Story Overlays – A Quick Storytelling Tip For Your Encounters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0955

Here’s a trick the pros use to make stories chaotic, tense, and exciting.

You might already do this. If so, give yourself +10 GM XP. For the rest of us, here’s what to do.

Take your encounter or 5 Room Dungeon and place it inside an event, like a carnival or war.

For example, you are planning a showdown with the corrupt mayor’s chief advisor and her goons.

Instead of staging the encounter in a deserted warehouse or alley near the mayor’s office, you drop the scene into the middle of a raucous concert. Or while flaming trebuchet bombs crash around. Inside the dark and creepy carnival funhouse. Or during an incursion by enemy soldiers running amok chopping and hacking.

Now environment, stakes, and player choices get more complex. They amp up. They get more intense.

You also get a wonderful theme to riff off of for inspiration. Imagine a carnival. There’s parades, crazy rides, food vendors, magic shows, and wondrous delights.

So many opportunities for great encounter locations and situations!

And gameplay gets nested into another level of context.

There’s the story of the chief advisor and her bodyguards. Who are they? What are their capabilities? Why do they serve a corrupt mayor? How can the PCs get at the advisor without the mayor around? How will the PCs deal with the goons?

All these plot questions get wrapped up into another layer — the carnival.

Because here’s the trick with these things.

You add a twist so the situation goes bad. If it’s already bad, you make it worse. The players make it worse. And the characters make it worse.

It’s this change from one state (fun carnival) to another (ferris wheel catches on fire trapping people; fire spreads) that amps up the whole scene.

Because of this extra context you layer upon each encounter I call this technique a Story Overlay. You layer one story context on top of another.

I talk more about Story Overlays in the Adventure Building Workshop. But you can use this technique immediately.

Take your next planned encounter or series of encounters and layer an event on top of them. Use the event to inspire encounter locations, details, and situations.