One element that strikes many people odd about Role-Playing Games is the notion of a shared imaginary space. RPG players are some of the ultimate collaborationists to a point, whether they mean to be or not. Understanding that such a space exists, and getting to know some of its properties, are vital skills for players, GMs, writers, and designers.
Every author (well, every author with a bit of self-awareness) must come to terms with the fact that, once a text has left their hands and entered into the wide world, it is no longer wholly theirs. In the same way that multiple eyewitnesses can view the same chain of events and interpret them differently, readers bring their worldviews with them to stories, meeting and having a conversation with the worldview that informed and helped produce the text on the page. The story, as it is experienced, is where those worldviews meet and come to terms with the printed word. In Literary Theory, this goes by the somewhat affected name of Transactional Reader-Response Theory. I am fairly certain that I’m as strong an adherent to this theory as I am largely thanks to my experience in TRPGs.
I want to save an extended discussion on player and character agency for another day, so for now let’s just stipulate that players are active agents in a TRPG event. I know plenty of you are saying “duh” right about now, but there are plenty of GMs and Game Writers who don’t necessarily acknowledge this in their own planning. I’ll bet all the money in my pocket* that those of your saying “duh” have had at least one GM in your gaming careers who did not recognize your agency, treating your character as little more than a witness to events. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, White Wolf became absolutely infamous for designing these sorts of stories: check out the Aberrant: Worldwide stories some time. I think this is more of a result of failing to recognize how the level of agency players have creates a fundamental difference between fiction and RPGs. One thing D&D and Pathfinder have always had on their side is that the reward mechanic pretty much forces the designer to make the PCs the protagonists of the story (although GMs can sometimes get lost on this point).
Who dictates the contours and arrangement of the shared space is influenced first by the game’s design, and then by the game master. Games like the previously discussed Call of Cthulhu or Pathfinder tend to tightly proscribe how much control players have over the game world, and that control often mirrors the level of control real people might have, albeit real people with magical powers. We can contrast this with games such as FATE, or modified FATE-based games like Houses of the Blooded, where a successful die roll can give a player total narrative control, writing the details of the world as they go. Such games represent something of a brave new world, where GMs, long the masters of their domain, are surrendering some of their own agency to increase the collaborative nature of the storytelling. These games move us further away from the “fiction” model, but also require a higher level of trust in each of your fellow players. In a traditional RPG, you primarily have to trust that your GM will arbitrate fairly and keep other players from ruining the play experience. In games that share a greater degree of narrative control, you must trust in each of the players at the table to take some of that responsibility onto themselves.
Game Writers and GMs are used to being the prime mover in the shared imaginative space. This is part of where the “fiction” disconnect comes up – we’ll spend hours, days, and weeks writing long and lovingly crafted pieces about the world the players are meant to enter, and then have cognitive dissonance when the players start behaving in a manner inconsistent with our meticulously crafted visions. At the same time, a lot of games are built around the notion that the rules and story are going to have interpretive problems and it is incumbent on the Game Master to keep the players from driving trucks through the holes in the rules and/or plot. I’ll bet all the money in my pocket* that you can, in less than a minute of googling, find an internet thread about a problem with this game or that, which is solved by some commenter with the timeworn homily, “Well, a good GM won’t let those sorts of things happen.” Many of us find this answer unsatisfying because GMs are people too, and even the best of them can get tripped up by new or obscure rules, to say nothing of oddly-written story elements. We’ll leave the whole rigmarole about ignoring published text (something every book says a GM can do, but every player makes into a risky venture) for another time.
I think games that completely share narrative control are an acquired taste, and one I have not yet fully acquired. On the one hand, if I need time and experience to trust a GM with the game world I’m trying to have a positive experience in, how much more time and experience do I need to trust a whole table of players with that world? On the other hand, I’m an old fuddy-duddy with a blog read by a dozen hearty souls. I do believe, however, that playing and understanding such games can broaden our understanding of how the shared imaginative space functions, even in more traditionally managed games. This should lead to a better play experience, which ought to be our goal all the time anyway.
* – Please bear in mind, when accepting this bet, that I am a freelance writer. I have very little money overall, to say nothing of my threadbare pockets.