Why Player Narrative Control is Good for You and Your Group

This is a companion piece to one written by Michael of The RPG Academy.

Michael just explained to those who don’t allow for Player Narrative Control (PNC) how to get your feet wet and try it. I, however, am going to take the other approach and throw you in the deep end! Instead of explaining how to do it, I’m going to let you know why you should do it.

It Keeps the Creative Flowing

When you’re the GM, you have a lot of creative-load you need to worry about. You don’t just have to come up with your adventure outline, but you have to portray every other character in the game world. That’s a lot to keep track of. In addition, when it comes time to be specific with actions (usually combat, but sometimes sneaky-time and talks-bit too) you’re all of the sudden expected to narrate what the PCs do, too? Not me.

You’re just one person. No matter how creative you are, after a few combats you’re going to run out of cleaver ways of saying “you hit” and “you miss”. If you let your players narrate how they succeed or fail at an action, you just have to worry about the NPCs. That’s 3 or more narrations each round you don’t have to worry about. And if the PCs have out-of-turn actions, that’s even more narrative workload you don’t have to worry about.

This allows you to direct your creative energies to the NPCs, the world, and the game session.

It Empowers Players

When I play an RPG, there is little else that bugs me more than when the GM takes my narrative control away, and tells the table how my character does something. It’s my character, damnit, I’ll tell you how she succeeds or fails. Even if the GM is narrating a success, it’s rarely how I envision my character to act.

When you give your players control of their character’s actions, they can use it to portray their character using actions instead of just with their dialogue. And we all know that actions speak louder than words. The way your character responds to success and failure says a lot about them. And, as Michael points out in the climbing example, it gives the players wiggle room to blame the circumstances for their failure. In his example, the dwarf isn’t a bad climber, he just ran out of handholds to use.

The player characters are the Big Damn Heroes of the story. They don’t fail often, they just encounter setbacks due to no fault of their own. They rock it out even when the dice say they don’t get what they want.

It Cements the Player’s Ownership of their Characters

As an off-shoot of the above point, the player’s characters are the only thing they have full control over in the game…until they don’t.

If you give your player’s narrative control over their characters they get full control of their character. All the time. Like I said above, I dislike it when someone else portrays my character in a way that isn’t exactly how I see my character. Give that power to your players. They will usually repay you with more storytelling and character insights.

It Opens Up More Opportunities for PNC

Once your players are used to owning every single aspect of their character, even when the dice are being rolled, you can start to give them control over other things in the game world.

“You walk into the local bar, and all it falls silent as the bartender points at the dwarf and says, ’not again, not you.” You turn to the dwarf’s player, “you recognize the bartender, who do you know her and what did you do that made her react this way?”

You just hooked the dwarf’s player into the story that otherwise would have been a boring, ‘the bartender tells you a story about gold in the caves outside of town’ story. Now one of the player’s owns the story, and they are going to remember it for a long time to come.

Of course, before you drop a bomb like that on your group, make sure they know ahead of time that it’s going to happen, and always give the players an out. If the dwarf’s player doesn’t want to be on the bad side of the bartender, make sure the player knows they can say (in-character, of course), “Oh, I’m sorry friend. You seem to have me confused with someone else.”

Think of it like refusing a compel in Fate. Heck, depending on the game you’re playing, there might be fate points, Hero Points, character points, plot points, inspiration, fortune, or any number of other meta-currency you can hand out to a player who engages with a story to their immediate detriment.

It Encourages Player Attentiveness

If you throw out a PNC-able option every other scene or so, you might just find that your players are paying more attention to the game then they otherwise would. If they have the option to change the story in a way of their choosing, they’re going to have to know what’s harpening so they can properly influence the plot.

PNC Is Not For Everyone

With all of the above reasons to use PNC, it’s not for everyone. Some players are perfectly fine with the GM being in charge of everything and won’t want to add their 2cp. Some players aren’t there for the story, so they couldn’t care less about why the barkeep is mad at their dwarf.

Everyone is different, and every table is different. Make sure you discuss with your table before introducing PNC, and be sure to take a read of how they are taking it every few sessions. You might be surprised to find the actor player doesn’t want to bother with the tedium of narrating their combat attacks. Or the slayer player who jumps all over telling you how awesome their character is, even when the dice fail them.

Like Michael said, start slow and start small. Ask for feedback every few sessions, see who’s liking it and who isn’t’. And don’t be afraid to give PNC to some players but not others.

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