A lot of the GMs around where I live are "story" GMs. By that I mean they could care less about the mechanics of the game - obviously mechanics are still somewhat important - but they do want to tell an interesting story. Some of the GMs in the area are really good at running these kinds of games. Others? Not so much. The interesting thing is when it comes to those who miss the mark the same comment gets said a lot: "they should write a book." The idea here is that the story is interesting, but something is missing to make it engaging as a game. Today I want to talk about how you can avoid that, and what problems avoiding it can introduce.
Stories vs. Games
Before we can go into this you need to understand the fundamental difference between a told story and a game. It may seem obvious, but bear with me. In a story one person, or object, tells the story to an audience whose only role is to consume said story. In a game, the GM and players work together to tell the story and also to consume the story. Basically, in a game the audience is the creator, and the creator is a group.
At least, that's how it should be. Because...
Your Players NEED Agency
Agency is the ability to make meaningful decisions that impact the world. Agency is the ability to be pro-active. Agency is the ability to throw out the script and go left instead of right. If you're running a game, your players need agency. How much? Well, that depends on what you're running. Your players need less agency in a one shot or a dungeon crawl than in a wide open campaign, but they still need it.
This means your players need to be free to tackle things their own way. They choose how the hero - the PCs - tackles the obstacle. Sure, maybe it's an obvious hacking challenge designed to make the hacker look cool, but if the group decides they're going to cut a hole in the wall they need to be free to do that, and that needs to have consequences that moves the story forward (or sideways) for good or bad.
You can fake people into thinking they have Agency. Bioware is really good at this in thier RPGs. They make it feel like you're making meaningful choices, but in reality there are just a handful of paths you can go down that are all more or less similar. Don't believe me? Try to play an extremist sometime. Hard as you try, Shepard can't be a full racist or side with the bad guys in Mass Effect. In a table top RPG? He would be able to. Even if that meant sacrificing his humanity and dooming the galaxy.
Your Players NEED Challenge and Risk
There needs to be challenge and risk in the game somewhere. The possibility of losing - even temporarily - needs to be present in the game. If there's not, it's not really a game. Worse though, if the game can't be lost it's probably going to end up boring really fast. A game can survive with no agency if there is fun challenge and risk - at least for some players.
Also, risk and loss doesn't have to mean PC death either. Granted having the chance - even in limitation - for PC death is good, but the PCs can lose or fail in a number of ways.
Do I Have Both?
When you think about it quickly it's easy to convince yourself you have both. Of course your players can make meaningful choices, and obviously there is risk. But look deeper. If the PCs chose to go a different direction would the road just loop back around to where the plot needs? If the PCs surrendered to the bad guys would things just move forward according to plan?
Is what the PCs do actually important to progress? Or just dressing and filler to try to entertain before you get to the next cutscene?
If it's just filer you have problems. If you can't tell, watch your players. Do they take things seriously - as seriously as those players do anyhow? - during a serious moment, or do they laugh and joke? Do they try to do things or just kinda shrug and go to the next objective like it was a task of things to do before they can take a nap? Ask them out of character and privately. Some players will say things are fine/good to not hurt your feelings, but if you ask them to be honest they'll probably tell you.
Oh God, How Do I Fix This?
If you are running a game like this and want to fix it, thankfullyits easy. First, let your PCs fail and lose. They'll figure out that defeat is back on the menu right quick. Second, let the PCs knock things off the rail for a bit and see what happens. The more you allow the PCs to do their thing, the more they will. Then it's just on you to make the plot you have going on compelling enough to worry about (it's why so many plots threaten the world ;) )