfortunes and dangers of his existence. He’s an amazing character.
As another example, I have been thinking up a character I’d like to play in a 1950s noir-horror-urban-fantasy setting (we call it The Whispering) some day. He’s a middle aged man struggling with the demons of the past. Jaded, cynical, hard-edged and hard-eyed. He served in World War 2, in the Pacific, and had all the soul beaten out of him in the jungle hell of Guadalcanal. On his return, he joined the police, but found that Detroit had a law of its own, and that was the mob. Those with a conscience found themselves retired early, or at the bottom of a river wearing concrete shoes. He worked with the mob, worked against them, made enemies, made friends… some of them a little too close. An affair with a mobster’s girl got him not only shot, but divorced, losing most of his relationship with his kids, and his self respect. He also found out about things that he should not have. Girls that went missing… strange rituals under full moons, in bizarre, hidden temples. Men who never seemed to age, or eat, or drink… weird things. Mysteries. Shadows that swallowed men and their stories whole. Detroit has a dark unberbelly, but despite all his misgivings, despite his name being mud, and his own ethics in tatters, he can’t give up on it. He’s now a private investigator in a shabby, dingy little office, taking on cases nobody else wants to touch.
I haven’t even worked out his stats yet, and though he’ll be pretty tough, that’s not at all what makes him so interesting. It’s the person himself. So flawed, so interesting… so awesome.
I’m looking forward to playing with him and as a player myself, cooperating in the storytelling – because that will just be awesome.
I hope this tip helps you with your games!
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