The stories that can't be played?

Most adventures and campaigns (if not all) follow common “Hero’s Journey” story structures.

But, especially with how modern roleplaying is commonly played, some seem impossible without the removal of (at least in part) something that is held sacrosanct; total player control over their character.

I’d like to examine one, and open the table to the presentation of others.

The one I want to look at is the trope of the unknown destiny. In this trope, you have an ordinary individual suddenly have to deal with the fact that their world has turned on its head as they are thrust into the responsibility of destiny or fate. This is almost always coupled with a special power or ability and, is always coupled with a mystery to be unravelled, and “hard” choices that the fate of many rest on.

We see this trope played out in:

  • Many Super Hero stories (Hal Jordan is bestowed a ring and the pilot becomes a space cop. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and discovers that with great power comes great responsibility, etc )

  • The great destiny stories (Like Skywalker discovers he is the son of a great Jedi and must bring balance to the Force. Harry Potter finds out he is a Wizard and must unravel the truth before evil dominates the world. Percey Jackson discovers what it means to be the son of a God, etc.)

Now it is not impossible to have this as part of a player’s role-play experience … But they can only come into the story after the big reveal. In other words they build the character as the Super hero, Jedi, Wizard, Demi-God, etc.

Hypothetically you could ask a group of players to build a stock standard person with an ordinary background, but to ask them to do so, without knowing the earth shattering reveal, would likely not get player buy in.

Even if you did reveal that you were not playing Store Clerks and House Husbands, the thought that the GM would dictate what the Player character would become seems to breach sacred RPG pacts.

But … If you look back over the origin stories of just the characters I have listed above, how they felt with the sudden understanding of their true self and actual state of their existence, all the hard choices they have to make during the transition period between revelation and acceptance, and how it shapes how they cope with their new lives moving forward, is what defines them as much as the final battles they have to endure.

Yet, the player and playing group can never truely explore this in game. The revelation and hard choices are already made at character creation.

Hal starts play with the ring and Green Lantern Battery.

Spiderman has already overcome the trial of the bully and the loss of Uncle Ben.

Luke has already found Old Ben, buried his Aunt and Uncle and starts his journey like many D&D groups do; in a tavern meeting the other PC’s he will adventure with.

Harry has already moved out from under the stairs and has had the sorting hat decide his house.

Percey is already at the training camp with the other Demi-Gods.

Worse still, the mystery does not exist and the destiny is outlined in the creation because the player made it up.

Hal’s character sheet already states he is vulnerable to yellow, Sinestro betrays the Lanterns and he starts the game as a member of the Justice league.

Spidey’s character sheet already lists the Goblin as his best friends Dad, Gwen is already likely dead and he already made the call to let the robber pass him unhindered causing the death of his beloved Uncle.

Luke’s sheet clearly lists Anakin Skywalker is not only his dad, but is already known to be Darth Vader and that Luke is determined to being him back to the light side. He already has a light Saber in his inventory.

Harry’s character sheet already explains why he has a scar on his head, what happened to his parents and who Valdemort is in relation to the Potters.

I would argue that while this certainly can influence the way a player will interact with the unfolding story, these backgrounds never have the impact on the player or the story like they would if they were created or unveiled in the game.

On top of this, the game played has to shoehorn this in as opposed to it “being” the basis of the story. It does not drive the story it only influences it … Maybe.

I want to create an RPG experience that provides the players the ability to experience “the origin” story. Moreover, I want the choices they make in that origin story to not only be meaningful, but actually dictate the direction and focus of the game.

In other words, when the player hears…

“The ring has chosen you”, “You wake up and find yourself with more muscle mass and for some reason you can’t let go of your sheets”, “You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.”, “You’re a Wizard Harry”, or, “Humans see what they want to see.”

Their reaction is not only not pre-scripted, based on a backstory, but in game is when they discover they are a galactic cop, teenage crime fighter, space wizard, spell slinger or a member of a modern Pantheon … And how they deal with this is played out and explored.

If I invited you to a game set today, asked you to make a character that lived a typical modern day life and was a reflection of a person that could be found in a major city, would you play? Especially knowing, that at some point in the story, your character’s understanding of the world would not only be turned on its head, but I would dictate what makes your character unique?

Am I stealing player agency with this concept, or am I really asking the player to focus on who the character truely is as a being, and their unique abilities forthcoming are akin to finding a unique magical artefact and deciding to do with it?


Few different thoughts.

First, many of the examples you share are solo stories that are kind of hard to make happen in a meaningful way in an RPG. While those are great inspirations for character ideas, RPGs should generally be thought of as an ensemble story. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a Peter Parker in your group, but the game as a whole should be focused on the Avengers.

Second, I’ve totally run campaigns that started with the players being normal people who gained power and had to discover what their powers were as play progressed twice. Now, there was genre buy in from the players, and I did some questioning to find out what kinds of powers they would be interested in playing. In each campaign, the players loved getting to play out discovering their powers, even after we’d shared the mechanics. They were all about learning how things work and interacting with the world.

Now one of the things to be careful of is that if you have the player build the character, asking them to NOT use something they’ve put on that sheet because you want to emulate the discovery of new powers, they’re probably going to get frustrated. You can do a game of discovery, but you have to find the right balance with player interest and buy-in.

Third, you mention that Luke Skywalker would have had written on his sheet that his father was Darth Vader to start with. Why? Well, if the player actually did that it’s because they WANT to play those scenes with their father being the big bad. They want that drama. Otherwise, the player probably just wrote that they didn’t know who their father was, other than he was dead. You as the GM could ask your player how much freedom you have to make up their father’s backstory. If the player’s all in for you going as far as you want, there’s no reason you can’t have that background note be a surprise reveal for the whole game.

(In a Star Wars game I played in, my Jedi was a child survivor of Order 66 because she hadn’t yet arrived at the Jedi Temple when it happened. I wrote of a Twi-lek Jedi sacrificing herself for my then child PC to escape. The GM ended up having that Twi-lek appear later in the game only to reveal she was actually a Sith. HUGE fun and deep surprise about WTF was going on.)

Basically, you can do these things with the players’ backgrounds, just have their buy in that it’s okay to do something unexpected with a note from their past. It’s better if players are encouraged to leave openings for new stories in their backgrounds anyway.

Now, I totally have a player that does not enjoy this. So I don’t do anything with his background without explicitly clearing it with him first. The other players are usually all in for big surprises like that. Know your players. :slight_smile:

In conclusion, I think most of what you’re talking about is part of the push and pull between players and GMs. You need their buy-in and ultimately their consent for things you do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build surprises and cool reveals into the game.


There are a number of examples where it happened to a group:

  • Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon. (Ordinary youth entering an alternate dimension and receiving unique relics.
  • Strike Force Morituri (Marvel Comics) - Humans agree to take on a process that provides random super powers so they can help fight off an alien invasion. (Catch is, the human body can’t hold the power for long and after a random time, they burn up and disintegrate.)
  • Sword Art Online - Players consciousness stuck in an MMO with in game death equating to real world death.
  • The Fantastic Four Origin story.

Many more, but I write to much already :wink:

This is a very good point.

Another very good point, but what I am talking about is providing a different experience.

When I sat in the movie theatre for the initial release of The Empire Strikes back, everyone in that theatre collectively held their breath and felt what Luke felt when Vader announced he was Luke’s father.

Afterwards people debated A) was it true?, and B) what this meant to Luke and the Rebellion? Then there was the whole “No, there is another”. speculation.

This only works in game if the player writes the incredibly unique background of “the orphan” and then doesn’t get angry if the GM retcons that backstory. Most players will get upset by this, much like the player you mentioned.

As I type this I can’t help but ask myself, “have players been given to much agency?” and “Is the trust in the GM dead?”

I asked the question, in a number of places “Why do you GM?” and the majority of GMs said because they loved witnessing when story basis adapts after first contact with the PCs. But are we limited in the story foundations we as GMs can present?

Affects / situations forced on player created characters in video games gets heralded as cool story twists, but do the same in a TTRPG and the GM is a crusified for stealing player agency. Why?

I realise this post is digressing a bit from my original one, but I can’t help but ask another question “Are today’s players so use to having control over their characters that our hobby is endanger of stagnating because GMs must play a certain way?”

I’m not talking about letting control freak or adverserial GMs push the players around like pawns for their amusement, but I can’t help but wonder if some story methods (that provide the emotional rides we enjoy in books and film) are closed to modern GMs and their table because of the way player agency is viewed.

Ang mention the push and pull of players and GM in her conclusion. I wonder how fair this tug of war is becoming in our hobby?

Buy in I agree with, and I would advocate hard for consent on themes and topics that could harm … But consent for all things we do as a GM? This is where I feel our hobby is endanger of becoming stagnant.

Gaming is an art. Like it or hate it, if a player agrees to join a table (and knowing they are safe and the GM is not being a dick), shouldn’t they accept the game as the GM presents it? After all, they did the majority of the work and should be trusted to provide the platform for the game that is for everyone’s benefit.

We know that overcoming adversity creates great moments and stories, so why are players afraid to let GMs take them on that ride?

Player agency should be with the choices and actions they get their characters to do, not over the story foundation or the craft style of the GM. This is not about telling the GMs story, but neither should it be wholly the PC’s story either because the GM is also a player… Aren’t they?

I hope none of the above is seen as an attack on your post @Ang. This post is not a rebuttal, but a philosophical rabbit hole it sent me down ( so thank you :smiley: )

I like the zero to hero style of game personally and that will certainly color my reply. Borrowing from Dungeon Crawl Classics would be one way to go. Characters start out as average mooks and through gameplay they find thier super powers, true identity, destiny, etc. This could take the place of a session zero. Players might even be able to pick the “what” of thier special/niche abilities, edges, feats, skills, etc., but the game master decides why and when they aquire them during gameplay

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This could be handled easily by placing the artifacts in a pile near where the characters enter the world, but instead of giving each character a relic allow them to choose.

Most zero-level funnels in DCC are written in such a way that there are items and encounters placed throughout the adventure, such as a an ancient spellbook or scroll or a religious item that then a character can interact with and in so doing choose the destiny/class for that character.

I also agree that buying to this style of play is essential. I also feel that while many mainstream games tend to give players most of the agency in game, there are still many games out there that give most agency and fiat to the GM


Let’s say you want to give the players a big surprise. Some big change to their character or to their backstory. If you haven’t at least checked in with the player to find out if they’re okay with something big happening, you stand a big chance of this whole thing blowing up in your face. Consent doesn’t mean having to destroy the mystery. Consent means making sure the player is on board for the ride, not necessarily having to know the exact destination.

I was in an Uncharted Worlds game that blew up in our faces because the GM ignored this rule. One of the players had a friendly NPC in his background that was the AI of a space station. During our second session, the GM insinuated very strongly that the AI had betrayed us and was behind the bad guys hunting us. An argument very quickly started as the player whose NPC it was got upset that his friend was betraying him out of the blue and the GM was confused that we were upset because it was his job to twist the setting and surprise us. The problem was, he took something that player created as a good thing and used it against us before we could even experience the good as part of play.

If the GM had questioned the player a little more about the AI NPC, he might have understood how important that friendship was to the character (and the player). He might have also been able to start asking some leading questions, seeding some doubt about the NPC’s loyalty. Instead, he jumped straight into a big exciting twist that could have worked in a novel, but in a game just made the whole thing come crashing down.

Yes, the GM is a player too, but ultimately, the best games are a collaboration between the players and the GM. If the players aren’t helping create the story of the game, then why are they there? Consent could be as simple as, “Hey, I want to throw some surprises in here, so let’s leave some holes in your backgrounds that I we can discover through play.”

It is a very old school thing for the players to resist the GM taking them on a ‘ride’ and it runs deep in gaming. Sometimes this is because players have been burned by bad GMs that do stuff and it just screws the players and their characters over. Sometimes it has to do with GMs who do stuff with good intention, but without reading the players well or getting their buy-in on some of what they’re about to do.

I have some GM friends who run Mutants and Masterminds. When they want to pull a GM fiat to advance the story, they will say, “I’ll give you a hero point if you let me narrate what happens here and just go with it.” Yeah, it’s blunt and a bit jarring, but every single damn time it has made for a fantastic story. But they get past that old-school hesitancy by saying “Here. Take this and let’s go on a ride for a little bit.” They convince the players to go on the ride. :slight_smile:

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I was about to use this as an example of what I was talking about until I read the part about not experiencing the AI before “the twist”.

I’m still in two minds about it, but I concede that without being there it’s hard for me to get the full story.

On the surface, I feel a GM should be able to use anything entered into the game in a way they see fit. However, if that AI had not been part of the story till it became a foe, I would class that as sloppy GMing.

I wouldn’t be afraid to use the AI as an adversary, but I would be inclined to have that AI be part of the story early so that the playing group could care about the AI. That way when it changed motivation, I would hope the players would see it as a victim and try to fix (rescue) it.

This could then lead to some interesting play around debate over trusting sentient but vulnerable technology, ensuring its safety, etc.

Most of all that would validate it’s creation by the player.

What I have stated here however would still not fly at many tables (I’m guessing), with players being up in arms about the GM taking control over player agency vs seeing that the GM had provided a new challenge and an interesting story component that the players can interact with as they see fit.

I like this and I’m going to steal it for work. @Ang I think you just fixed a problem one of my GMs is have :smiley:

Outside of my work though …
Isn’t the story the players get to interact with the reward? The GMs job is to create tension, obstacles and challenges for the players to pit their characters against. Why does a GM have to bribe the player to do their job?

As much as I like the idea, I wonder if it is an example of what I contemplated down my rabbit hole?

This is a great point.

I wonder why this is not addressed in new RPGs and (especially) new editions?

I had to think about this one for a bit.

As you and I have very similar goals with RPG and assisting others, I pondered the pros and cons of this.

For the therapy gaming side of things, life has many instances where we don’t get to choose (at least not for a while).

There are times we stay in jobs we don’t like till a better one is available. Sometimes we have to study, save, wait, etc until we get the thing we want. Sometimes we don’t know something is good till we pick something else and see that what we had was better.

Developing ways to cope with this, and plan goals to overcome, or become aware of what we have are core skills.

Imagine being the kid that was assigned the Paladin role and got the shield. I see everyone else get a weapon and think I’ve been short changed. As the facilitator I can leverage this to assist in:

  • Learning how to regulate frustration.
  • Learning how to negotiate an exchange.
  • Learning teamwork.
  • Learning how to understand that taking care of others is as important as fighting.
  • Learning to think outside the box and using the shield for more than a blocking device.

Outside of therapy gaming:
Why can’t the assignment of abilities / items be seen in the same light as triumphing over other obstacles and challenges in the game?

Or… why do characters need to be thought of in terms of their “game function” as their main focus? How does the game change? What new stories can we explore if the character focus is on their values, responcibilities, beliefs and culture instead?

Now a role is thrust upon them, which is not only the underpinning of the story played, but is as important a challenge as the obstacles and foes they face.

The player is now not making choices for their character based on a preconceived notion of party role, but on being a person and all that encompasses.

Of course I totally agree. I think the only thing that is really needed to run a game like this is trust and buy-in. From a teaching/therapy perspective I would think that buy-in and trust are somewhat taken care of before the game begins. At least buy in, trust should be expected later in as much as can be expected from students/clients based on thier particular needs.

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I like this and I think that the founders of our hobby played this way. As the games have grown and spawned console and PC, an now mobile app RPGs, mainstream tabletop RPGs have begun to emulate those games—a bit of an ouroboros.

There is much rhetoric today about how ttrpgs should cater to the exclusive enjoyment of the PCs to the extent of spoon feeding the players and making success easy or almost guaranteed.

This does not mean we have to play this way. Again, DCC does not do this and is still popular enough to continue to be commercially viable.

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Last Castles and Crusades session, a PC REALLY needed to make a pretty doable roll… needed a 12 on a d20 or something. Got a ?3?. Anyway, didn’t even think about the source until I said it, but I just went with “hey, take the Devil’s Bargain to make the roll? I get one free over on you later, and I’ll make that hit”. I don’t know that anyone in that group read/ played/ remembers Blades in the Dark, but the dude jumped on it. It can be fun, for sure, to just GO!

To some of Frank’s comments there, I know I for one play with a group that is “not- optimal” in regards to PC builds. My HackMaster group’s wizard get’s a lot of use out of a bow, the thief’s favorite part of the game is the down time in town and spends a lot build points on animal handling. I agree with you, this is a cliché in the hobby with good reason, I’m just happy my particular bag of mixed nuts breaks that particular mold a bit.

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I had a further thought on this, so forgive the possible tangent or dead horse brutality. :slight_smile:

You kind of posed this original topic as frustration with players not… playing along. Not engaging with the story in the way the GM has prepared. It’s incredibly frustrating for a GM, but in some ways I look at it as a learning experience.

When I create a scenario for a game, if the players don’t engage with it in the way I thought they would, whether it’s lack of enthusiasm, disinterest, or taking it in ways I didn’t intend, I tend to try and figure out where I went wrong instead of what my players might have done wrong. If the scenario doesn’t go off the way I intended, I figure I misjudged something about player engagement or interests.

Now admittedly, like we talked about earlier up thread, there can sometimes be trust issues in players that have to be mitigated, and sometimes players (especially newer ones) need some encouragement to engage with the game in the way I was hoping. But frankly, a lot of times when scenarios go belly up, it’s because I didn’t properly figure out what my players would enjoy.

Now, this is not to say players are never a problem. Hell, probably a good half of my articles on the Stew are specifically because some player annoyed the heck out of me during a game and I wanted to vent about it. It can be super frustrating to figure out how to best bring a plot to the players, but it’s just as much on the GM’s shoulders as it is on the players’.


Ang is a better GM than me.

She tried to figure out “where (she) went wrong”. I just say “oh, guess we’re going this way now”.

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Oh. In this instance I’m not railing against players. (Though I am not afraid too … Players want all, but won’t do the work, then bitch when the game does not go the way they want. :wink: )

I’m not complaining about anything really. This started with me thinking out loud about how some story types would be difficult (to impossible) to be played with how the role of player and GM is seen (broadly speaking) today.

Reflection on your comments, I had two lines of thoughts. 1) Maybe I could do the story basis I wanted to try after all, and, 2) has the concept of “Player Agency” gone to far in relation to how it has changed the role of the GM?

I have seen many photos of you running games on social media and I have looked jealousy at your players wishing I was one of them

Anything you were running I would join in on. As a player I would respect your table and play the game that you presented. Unless you presented something I found offensive or dangerous, I would play the session to the end. If I did not enjoy it, I would ask you after the session what I was not understanding or where you envision the game heading. If I did not think it was for me, I would thank you for the opportunity to play, but that my spot should go to someone else looking for that style of game. Hopefully, I could have a go at whatever you tried next.

I would not take you to task over not playing the game the way I want it played, nor that my player agency was being infringed upon.

Yet, from the sentiments I have heard and read in various RPG communities … Very few people would do this. Worse still, their response would be down right antagonistic.

I can’t help but wonder how many new GMs the hobby has lost and how many unique gaming experiences have never been tried because of fear of player disapproval?

I’d be hounered to be in a game run by either of you!


High praise. I’m truly honored.
Thank you.

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I’m just a player like everyone here. But I do bring snaks for everyone:)


I was going to make this a new post to discuss, but I think it fits here.

This extends beyond pointing out problems. It comes about in many instances when anyone wants to relook at a rule or concept.

This is my biggest fear for the gaming community as a whole. It is reflecting the us vs them prevalent in today’s world … yet RPGs should be about tolerance, exploration of concepts and escapism.

How do games, where there is no “real” right ways to play, that are about having fun and collaboration, develop communities of Gate Keeping, segregation and absolutes?

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Some of this sounds like a GM Trust and Knowing Your Players issue. I’m all about Player Agency because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control in life, but if your players trust you they’ll be okay with Bait & Switch or Zero to Hero styles. I think nearly all of my games are Zero to Hero because I want to believe I can be more than I was always told I would be.

As far a the recent question…

Our games are a reflection of the world we live in. Our world can be a reflection of of games. We can choose to exclude and keep people apart because of their differences, or choose to draw people together because of our similarities. The choice is ours.

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FANTASTIC editorial, yo! Thanks for posting.

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