We have a tendency in this hobby to borrow a lot of terms from other creative endeavors. We borrow terms from creative writing, film, television, The problem is, sometimes we start equating our hobby with those other creative outlets from which we borrowed the terms, when ofttimes our hobby is very different.
RPGs are not Novels
I’ve talked a lot about GMs who mistake table-top RPGs for novel writing, with GMs constantly trying to manipulate the game to tell the story they’ve already decided upon. Some GMs will railroad the party toward the scene they seem hellbent on acting out. Other GMs will engages in the sort of passive railroading, where every action the players come up with leads toward the same destination.
I’ve often said, if you don’t like the players messing with your plans, pour yourself two fingers of Scotch, light up a cigar and start banging away on your typewriter, because you want to write a novel, not GM an RPG.
Storytelling, but Different
We all know that RPGs are a form of storytelling, but it’s very different than the sort of storyteller you’ll see at the public library or Renaissance faire. Those story tellers are almost always one-man (or woman) shows. There’s one story being told and one person telling it and determining how it goes.
Our hobby is entirely different. We engage (or should engage) in a collaborative effort to tell a story or sometimes many stories. Furthermore, in traditional RPGs, our roles are clearly defined as to which part of the story we each control and which we have little or no control over. The GM generally builds the world, the culture — the setting in general. He will create (often with input from the players) the would-be antagonists of the story.
The players create and control the protagonists and their actions. They choose their own destinies. They decided which direction to go and what to do when they get there.
This division of labor sets our brand of storytelling apart from all other forms of storytelling — the closest any of them comes is probably theater improv.
But We’re Not Theater Improv Either!
Theater improv, while the closest relative to RPGs, is still a distant relative. We bring into our collaborative storytelling elements that normally don’t exist in theater improv: game mechanics and setting assumptions.
Before our games begin, we agree on what game system we’re going to play, what the setting and genre are and what the flavor of the game might be. We constraint where our improvisation can go. We limit it, and we govern it with game mechanics.
And What Exactly is the GM?
I wince when I hear people equate GMs to movie directors, screenwriters, etc. We’re obviously not. We don’t possess nearly the power over the story or how it’s told that those in these professions do — nor should we. If you want to write a screenplay, see my advice for novel writing above.
Players are not actors to be directed by the GM. They don’t have (or shouldn’t have) a “script” they need to follow. The point of the hobby — the fun of the hobby — is to explore stories that are unexpected and new to the players and the GM.
I understand why we borrow our nomenclature from other creative endeavors. The RPG hobby is only 30 some years old, and many of these other disciplines have been around much longer. Why reinvent the wheel.
But while we use their terms, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of equating RPGs with these disciplines.