What are some existing or potential game mechanics that encourage players to "take the reins" a bit more and involve themselves in a story-telling perspective? Specifically, are there any examples of meta-gaming mechanics that encourage players to work together in the construction and evolution of plot elements?

I'm specifically looking for some sort of mechanic that encourages (relatively new) players to introduce and modify story elements, to help them move beyond the player seat and become more involved in story co-creation.

Ideally such a mechanic includes a feedback mechanism that requires co-operation or consent with others at the table in a mechanistic way. Currently we are using a FATE-point-like system, but the effect is that players are mostly pushing their idea with bids, rather than collaborating.

  • \$\begingroup\$ To refine the question a bit for specifics: -some sort of mechanic that encourages (relatively new) players to have the power to introduce and modify story elements, to help them move beyond the player seat and become more involved in story co-creation. Ideally it is something with a feedback mechanism that requires co-operation or consent with others at the table in a mechanistic way. Currently we are using a FATE point like system. It is manifesting in that players are mostly pushing their idea with bids, rather than collaborating. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron B
    May 10, 2011 at 12:27
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I edited your comment into the question itself where it will more likely be noticed by potential answerers. \$\endgroup\$ May 10, 2011 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ The clarification narrows it down a lot, thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 10, 2011 at 20:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, a definite improvement! \$\endgroup\$ May 10, 2011 at 20:19

5 Answers 5


You can also encourage everyone at the table to follow guidelines established by improv practitioners; these become less "rules of the game" and more "rules of play" (i.e. they don't really answer "what can I do next" as much as they address "whatever I'm going to do next, how do I do it?"):

Accept every offer. During the course of play, other players will make suggestions about the ongoing narrative, sometimes directly involving your character. Accept what's offered; don't block their suggestions. Try, as much as possible not to say "no", literally, or figuratively. Don't say "no", say "yes".

Accept and build with new offers. During the course of player, when you have an opportunity for agreement, don't just agree (see first guideline). Take what's offered, and build on it with a return offer. There are two ways to do this: add detail, and add complication. Note that both of these help you steer around the natural reaction against the first guideline ("I don't want that!") to "get what you want" or "avoid what you don't want" for your character. Don't just say "yes", say "yes, and..." or "yes, but...".

Make simple offers. There are a bunch of other players at the table; just as with boardgames, play rolls along more smoothly when there's as little down-time as possible. Engaging the other players is key, so when you provide details, be simple, straightforward, and incremental and then throw the tempo to another player (or the referee). When you say "yes, and..." (or "yes, but...") say only one thing.

These are also commonly known as "No Blocking", "No Wimping", and "No Steamrolling".

For some more explanation about how these things work in improvisational theatre, check out the Improv 101 series of blog posts (I found them by googling "no blocking no wimping", so they were a fast find, not necessarily "the best" find -- lots of other improv resources exist). There are lots of ways in which improv doesn't map well to RPG gaming, but in a lot of ways, good advice there is good advice here.

Based on personal experience, I might suggest one that's gaming specific and in the spirit of the improv guidelines:

The game is a player. You can think of the game's rule engine itself as a player at the table: so, when it has offers (i.e. you use the rules to help adjudicate an outcome), don't block or wimp or steamroll its offers. As much as you possibly can, resist temptation to fudge the offers of the game itself; as much as you possibly can, try to play the game as written (before you decide some part of it is "clearly broken" or "not to your taste"). In Burning Wheel, terms, you can think of this as "Say yes, and roll the dice..." The dice can suck, but you must give them that freedom: it makes for memorable play experience.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ "The game is a player" - that's the best explanation for not fudging I've ever read. +1!! \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    May 11, 2011 at 4:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aramis You can thank me listening faithfully to "Sons of Kryos" and "The Durham Three" for encouraging me to think about fudging and improv technique a lot. Sadly, neither podcast is still going, but it's possible their historical archive is still available, and they're generally well worth listening to. \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2011 at 12:38

My personal favorites are:

  1. Rolling for determination of outcome choice
  2. defining truths
    • spending fate or experience to define some setting truth
    • Using skill rolls to define setting truths
  3. cooperative setting building.

To detail these better....

Rolling for Determination of Outcome Choice

You don't roll for success nor failure; you roll to take control of who decides. In the two systems I've seen using it, you can take penalties to get to say something more about the success or failure.

Sample games: Houses of the Blooded, Blood & Honor.

Defining Setting Truths

With a skill, it's true until someone changes it by actions in play, or spends fate to define it otherwise. With fate, it's simply true for the setting unless circumstances lead to it changing.

So, if I define that Gnarfi the Great is scared of spiders by using my Knowledge(Magicians of note) skill, it's true until someone spends fate on a counter definition, or uses psychology to cure him of it. John later spends a fate to define that Gnerfi is paralyzed by his fear of spiders, well, that's setting truth until either he's psychologied out of his terror.

Sample games: Houses of the Blooded, Blood & Honor, FATE, Burning Wheel, Burning Empires.

Cooperative setting building

Roll or bid for some setting chunk per player; each writes that up, and presents it to the group. The central setting might be defined by the group jointly, each person picking some option, or wheeling and dealing.

Sample games: Houses of the Blooded, Blood & Honor, Diaspora (Fate system), Burning Empires, Ars Magica.



There's about a hundred mechanics like this; this is the main thing the indie games movement is into nowadays. On the far side where the players take on so much of the storytelling responsibilities that you don't even need a GM, you have examples like The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries and Fiasco. There's a large spectrum of options with differing amounts of player authorship, ranging all the way over to games like Feng Shui which are still primarily traditional but allow players some limited tactical authorship.

As a result this question is pretty vague - do you want narrative ruleset recommendations (for what purpose)? Do you want some small narrative mechanics to import into a trad game like D&D? This is like asking a car question about "Are there such a thing as trucks?" Yes, there are a lot of them. What specifically more are you interested in?


Now that the question's been edited to "small techniques to add to my trad game to get the players to collaboratively develop story threads," I will answer directly.

In a current Alternity campaign, the GM handed out sheets for each player to contribute a plot element for another character. You could seed these with general ideas from a deck of vague plot ideas if you wanted to, or you could freeball it. Anyway, we'd write up a plot thread and then the GM would incorporate it. After the first blush of that subplot, he'd hand them back out to other players to tack more thoughts onto. It got player input without explicit PC to PC voting or whatnot and was still GM-brokered. But I think the problem you're seeing is that it is GM brokered and you want the PCs to work it out with each other. (Are you willing to give up GM control or does that need to be part of the mechanic?)

Or you could adapt how the Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries does it. There, when one player proposes a plot element the other players can veto it by one saying "I daresay not!" and another saying "I concur!" You can change this to genre specific language and obviously you can use it in veto mode or vote-approval mode. Perhaps the player suggests something with a point and other players support it with a "Huzzah!" You can still use things like Fate Points to activate the proposals.

In CftEoM, that's used for in-play plot elements, but even the overall adventure construction and determination of hazards, nemeses, etc. is done in a collaborative session at the beginning of play. That sounds like farther than where you're going, but you can just start every game session with a guided brainstorm of what the players want to face over the course of it, then you get into a fully narrative game.

If you are just looking for a very light getting started intro, Feng Shui is what opened my eyes from full trad to some player authorship. It's not an explicity mechanized or collaborative thing, it's more of an attitude of "you are free to make up things about the environment." If you're having a fight in a pizza parlor, you can just say "I grab a pizza cutter and slash it across the Yakuza's face" instead of "Hey GM, is there something I can use as a weapon within reach?" As GM I would just reply with "I don't know, IS there?" till they got the hint (or in extreme cases once most of the group was getting it, I'd start saying "no" to show them if they just narrated it it was fine but there was a downside to continuing to appeal to the GM). It trains you too; I've seen many GMs trying to introduce narrative elements but still reliably blocking the characters with the small stuff, which leads to an unhealthy spiral.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree it was a rather broad question, but the intent was to survey any paths I had overlooked, and start a thread for others' future reference. I'll happily refine the question for more specific feedback. Thanks for the links, those are great examples. The co-operative mechanic involvement I'm searching for lies somewhere in between Fenh Shui and Fiasco; moving beyond tactical changes to a situation, and having a way to affect the scene whilst still staying mostly in the player perspective \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron B
    May 10, 2011 at 12:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is very true, and think the question seriously needs more focus. As it is, I can't believe anyone has tried to answer it, and I don't have much faith in the answers given as a result. There are so many possibilities on such a wide spectrum that it seems the only way you could answer it is not to know enough about the subject! :-) \$\endgroup\$ May 10, 2011 at 19:54

The best device I've seen to do this organically is Beliefs in the Burning Wheel systems. By stating their current, short-term goals for their characters the players can drive plot development. When the players do this together, as group, it's even better. And they don't need to have similar or related Beliefs - in fact it can be better if they are at odds with each other - but they can still develop their characters' Beliefs together as a group.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is often how it works in freeforms. \$\endgroup\$ May 10, 2011 at 19:21

If you're dealing with absolutely new players, probably the best thing you can do is accept whatever suggestion they make the first couple of times. That way they continue making contributions. If they get shot down early on they'll learn they don't want to do it, because it doesn't get accepted. That's probably why these mechanics got introduced in the first place.

Something you could do is make any information related skills work like everything does in Donjon, so the player has something in mind that they're looking for, say as far as a local history check or some such thing goes. If they succeed on the check, they get to decide what information they gathered, rather than just confirming they succeeded and waiting for the GM to tell them what has happened.

Another thing that would likely be very beneficial is to take a collaborative character and world generation, such as what's in Legends of Anglerre, and other FATE based systems (and non-FATE based systems, like Leverage), and start that way. If everyone realises from the first session that they have to contribute to the world being built, as well as to the development of other characters, they'll probably be more in the habit of introducing new facts without any specific mechanical impetus.


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