Confessions Of A Frustrated Novelist
"A plan never survives contact with the enemy," bemoans a military maxim. Modified for gaming, the proverb becomes "the DM's plot never survives contact with the players." The image of DM-as-frustrated-novelist is well known, and even parodied by the haltingly-read descriptions and purple-prose boxed text in a popular Net mp3 (". . .the smell of mildew emanates from the wet dungeon walls. . ."). This novelist tendency is understandable: isn't the point of roleplaying to tell the story of the heroes' careers? Most players in my experience maintain it is, but when they feel a DM trying to puppeteer their characters into a pre-ordained plotline, they often rebel.
"A plan never survives contact with the enemy," bemoans a military maxim. Modified for gaming, the proverb becomes "the DM's plot never survives contact with the players." The image of DM-as-frustrated-novelist is well known, and even parodied by the haltingly-read descriptions and purple-prose boxed text in a popular Net mp3 (". . .the smell of mildew emanates from the wet dungeon walls. . ."). This novelist tendency is understandable: isn't the point of roleplaying to tell the story of the heroes' careers? Most players in my experience maintain it is, but when they feel a DM trying to puppeteer their characters into a pre-ordained plotline, they often rebel. Some attempt to do something completely off-plot to break free; others play along but clearly indicate they are jumping through the "plot hoops" simply to humor the DM. "Let us tell our own story," they protest.
It's about time.
This article is not intended to bash players or garner sympathy for my role behind the screen. I like DMing. It's fun to shape worlds and orchestrate grand plots and tell fascinating stories. While I may not be a novelist, I enjoy telling stories. But DMs and players both need to remember: roleplaying is corporate storytelling. That means the DM cannot railroad the players into a predetermined adventure, but it also implies the players have a responsibility to the story as well.
Allow me a brief rant. Too often I've worked hours preparing a setting, villain, or plot thread only for players to show up without their character sheet. Or without any idea (or notes) about what happened last session. Or cast a spell in combat without knowing its range and duration. Or run a fighter known only for her godlike to-hit modifier. Players need to do homework before the game, too!
Setting the soapbox aside, I'd like to encourage players to tell their side the roleplaying story. I know some players (so-called "power gamers") are interested in making their characters supremely cool and powerful, while other gamers revel in roleplaying all the angst and psychological drama they can muster. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. In truth, I care less about the goal you seek as a player than the means you use to get there. The journey, the story, is what's important, and if the tale is to be a good one, players can't leave all the work to the DM. Help write the story. There are a few easy ways to assist your friendly neighborhood DM in this regard.
First, know your character. Even if you haven't had the time to fully detail your elf mage back to her arboreal cradle, at least pick a few attitudes and personal traits unique to her. Let the DM know what your PC cares about, whether it be family, money, magical power, or whatever. Plot hooks don't grow on trees, you know.
Know what you can do. If you're a spellcaster, be very familiar with your spells or have a cheat sheet close at hand. Remember the special abilities of your class and how they work, and the mechanics of the skills you are likely to use. Don't make us stop and wait while you look up the rules for turning undead every time something busts out of a crypt.
When the game is in progress, help the DM by speaking as your character, not as yourself. This practice is even better if you have a distinct character voice. You don't need an outrageous French accent or a goofy lisp; a simple change in word selection or speech pattern is more than sufficient. It's infectious, too: your fellow party members will soon adopt voices of their own and the group will begin to sound like (gasp) other people.
Talk in the first person. Most players are fairly good about this one, until some point of game mechanics comes up. Then the exchange goes something like this:
Player: "I move to the other side of the goblin to flank him so Cedric gets a +2 to hit."
DM: "That provokes an attack of opportunity."
Player: "Then I tumble instead. What's the DC? 15? OK, I got a 17 so I flank him and roll to hit. . ."
The moment players or DM speak about game mechanics, the story suffers. Know the rules well enough to take most situations in stride without referring to a book. Use them to your advantage or choose a tactically incorrect course if that's what your character "would do," but keep us all in the story by mentioning mechanics as little as necessary. Rather than talking about "to-hit" modifiers and "5-foot steps" and "saving throws", indulge in a little "boxed text" of your own:
Player: "While Cedric occupies the goblin's attention, I'll move around to the other side to distract the little green-skinned devil."
DM: "The goblin sees you move and starts a chopping swing in your direction."
Player: "I try to dive over the blade and roll to my feet behind him. [rolls a dice] 17. I make it, spin, and stab for his spine...."
There is no difference in game mechanics between the two examples (in most game systems). The character receives no special advantage or penalty for "diving over the blade" or "stabbing for the spine." But the players are rewarded by a more seamless and exciting scene that steps away from number-crunching and rules lawyering.
Handling game mechanics in this way requires a healthy familiarity with the rules from both the DM and player. It demands imagination to talk about rules without stating them outright, and there are times artistic license may trump the guidelines in the DMG. For example, when a character receives a particularly vicious hit, the player may say, "I reel backwards from the pain, sink briefly to a knee, then grit my teeth and rise to engage the troll again." Depending on the preferred playing style of your group, this can be simply descriptive (the character's miniature remains where it is on the board) or more literal (the character's actual position is moved backward). I do recommend discussing which of these ideas is preferred, before the game starts, to avoid any misunderstandings.
Another advanced storytelling concept is the idea of the character spotlight. Every PC is a hero and a protagonist of the shared story, but the spotlight idea recognizes that some scenes or chapters focus on a particular person, and it allows that PC to have their moment.
Imagine a party, faced with overwhelming odds and little chance of survival. In a rare moment of noble heroism, the heretofore self-serving warrior grimly draws his sword and says to his companions, "Run. I'll hold them as long as I can." How many times has a variation of this scene occurred in your games? And how many times have the other players allowed the warrior PC to stay as a rearguard? Usually, someone pipes up with, "Well, if you're staying, I'm staying. . ." and a third person agrees, and soon the whole party stays. Even if some of the party ends up surviving the onslaught, the warrior character has been robbed of his moment of glory.
Giving up the spotlight means trusting the other player to write a memorable chapter in the story. It means responding to that part of the story the way your character would. As a player, it means trusting the DM to later bring the story around to focus on your character. This is corporate storytelling at its most difficult: knowing when it's time to have your character step away from the limelight.
So, the next time the DM screen is set up and the dice are thrown down, don't just sit back and leaf through the Monster Manual. Get involved, think as your character, and help spin a tale. First-person corporate storytelling is advanced roleplaying, but it pays off in spades when the group gets it right.