Storytelling Building Blocks
Tabletop role-playing games can be played in an infinite numbers of ways. When you are in the Game Master’s chair, your role is to describe the situations the players find themselves in. You play the roles of every creature and non-player characters (NPC’s) they encounter. Together you unravel the story and, as a group, you will all determine how it unfolds.
Running published adventures is a great way of learning the ropes and understanding the role of Game Master. Some of us will, eventually, want to create our own worlds and the adventures that players will be having. This month, I look at a few simple ways to structure your stories to make for manageable preparation time and enjoyable game sessions for everyone.
Not you against them
Every gaming group has its own dynamic. We all play for different reasons but often, groups that click do so because they share a common appreciation for a given type of play, set in a given universe, living adventures that can revolve around solving mysteries, standing up for the helpless, fighting against oppressors or simply looking for treasure and fame. Some people will enjoy a more gamey approach where the Game Master sets up challenge after challenge for the player characters to overcome in the hope of reaching a “goal”. Rules are followed to the letter to determine the outcome of every situation. It’s pretty much a case of a group of contestants facing a mighty force whose sole purpose is to defeat them. I will not be giving tips for this kind of tabletop gaming today.
Instead, I will focus on tabletop gamers who enjoy getting together and interact in person to create a story, one that everyone contributes to. As GM, it is your responsibility to ensure that this happens. Yes, it is your role to prepare the adventure and explain to your players what is happening and why. Eventually, a good story will unfold because of the characters’ actions and decisions, not because the scenario has been written with a pre-determined outcome. Sure, there are plenty of adventures where a major event is unavoidable, where the players only have an influence on certain outcomes without affecting matters greater than themselves. Do keep in mind, though, that there is nothing more frustrating than having for only choice to accept something that is forced onto you, without any opportunity to make a difference. If the said event affects the larger scope of the world and the players to some extend, make sure it does so by serving the story, creating a valuable twist or that it has enough of a wow factor that your players will become even more excited to carry on with their adventures. Since this is a game and a social activity, it should be rewarding and fun. For all.
Learning by example… and practice
The best manner of learning how to run a game as GM (or DM) is, in my opinion, to experience the game as a player as well. When I started, way back in the day, I was lucky enough to play with 4 friends. At first, we all wanted to play and, thankfully, one of us volunteered to GM, as is often the case with beginners. After our first adventures, we were all intrigued and we all wanted to run a game of our own. We decided that The Dark Eye, the first tabletop role-playing game we played, would be the one that would teach us all how to play and how to run adventures. This allowed us to help each other understand the rules and mostly, come to grips with the concepts of this new hobby. As we caught the bug, it wasn’t long before one of us GM’ed a MERP campaign, another Call of Cthulhu and a third one Paranoia. Many games followed: Dungeons & Dragons, Stormbringer, MEGA, Ghostbusters, Pendragon, Star Wars, Maléfices, and the list goes on. Just like nowadays, they were too many games to try and hard choices had to be made. Sadly, I never experienced Runequest, Shadowrun, Traveller or GURPS but I definitely had a lot of fun by playing with more than one system. The variety of games made them all more enjoyable, regardless of their flaws.
Experiencing different styles of play, settings and ruleset was a wonderful way of getting a taste of the variety of games and adventures one could experience. It also helped me realize something essential about role-playing games. The rules are here to facilitate and serve everyone around the table. This doesn’t mean a GM should let players accomplish the most astonishing feats out of thin air. Use the rules when the outcome of actions is uncertain, or unlikely. The story is the only thing that really matters, and being able to make decisions that impact its outcome is what makes it such a great pastime. So how does one create home brew stories that are told as the game is played?
Not a traditional approach
What becomes apparent as soon as you start reading a published adventure module is that it cannot be read as a traditional novel or book. The scenario might be broken down into chapters but these are really more representative of the milestones players can reach. Once they do, a new set of events are triggered and new situations can take place.
Good role-playing stories should be tailored to the tastes of the GM and the players. Take the strengths and weaknesses of the adventuring party into consideration. Danger should be omnipresent and the players shouldn’t feel as though they are safe from anything. Yet, good team work, use of characters’ skills and wit should always be rewarded by success. It’s these moments of tension that can make for great gaming experiences. And if a character dies, then so be it. It shouldn’t be impossible for players to loose their character in battle, to madness or some other fatal fate. But a GM shouldn’t dispose of a player character by misusing their power and because they feel the story requires that the party should lose one of their own.
Here’s the trick: the story doesn’t dictate anything.
Unlike works of literature, television or cinema, tabletop role-playing stories unravel as the game is being played. No one, not even the Game Master knows how they will unfold until they do. Just like the players take on the roles of their characters, the GM plays the part of all the NPC’s and creatures in the tale. Determine how antagonists and allies would act and react according to their personality, motivations and purpose; not because you’re trying to railroad the players into a narrative that you think is better than what they have decided to accomplish. Giving hints is fine and sometimes necessary, but if your group doesn’t catch on, trying to shoe-horn them into a story direction will always feel forced and not in line with what they are experiencing in the game.
Unfulfilled narratives are the bread and butter of running a game as GM. It can be both fun and disheartening to see parts of the adventure unexplored or completely ignored. However, nothing you write and no situations you think of need to go to waste as they can often be repurposed or implemented in other adventures.
Modular story building
When conceiving an adventure, start off by thinking of a premise and a reason for the players to take on the challenge. Finding a goal that motivates them is key and you’ll need to give them the right incentives to set off on their adventure. To make sense of it all beyond the general story arc, break the intended narrative down into situations that are somewhat linked to one another. Start off simply and build from there. Each scene calls for a situation that the players will be dealing with. Its outcome will be a result of their actions and how your NPC’s act and interact. Make sure that there are clues to be found or consequences for the player characters’ decisions that will guide them forward. Depending on their play style, giving the group options to choose from can be more manageable for you and more immersive for the players. It helps everyone understand the world and what goes on in this particular setting.
Create locations for the events to take place and determine what pointers can be found or experienced and how they will deliver clues to help the story move forward. Based on this, think of the next set of possible situations that have opened up to the players and how those fit into the larger story arc. Locations can be as simple as a forest clearing or as complex as a multi level dungeon or space station. Sometimes large places will be explored in minutes whereas the simplest encounter could end up taking most of the day’s session to resolve.
Control is an illusion
Just like in real life, the idea that you can control everything that goes on in the game is ridiculous. Often you will find yourself having to improvise and make up situations on the fly because there is never any telling what people are capable of. Winging it is part and parcel of GM’ing. Embrace it and have fun. If you do, your players will never know the difference!
By constructing the backbone of your scenario with a modular approach, it will be much easier to improvise and run the adventure. Each situation can be handled as it’s own entity. By defining its surroundings, content and purpose in the larger scope of the campaign, you can easily make notes to use during play, hereby allowing you to focus on the moment with everyone else at the table.
If the party’s actions completely derail the storyline you had in mind you can choose to introduce additional NPC’s or events that will point your group back to the general arc of the adventure. If they are too far gone, go with the flow until the end of that session and get back to the drawing board to write another scenario altogether. Repurpose whichever elements you deem fit for this new story and keep the leftovers. They can always come in handy.
Another way to look at modular story elements is to imagine that each one is a box. To make GM’ing manageable during a session, you need to make sure that you’ve filled the box with enough material that you won’t have to constantly look things up. If the location is complex and requires exploring, draw a simple floor plan for it. Figure out where important items, clues and encounters are located. If any events take place while the players are present, write that down as well. Create NPC’s and prepare encounters beforehand. Gather everything and keep it in that “box” until you need it. By having the basics of each story events ready, you’ll make your life a lot easier and the game will be that much more enjoyable for everyone. The role of Game Master can be a thankless and difficult task if you let it but with a little preparation, it becomes enjoyable and fun.
Inspiration is better than adaptation
It is often very tempting to get inspired by another medium such as novels and movies, but in practice trying to recreate events or scenes from them doesn’t work so well. Remember that the more you try to railroad the players, the less fun the game becomes. It’s a bit like painting by numbers compared to colouring pages. While both have limitations as to what can be coloured, one tells you what to do while the other gives you the creative freedom to pick the colours you want. And you can also choose to make a drawing of your own altogether. It’s not because you, as a GM, have something in mind that would make for a cool story that you shouldn’t let your players go in a completely different direction altogether, should they opt to do so.
Remember that roleplaying games are first and foremost a social pastime. You and your fellow players, being friends, family or strangers are here to interact and have a good time. Your primary concern running the game is to make sure everyone is having fun, including yourself!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.