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.

Backstory

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.

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Know Thy Combat

You: You enter a dark cave, your torchlight slowly creeping across the floor to fall upon a pair of huge, green feet. As your light ascends the figure, you see a two-headed troll-

Roger Rogue: I crit-strike him for 500 damage.

You: You see the bloodied, crumpled remains of a troll on the floor…

We’ve all experienced the horror of a sweet critter getting taken down so fast we don’t even have time to get a single attack off. The players, of course, revel in this, and you try to roll with the punches and pretend like it’s no big deal. But, inside, you’re pretty damn bummed.

Balancing combat is a hard thing to do, and it’s not something you can do doing preparation alone. You need to be able to do it on-the-fly and be adaptable. A few things can help with this during your game prep:

  • Know thy system
  • Know thy enemies (PCs)
  • Know thy options

Know Thy System

Whether you are partial to D&D, Fate, Dungeon World, The one Ring, or what have you, you need to be intimately familiar with your system of choice. This knowledge will provide you information about your options when things go south. Think of it like playing a piano. You need to understand you have 88 keys and you can mix and match them without ever venturing outside them.

It’s important that you get comfortable with adding game elements during play that you had not originally intended to add. It is no more dishonest to add elements during the game than it would be to switch octaves during a song, especially if it makes things more interesting.

If the monster goes down too quickly, have more baddies rush in and attack. Make the enemy a straw-man who looked tougher than he really was and send a second one (although, the players may not like that one, hey, I’m not perfect here) or have the baddie be the pet of something even worse and make the players pay the piper later in the adventure. Revenge is a dish best served cold!

Know Thy Enemies

Enemies?! You can’t think of your players as the enemy! Yes. Yes, you can. Because in this moment of combat they are your enemy. If you treat them otherwise, then everyone loses out. You lose out when they wipe the floor with your baddies because you were afraid they might be too hard, and the players lose out on the opportunity to be pushed to the limit of their abilities and pull out a last minute victory that will go down in the annals of your gaming history.

The number one thing you should remember is the end result of losing does not have to be death. Maybe the monsters take the downed fighter and use him as a bargaining tool to get the PCs to back off. Or, in a TPK, the party wakes up tied to some maniacal contraption that will be used to sacrifice them to the gods. Remember, there are much worse options than death. You need to learn to be creative in the moment.

Know Thy Options

You recall I said there are 88 keys on a piano, but let’s not forget that great musicians can go off-keyboard. How about banging the key cover against the body of the piano to create a beat or drumsticks along the top, or maybe even use those little peddles at your feet to change things up.

All this is to say your options are not limited to your current system. Just because there is no specific ruling in your game of choice that covers a specific course of action by no means requires you to say “That’s not possible”, let the players try and make up the ruling as you go. You’re smart, I know you are.

The best thing you can do is to explore other gaming systems and borrow big concepts from them and retrofit them into your game. No one system is perfect.

I know, I know. The purists out there are aghast right now. Get over it, your system isn’t the perfect one and you know it. The sooner you admit it, the more fun you and your players will have.

Get your gaming fix

Get your gaming fix

When the kids are battling you for attention, work is pounding down your door with a double-bladed axe and your wife is looking for her white knight, how do you get your gaming fix?

Weekly gaming sessions are a bygone era with the hustle-bustle of being a grown up. Even a monthly gaming session might be an elusive beast hidden deep in the forest of life. What’s a yearning gamer to do?
Here are a few tips to help take the edge off while you eagerly await the feel of your dice in your palm:

Read a book

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But, let’s be honest, this is where true roleplaying started. If you’re anything like me, when you read a great novel you are already gaming in your head. You put yourself in the role of a character and consider what sort of stats and special abilities they have. It’s not exactly roleplaying, but it can be enough to just give you a taste. Sometimes,

Stat out characters

I watch a lot of kids shows. Usually, the same ones over and over again until I’m dreaming about it. You parents know what I’m talking about. I discovered that I can get a little gaming fix by filling out character sheets for the characters in the show as I watch with the kids. I’ve statted out the characters from Cars and Finding Nemo so… many… times. It’s fun to imagine the plot of a good kid’s movie–like Big Hero 6–as a full on campaign.

Solo Roleplay

I’m very much on the fence when it comes to Solo Roleplaying. There are a ton of resources out there for doing it, and doing it well, but something about it just feels weird, like drinking alone (well, maybe that’s not so weird.) If the idea of Solo Roleplaying appeals to you, I think SoloRoleplayer.com is a good place to start.

Write

Writing might take a little more brain power, but, like reading, it is a classic way to experience a story in any setting you can imagine. There are many free online writing tools (like Google Drive) or you could go old-school and grab a pen and notebook and long hand write. It’s actually very therapeutic.

Play by Post

PbPs may require a bit more commitment, which may take a bite out of the valuable time you don’t have. I’ve found that if you keep good boundaries and only post once per day at maximum, it’s not that bad, actually. Sometimes, just going through the character creation and application process can give you a taste of what you’re looking for. Storium is a superb implementation of a Play-by-Post-ish game I was very impressed with – you could even play it solo if you wanted a little less commitment.

Nothing can ever take the place of storming the castle face-to-face with your friends, but amidst the torrent of life, sometimes you can gain the favor of the gods and receive just a glimmer of gaming goodness.

Fate of Waeteria

Our new game, Fate of Waeteria, is being entered in the Adventure Challenge competition at thegamecrafter.com. Head on over and checkout out all of the great games and support the awesome community of game designers.

If you have a gamecrafter account, consider spending some of your hard earned crafter points by voting on your favorites.

We’re grateful for the hard work by artist Nate Levine on the game cover. He was a joy to work with and has a fun, quirky artist sense.

You can find more detail about Fate of Waeteria on our game page.

Euangelion goes gold

I found a shiny new package on our doorstep this afternoon … a print version of Euangelion courtesy of thegamecrafter.com. I have to admit I was a little afraid to open it because I really wanted it to be good, and this was our first officially published board game (self-published.)

The quality of everything was very good, the pieces were all there and in separate plastic bags. The board looked so gorgeous and the cards were spot on! I made a few tweaks because I didn’t like the way a couple things looked from a design perspective, but overall everything turned out awesome.

You can buy your own copy on the Euangelion game page.

The Procurator Goes Beta

The Procurator is now officially in beta. Register for a free account and start creating your game sheets and making characters!

We haven’t put a lot of bells and whistles in, and those of you who know CSS will have an advantage to creating a masterpiece game sheet. We’re definitely accepting tips & tricks or tutorials from those of you who make a killer gamesheet and want to share with the community some of the things you did to make your sheet come alive.

We know the documentation is sparse, but we’ll be growing it as people ask questions and things start picking up. And we’ll post a general tutorial on how to use the system soon. In the meantime, if you see a cool sheet you can clone it to your own collection and then go look at how the sheet was created, this means that you advanced users will be teaching other community members as you create.

Use the Feedback & Support tab liberally, we want lots of feedback. Tell us your ideas, vote on existing ideas, and report bugs (the more information the better.)

Have fun and good gaming!