Who’s the star of your story?
It is not an idle question in RPGs, and the mechanics of your game can often drive the answer. The answer to the question can also inform how narrative develops in RPGs, whether through telling story or chasing it, a term described below.
My thoughts on this got started while listening to an excellent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff (One from last November), where Ken Hite quoted a documentarian, who said that documentaries “chase story,” which means that the camera follows a bunch of people around for a long time and, after filming practically everything in their lives for days, weeks, or months, then cuts those bits into a 2-hour narrative. The polar opposite of this may be the literary short story, where everything extraneous is avoided (usually) to service the narrative. Tabletop Role-Playing Games fall somewhere on this spectrum, and both players and GMs do themselves and each other credit when they think about their preferences on the spectrum.
The old-school fantasy monster-killing games, from D&D to Pathfinder and back to OSR, are story-chasing games. We see this in that the mechanics embed character progression in the monsters the PCs fight. If experience and character improvement are explicitly tied to killing monsters, you’ve made a game about killing monsters, regardless of statements or supplemental rules. Engaging and interesting stories will feature engaging and interesting monsters, but they will also mean that the PCs in such a story are largely plug-and-play. Each group of heroes will fight Tiamat differently, but the story is still about fighting Tiamat. The GM follows the players around from monster to monster, and the monsters they kill eventually becomes the story of the campaign.
This can be contrasted with highly improvisational games or games where players receive experience and/or in-game rewards for player action. Sometimes, that can be a component of the game, like 7th Sea or the nearly completely player-driven House of the Blooded, or it can be a component of a specific campaign, like Trail of Cthulhu’s The Armitage Files. Literary roles are a bit more traditional in these games: Antagonists exist to set the protagonists in motion, and the protagonist’s actions will drive the narrative. The risk is that lackadaisical or even just confused players may hang out and do nothing, waiting for plot to fall from heaven.
Because D&D/Pathfinder is such an 800-pound gorilla in the RPG world, the conceptions of that style of game can inform the choices GMs and players make in games where the players are supposed to be creating story, rather than the GM chasing it in the players’ actions. I feel like there’s a linkage here to those unfortunate White Wolf adventures of the late 90’s, wherein the players spent a lot of time acting as witness to events. At the same time, fans of player-driven narrative keep trying to find ways to build it into games about killing monsters, with decidedly mixed results – I’ll be watching Pathfinder’s Ultimate Intrigue, but I’m not hopeful, as it seems like making a straight-up political shenanigans story would involve fairly radical changes to the core conceits of the game.
To be honest, it’s really hard to pre-design an adventure in which the players take the narrative lead, but it’s not impossible – authentically sandbox campaigns, like Call of Cthulhu’s Masks of Nyarlathotep, do a bit of splitting the difference: the game setting is replete with monsters and NPCs to deal with, but the players drive the order and the manner of resolving those encounters. That’s probably why Paizo can write two major campaigns a year (including Kingmaker, which approached sandbox-style, but couldn’t close the deal in their requirement to have ever-increasing Challenge Ratings), but Night’s Black Agents is just now getting their second significant campaign after it was first mentioned in 2012.
What about your games? How integral are the PCs in your games to the story that’s being told? How much does the narrative change in the event of character death or a player departing the game? Answering those questions can help you define how player-focused your story is. Knowing that does not, I repeat NOT, mean that you’re doing anything wrong, but it might clue you in if there’s a player frustrated at the table, or if your GM seems aggravated with your party’s constant drinking at the tavern.