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
Advertisements
Dresden Files Accelerated

Dresden Files Accelerated

EvilHat is getting ready to ship out the new Dresden Files Accelerated RPG this June. It is no secret that I’m in love with the Fate system for roleplaying, and this game has not dulled that feeling one bit. In fact, I’m stoked. Big time. Here are a few reasons why.

Stress

They made a small, but I think important, change to the stress track. All characters now have 6 stress boxes, but each box is only worth 1 point. However, you can also check as many of those stress boxes as you want to soak up damage.

I’ve been catching up on my Dresden-verse and I’ve noticed something about the books that stand out to me: Combat is brutal and ends quickly. I think having only 1 point stress boxes helps to give you the feeling of being in mortal danger relatively quickly.

Scale

They used the alternate rules for scale from the Fate System Toolkit and I think it goes a long way in allowing characters of vastly different power levels to operate in the game at the same time. It makes the humans feel small but doesn’t mean they can’t be effective given the right circumstances. They even go so far as to allow scale to come into play when you use some stunts, so characters can temporarily increase their scale when it’s appropriate to the narrative. Fuego!

Conditions

I. Love. Conditions. They essentially reskinned consequences and turned them into a much more narratively interesting resource. They are named appropriately to help carry the universe into the characters.

Instead of a Minor Consequence, you are In Peril and when you take a Serious Consequence you are instead Doomed. And they did not forget my favorite condition, Indebted, which they use to account for trading in the currency of favors. Watch out for those tricksy Fae.

Mantles

Mantles are like archetypes and they describe additional conditions that your character has access too. Lest you be too quick to judge though, conditions are not always a bad thing. They can be very good, too. Exhausted, for example, is a common condition for magic-wielding folk who want to push themselves to the limit and gives a nice scene-long bonus. Afterward, however, it’s time to pay the piper.

All in all, this game has me super excited to play in the Dresden-verse and I’m already stealing ideas for my D&D-esque fate game with regard to mantels and conditions.

In the immortal words of Harry Dresden, “Stars and stones!”

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.