As I wrote this, I thought to myself, “Self! This should have been Part 2.” Oh well. Here it is.
Old School Renaissance gamers shudder and gag when a game master starts talking about “their story.” It’s worse than, “Let me tell you about my character.”
Story is a word that gets used a lot in tabletop role-playing games. It is frequently misused and misapplied. Typical contemporary game mastering advice is focused on how to create a story and then lead the players through it, hopefully, in an entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, when you do this, you are substituting an interactive narrative in place of a game.
This is anathema to the Old School Renaissance referee.
The Old School Renaissance rejects the idea that the game master is telling “their story,” and holds up emergent narrative as the way “story” comes from the game.
You can play 5E and other games using emergent narrative as a guiding principle. Many game masters run their games this way. Emergent narrative is not unique to the OSR. Apocalypse World famously proclaims that we “play to find out what happens.”
You will find it to be concept applied across the varied fragments of the OSR. If you want to run an OSR game, then this is a key concept that you need to internalize. OSR games are designed to be run this way.
I will add that an important use of story is one of those obvious things that we don’t notice or think about too hard because it seems so obvious. That is the use of story as contextual framework.
Story as contextual framework.
Since classic adventure games were discovered by experiments with wargames, it is appropriate to explain this using a classic Avalon Hill board game.
Context is the circumstances that form the setting of a situation so that they may be fully understood. In order for players to make informed decisions about the situation their characters are in, they have to have some context.
The contextual framework of the game is the setting where the game takes place. Another way to think about it is that It is the story of everything that happened before the game. It is the backstory.
The Waterloo board game has a historical narrative providing context. the quick backstory of the game is that Napoleon returned to power in March of 1815. States that previously opposed him formed an alliance. The allied forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington established a position near Waterloo in what is today Belgium. Napoleon decided to attack. At the beginning of the game, that is the situation.
The play of the game is informed by the context provided before the game starts. Certain units are stronger than other units because that is how it played out in a fight during the Napoleonic wars. I can move the cardboard chit representing cavalry further than I can move the cardboard chit representing the infantry. In the real world, cavalry run faster than infantrymen.
If my opponent is not as skillful as I am, then I might be able to win even though Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815. Perhaps I maneuver differently or my opponent isn’t aggressive enough and stays put when he should counter-attack. Those outcomes emerge from the decisions each player makes during the game.
While we are playing the game, that’s the game. I’m making choices and the outcome is uncertain. Once the game is complete, we can tell other people about the events of the game. That’s the emergent story of our game.
Contextual and emergent narratives in OSR games.
In the OSR style of play, we see a structure similar to what I described in the Waterloo board game.
The game starts with some sort of context. This is common to all tabletop role-playing games. You always start with some narrative that informs the players of the circumstances that have created the setting of the adventure and campaign scenario. The players agree to play within that context and to abide by rules of the game when applying the creative solutions to problems they face.
You have travelled to a keep on the borderlands. Nearby, is a canyon riddled with caves. Within the caves are tribes of humanoid monsters who worship Chaos and seek to destroy the keep. The keep cannot spare any men to take the fight to the humanoids. The castellan is paying a bounty to adventurers who go forth and clear the caves of the monsters.
The game master has told the players a story. They started somewhere else and traveled from there, overcoming any obstacles, to arrive at the keep. There are characters, an objective, a set of decisions, and an outcome.
This is a simple narrative providing the context for the game to come. The keep is facing problems and needs the player characters to defeat their problems. There is an objective and a reward for accomplishing it. The context was established before the players start making any choices about what to do or how to do it. That context tells the players a lot without explicitly stating a great deal of information. They can use that context to make decisions as they progress through the caves.
This is a context like the game designer (and history) provided context for Waterloo.
OSR games are games, not stories.
Once the game commences, the story is only information the players use to make choices. In the OSR, the contextual story is an acceptable form of story to tell players. What comes after, the game, is not where you tell stories. The outcomes of those events are determined by the decisions made by the players, the mechanisms of the game, and the rulings of the game master when the game doesn’t have a mechanism.
Herding players through the story of their characters deads and heroics is not an acceptable form of story to OSR gamers.
Once the players start making choices, that is the game and not a story. Stories have predetermined outcomes determined by the story teller. If the game master takes on the mantle of the storyteller telling the story of the PCs having pre-determined the outcomes of the PC’s actions, then this is no longer a game. The game has become an interactive narrative. The players may have multiple choices that provide the illusion of being a game but the plot of the story has been predetermined and the players will experience that story no matter what they do. This is also called railroading.
In a properly run OSR game, the outcomes of the players decisions, determined by the rules of the game and the rulings of the game master form a series of events. After the game has concluded, the series of events form a narrative.
This is emergent narrative and the intended style of play in OSR games.
OSR games produce stories.
The game is not a “story.” The game produces a story but is not a story in and of itself.
Story emerges from the context of the game and the decisions players make within that context. It is not predetermined. It is often not anticipated by the game master. The game master is often as surprised by the outcomes as the players. Many OSR referees will tell you that this is one of their favorite parts of the game.
The story of the PCs emerges from the events of the game and is told after the game session has been completed. This is a broadly accepted principle found in OSR games. It is a concept that you must adopt if you want to play OSR games as they are intended.
This post has been theoretical. As a practical matter, when I’m talking about contextual frameworks what I’m describing is setting backstory. It takes skill to tell players about backstory without boring them with it. I’ve written some posts giving practical advice about how to do this. If you are interested in those, here are a few links.
I also refer to backstory as embedded stories. Here is a post about that and some practical tips for how to use them. Another post with embedded stories and magic items.
Micro exposition. Nobody wants to read your 20,000 word history of the realms any more than you want to read a 20,000 word character backstory. This post suggests how you take those embedded narratives or backstories and sprinkle the beats of the story out over time so that your players retain the information and actually find it interesting.
One way that conceptual frameworks manifest in OSR games is through the centrality of the milieu. That’s a fancy way of saying that the setting is more important the player characters.