Sep 18

Plot vs. Story, Part 1: Narrative Responsibilities


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmAny discussion of roleplaying often uses the terms “plot” and “story”, sometimes interchangeably. As a narrative GM, I value these principles highly. Yet, it strikes me that people often mean different things by these labels.


Quibbling over the meaning of labels fuels many heated debate on the forums. For a hobby which struggles to determine exactly what constitutes an RPG, these arguments are all part of being a Geek. However, a lack of clear terms can hold back our hobby.


This essay presents one way to divide up the terms plot and story, in a way to make them relevant to GMs. If we can assign these terms to separate areas of our game, then it will help us discuss our hobby.


RPG Plot

As with any good thesis, it helps to begin by defining our terms. I see plot as primarily the bailiwick of the GM. Plot is the storytelling part of a GM’s game preparation. This includes the plans of GMCs, natural disasters and any random event which appears in the path of the Heroes. These plans may vary in scope from the campaign-spanning plot to control the Cosmos, to the likely tactics of a warrior in combat.


All of these plots are intended to have an impact on the story, but they do not form the story. Plots do not control the narrative, for what plan survives contact with the enemy? However, every plot is intended to drive the narrative, to present a problem to the Heroes. Plot is the GM’s input into a roleplaying game.


RPG Story

Story, in contrast, is what happens during a roleplaying game. This means the events at your table, the sum of the Player and GM contributions. Ours is a collaborative hobby, and the story is the product of this joint creation.


The ongoing story at the table is strongly influenced by whatever plot the GM introduces. However, this plot is only the starting point, the recipe for the session. What actually happens at the table is the story: the banter, awesome stunts and swings of fortune. The story is the narrative created by everyone playing the game together.


Never the Twain

With the terms outlined, I hope the relevant purposes of the two concepts are much clearer. The importance of this distinction really only applies to the GM. All of the pre-game preparation of narrative elements by the GM generates plot.


The GM is free to present any or all of her plots to the Players. In some games, or with some groups of Players, the GM needs to offer up some plot events to set the game in motion. However, once the Players enter the scene, we are in the realms of story. This is not scripted by the GM, and may prove to have little relation to the initial plot presented to the Players.


I believe this is why we play our games, to see what happens, to share the story. If one person is dominating the game, then this is not so fun for everyone involved. A dominant Player is just as bad for a group as a dominant GM.


The story which emerges at the table should be the result of a collaboration between everyone present. The GM has a special role to play in this collaboration, and hence her contribution merits a dedicated term. Plot can play a strong role in determining the direction of the story, but plot does not control the story.


Manage Expectations

The essence of this distinction between plot and story is to manage the expectations of everyone at the table. Separating these two concepts underlines the approach of playing to find out what happens. This principle is clearly established in the superb Dungeon World, by Sage Kobold Games:


This is how you play to find out what happens. You’re sharing in the fun of finding out how the characters react to and change the world you’re portraying. You’re all participants in a great adventure that’s unfolding. So really, don’t plan too hard. The rules of the game will fight you. It’s fun to see how things unfold, trust us.


Dungeon World is available via DriveThruRPG [affiliate link].


This mindset cedes more control of the game to the Players. When it is clear in the GM’s mind where the limits of their authorial input lie, then the GM is automatically more open to Player influence in the story. Likewise, if the Players know this is how the game is being run, then they too will feel empowered.


Reduce Prep

The mission statement for Tales of a GM is to achieve both more story and faster prep. By clearly defining the GM’s role in the narrative, this also reduces the prep burden.


A narrow definition of plot simply reduces the remit of the GM’s prep. I will write an essay dedicated to plot-focused prep, but the short version is that the GM simply has less to prepare. There is no longer any need to “script” out a session, as that is for the Players to decide. The GM now only needs to focus on her part of the narrative.



My game has enjoyed enhanced Player engagement as a result of giving Players a greater influence on the direction of the story. I am sure your game will also benefit.


Next week I shall return to this topic, and explore what happens if the Players simply ignore a GM’s carefully crafted plot.


How do you prepare plot for your game? Have you ever passed story control over to the Players? How did that work out for you? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


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Happy Gaming



Something for the Weekend last week: September RPG Blog Carnival


Something for the Weekend next week: Where’s my Plot?



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  1. I have gm’d and played since 1990 or there abouts and eventually over the last 5 years or so i have become more and more fascinated by systems that are very rules light, open to tweaking and easy to create new rules for (new spells, talents etc) particularly WRM is great for this.

    But also keeping my prep mainly to “what do my npc’s want and why?” along with a sense of “when”. I still need to do enviroment, home town, this and that dungeon and all that.. but I no longer fuss much about trying to figure out what the party will do and what will my villain do.

    By knowing “what, why and when” about my npc’s it is easier for me to adapt, improvise and move along the plot and story by reacting to the players instead of waiting and forcing things to fit into my plans.

    A byproduct of this has been that i as a GM have become much more open and forthcoming with ideas from the players. There is nothing that is impossible, it could be unlikely but not impossible.

    My Shadow Council campaign which i didn’t get to finish had an open “ending” … ‘what will they do?’ was the idea. Will they resume their previous incarnations as immortal chosen ones of their deities or will they usurp the deities and claim their powers for themselves or would they destroy the staff, the council and their ties to immortality and continue their current incarnations.

    Some of this took me many years to discover on my own.. lately alot of articles on the web has confirmed my belief in doing things like this 🙂

      • Phil on September 24, 2015 at 12:39 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for sharing.

      Like yourself, I have drifted into this method of GMing, which makes me think there is something natural about it. Reading that you experienced the same drift, only strengthens this belief. So glad this method is working for you.

      I am sure I will write some more on the subject, and not just in Part 2 due to be posted tomorrow.

      All the best

      • Adam on September 29, 2015 at 6:13 pm
      • Reply


      I’ve found too that giving NPCs goals and motivation has helped improve my games. The other trick which has helped is asking a stake questions to be answered in play, it has really helped my keep my sessions more focused.

        • Phil on September 30, 2015 at 7:55 am
        • Reply

        Hi Adam,

        What do you mean by a stake question? I have not heard that phrase before.

        All the best

  1. […] Last week I began a discussion of the competing terms “plot” and “story”. […]

  2. […] I have written previously how the GM’s input into the game takes the form of plot […]

  3. […] Something for the Weekend next week: Story vs. Plot Part 1 […]

  4. […] Plot vs. Story, Part 1 : Narrative Responsibilities […]

  5. […] Plot vs. Story, Part 1: Narrative Responsibilities […]

  6. […] Plot vs. Story, Part 1: Narrative Responsibilities […]

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