By Bryan Shipp
“Story trumps rules.”
This is an old adage, and nearly every experienced GM can roll this off her tongue. It has been published in core rulebooks and master’s books for nearly every system, and for good reason: the role of the GM did not originate as a storytelling role.
The earliest Game Masters, or Dungeonmasters, were not necessarily the best entertainers or the best storytellers, they were the people who knew the rules best and who could afford to buy all the rulebooks and supplements. They were in control of the world, the rules and the story. But over the years new systems were introduced and the role evolved—and so these game systems now include this fundamental commandment to remind us that while rules are involved in our games, they are not the heart of our games.
And the GM who is not enslaved to the rules can really focus in on the needs of story and the needs of his players without necessarily knowing all the rules. Because while story is of tantamount importance to a good GM, it is not of sole importance—if it were, we would be nothing more than novelists who didn’t bother to publish!
Through collaboration with our players, we can make our stories more expansive, and tailor their themes and scope to both their desires and our own. For instance, if your players want more of a horror-themed RPG, and you would rather focus more on medieval adventure, you can combine the two into something set in Ravenloft. Through working with our players, we will wind up telling stories that might be out of our normal routines, but which we may find are much richer as a result.
Collaboration continues after the story is framed through interaction with players within the game. This interaction can spin the story in directions we did not anticipate—for example, let’s say an orphaned character meets her biological father. We’re thinking the character will have an internal emotional conflict about this—but then the player, upon reflection, decides that her character moved on years ago and no bond is formed. This throws a bit of a curve in our story, but the character has advanced even though it is in a different direction than we were expecting.