Player choice and the narrative have always been at odds. Whether it be in video games or tabletop games the need for players to have a say in what happens and the narrator’s need to tell a story have often clashed. Like with most things the key is finding a balance. Too much player freedom and the entire game descends into anarchy with no one having fun. But too much narrative control and you have a railroaded story where player choice is mostly inconsequential. Video games must often choose railroading as they can’t possibly calculate a response for every whim of the players. As a human though, the narrator has the power and flexibility to constantly adapt to anything a player can try.
Though a narrator has the ability to adapt on-the-fly and will often need to there are things the narrator can do to make their lives considerably easier. The first and possibly most important thing is to choose the game system you will use for the game. This can become paramount to the fun everyone has and how easy or difficult your job as narrator becomes. Rule-heavy games like Shadowrun allow the narrator to relax a bit and focus on story and character, since the game has rules for everything you can possibly do up to and including treading water. In this scenario the book is taking on almost all of the mechanical burden because it has clear rules for what the players can and can’t do. Like a videogame it can tell the players they can’t just pull out something ridiculous because it has to fit into their encumbrance, possibly have the proper licenses, and bought from a select few retailers in particular locations in a place like Seattle. The other option, usually only recommended for experienced narrators, is the light mechanics systems. Tephra and the Fate series are known for being very mechanically light and allowing much more flexibility. While this gives the players much more freedom to do what they want it means that should a character suddenly decide they want to blow up the building the requirements for doing so and the rolls needed are completely dependent on the narrator. You can’t simply pull out a book for the right roll to use or to determine exactly how much explosives are needed and where to put them. All of this is on the narrator to determine. With an experienced narrator these can often be the more fun route since it means the story has flexibility to go in different and interesting directions without worrying about those pesky rules. It can also deal with the rules lawyer. The rules lawyer will often argue over every action and decision based on what the book says and how they interpret it. Games that hand over almost all the control to the narrator allow the narrator to easily combat rule lawyers since almost nothing is written in the book and the narrator has final say.
Aside from mechanics there is another thing to consider for this balance and that is the actual narrative. If you are trying to tell a story of the brave knights going to rescue the princess it wouldn’t do your story much good for the knights to suddenly decide to kill the king and usurp the throne. Or if you have a group of bounty hunters trying to make a profit it would be odd if they just let all their bounties go or recruited them. This is where the narrator needs to make tough decisions. Using the first example there are a few ways to go about this problem. The first is to talk to the player. Let them know you had a plan, or at least a general sense of where the story was heading and them killing the King would completely ruin it. This should usually be addressed before the first session but is sometimes needed in the middle of the game. The second method of dealing with it is using your narrative powers to dissuade them. The narrator controls everything in the game that is not the players and so if they decide that the king has 20 elite honor guard soldiers around him at all times the players will probably heavily reconsider trying to fight him. This can also be a good way to flesh out something you hadn’t considered. If you give the king these honor guards then where did they come from? How are they so elite? What are their training and skillsets like? What is the general perception of them and how are they thought of by enemies of the crown? These questions, from such a simple quick fix, can inadvertently flesh out your game world and deepen the lore and story you’re presenting. The third option is the least advisable and relies on the narrator pulling rank. As the narrator you can flat out tell your players no. It’s not advised as it can hinder the story and cause animosity between the narrator and players but sometimes a narrator needs to bring their foot down and prevent something that might ruin the entire experience. Especially if it’s only one player wanting to ruin everything and the others still want to play the original premise.
he choice of whether to lock players into a story or let them run rampant is always debated and can honestly never be fully answered. The best answer is the balance that is right for the campaign and the group. I have run very railroaded campaigns that had a specific story to tell but everyone was aware and enjoyed how they affected the flavor of it. There are some where I have simply told them to make some Force users for a Star Wars game and then said “You’re on the run from the Empire. I don’t have any more than that so just play your characters and we’ll see what happens.” That last idea is only for narrators who are confident in their improvisational skills and comfort with the system. I personally rely mostly on the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG for my games because its system is the most balanced between player freedom and narrator tools for running it. The system and play style that is right for you and your group is entirely up to you. But when playing keep in mind this struggle and consider how you are addressing it and how your players are responding to it.
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