I was wasting time on Quora (as my poor page followers are by now all too aware) when I got a notification from Twitter! JeffroJohnson and I follow each other on Twitter, and we've interacted a bit before on the topic I'm going to discuss with you here. He's the author of the appendix N, an exposé on the biggest influences on the early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. I've gotten quite a few lessons from it, and it also serves as a nice guide to people my age (Gen Z) to 20th century classics that have been swallowed up in the age of "Game of the Really Nice Chair" and "Harry Potter and the Grown Ass Adults Who Won't Shut Up About This Series". You can buy from it from Castalia House here. I'm also plugging his work because I'll be referencing it!
So, to the meat of the matter! Jeffro was responding to my answer to a Quora request. Said request was on how to create an engaging plot line for role-playing games. You can find my answer here, but the short of it was to think about what both I and the players would enjoy most while considering the work I need to do to fulfill all parties involved. Then, to take a few of those ideas and simply pitch them to the players.
Jeffrey responded with this: "If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!"
It's here I should probably mention the very strong generational gap between Jethro and I, which you probably guessed at already.
Jeffrey doesn't have a seat at my table and so is probably misunderstanding my approach to narrative and the game, but his accusation is just plain silly even outside of that context. There are any number of ways to include a narrative or plot line that has a rough beginning, middle, and end without restricting player agency or ruining the fantasy.
Start off with a classic game on rails scenario. You sit down with the players, you tell them what the adventure is, and you get ready to play. The adventure has a specific goal, and your players are expected to work towards it. Does this necessarily cut down on player agency? Of course not! All you've laid out so far is the general goal of the content you are putting in front of the players. How they achieve that goal could conceivably be entirely up to them. They may take hints and pointers from NPC's, or ignore them altogether and do their own thing! I'll admit here this is probably not how the game by and large plays out; people deciding the what often decide the how of dealing with it, and their players are simply present to go through the motions. Jeffro mentions this style of play in his section on Stormbringer in Appendix N. The game master constantly funnels the players into what they must do next; whether by mining their backstory for family or loved ones to capture or kill, forcing the player into battles which they will certainly fail, and don't provide any option to the players that takes them off the beaten path, even for a moment. This is probably what Jeffro thinks of when he hears the phrase plot line in the context of a tabletop RPG. If I'm right, I can't blame him for his reaction.
Next we have how I personally run my campaign. Here, the plot line is a backdrop for the players, not the other way around. In my campaign, the Second Host War has kicked off. What does this mean? Well, important NPC's are often busy, the prices of many items have gone up, and society at large is a bit more chaotic. I consider it the plot line of my campaign. Up until a session ago, the players weren't even involved in that war (at least not directly). They've been the length of the United States from their home civilization where that war has been taking place. Why are they so far away? They were sent on an expedition to look for lost magic and alchemical formulae by a Druid NPC, looking to tip the scales of the war before it escalates too quickly.
My players have a very sandbox style game. Each location they visit is largely self-contained, hosts its own monster ecology, and contains its own minor setting details for the players to conquer and loot. They're able to craft impressive magic and mechanical items of their own design (provided they meet some minor prerequisites), able to choose which areas they want to engage with, and overall drive their own fantasy. Last session they were briefly transported back to their civilization (of their own accord) to participate in a minor battle. Up until that point, their NPC liaison would occasionally inform them of how what they found impacted the war. What I consider to be the central narrative of my campaign is something my players have engaged with and driven forward, but indirectly. I let them do that, because I want them to be able to drive their fantasy. I don't force them to go through the motions of what I think should happen in my world. I let my players drive the action, I just make sure the numbers check out.
This I think explains the generational gap between Jeffro and I. I think we both focus on player agency, primarily enjoy the mechanics of the game (pick your jaws up from the floor folks, yes we actually consider this a game), and like being free to toss situations at our players at will, regardless of whether or not an encounter might be considered fair. In fact, this is how the majority of my group plays. However whereas Jeffro would be inclined to say the inclusion of a plot or central narrative inherently diminishes the fantasy of player action, at my groups table we've always viewed it differently. To us, a plot has always been wellspring to draw from, not something to drown the players in.
I have a nagging suspicion Jeffro would enjoy such a game, even if he was using 5E.
You can find Johnson's blog here.