Storytelling off-the-cuff

I’m always torn between running a pre-created story in my roleplaying games and running a story off-the-cuff.

Pre-Made Adventures

On the one hand, I have small children and lots of family and work obligations that severely cut into my game preparation time. So, choosing a to run a story that’s already been created really reduces my prep time. And there are some really good adventures and full-blown campaigns out there to choose from. However, there are a couple of things that really nag at me when I’m running a pre-made story.

Going Off Path

A pre-made story has a much higher chance railroading your players (that’s when the players don’t really have any free will in where the story goes, there’s a plotted end that must be reached by a finite number of options.) You can always have a few side quests or encounters ready, but this only increases the time you need to prepare for a game, plus you can never guess what exactly they will do when they jump off the path.

Story-Driven vs Character-Driven

Stories that are pre-written have no knowledge about the characters that will be playing in it. They don’t know anything about existing relationships or character history, thus you have the added onerous to somehow connect your players with the story in a meaningful way that invites them to buy into it. Many pre-made adventures will come with plot hooks that are intended to help the game master with this task, but they’re usually not that great. You can always come up with some on your own that are rooted in your character’s history, but again, you’ve just increased your prep time.

Create While You Play

On the other hand, crafting a story while are playing allows almost no preparation time at all, and allows you to tell a story that is deeply rooted in your character’s backgrounds. But, it’s also intimidating. Really intimidating. What if you can’t think of a good story? What if things start out great and just deflate into a big jumbled mess? What if my players are board? What if … ? What … if?

First, storytelling off-the-cuff can make it really fun for the game master, after all, you have no idea how the story ends. It’s a complete mystery and it is way more fun than it should be to see your players trying to figure out what you’re up too when you actually have no idea what’s going to happen next.

So, if you want more fun as a game master and almost no prep time, here’s a few ideas to help you along.

Adventure Seed

Don’t come to the table with an entire story prepared, but just an idea. There are a lot of websites and physical tools that can help you out with this (Rory’s Story Cubes or Donjon to name a couple). This is OK, but even better, is to look at the character’s backgrounds and pull something from there. This creates instant buy-in from the player’s as it’s directly related to their character.

Be A Guide

This is probably the most important part of roleplaying. Game master’s, listen closely. Stop trying to tell the story all by yourself. You have a table full of creative players who came over to Roleplay. If you stick them into a pre-made story then they are just along for the ride instead of driving the car. Instead, guide them into a world full of imagination where they aren’t just participants in some already grand story, but where they are the main characters who are unfolding an adventure that has yet to be written.

Don’t tell the players what’s going to happen next, ask them what’s going to happen. When they ask you “what’s in the room”, you respond with “you tell me what’s in the room.” And for the love of Pete, when they tell you what’s in the room, don’t correct them or try to fix their answer. Use some common sense of course, but resist the urge to take back control of the story. Trust me, it’s fun and you’ll start having many more of those “remember when …” moments when you reminisce about the days of yore.

Final Details

This only works if you have gamers at your table who are interested in telling stories. If all they want to do is hack n’ slash then, by all means, let the story simply be a way to move from combat to combat. That can be fun sometimes, too!

If they are interested, then make sure you help them come up with a fun, imaginative background. A character background is a potential story waiting to be told, so it’s important.

With a short recap, I bid you adieu.

  • Characters need background stories
  • Bring an idea to the table
  • Be a guide, not a dictator
  • Ask questions
  • Have fun
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