(Author’s note: This is an abridged version of my hour long “Writing for Tabletop” panel that I give at conventions. I’m mainly focusing on my core tenets for how I approach it. Also, may the 4th be with you!)
Storytelling, no matter who is slinging the narrative, has a shared toolbox to take fleeting concepts to entertaining reality. Unfortunately, as most GM’s, DM’s, Hosts, or whatever name you’re using for the person who runs the game knows, the best laid plans of world-builders can oft go awry. To co-opt a famous quote concerning strategy, “no story survives first contact with the players.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that it can. No, really.
Stop looking at me like that.
Now, this isn’t a how-to for DM tricks, at least not really. That’s a whole other philosophy that deserves its own space to shine, and one day I may share my thoughts on it. No, this is purely an article on things that you, the storyteller, can do in preparation for crafting a story that will be completely subject to the whims and eccentricities of your players.
To start, I’ve got a guiding Triforce that dictates how I approach stories for interactive gaming. This holds true no matter if I’m crafting a multi-arc campaign, a stand-alone adventure, or even the modules I make for quick one shot games like Dread. They apply to the mechanisms of being a DM, but I use them first and foremost when it comes to breaking story for others to participate in.
One, you must dispel the “Adversarial Myth.”
First things first: it’s not the game master versus the players. If you’re looking to tell a good story, get this out of your head. For one thing, it absolutely guts your options for adaptive story, because you’re only going to craft things to punish your players rather than things that will challenge them or reward their ingenuity. The players diverging from the road you’ve laid out will feel like a personal attack. It’s not. Stop that.
Secondly, it hobbles your imagination and enjoyment of what this kind of storytelling can be. You have an idea, a world, an overarching narrative that you want to share sure, but you’re not writing a book. These games are at their absolute best when everyone realizes that beyond the mechanics, everyone involved is helping to shape and tell the story together. Strip that, and it’s nothing but math and dice and the outcomes of encounters.
I repeat: Players straying from your tale in a game is not, nor will ever be, a commentary on your quality as a writer. If ever explicitly is, I would say you need to check your skills, or get less antagonistic players. Accept this.
Two, Communicate your intentions.
I bake this one in at the start of any module I create. I’m telling whomever picks it up, or plays it, what kind of story I am attempting to convey here, as well as what the overall tone, pacing, and “play feel” should be. But that’s not always an option when it comes to running your own game from scratch, is it?
Yes. It absolutely is.
Every campaign has what I like to call a “Session Zero”, wherein folks get together to talk about what they want to play, make characters, and perhaps even run a little introductory session. So, this is also an excellent time to get everyone together so they’re on the same page, even if you’ve already written the story. Have a chat now, avoid problems later.
Talk to them about the brand of tale you’re bringing to the table. Ask them questions about the kinds of things they’re interested in, and really listen to what they have to say. Encourage them to spend a bit of time on character development, because it’s just more fodder for the overall narrative.
Now take that Session Zero, and apply it to your story, or the notes you have for the story-to-be. Allow it to change it, and shape it up into something greater than it was before. Get on board with that idea of cooperative effort, because it’s going to pretty much be the lifeblood of your story going forward, no matter what key events you’ve created for it.
In essence, you are crowd-sourcing your story here. You can still have all the major bullet points, but now your players are doing a lot of the dirty work of filling in the blank spots. Be willing to use that as another tool for your writing, and I promise you will reap the benefits.
And Three, learn to appreciate “on-rails improvisation.”
That’s kind of a contradiction in terms, I know, but I promise you it will make sense.
You can not always anticipate nor fairly predict what your players are going to do once they start making their way through the tale you’ve laid out. Because of that, you’ll find yourself tasked with coming up with things on the fly at times, and that can get pretty daunting when it’s two in the morning and that last Red Bull has worn off. What? I’m speaking from specific experience here. Judge not.
Pictured: Pretty much the entirety of my 20’s.
Of course, the best improvisation works on the “yes, and” methodology. What that means is agreeing to what is happening, and then continuing it with your own input. But with storytelling’s normally ordered existence (mostly), it just doesn’t mesh all that well. How do you contend with that, yet still give the players something enjoyable while laying the groundwork for a return back to the main quest?
Well, I just gave you the answer. “laying the groundwork”. This is where the “on-rails” portion comes in.
There is a lot, and I mean A LOT you can do beforehand to be ready for those moments of serendipity that your players are going to throw your way. Lists of names for random NPCs, minor encounters and fights, additional clues or things to attract the player’s attention, character-specific vignettes, or acts by the villain directly against the heroes; all of these are things that take minutes to whip up ahead of time, and can be ready at a moment’s notice for use.
Because here’s the thing: If you have a story, you have a story question. Story question for the uninitiated is the simple formula of “Will (protagonists) be able to overcome (antagonists/crisis/general problem)?” That’s the simplified version, but it’s still the bedrock of any tale. The cool thing is that you can have the key moments of the story set in stone, yet how the players arrive at them, or when, doesn’t have to be fixed. Hell, the question itself doesn’t have a definitive answer. That’s up to the success or failure of the players.
And with On-Rails Improvisation, you can develop something else as a storyteller that should become reflex: rewards. In a book, I want the reader to feel rewarded for their time. I want them to feel excited for turning that page to the next chapter, hungry for what new information they’re about to receive.
Be kind. Feed your audience.
So, why not reward the player for turning that corner to the next alleyway off the main street, hungry for what new experience or encounter they’re about to face? Even if it’s not where you wanted them to go necessarily, you can still reward their curiosity AND give them incentive to get to yoru next plot point without immediately reaching for the trap, the dragon, or the boring dead end with surly exposition.
Dispel the Adversarial Myth. Communicate your intentions. Embrace on-rails improvisation.
These come together to form the Triforce of Interactive Storytelling, and its power is derived from positive (or at least entertaining) reinforcement and cooperation. Because at the end of the session, the players AND the storyteller will be rewarded for their cumulative efforts.
More tips and tricks from me soon.
Until net time, Horns Up.
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