A short history of cooperative storytelling in roleplaying games, an overview of how it works, and some resources to learn to do it.
Not long ago, I discussed a style of gaming that pits players against GMs or game designers. I called this competitive gaming (not to be confused with e-sports or games where players compete with each other). Its opposite, cooperative gaming, involves players creating a story alongside their GM or game designers. The entire vibe of the game hits different when everyone’s looking to shape the story as it runs.
Here is some info about how cooperative gaming works, and how you can learn this playstyle.
Cooperative gaming shares the story creation process
In competitive gaming, players tackle a story that’s already been set up by the GM or game designer. While the GM seeks to stymie them (or at least make their progress forward through the plot difficult and challenging), the players seek to reach the very end of the story.
By contrast, cooperative gaming has the GM working with the players to tell an engaging, immersive story. Cooperative games require more setup time for the same reason that an open-world video game requires a lot more work than a cattle-chute linear setup or side-scrolling platformer.
The roleplaying system 7th Sea even gives you blank diagrams to create political relationships. Even if you’re using their provided, pre-built NPC courtiers and nobles, it is a lot of work to figure out all their connections with each other—not to mention how those connections will inevitably change as PCs go through the plot.
The plot itself in cooperative games tends to be more open-ended as well. In competitive gaming, the goals are usually clear and straightforward: kill the amethyst dragon; reclaim the rightful crown. In cooperative gaming, players tend to establish their own direction. The GM might give them hints about which way “the plot” went, like it’s some a mischievous rabbit hopping along its merry way—hence the gaming and fanfiction slang term plotbunny. But it’s up to the players to follow that plotbunny. Maybe they’ll go for a head-on approach to the plot, or maybe they’ll be more careful and seek allies and better resources for the big fight ahead.
As players make their way through the setting, the GM adjusts as necessary to account for what they’re doing.
The trend of cooperative gaming in the 1990s
Originally, almost all tabletop gaming seemed to be competitive in nature. GMs created challenging games, and players sought to vanquish those games. Roleplaying games like Paranoia even pushed that competition to over-the-top levels, with the GM assuming the role of Friend Computer and doing everything imaginable to kill the players’ characters in inventive ways. (I’m pretty sure the term “playful despot” was invented by a Paranoia GM.)
But around the mid-1990s, a more cooperative playstyle began to emerge. Publishers like White Wolf were putting out tons of games where GMs and players created the story together. Their games had more open-ended plots that could go in a variety of directions, and players were having a lot of fun doing exactly that. Heck, White Wolf even called their rules the “Storytelling System.”
In the digital world, this style manifested as the many text-only variants of MUDs: MUCKs, MUSHes, MOOs, MUXes, MUSEs, and all the rest. All of these variants practiced (and still practice) cooperative gaming with a de-emphasis on coded combat and suchlike. I enjoyed playing a Changeling on a World of Darkness-themed MUSH for a year or two, but all the vampire staple-back-of-hand-to-forehead angst eventually got to me. Eventually, I gravitated to MUDs that strictly required roleplay; all of these were cooperative in nature, with most plots being player-driven to a large extent and by necessity.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, I witnessed the rise of LiveJournal (LJ) storytelling communities. In these communities, users adopted a character persona. With that persona in mind, they created a LiveJournal account that was customized and written from that character’s perspective. Then, they joined communities that allowed them to bounce off of other character LJs. People created plots involving these character LJs, with each post being a new plotbunny and replies being in-character from character LJs. It was a hoot to watch, and from what I can see it’s still going strong on LJ and other similar journaling sites.
Maybe I should have expected people to start RPing this way. Ever since we began living together, we’ve been telling stories together. From Commedia dell’Arte to ghost stories around campfires to collaborative fictions, shared creativity, uh, finds a way.
ACAB: 7th Sea Edition
In one campaign I ran, only a couple of my players had much experience with roleplaying games. That’s why I chose 7th Sea in the first place. It seemed like a much easier system to learn. I also wanted a more cooperative feel for the game itself, so the new roleplayers wouldn’t feel outclassed or cornered when things went wrong. That turned out to be a good idea on my part, because oh, wow, did things go hideously wrong almost from the start.
7th Sea’s setting is roughly the end of the Baroque period, which puts it right around the time of the French Revolution. Thankfully, the game system includes decent resources, including a gamebook that specifically deals with the analogous aforementioned revolution.
After escaping from a prison together for the first game session, the party hid across the street from a particular tavern. They needed to get into the tavern to talk to someone important, but various city guards patrolled the street entrance. The party knew that the guards were looking for the prison escapees, and that the bad-guy city guards suspected the escapees would be at this tavern sometime soon.
My party broke into two clutches to discuss strategy. The left hand did not know what the right hand was doing at all. I was also focused more on the left hand, since they were making good progress in working out alternate routes into the tavern.
Meanwhile, the newest person to tabletop gaming brightly declared from the right hand, “I walk up to the guards to ask why they’re there.”
Everyone just stopped cold. He and the other person in his mini-team were smiling ear to ear. I gently asked if he was sure. (That is GM code for I’m giving you this one chance to reconsider the wisdom of this decision.) They both nodded, still smiling.
The left hand could have stopped this from happening, but they were my more experienced players. Thus, they had no fear. They went right along with this plan.
So my players got a second, tougher prison to escape. Once they had, I worked their audacious new exploits into the story.
One risk to cooperative gaming: the alpha gamer
In the above situation, someone might wonder why the party didn’t seem too upset with that green player’s action. The reason is that I am very careful as the GM to “share the spotlight” in these games. For that matter, good cooperative gamers already know how to share—and they like doing so. While I might briefly focus on one person or subgroup within the party, I make clear that any one of them could and should take the lead if they wished.
In these ways, I’d created an environment that encouraged all of my players to speak up. If someone wasn’t talking much, I gently encouraged them to start by asking questions or using NPCs to directly address them.
After GMing for a while, I got a feel for how long is acceptably long for individual players to go without any spotlight. In a way, it’s the same idea behind scene shifts in cable shows like The Tudors or Game of Thrones (GoT). People need to touch base sometimes with the plots and characters they like. Going too long without contact removes viewers emotionally from those characters’ story progression. (At this point, I don’t think many people care anymore about the lost subplots of GoT.)
Cooperative games work best if all players feel they can share the spotlight. If one person takes the lead and begins calling all the shots, the other players can start feeling like side characters that are just along for the ride. The atmosphere in these game sessions can get really tense and unpleasant.
If someone starts taking too much of a lead, the GM must take firm action. Players in cooperative games have some expectations around building the story together. The GM needs to be able to assist them in doing so.
One way you can do that is by including numerous plotbunnies that particular PCs are well-suited to address. In that 7th Sea game, one of the PCs was an AWOL officer from that very country’s army. His player was able to leverage that backstory to gain information vital to the party’s escape from that first (and then the second) prison.
Thinking on your feet for the storytelling of cooperative gaming
One night, my eyes glittered with anticipation as I set the scene for my players:
The party has sailed to a mysterious island. They survey the beach. It looks largely abandoned, with the wreckage of past ships strewn here and there on the sand. A small wooden dock extends out into the water, with no other buildings or signs of habitation anywhere in sight.
In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have laid quite so many clues down, because the military officer’s player immediately said, “OH no. No no no. NoHELLno. We are not stepping one foot on that beach.”
Instead, the party decided to sail around the island to find any other way in. One of the other characters had good skills in navigation and terrain, so another way was indeed soon found: a difficult climb up a cliff face.
In designing the island and its flurry of traps, you see, I’d politely included a back passage for them to use to easily leave the island’s main stronghold. Their navigation PC spotted it. Another party member had a lot of skill in climbing, so they got to work.
I could have refused them entirely, of course. I could have said there was simply no way up that cliffside. My word, as their GM, was law.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I thought it’d be fun to see where they went with this idea. They’d earned this chance through sheer cleverness.
They succeeded in hitting some difficult targets with their dice, so they got to go through the villain’s lair bass ackwards.
I had a lot of fun with them as I figured out on the fly how the various traps would work now, and they had a blast exploring the lair. For ages afterward, they talked about how much fun that session was!
I’m talking about the spark that made us human in the first place
Storytelling together is one of the ways we developed into humans at all. It’s how we became human.
The line between humans and other animals grows ever thinner. More and more, we are finding that traits we previously thought were unique to humans aren’t actually unique to us at all. But storytelling remains one of the traits on this side of the divide.
No other animal possesses the brain-parts needed to imagine something that isn’t possible. Nor do any other animals have the ability to team up and work together in huge numbers for a shared ideal that they can’t see or touch.
So even if you think you could never learn to tell a story, much less to learn to tell one cooperatively, the spark nestles deep within you. It just might need a little coaxing to come to life.
Learning cooperative gaming: Resources
The best way to learn to tell stories cooperatively is to, well, tell stories cooperatively. Join a roleplaying community that emphasizes cooperative gaming, hang out, and see how it’s done. Journaling communities are the mainstay for this style of roleplay. Sites like InsaneJournal and Dreamwidth have literally hundreds of communities devoted just to finding a roleplay community of your own.
Text-only MUDs and their variants are also reliable sources of cooperative roleplaying. Look for games that ask players to roleplay rather than ones where it’s optional or merely accepted.
Learning improvisation skills is a good idea as well. Improvisation isn’t an inborn talent alone. It’s also a set of skills that repays their learning in a lot of other ways. Writing to prompt suggestions can also help you think quickly.
If you can’t find roleplaying partners, then do your best to learn to create stories on the fly by yourself. I love the card game Once Upon a Time. Individual cards contain story elements like “A Door” or “Two people falling in love.” Players draw cards, then thematically link their cards together to tell a story cooperatively. But a solo player can also use them to spark that storytelling seed within all of us to life.