Story before, Story Now, Bunch of Crap?

Started by Glenn Vandre, November 29, 2011, 11:53:46 PM

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Glenn Vandre

I keep seeing these posts about "Story Before" and "Story Now".  I've read the "official" definitions of both, read some of the discussions, etc.  But I still don't think I'm grasping exactly what everyone is talking about (or why everyone is talking about it).

I believe that story before is ever present to a certain degree, almost unavoidable.   Just by creating a scenario, campaign, "story", encounter, what have you, it's story before.  As a GM, if you've prepped or planned or created anything at all, it's story before just by the fact that you've prepped, planned, or created something in advance.  One could even say that just by playing a game in the game's intended setting could constitute story before. 

What is story now?  To be honest (which may ruffle some feathers here), it sounds like a lot of players bitching because they don't like the intended plot and want to "role-play" their character's (backgrounds, motivations, concept, etc.) almost exclusively and with full authority, yet this is quasi-referenced as "participationist play".  Participate?  If you wanna participate, play the damn game the GM is running. 

I believe that both are present (or should be present) in any game, irrespective of system or GM to varying degrees; and that the degree to which it either does or doesn't exist comes down to the experience of the players and the GM, as well as how "into" the game they are.  In a free-form, non-plotted game (where the GM really doesn't have any sort of plot, goals, or agendas) in which the GM simply states:  "You're here... go (or what do you do?)", inexperienced players will sit there and drool, not knowing what to do, or repeat the classic RPG mantra of "We go find a tavern".  I've been in these types of games, and well, they suck!  On the other hand, an experienced player will make a story, given almost anything or nothing at all.  Given nothing (or given an inch so that they can take a mile), some of the players I know will create their own back stories, agendas, and so forth quite quickly and begin pursuing those or simply (and seemingly) create drama out of thin air.  As the GM in the game, you let them and you react accordingly.   I guess this could be called a "reactionary stance".  As the GM, you don't care what they do or don't do because you have nothing vested in the story (game, plot, scene, or whatever you call it), serving as basically a moderator.  So are the above example(s) story now (or some aspect thereof)? 

Or is story now relegated to how much say a player-character has in a game, be it setting, background, circumstance, or action?  If a character makes a good combat roll and in excitement says "Yeah, I cut off his head!", is that story now?  What if there is no combat roll.  GM:  "So and so approaches you."  Player:  "I cut off his head!"  Is that story now?  When do the mechanics (rules) of the game come into play or not, and do they hinder story now in the sense that what the player just declared has to be proven according to game mechanics?  I've had players make hellacious combat rolls and declare this or that.  Most of the time I just go with it (cuz I really don't care, and it makes sense).   What if, by rolling dice (mechanics), the character didn't cut off his head?  What if I (the GM) simply state, "No you don't".  Well, that's awkward.  To me, it comes down to knowing when it's a role-playing game and when it's a roll-playing game. 

How much freedom or authority does a character have on the story (game), or should have, to be called story now?  GM:  "You hear rumors of undead stalking the night and children are missing from the village.  The local magistrate wants you to help discover what is going on."  Player:  "It was a ghoul.  I killed it yesterday.  Now back to my character..."  Is that story now; players can script whatever they want, ruining the plot?  If that's the case, why have a GM... and you can take story now and shove it, cuz it's stupid.  Just let the players bullshit amongst themselves ad nauseum. 

Things I do:

I have background info, a plot, a goal, encounters that I'd like to happen, etc- as a loose outline.   Things will happen whether the characters are involved or not (and I don't care or throw all my eggs in one basket).  Characters are free to do as they please (creating their own sub-plots) and I really don't care what they do or don't do.  Sometimes what they end up doing (or where the story begins to go on its own, without my help per se) is vastly more interesting than what I had planned.  So I go with it, and perhaps later, at some point, my plot will come into play.  The point is, I don't flip out if characters don't do what I had expected (or want) them to do.  You have to be able to let go of the reins every once in a while (and hope the wagon doesn't crash, yet not freak out if it does).  Is this story now or just a story before in a sandbox? 

Now, having said the above, if I spent the time to make a dungeon (or whatever), the characters are going in it eventually, period!  Whether it's coercion, railroading, bribing, adapting the entire story to fit, or physically dragging them there, they will go in the dungeon.  A good GM, IMHO, can achieve this without the characters really even knowing (or at least blatantly knowing).  The GM should let the player-characters pursue their own agendas (sub-plots), reacting accordingly, and yet still be able to weave all the player's "story now" crap within the auspice of the greater, overall plotted story before. 

Now, having said this, no story (game) plot should be set in stone, especially in its entirety.  Every GM envisions this, that, and the other thing in terms of how the game should unfold or what they'd like to happen (and when).  Any GM worth his salt should know that 90% of the time, what you envisioned or planned is meaningless (to a degree), because that's not how it's going to happen (wagon's crash, and new wagons have to be built).  NPC's get whacked pre-maturely, characters do things you didn't anticipate, etc.  No story or plot should be rigidly planned out sequentially or from beginning to end according to a pre-set time frame.  More than likely, the story before plot will have to be tweaked and changed from game session to game session in order to accommodate all the sub-plots and story now elements that happen from session to session.  Which raises a curious question:   Is story before still story before if it's fluid, changing and "emerging" in accordance to what the player-characters are or aren't doing?  Can story before become story now? 

Other things I do as a GM:  Once a player rolls up his/her character, I demand at least a page of back story.  I want sub-plots to emerge and I use the background info of the player-characters as a rope with which to hang said player-characters.  I don't need to spend too much time developing or adhering to game plots, when the players have already scripted their own drama.  Yes, they may be involved in my story, but if they don't or can't produce a sub-plot over time, their background info will produce one for them.  As a GM, you have to juggle multiple plots at once, and manage them in accordance with your overall plot (which may or may not even exist, or exist at the moment).  Easier said than done yes, but it comes down to experience.  Letting characters develop their own backgrounds and incorporating them in the main story-  Is that associated with story now to any degree?

I tell every player-character to right down the names, locations, and descriptions of up to 10 NPC's that their character knows.  I believe this gives each character a feeling of not being alone in the world, and having resources they can utilize.  It also helps alleviate the "every NPC is out to get me" syndrome.  So I let characters create NPC's within the story that may or may not come into play; and if they do, it can be at the player-character's discretion (not just the GM's).  EX:  A character is trying to buy armor but the blacksmith's prices are high and he won't budge.  Another character jumps in and says he's friends with (or his brother is) an armorer in the next village and can get a huge discount on armor.  The player just added an NPC to the story, that he knows, and now the GM has to allow the player to get armor at a discounted price at the next village as a matter of dogma.  It was said, hence it is.  Is this an aspect of story now style play? 

How about this- GM:  "You arrive at the next village.  Player-character A, since you've been here before (perhaps referenced in background), you describe the setting for the rest of the group."  Now a player is involved in setting- building.  I've done this before as well.  Is this story now (or an aspect thereof)?  Hey, GM-ing is work heavy and a thankless job.  I'm all for letting the other players flesh out the world. 

My point is that story before or story now are elements that should be inherent in any game.  To me, it's starting to sound like the whole concept should be called "Shitty game master" or "not shitty game master" (or players).  Common fucking sense would be a good name for this whole overly dissected topic, with its countless over-intellectualized, wordy, and pompous attempts at trying to define something that should be as basic as... inexperienced players vs. experienced players... or GM tips.

GM:  "you can't do that cuz you're supposed to do this."   Shitty GM

GM:  "The NPC dodges your blow and escapes (cuz he just has to live until scenario #5).  Shitty GM.

GM:  "The Duke wants you to do this and will pay you."  Player:  "My priest requests that he also give us funds to care for the refugees because blah blah blah" (inserting character agendas).  GM:  "No" (cuz it wasn't in his plot).  Shitty GM.

GM:  "OK, it's getting dark as you move through the forest."  Player (interceding):  It's not that dark and it's more grove than forest, so I...," Is this story now?... cuz I'd call this player-character "just got bitch slapped" by the GM. 

I would say that an experienced GM would run a story before scenario that is fluid, meaning it is open to change as the story unfolds.  An experienced GM is begging for player-character input to work off of.  An experienced GM can handle multiple sub-plots and fold them into his overall scheme, modifying the plot to accommodate the characters fully.  An experienced GM knows when to roll and when not to roll, rolling with the punches to keep the story fresh and moving along.  An experienced GM knows how much character input to allow and/or disallow.  An experienced GM can adapt to any situation, folding sub-plots into the overall drama, or changing the overall drama without anyone being the wiser.  An experienced GM let's players be in control of the story, knowing that characters are never "really" in control of the story. 

How about this:  Story now doesn't exist, and can't exist.  It is merely an illusion given to the players by a very skilled GM.   I guess "pure" story now could exist.  I would call such a situation "me me me me me" and it lives in the realm of Suck.  Truth:  purely character driven stories are purely character driven crap, at least in most cases.  Five players scripting is five different scripts with no common factor, as you gave the GM a big "fuck-you".  That's not a game or a story.  It's five dudes wanting to write their own novels.  The hard-core story before "this is what it is and do it or die" GM is also more suited to being a novel writer than a GM. 

Gaming, role-playing, is a group effort.  Your character isn't always in the lime-light (prolly cuz you refuse to join or can't see yourself within the plot, and you're being a dick).  Seriously, the non-scripted, no plot having, character "story now" free for all may result in a great scenario (but not campaign with other characters).  It's good for sub-plot, but without story before, these games quickly lose focus (if they ever had any) and digress into obscurity and boredom.  There is no story without plot, and plot is predetermined (and should be to an extent), but exact outcomes may not be.  "emergent" plot is akin to hoping you win the lottery.   Chances are you won't win.  It's a matter of degrees and a matter of role-playing experience.  I don't believe they are different gaming modes or styles.  I'm astonished at the attempts to dissect gaming style as separate modes of play, with one being presumed superior to another.  All these long-winded posts seem to come down to the level of describing common sense approaches to GM-ing or playing.  I think it's ridiculous. 

So, I implore anyone to give me examples of story before vs. story now.  Not a definition (subjective and meaningless at best), not a "refer to this post" link, but hard, literal, actual examples of both- As in:

Gm said this

Player said this

Gm said this

Player 2 said this

Gm said this 

Player 3 said this

... and that is why it is story now, or that is why it isn't.

Actual examples, not philosophy.   Don't tell me what story now is, show me.  Cuz I think it's all BS and moot.  I think it's a matter of gaming experience, and better gamers incorporate the styles and techniques automatically.  Rigid GM's and "rules Nazis" freak out cuz they don't know how to adapt (inexperience).  Bad gaming experience?  Either the GM sucked or the player(s) sucked.  Which is it?  Game system is irrelevant. 

Well, that's my ruckuss, my two cents, my shit-storm, my pissing in the wind... I await constructive lash-back.   Remember... not in the face :)

Glenn Vandre

Crap!  got posted twice cuz my computer said my internet connection was lost. Sorry.  Don't know how to delete one of them.  Help? 

David Berg

Hi Glenn,

(1) Reading GM tips and (2) trying to learn from experience and (3) theorizing about things like Story Now and (4) designing new games --  these are all different ways to try to improve the quality of play (for you, your GM, your group, your customers, whoever).

If you're not looking to improve the quality of play, or if (1) and (2) give you all you need on that score, then yep, for you, the rest is a Bunch of Crap.

Is that where you're at?  If so, I don't see much room for discussion there.  I mean, if I felt that way, and someone gave me examples of Story Before and Story Now, my response would be, "So what?"

The only answer is that not everyone's at where you're at.  Some folks got insufficient mileage out of (1) and (2) and did better with (3) and (4).

Personally, I haven't gotten much improved play out of (3) by itself, but it sometimes sheds useful light on (1),(2), and (4).

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Everyone knock it off until I can get to this one, OK?

Glenn, I'm good with this. The only honest answer can be links to Actual Play example threads. I'll look up the right ones, make a list, and see what you think. All I ask is patience - I'm a busy father, a harassed university prof, a beleaguered RPG publisher, all at once, and sometimes I get steamrolled (like last week and Thanksgiving).

Best, Ron


Warning, didnt read your long post, but I think I can at least clear one thing up quickly and easilly:

Story before:  PCs interrupt a bank robbery in progress - The GM has already determined that the bank robbers get away because its integral to the plot he has already mapped out.

Story not before:  PCs interrupt a bank robbery in progress - The PCs may/may not foil the robbery and may/may not catch the robbers, depending on how things go.

I dont think many people exclusively and up-frontedly play Story Before like Dave is into.  Its more like it can pop up from time to time when the GM really wants something to go a certain way, and thats when it can piss players off.  Thats when it would probably be called 'Force' in forge terminology.

I believe Dave was refering to particpation play as what the players do who are willingly playing an exclusive Story Before game. As in 'going with the flow' type of participation.

Im not going to touch Story Now.  I mean , I have my own ideas about that, but the term is a specific definition.  Ron can obviously tell you exactly what he means by it.


Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 30, 2011, 03:48:05 AM
Everyone knock it off until I can get to this one, OK?

Glenn, I'm good with this. The only honest answer can be links to Actual Play example threads. I'll look up the right ones, make a list, and see what you think. All I ask is patience - I'm a busy father, a harassed university prof, a beleaguered RPG publisher, all at once, and sometimes I get steamrolled (like last week and Thanksgiving).

Best, Ron


Ron Edwards

Hey Glenn,

I thought it over and decided the thing to do is talk about this "Story Now" thing. It's a big deal here at the Forge, in a couple of other terms, describing - and here's no jargon at all - why to play. It's definitely not the only reason, but it's one of the big ones. And I want to stress that it is not required, so it's not like I'm telling anyone what to do.

One of the best discussions about this at the Forge came when a guy named Levi was looking over the list of these reasons (three of them) and could not tell what we were talking about. He couldn't see why we said they were separate, couldn't see how to apply the ideas to play, and was about this close to deciding that the Forge discussions were irrelevant to anyone with a lick of sense. He was fully willing to consider anything that made sense.

In Frostfolk and GNS aggravation, I showed him what we were talking about. In [Frostfolk ,] Carrying on, I showed him how the rules and procedures of play are related to that. It's all discussed in terms of what they were actually doing at the table.

A lot of what you're saying is already really close to what I'm saying.

I hope you'll bear with me here for one more point: that when I say Story Now, I'm not just talking about the minor issue of making stories in play. I'm talking about two things: (i) wanting fictional stuff in play that is emotionally engaging, gets the blood pumping, stuff you want to do something about; and (ii) not wanting any significant outcomes pre-determined or under anyone's arbitrary control, at all. In other words, no fair prepping plot. Or rather, go ahead and prep problems, but not outcomes, no "sequences" or plotlines. In Story Now play, there is no "GM controls the story." The story only appears because the player-characters' actions do matter.

So it's a lot like what you're describing you do already, especially if you were to let go of your own planned-GM plot from the very outset. And yes, no player gets to take over those reins and go "me me me" either. The back-and-forth you're talking about it is spot on.

Best, Ron

Anders Gabrielsson

Quote(i) wanting fictional stuff in play that is emotionally engaging, gets the blood pumping, stuff you want to do something about; and (ii) not wanting any significant outcomes pre-determined or under anyone's arbitrary control, at all.
This should be the t-shirt. I've been struggling with what Story Now means, and this made it click for me. If this was posted in big letters on the front page a lot more people would know what Story Now means, I think.

Glenn Vandre

Hey Ron (and others),

Thank you for your reply and explanation.  I also read your suggested links to Levi's thing and found that to be useful as well. I especially liked the "three pigs example", as well as the discussions on social contract and character agenda. Before, I felt like I kinda thought I knew what it was, but in a muddled up, frustrated way that caused me to question.  Now, I believe the fog has lifted and I'm much more clear (and enlightened) on what Story Now is or can be. 

Since my begining post on this thread was long-winded, this one won't be :)