[RPG] Why is the GM usually the driving force in RPG


In my limited experience, the GM provides a story to the players, and their "main" characters mostly react to the environment. Having a look at a couple of random highly-voted (and IMO high-quality) answers on this site, confirms the same impression:

As a GM, it is your job to create an enjoyable game.

one of the great strengths of role playing games is the fact that the players can actually influence the story

I was going to ask a question on Writers.SE about plot writing for one-offs, but something was not right. The question was coming out clumsy.

A similar question to mine was answered that the main character should experience:

Conflict, Rising action, Climax, Denouement. No subplots, not many secondary characters.

So I attempted to explain that in RPG, we have several equally-important main characters that drive the plot.

Wait, NO. The GM drives the plot! So what is "main" about the main characters?

I have heard about narrative-heavy games, but never been exposed to one, nor do I see many question on this site about such.

Why are RPG plots/scripts different than those of a book or a movie – in the aspect that not the main character(s) create the story, but the environment around them?

Thank you everyone for the wonderful answers. Here are my personal conclusions:

  • Speak with future players/DMs if they too like sandbox play with elements of drama (failing that, sit at home and play Skyrim).
  • Try different systems. Try FATE.
  • Play with people with imagination, who enjoy using it.

Best Answer

The key concept to understand the difference between RPG's fiction and written fiction is that of authority.

In a written story, trivially the author has authority over main characters and the environment, so she can optimize the sequence of events (the plot) to heighten the emotional impact for the reader (if she knows what she is doing).

But let's not forget that RPGs were invented to mix the experience of war games with the emotional appeal of written fiction.

In war games, the environment is fixed, and each player has authority over one and only one character (whether an army or a single person doesn't matter). To mix this with the kind of flexibility the story in a book can have, the most natural step is to simply give authority over environment to another player.
Thus the concept of Game Master is born: it's the single person who has the responsibility of setting-up a situation, gather the reactions of other players, and let the game mechanics decide the result.

There is a problem though: since dice have no sense of aesthetics, it can often be the case that a satisfactory resolution of a conflict is spoiled because excessive bad or good luck. The Game Master is then given authority over rules, so she can bend or ignore them for the sake of the story. This is the modern understanding of the GM: the player with authority over rules and environment, with the implicit responsibility of the plot.

However, once you explicitly recognize this, you can start playing with the structure.

You can, for example, remove the authority over rules, keep the GM's authority over environment, and come up with game mechanics that automatically steers the story in an interesting and balanced direction. Games like Dogs in the vineyard or Apocalypse world retain a traditional role for the GM (minus rule-bending) while employing narrative conflict resolution (the so-called narrative games).

Or you can have chance-based conflict resolution but share the authority over environment and characters between active and non-active players, usually in a turn-based structure (the so-called master-less games). If I'm not mistaken, Polaris, Shock and Dirty secrets follow this structure.

Other games employ both: Fiasco, for example, has a turn-based shared authority with a bare-bone narrative conflict resolution; it is thus in the category of master-less narrative games.

All these approaches produce different kind of stories, aimed at different kind of emotional impact: written fiction is (supposedly) maximized for the passive consumer, who has no responsibility. RPGs, on the other side, optimize for immersion and responsibility, and regulate the unfolding of the plot by mechanic means, sharing authorities in different ways.