Narrative is hard

A few years ago I learned about the Fate roleplaying system and I have had a long, sordid love affair with it ever since. I’ve tried and tried to get my friends interested in its simplistic intricacy, but alas, this mistress has eluded the grasp of many a suitor.

What’s so great about it? It’s built for storytelling. Right down to the core of who your character is, you are writing bits and pieces of a story that give your game inherent hooks that are really important to the player’s because they don’t just describe your character, they are your character.

Want to be a flying lizard wizard with a knack for exploding baddies with a massive arsenal of spells? Done. I mean that literally. With that one sentence, you’ve essentially created a playable character and told the story of your world. Let’s break it down:

  • Flying – You’ve established that humanoids can fly. This could be by means of magic, or technology.
  • Lizard – You’ve established that creatures other than humans are evolved races that populate the world.
  • Wizard – You’ve established that magic and spells exist.

Great, we’ve done a lot with just one sentence and Fate sounds cool. What’s the problem? The problem is, it takes a lot more brain power to roleplay in a world where you are expected to come up with story on-the-fly. Especially after a long week of work and dealing with crazy kids. You have so much freedom in a narrative driven system that it can be overwhelming. There is something nice about having limited options, or a specific list of powers to choose from because you just have to think less. And, let’s face it, after a long week, sometimes all you want to do is kill $*#@!

What can we do then, to help support narrative play in a game? It is roleplaying after all, and the story is important whether you’re using a crunchy system like D&D or a not so crunchy system like Amber.


Every character needs a backstory and a name. I shouldn’t have to tell you to name your character, but you know who you are. Stop right now and put a name on your character sheet!

A backstory is a way to create some fall-back narrative that invests your player and your character in the world. When you’re running short on ideas, pull an element from any characters background story and inject it into your session. If your players like combat, call in an enemy and have them attack. If your players like mystery, have someone important to a character go missing – or get murdered. A solid backstory only needs to be a paragraph of text, and it can really help jump start a session when everyone is feeling the creative blues.

Let the Players Participate

Every roleplaying book introduces two groups of people: the game master and the players. Right away, the game master is set apart as the person who does all the work to present and drive the story. This is a terrible idea that has been propagated over and over. Roleplaying is a group storytelling activity and the players should participate as much as the game master when it comes to the narrative. Your players will have a vested interest when you empower them to be more than a passive participant in the story.

The next time a player asks you what’s in the room, turn that question around and let them tell you what’s in the room. When they score an epic critical strike and take out a bad guy, ask the player to describe the action as it unfolds. It’s exciting to tell stories.

Make failure an option

Failure is usually viewed as the end of the action, but what if a failure was actually the beginning of something interesting. Conflict drives a story and keeps us interested. There’s nothing more boring than a story where everything goes right all the time. Think about it. When is the last time someone told you an awesome story about how they woke up and everything just went swimmingly? That’s the most boring story ever. You tell stories how your car was stolen or you made a harrowing drive during an ice storm and you thought you were going to die at any moment – or maybe you even crashed and lived to tell the tale.

Stories need conflict and bad stuff to happen to make them memorable and interesting. We spend way too much time trying to figure out how to succeed and not nearly enough time trying to figure out how to handle a terrible failure and turn it into something awesome.