Note to readers, this article was inspired by Table Topics # 88 – The matrix. You can listen to that episode here: www.therpgacademy.com/table-topics/the-matrix
Introduction to Player Narrative Control:
The idea of Player Narrative Control is that you allow players to create details of the story that then become real in the game world. For some groups this ‘power,’ if you will, rests solely in the GM’s hands and in others it’s an equal split between all players and the GM. There are game systems which promote themselves as a collaborate story telling games which has baked-in rules that dictating the sharing of narrative control. Generally speaking, D&D and Pathfinder are not considered one of these type games, though I would argue that not only does it work in these games, it can greatly enhance your group’s enjoyment as well as reduce the prep time for the GM. I don’t believe that allowing Player Narrative Control is a game choice, but rather is a style of play choice. I see it as a sliding scale that goes from 100% authoritarian to 100% collaboration of all parties.
Before we go further, I want to assure you that I believe any play style is valid and no one should be forcing you to play one way or another. If you enjoy the way you play, then that’s all the matters, but for the sake of argument let’s say someone is generally authoritarian but wants to sprinkle in a dash of Player Narrative Control, how would someone do that without the fear of the game slipping out of their control?
Glad you asked.
Put a box on it.
Give your players limited narrative control by setting a box around what they can control so that they can’t go all willy-nilly on you and disrupt your carefully craft plans. Even if you are averse to allowing Player Narrative Control I’d wager many of you are actually already doing it, but not realizing it.
Player: ‘Critical hit!’
DM: ‘awesome – what does that hit look like?’
Sound familiar? What about:
Player: ’28 points of damage.”
DM: ‘that’s enough, describe how you take the Orc out.’
If you’ve ever run a game and had a similar interaction, you’ve played in a game with Player Narrative Control. A key point to realize here is that allowing Player Narrative Control is not a faucet that once turned on can not be turned off. You as the DM/GM ALWAYS have control. You can allow Player input when you want and disallow it when you don’t. What I’m suggesting here are ways to dip your toe in the water, not jumping in head first.
Maybe you never have done this, even as described above. You as the GM/DM always narrate hits and misses, success and failure. If you are starting from zero, I suggest you start with combat and start with only critical hits or final blows. Maybe only some of the time, even then – but see how your player’s eyes light up when they can describe what it looks like in that moment. Most, if not all, will relish the chance.
But let’s say you have used combat as way to allow players to exert some narrative control and want to do a little more. Expand it some without going full blow co-op story mode. How else can you allow Player Narrative Control with a box around it?
More combat. I mean, not more combat, but do it more during combat. Let players describe critical hits and final blows but also natural 1’s (if you call those fumbles), regular hits and misses – depending on the time frame you are dealing with and how much your players are enjoying it you could let players describe every action. As an advanced option, consider giving the players knowledge of a creature or NPC’s hit points and Armor Class. They can skip from:
Player: “I rolled a 12”
DM: “that hits”
Player: “I do 8 damage’
DM: “that’s enough, describe how you take it out”
Player: [lengthy player description of taking out said creature]
And instead have:
DM: “player 1 you’re up”
Player: [lengthy player description of taking out said creature]
Sure, some groups might use this knowledge inappropriately, but some may take it as the opportunity for the most descriptive and role play heavy combat they’ve ever been a part of. What else? Outside of combat how can you sprinkle in limited Player Narrative Control? skill checks.
Player: “I want to scramble up castle wall.”
DM: “roll an athletics check.”
DM: “you are able to find some easy footholds and scramble up noiselessly.”
Pretty standard, but why not . . .
Player: “I want to scramble up the castle wall.”
DM: “roll an athletics check, DC is 14”
Player: “I got an 18 – [describes what their own success looks like]
The idea here is to let the player describe what their own success looks like, because it may look differently in their mind than yours. The way standard D&D works is that the players get to control their characters and the DM controls everything else, but why then does the DM also describe how a PC climbs a wall, or picks a lock or searches a room?
By design, the players are in control of the PC’s action so why not let them describe these moments as they see them? End of the day they still made the check and can climb to the top, pick the lock, find the hidden lever. Letting a player describe what their actions look like in this situation can’t change the outcome, only how it looks and again gives the players a chance to flex their creative/narrative muscles.
But what if they fail?
Even better, I say. Being able to describe what my character looks like in failure could offer huge moments for character development and growth without having to dedicate a lot of time to it.
Player: “I want to scramble up the wall.”
DM: “roll athletics.”
DM: “you begin your climb but can’t keep your grip on the slightly uneven stone and slip and fall down to the ground.”
Nothing wrong with this, but let’s see what the player would do with failure:
Player: “I want to scramble up the wall.”
DM: “roll athletics, DC 15”
Player: “okay, E’tok is not the brightest of his clan and instead of studying the wall and looking for the best path he just starts up and about half way up finds no other way to go and is forced back down.”
In both cases above we have a failed climb, but in one we learn something or reinforce a quality about the character. E’tok didn’t fail because his hands were not strong enough, E’tok failed because he is impulsive and given to action over thought.
As the DM you may describe failure just as well as the Player, but maybe not. Why not give the player the chance to see how failure looks in their eyes?
What else? Besides combat and skill checks, how can we let players add details to the world, but stay in a box?
What about set decorations?
DM: “As you enter the tavern, the raucous laughter dulls and everyone turns to look at the strangers coming in from the storm. There are two patrons arguing about something at the bar. What are they arguing about?
Player: There’s a thief in the crowd who lifted one of their purses, now NPC # 1 thinks NPC # 2 stole it.”
[Record scratch noise]
Okay, so we just got rid of the box here. As a GM I’m happy to have this sort of thing happen. This is an awesome set up for the players to interact with (are they [the PC’s]] targeted by the thief which could set up a tense or humorous situation later. Do they catch the thief in the act or find out later? If they catch them, do they punish them, let them go, try to recruit them?) There are so many ways this story could grow from a moment that as the GM not only did I not plan for, I didn’t HAVE to plan for it. Low prep, baby!
BUT, maybe there is something about this tavern/village that you as the GM know means there shouldn’t be a thief in here (in could happen) and letting the players out of the box could create a problem that you have to just say ‘ no, that’s not what happened.’ Which as we all know ‘you should never say no!’ (JK – it’s cool to say no. Even as an improve GM, but that’s for another time).
Let’s put that box back on and try again:
DM: “As you enter the tavern, the raucous laughter dulls and everyone turns to look at the strangers coming in from the storm. There are two men arguing about something at the bar. But you are drawn to the gambling going on in the back corner. What game is being played?”
You’re letting the player narrate something here about the world that’s not directly tied to their character or their actions – which is why it’s easy for this one to jump out of the box if you not careful.
Let’s say you know that there is a fanatic cult that is after the party because they (intentionally or not) foiled one of their plans during an earlier adventure. You want these cultists to have a distinctive marking on them. Rather than create your own, let the players do it.
DM: “you’ve killed the last of the bandits that attacked you on the road. Examining the bodies you find that each of them has the same strange marking behind their left ear – what does this marking look like? (Side not – notice I didn’t ask for a roll here to find the marking, since I WANTED them to find it, they found it – more on this in a later article).
DM: “You’ve broken into the stables to steal some horses. There are several to choose from, describe what the one you take looks like.”
DM: “You find a gold coin that’s very old and not minted locally, what worn image does it have on it?
DM: “You find a pocket diary that’s destroyed but one word is legible, it’s the last word written and it’s circled several times. What is this word?”
For me, I enjoy taking the nuggets that the PC’s create and trying to make sense of them. For example, in one of my current games I told the one of the Players before a session that at some point he was going to be asked for a password to get into a hidden/exclusive club. We decided he knew the password but I let him create it. When the time came and the NPC asked for the password he said ‘spellbound.’ This was the first I had heard of it, but it instantly changed that scene and created an NPC almost fully formed in my mind that made that particular word make sense. Together we created a story that was much better than I would have come up on my own. The story as a whole is better for it.
Over time you may decide to make the box a little bit bigger or remove it completely. Perhaps you can try to run a one-shot or a side quest with more input from players but still some failsafe that no matter how crazy they get, it can’t destroy your story. Just a thought.
Just remember; it’s okay to dabble. Try it for one combat. Try it for one scene. Try it for one session and then ask how the players felt. You will find some players don’t want to have control and are happy to leave it in your capable hands but most likely you’ll have a mix; some do and some don’t. Try to allow those that do like it a few moments to shine but don’t force anyone to participate if they don’t want to.
I hope this has been helpful.
And remember, If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!
Also note, Christopher of the Shark Bone podcast has written his own response post to mine where he goes from how to start to WHY you should do it. Find that article here: Why Player Narrative Control is good for you and your group
Comments and Feedback are always welcome.
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