Last week I mentioned that I didn’t know why I had such a hard time getting people to play Capes, but that’s not entirely true. For at least some of my players, it seems to be a fundamental distaste for divergence from the typical player/GM relationship; a divergence that is key to a lot of story games. And it’s not a fear of the responsibility of having deep control over the narrative, but seems to be more focused on a preference for elements that are lost with the transition. Specifically, these players crave the process of discovery: unraveling a world created by someone else (the GM) through the medium of a character. To this type of player, giving everyone at the table an equal share in developing the world, even if there are rules governing how much control each person has, feels almost solipsistic. To paraphrase one player’s opinion, “I make something up, then my character learns about it. Yay?”

Meanwhile, I’ve had tremendous success with large levels of player participation in setting generation. I ran several sessions of a Nobilis chronicle where the players spent most of their time in their own Chancel, solving mysteries based on the elements they’d purchased in group character generation. Lately, I’ve been having a huge amount of buy-in using Smallville pathways to let the players outline all significant NPCs, themes/core plot elements, locations, etc. And, in general, players love Fate-point-type mechanics where they have an expendable currency to seize narrative agency. But the clear difference in all these situations is that I’m still creating secret elements out of the inputs provided by the players: with a GM involved, familiar elements are understood to be altered once they get run through the GM’s brain. I’ve had players create an NPC, add it to the map, make a bunch of connections defining that NPC’s personality, and finish by saying, “I wonder what she’s up to.”

Now, these behaviors are spread across a lot of players, so I can’t be certain that the assortment that’s been involved lately in group chargen wouldn’t have a great time in GMless story games as well. But the sense I get is that there’s some kind of bright line: a minimum level of GM involvement beyond which the game suddenly changes into a style of play that traditional gamers aren’t particularly interested in. So I wonder if that’s even true, and, if true, what that baseline is.

What are your experiences? How much narrative agency can your group share before it crosses the line? And does it feel like crossing a line to your group, or you individually, or is it all just a continuum?

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