Story By Committee

By | December 3, 2016

Over the past few years, the campaigns I’ve run as a Guide in Forthright have been joint endeavors in story development. I’ve been tweaking some rules here and there to continue to provide a Fate-esque game creation experience while giving Guides more tools and insight into how to run a game that hits player expectations.

The result has been boring, passionless campaigns. And spectacular one-shots.

Each time I’ve run a Forthright campaign, I’ve found that I, or the players, or the story itself just runs out of steam after very few sessions. Alternately, the one-shots I’ve run with Forthright have been some of the most intense, enjoyable and memorable I’ve ever had.

After thinking about it, and seeing similar complaints about other games with very intensive collaborations at the beginning (Dungeon World comes foremost to mind), I’ve come to think that heavy game-collaboration works best for one-shots precisely because they get a lot of ideas on the table very quickly, and the Guide must find some way to rope those together. It won’t need to matter if the story holds up in the long run, because it is intended to be very intense, pull-out-all-the-stops gaming in the moment.

While one-shots are gaming like a movie, campaigns are essentially TV shows. A strong story there really requires a lot more thought and putting-together of elements than story-by-committee necessarily provides. I’ll grant I might just suck at it – but I’m pretty sure that if I suck at it, I’m not the only one!

When running a longer game, I’ve found it works better to have a general frame and several beats for a story laid out in advance. Then, during character creation, I communicate the gist of what I expect the campaign will be about and give the players an opportunity to add their own spin and interests. I’ve started thinking about it like a Christmas tree: the Guide provides the tree, the players provide the decorations.

I think, seduced by the possibilities of more collaborative game-creation methods, I’ve put too much collaboration and too little control into the rules as they’re currently written. Games that are more fully collaboratively defined (PbtA, Shock) tend to have some sort of control in-built; characters take on specific roles and have a functional lock-in to the story. I don’t generally like or want that for Forthright – it seems that is a sure way to lead to a restriction of creativity as players and guides reuse the same tropes to tell the same story over and over.  I want to get away from that.

I’m still working out the best way to structure this idea and communicate it in the rules, but I wanted to take a moment to share.  What have your experiences been with strongly collaborative game creation?  What are some of your frustrations with non-collaborative games?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!