D&D Narrative, DMs, and Player Autonomy 3: Player vs. Narrative Conflict

I don’t think I’m imagining it -- modern DMs are running modules less frequently. Instead of getting a boxed campaign, they’re diving into the deep end, often running their own homebrew right from the start. And that means that DMs -- new DMs, who sometimes haven't even run a game before -- need to be able to build both a world and a narrative together. 

As they say, with great power, comes great responsibility. Novelists have a hard time creating worlds and narratives, and they are in complete control of their characters. DMs that lose control of their narrative will often lose control of their campaign.

There are volumes that can be written about game narratives. What makes them fun, what drives them, and what creates a complex and unique story. But in this series, we're primarily interested in discussing player autonomy and narrative structure. In other words, the player’s actions, and the way in which the world reacts to these actions.

  1. Player Skills
  2. Player vs. Player Conflict
  3. Player vs. Narrative Conflict
  4. Player Goals

What is a Narrative?

In the very old days, there were things called “text adventures,” and today, there’s “interactive fiction.” It’s just text and a parser. You may find this familiar:

The room is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. What will you do?

>light a fire

I don’t understand ‘light’.

>make a fire

I don’t understand ‘make’.

>inventory

You have a tinder box and a copy of MAD Magazine.

>set magazine on fire

I don’t understand ‘set’.

>use tinder box

On what?

>use tinder box on MAD magazine

I don’t understand ‘MAD’.

>listen here, you bargain basement eliza

I don’t understand y u mad, bro.

In some very rudimentary ways, creating a roleplay narrative is a lot like creating the structure of one of these interactive fiction games. You have locations. You have items. You have NPCs. But you don’t know the order in which the player is going to attempt to interact with any of these things. You just know how they will react to what the player does. 

And unlike the parser, you can’t say “I don’t understand.” Instead, these areas - the areas you didn’t plan for - are the areas in which you must improvise.

In roleplay, a narrative is not a story but instead an environment and a sequence of chronological events that take place according to some dire algorithm. You have an evil wizard, who is attempting to capture the life force of a small village in crystal jewels, so he can bed his dragon paramour. If not interrupted, he will do this thing within a week.

But that's your foundation. Here are the problems.

Guiding the Players through the Narrative

DMs and players are not working against each other. I have been in a multitude of groups that have stubbornly insisted on doing exactly what the DM did not want them to do. “Oh, is there plot that way? I will go away from the plot, then.”

It’s not hard to sabotage any campaign, whether it’s a module or not. It has to be understood there is a pact between the DM and the player. The DM is helping the player tell an interesting story, but meanwhile, the player must trust the DM to guide them through that story. Moving stubbornly away from the plot isn't just meta-gaming, it's acting in bad faith.

But that is not to say that there can’t be issues that naturally emerge when guiding players through a narrative. The most common issues that I've noticed arise between players and their narrative are as follows:

  • Having a contradictory narrative.

  • Not having a narrative at all.

  • Failing to create a narrative goal.

  • Railroading the character.

These are issues that can sabotage a campaign… but not quickly. Unfortunately, narrative issues tend to crop up slowly, so you can find yourself weeks into a campaign with no idea where to go.

Having a Contradictory Narrative

“The baby cries as it’s stolen away into the night. Your heroes are left in the tavern.”

“I drink.”

“You don’t go after the baby?”

“I’m chaotic evil. We all are. Is the baby delicious?”

A contradictory narrative is a campaign that, by its very nature, conflicts with the characters inside of it. For instance, a quest to fight a dragon for fame and fortune, undertaken by an ascetic monk. Or a quest to liberate a small village from a power hungry sheriff, undertaken by a lawful evil drow.

In either of these situations, the DM can pivot to find a reason that the character needs to continue with the story. And the players, if acting in good faith, can as well. But this has to be done quickly, or the character will find themselves adrift, aimless, and wondering why they are doing what they’re doing.

In one of our campaigns, we began with an exciting jailbreak, and it made sense; we all wanted to get out of jail. But once we got out of jail, we were told that there was an immense rune of power in the village a few days over.

The problem here was that three out of six of our characters had absolutely no interest in a non-specified, immense rune of power. We followed, but we had no reason to do so. As the challenges became deeper and more specific, we had to stop roleplaying altogether, and simply start playing the game as ourselves.

Narrative hooks either have to be somewhat universal (“you will die of a curse in six days unless you find the evil wizard…”) or they need to be specified from the start (“this adventure is for a good-aligned party…”). Otherwise you have a humble farmer who wants to get back to his family, but instead, for some reason, has become all-consumed with a quest for power.

This goes back to player autonomy, because players are no longer in control of their own motivations or characterization. Thus, one of the major rules of creating a narrative, is that the narrative itself must not strip the player of autonomy. 

(Remember that autonomy primarily governs the player's intent and the player's actions. You cannot say that a player, for some reason, decided to board a pirate ship... but you can physically force them onto the vessel.)

Not Having a Narrative

“Here’s the map. You’re here, at a Port Town called We Aren’t Pirates Harbor.”

“OK. So… can you give us some background?”

“Well, 308 years ago the great schism separated the world into three layers, a demonic layer, an angelic layer, and the human layer. Now, these layers are colliding, with different anomalies opening throughout a multitude of towns.”

“Oh, OK. But… why are we here?”

“Oh, for whatever reason that would have brought you here.”

“Oh, OK. But… what do we do?”

“Whatever you want to do. You’re in a town…”

It’s the sandbox game. The DM has worked on their world for years, and they know exactly how the world functions. But they don’t have a story to tell, they want you to make one.

We’ve discussed quite a bit about how DMs can take away narrative autonomy. But creating a sandbox is one area in which DMs can actually give players too much autonomy. Here, players are dropped in a world with little direction as to what to do, except to do “something cool.”

Experienced DMs can make a sandbox work, and when a sandbox works, it’s phenomenal. Players can create a living, breathing world, with all of the mechanics therein, and the story is always unpredictable. But most people cannot do this. Sandboxes fall apart incredibly quickly because they lose internal consistency.

With things being made up on-the-fly, there’s less control over what happens -- and less ability to ensure that what happens makes sense. Once the plotline becomes sufficiently muddled, apathy sets in. Players have no firm footing.

And that's why we play D&D 5th edition, and so forth, rather than simply "playing pretend." The rules and structure matter because they give players a solid and real foundation on which to build and land. 

Sandbox games go off the rails very quickly because players can introduce whatever they want into them. They can create their own story, and their own narrative doesn’t have to make sense, doesn’t have to include the other characters, and doesn’t have to have any well-defined end.

With no goal or direction, the players are free to ignore the anomalies ripping apart the universe, and, you know, open a bakery.

And the difference between not having a narrative hook and having a narrative hook is quite simple:

“...Now, these layers are colliding, with different anomalies opening throughout a multitude of towns. You are a group of sacrifices elected by your village to be thrown into an anomaly, because they're not that bright, and that seems to make sense to them. But, through fast-talking, your mayor has secured you 24 hours to find another solution, if you can.”

Now they’ve got something they need to do.

Failing to Create an End

“The King slumps to the ground dead, suddenly aging all of the years that he had stolen from his strangely sexy unicorn captive.”

“So we’ve killed the king, and now we…?”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“Oh well, we wanted to kill the king. He’s dead now. So…”

“So what do you want to do?”

“...”

In most situations (and again, not always; I’m hesitant to say there is any rule that is always applicable to roleplay), the end goal is the driving force of the narrative. Characters must have their own goals, certainly, but the narrative itself must have some defined end. This isn't something that is only relevant at the end, either. 

In modules, the goal is usually to kill a specific person, remove a curse from yourself, or sometimes simply to escape. And once that goal is fulfilled, the narrative ends. Most importantly, this goal informs the actions of the players from the very beginning. Much of a player’s paralysis comes from not being certain what their character should do next. Having an ill-defined goal means that they need to strike out in random directions, something that may or may not be advantageous to your narrative.

Many games have a tendency to meander, and homebrew games are especially guilty of this. And meandering isn't necessarily bad, unless players truly do not know what their ultimate goal is. 

Railroading the Player

“A man jingles a cup next to you, begging for a coin. Looking at him, though, you can tell that he’s not an ordinary beggar.”

“I ignore him, I don’t have enough coins myself.”

“The man begins to follow you in the shadows, holding out his cup.”

“I walk into a shop to avoid him.”

“The man is still there, holding out his cup.”

“In the shop? OK, uh, I tell him to stop following me, in as intimidating a fashion as I can muster.”

“The man only smiles and holds out his cup…”

“I leave the shop.”

“The man continues to follow.”

“I go to the inn and sleep!?”

“When you wake up, the man is standing in your room. The room is filled with cups."

“Oh my god, fine. I’ll put a coin in the cup.”

Finally, we’ll talk about the most obvious narrative issue of all: railroading. Railroading happens when there is only a single way for a narrative to progress, and the players must choose that direction. It's one of the most hated and most discussed issues in roleplay, but the truth of railroading is that it often emerges because there's already an issue present. 

Players will often fail to choose the reaction the DM expects because:

  • It isn’t obvious to them that they should complete the action needed.

  • It is obvious to them, but their characters wouldn’t perform that action.

  • It isn’t as obvious to them as other,  more obvious solutions.

When players are presented with a closed box in the middle of a room, for instance, they may decide to avoid and ignore that box entirely (it’s obviously a trap). If that box has the entire briefing in it that they needed for their next mission, the DM is left having to scramble. Having to scramble isn't a bad thing, it's when the DM insists they take the box that it becomes an issue of player autonomy. 

And this is why DMs are building an interactive game (with settings, items, and NPCs) rather than constructing a true, chronological narrative. The game is never “the PCs go to the tavern, where they talk to the barmaid…” it’s “the PCs find themselves in a tavern, where there is a barmaid.”

But what is and isn’t railroading?

The reason railroading is such a hotly debated topic is because it is, in truth, sometimes in a gray area. The DM is supposed to support player autonomy, of course, but only insofar as is reasonable.

Let’s say a player has decided, for whatever reason, to leave the party, construct a boat, and sail off into the sunset -- that’s what makes most sense to their character and that's what they're going to do.

If it makes sense, the DM can point out, that there simply is no lumber. But if the character persists, the DM can, without railroading, allow the character to do so -- but they are under no obligation to continue including that character in their story. The player can roll another character who will stay within the confines of the known environment. None of this is railroading, not the reasonable lack of lumber, nor the discontinuation of the character's sea-bound story.

But let’s say that the party has a quest to poison a queen during dinner because they want a key that she carries. A player attempts to pickpocket the queen during a moment alone and succeeds… but they find nothing. Another player attempts to persuade the queen to show her the key… and succeeds… but the queen has misplaced it. Yet another player attempts to cast Find Item on the key… but somehow it’s magically protected.

This is railroading because legitimate solutions to a narrative problem are being ignored because the DM wants a very specific narrative solution: for the queen to be poisoned during dinner. And likely this is because the DM has a specific scene that they have in mind. But, by not honoring the creativity of their players, and by not following up on their attempts, they are making it harder for their players to act creatively and autonomously. They are simply telling a story to a passive audience.

In roleplay, the DM builds the world and its set pieces, and the narrative is constructed live, in collaboration with the players. Too much freedom leaves players adrift and uncertain, either reduced to meta-gaming or simply spinning their wheels. Too little freedom leaves players captive, listening to a story unfold that they have very little influence on. Not only is it a careful balance, but it's a balance that has to be adjusted (often live). It's a constant push and pull between DM and player, all in effort to make both a satisfying story and a story that makes sense.