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A Conflict of Styles

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue.

Game Masters of RPGs and writers of fiction have a few things in common. In particular, I think there are probably two main types of each.

On the one hand, you have plotters. These are the writers and GMs who plot everything out, at least in broad strokes. They know what the beginning, middle, and end of the story/adventure is supposed to look like, and while they may allow some deviation, a side-quest or detour here and there, they always find ways to put the plot back on track. You can get away with this as a writer, where you can control the characters, but it’s a lot harder to do as a GM. Nonetheless, even as a writer, there are drawbacks.

What happens to me, I’ve found, is that while I’m writing a particular scene, I realize that I didn't fully consider all the details when I was constructing the plot, and so I either have to abandon the plot, allowing things to flow naturally, or I have to put a finger (or maybe a whole arm) on the scales, to keep the story on course. Perhaps because my preference as a GM is to run sandbox campaigns rather than published adventures, my tendency when writing fiction is toward the first option. So I let things flow naturally, and the characters start making surprising decisions, and next thing I know, I'm writing stuff I never planned to write, and sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it falls flat. But the main problem is that the story can become a bit aimless, and this is a big problem.

The way I look at it, a finely-crafted novel is essentially an argument, a statement about something the writer feels is important for people to understand, and it’s explained in the form of a story, and so for the argument to be tight, the story has to be tight. It has to say exactly what it needs to say to make this argument, to propose this idea that it demonstrates. And so the story needs to have a direction. It needs to bear down on some goal, a final scene where everything is resolved.

Maybe that’s just not how life works. Maybe, in real life, we’re left with a bunch of conflicts that go largely, or at least partially, unresolved, and so maybe letting things flow naturally is more true to life. Regardless, I think when we read novels or engage in any sort of storytelling, at least part of what we’re looking for are lessons. But the way I write, which, by the way, is called “pantsing” (i.e., writing by the seat of your pants), doesn’t lend itself to formulating a tight, coherent argument. Like brainstorming, “pantsing” may weave a tapestry teaming with possibilities, and every so often, through fate or chance or perhaps even the favor of one or more muses, a tight story might emerge, but those cases, however welcome and magical, are unfortunately the exception, not the rule.

This Plotting vs. Pantsing continuum is likewise of importance to roleplayers, as I think some of the common dysfunctions that occur in RPG campaigns are ascribable to a mismatch between GM and Player styles/expectations. For example:

Plotty GM vs. Pantsy Player: The player tries to do something that will take the plot off-script. The GM responds by preventing this. This can happen simply due to a momentary lack of extemporaneous imagination.

Take, for example, a situation where a PC wants to investigate the local red light district. Obviously, there’s got to be a ton of roleplaying hooks, perhaps even adventure hooks, but how many GMs are prepared to run such encounters? How many are able to make up interesting encounters on the fly? What if the red light district has nothing to do with whatever adventure the GM is running? What if, from the GM’s perspective, this is just a pesky, prurient player trying to countermand the plot?

In such cases, the GM will probably respond to the player in a way that tells the player that there’s nothing there of any interest, nothing whatsoever, and so the player may get annoyed that whenever they try to initiate an unanticipated course of action, the GM effectively blocks them. Hence, why even play? Why not just play a video game instead? Or read a book? Or watch TV? If there’s no player-freedom, then what’s the point of roleplaying?

Pantsy GM vs. Plotty Player: The GM presents what is at first intended as a minor random encounter of the least memorable sort (for example: an encounter with a local farmer), and the player goes nuts, trying to figure out how this encounter fits into the big picture.1 They don’t want to miss a clue, so they keep investigating until they find one.

Maybe there’s a strange plant growing on the farm, one that’s unlike anything the farmer has ever seen. Or maybe the farmer is part of a committee planning rebellion. Maybe a gang of cutthroats has taken up residence on the farm, and they’re paying the farmer to keep quiet and aid in their coming and going. Maybe the farmer recently bought a robot that was once owned by a princess who needs saving.

Once the PCs start investigating something where the GM originally intended there to be nothing, should the GM stick with that initial presupposition, or should the GM expand and/or modify the initial presupposition in order to create a plot hook or something else of interest?2 And if the GM allows a player’s interest in something (their character’s attention, in effect) to modify the game reality, how do they then weave those disparate plot elements together into a cohesive story?3

There are no clear-cut answers to all these questions, but, at least, if we remember this idea about conflicting styles and how they manifest, we might be able to identify—and, thus, properly address—the root cause of some of the problems that occur at our game tables.