How Much Can A Player Define A World?

There is an almost universal trope in tabletop RPGs that a player (other the GM) only has narrative control of their own character. That is, they have very little ability to create and define parts of the world – the narrative – the character exists in.

When creating a new character a player can only decide the character’s personality, physical description and aspects of their background though there are games which make these random or have some GM prescribed limitations. With the agreement of the GM the player may have backstory involving NPCs and a particular place – a small village or tribe – but once created the player loses control of them. Later on, if the GM decides the village need to be wiped out by orcs as part of an adventure the player has no say in the issue. Generally in RPGs the GM defines the narrative and grants the players a very limited narrative scope to control it. This is not part of just tradition / OSR style games but happens in many story games and is often quiet subtle.

Imagine a player wanting a character 8′ tall with long purple hair in a game set in the modern world. Some GM’s would say this is impossible – humans don’t get that big – and exercise their narrative control. Other GMs would allow it but the character is treated as a freak – constantly stared at and shunned by normal humanity. With this the GM has allowed the player’s narrative scope to define the character but is exerting their narrative control by having the entire world treat the character as a freak. Of course a GM may not exercise any control and not have the world treat them as a freak – in this narrative world no one bats an eyelid at massively tall people with strange hair.

None of these answers is right though it is better to say none of these answers are wrong. What’s right is whatever works for that group of players and that game. Whatever the answer the basic assumption in tabletop games is that it is the GM who gets to decide the answer.

Why Player’s Don’t Have Greater Scope

There are a number of a practical problem with most RPGs which limit the scope of players but there is also a cultural one – most entertainment is passive. In films and books the author or director is the GM and us – the audience – passively accept what is given to us. We cannot control the narrative at all unless we set about creating fan-fiction and our own headcanon. A lot of this passivity carries over into tabletop games, especially when the scope we are given in RPGs can seem immense to new players, and we expect to be spoon-fed adventures for our characters.

On a less abstract level, giving players more narrative scope can cause problems. A GM with a 200 page campaign book cannot allow a player to arbitrarily decide their backstory involves a kingdom of dragons when there isn’t a undefined mile of land on the no-doubt beautifully drawn campaign map. There is the other problem of game balance. Letting a player decide their character is a prince, favorite son to the monarch and heir to the richest kingdom in the land, logically means that character is considerably richer and better equipped than the rest of the party.

Is It A Problem?

In essence, the more the GM defines the world and the more a game tries to simulate a particular reality, the greater the restrictions on the players narrative scope. Again, none of this is wrong or makes a bad game anymore than the audiences lack of control over a book makes all books bad.

However it is worth recognising that how we write RPG games, how we buy and use source material as GMs defines a players control over the narrative world they occupy. This in turn limits the stories we can tell within those games. If we want tabletop RPGs to tell a greater variety of stories we need to look at new structures of games which enable players to be more active in defining the world and to have wider narrative scope.