When I say “tabletop roleplaying game,” what do you think of? Probably Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most popular and well-known tabletop RPGs. But maybe you’re more indie than that, and your mind jumps to Pathfinder, Dread, Apocalypse World, Fate, or any number of other tabletop RPG systems. You could also call these games “collaborative story games,” as in a game where all the players work together to tell a story. Something that all these games have in common is a Game Master, or GM, who essentially controls the narrative, while the other players react to that narrative.
Probably all collaborative story games you can think of have a GM role—one might even argue that a GM is necessary for these kinds of games. But are they really? Can you play a tabletop RPG where there is no GM, and every player has the same level of control over the narrative—a truly collaborative story game? (AN: I know that collaborative does not mean “every person contributes equally,” but it’s a bit catchier than “egalitarian,” so I will be using it in that fashion for the duration of this post. Thanks for bearing with me.)
I’m asking this question because I recently played a collaborative storytelling game that is also a tabletop RPG, but one that is deliberately designed to have no GM. The game is called Fall of Magic, and while my friends and I had a great time playing it, we struggled to adapt our D&D style of play to its intended equal distribution of narrative control. While we started out following the instructions fairly well, by the time the session ended a few hours later, we had reverted back to a GM-style of play.
Collaborative storytelling in D&D vs Fall of Magic
Before I get into my experience playing FoM, let me back up a bit to explain the key differences between it and D&D. In D&D, the GM describes a scene and the other players react as their character. In FoM, each player takes turns narrating a scene from the perspective of their character. In D&D, the GM controls all characters other than the players’; in FoM, while the player narrating the scene can also do that, other players can jump in or be asked to join as themselves or NPCs. In D&D, players create their characters wholesale—personality, backstory, abilities, etc.—before even starting the game. In FoM, the only character creation you do is picking a name and title, and the rest is made up by you or the other players as you play.
In D&D, the GM is ultimately in charge of the world, plot, and characters other than the PCs—the players can rarely, if ever, make up their own places, NPCs, or stories on the fly. In FoM, while I may use my turn to invent a mountainside castle with the intent of creating a welcoming respite for our character, my friend can turn it into a dangerous trap under the control of a powerful sorcerer on his turn (which is exactly what happened in my game). In other words, any player can change or create the setting, characters, or story, and it’s all canon—no one can complain that it’s “wrong.” Everyone has equal narrative control.
Playing Fall of Magic as a D&D player
My friends and I, who have been playing D&D for some time now, struggled with the concept of sharing control of the narrative. While nominally a player is in charge of a scene on their turn, FoM encourages the other players to ask questions, give suggestions, play an NPC, or interact in the telling of the scene in some other ways. “It’s like a conversation,” the rulebook explains. My friends and I rarely narrated scenes in this fashion—typically the only person talking during a given scene was the person in charge of it, a far cry from the back-and-forth of a conversation. Other players might join in to play their own characters, but not for anything else. In other words, we were falling back to the D&D convention of only role-playing as one’s character, rather than contributing to all parts of the story.
Later in the game, my friend was the first to take his turn in a new location (in FoM, you move the story by moving along a map, starting new “chapters” of the story at each location). Because of this, he got to narrate the opening scene of that location—but while in the past, we’d narrated opening scenes merely to give an idea of the setting and tone of that location, he presented the aforementioned plot of a castle under the control of a powerful sorcerer. “I have a cool idea,” he told us, “if you’re okay with letting me do it.”
For the duration of that section, my friend essentially acted as GM: taking on the role of all NPCs and narrating story beats, as well as role-playing his own character. The rest of us still had more narrative control than we would have had in D&D—I got to narrate an entire climactic duel—but he was still doubtless in control of the plot. We were all fine with it, because we were excited to see where his story went, but it strayed even further from FoM’s intention of a conversation-like game.
When we wrapped up the game, we agreed that while we’d had fun, we had deviated pretty far from the game guidelines and fallen back on our D&D role-playing habits. The next time we play, we said, we should try to contribute equally to all scenes and to share narrative control, rather than merely rotating GMs.
Intro to improv… or not
But maybe that was just us. Maybe players who haven’t been playing D&D for over a year would have better luck playing a truly collaborative game of Fall of Magic. But the thing is, there were moments when it worked—when it felt like everyone was contributing equally, with no one person more in control of the narrative than another—and those moments, in addition to being the most fun, were due to our experience playing D&D.
Let me explain. All collaborative storytelling games require some level of improvisational performance, also known as improv. Improv requires you to trust your fellow players and to have the confidence and ability to riff off what they’ve said on the spot. It’s very challenging, and I used to be quite bad at it—but years of role-playing games, all of the GM variety, has improved my improv abilities significantly. Likewise with my friends.
Essentially, we’ve had practice improvising scenes together in collaborative storytelling games, with the safety net of a GM and a detailed ruleset so that we don’t have to make up everything. When we played FoM, I felt much more comfortable playing a scene in which no one had narrative control, because I trusted our improv and role-playing abilities to make a good story anyway. If one of the players had been a novice role-player, I doubt we would have had as much fun creating the scenes, or that they would’ve been as good.
I’m working on a role-playing game right now that’s designed for anyone—especially inexperienced role-players—and the main feedback from our playtesters has been requests more structure for the scenes and role-playing, since they are unsure how to act and what to do with the story prompts we give them. FoM simply does not have that structure. That allows for all the players to have equal and almost complete narrative control, but it’s really not the best way to introduce someone to collaborative storytelling.
And, to tackle the question of “truly collaborative storytelling” from a different direction, even the scenes where we all participated weren’t entirely equal. One player still started the scene with a stated plot, even if it was just “explore the market,” and rather than contribute equally to the setting, we all played different characters (I jumped in as an unasked-for NPC who became our favorite NPC of the night). We took turns speaking and reacting. It was certainly more collaborative than other scenes, but I don’t know if I could call it completely equal.
Can you play a truly collaborative storytelling game?
Anyway, this post is almost a week late, and I’m really tired, so what I’m saying is: going from a collaborative story game like D&D, where one person is in charge of the narrative, to one like Fall of Magic, where everyone is in charge of the narrative, was very difficult but only made possible because of our experience playing D&D. Is it possible to play a game that’s truly collaborative, with everyone contributing equally? Maybe, but it’ll take a lot of work and practice at role-playing, starting with games that reduce the load of improv by having one person in charge of the narrative. And honestly, it doesn’t matter how you tell the story, as long as everyone has fun doing so.
Thanks for reading!