6 Story-Making Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0054

  1. Plot vs. Story
  2. Design Your Plot In Iterations Starting From The First Session Outwards
  3. Obey Your Game’s Rules & Your Game World’s Rules
  4. Work Each PC Into The Story
  5. Create Loose Ends
  6. Create Moveable Scenes
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A Brief Word From Johnn

Brief Game Master Survey

Thank you to everyone who filled out Gary Gygax’s game master survey. I asked Gary last week about details on posting the results and here was his reply:

“Greetings, Seekers

The final tabulation of the survey will likely be done sometime next year–likely in the late spring. I’ll then post the material wherever I can, and whomever wishes can pick it up. DRAGON Magazine will likely have some details therein.”

If you haven’t taken the survey yet, you can find it online here until January 5th 2001:

Next Issue: First Week Of January

I’m off for Christmas holidays now. The bad news is we’re skipping a week. Your next issue will arrive at your Inbox during the first week of January 2001. And then I’ll resume the regular Monday schedule.

This also means I’ll have no email access for a couple of weeks (my hands are already starting to shake) so please don’t be offended if I don’t respond to your email until January.

Give your players a freebie next session as a Christmas present. Perhaps some forgotten loot in a shadowy corner, a nasty monster with only 5 hit points, or a surprise gift from a character’s friend or relative.

Warm regards,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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6 Story-Making Tips

Plot vs. Story

It is important to understand the difference between story and plot, *especially* in an RPG environment.

Here are the definitions of story and plot from dictionary.com:

Story: An account or a recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.

Plot: The plan of events.

To me, this means that the plot is what you will spend your time on planning and preparing. And the story is how your plot actually unfolds during your sessions.

This also means that you are free to script your plot as much as you like, even down to multiple contingency plans and to the finest details.

But your story, the actual session play, should always remain free-flowing and interactive. It should not be “scripted” in the sense that you lead the PCs by the nose through your plot.

Make this understanding of plot vs. story your new strategy when creating your roleplaying tales.

Design Your Plot In Iterations Starting From The First Session Outwards

I create plots for my own D&D game using a simple 7-8 step process. It lets me be well prepared for the first session or two of a new story in the least amount time. Because work and other commitments always seem to cut into my planning time during the week, I often need to be fast with my roleplaying preparations.

  1. Start your plot with an idea, or seed, and then work outwards from there until you have a basic plot line created.
  2. Next, write your plot down in 1-5 sentences. Make sure you have a beginning and an end. Also cover the Who, What, Where, When & Why, if applicable. By having to write it out, you are making sure your plot is clear in your mind.
  3. Your plot summary becomes your master plan. Chunk it out into parts. i.e. scenes, chapters, encounters or sections. For each part, write a 1-5 sentence summary, like you did with the overall plot.
  4. Then start with the first “scene”, and break it down into further details: rough maps, NPC outlines, character hooks, conflict description, how you see it playing out, rewards, etc. Give each item a 1-3 sentence summary. Do this for all of your other scenes.
  5. Return to scene one and, for each element (rough map, major NPC, character hook, treasure…), create more details for it (i.e. detailed maps, NPC stats and brief descriptions, village inhabitants, etc.). Some GMs like to have many details and some prefer few, so I’ll leave it up to your GMing style to determine the amount.
  6. Flesh out enough scenes for 1-3 sessions’ worth of material. If your plot is pretty linear, then you can get away with planning for just one session ahead of time. If the PCs can jump around through different scenes easily, then you will need to detail enough scenes so that you’ll be sufficiently prepared for each session as you play it.
  7. Return to the first scene and polish any details you need, such as NPC backgrounds, tables and charts, minor NPC details, rumours… Do this for the scenes you’ll need for the first session.
  8. Finally, if you have time, you may want to review your whole adventure, including the detailed parts of the first 1-3 scenes you’ve made, and the outlined parts of future session scenes you still need to flesh out. As you read, look for logical inconsistencies, potential holes in your story, weak or boring spots, etc.

Now you’re ready to play.

This is only one method to creating an adventure, but one that has been very successful for me. It helps me handle a large project like creating a multi-session adventure story, by chunking out the plot and scenes and cycling through them, adding more and more details during each iteration.

It makes creating a whole adventure less scary than it would by trying to do it all at once. And it makes sure you are prepared for at least your next upcoming session, in case you run out of planning time–but you still have the whole plot and its scenes roughly figured out so you can “wing it” if the PCs take an unexpected direction (which they will).

Obey Your Game’s Rules & Your Game World’s Rules

I used to create a lot of stories whose villains used methods that could not possibly be explained by my game’s rules or by how things worked in the game world. And, while game mastering these stories, I always felt I was cheating. Cheating the players and cheating the story.

The excuses I would use are, “it’s magic and who knows how magic truly works”, or “alien technology”, or “the gods did it”.

But it’s far more satisfying making sure the villains abide by the same rules as the characters do. This gives the players an actual chance to understand and solve your story’s problems and conflicts. And it makes your villains and stories believable.

It’s also a lot of fun, as GM, to create plots this way too.

For example, you could put a powerful magic item in an evil wizard’s hands to do vile deeds with. Who knows where the item came from, who made it, if it even could have been made, or why it was made. Or, you could scan the wizard’s spell lists and ask “how could this wizard use these spells to commit evil crimes against society?”

The second story will be much more interesting than the story about the magic item, guaranteed.

Work Each PC Into The Story

If the story directly relates to a character, even in a small way, the story will be much more interesting to the player.

Ways to relate stories to characters include:

  • Background (i.e. hometown, friends, relatives)
  • Skills (i.e. special skills owned or wanted)
  • Character goals
  • Personality (i.e. the villain really offends the PCs)
  • Treasure and reward (as long as the PCs know what the reward will be during the story)

Relating a story to the PCs takes about 5-15 minutes. Write each character’s name down and think up 2-5 items, using the above list for help. Write each item below the character’s name.

Use this list as a checklist. Review your plot and look for an opportunity to involve one item for each PC with an element in your plot.

Also, keep the list nearby during play. You can relate things in your story to the PCs on-the-fly, if the chance presents itself, and the list will help remind you of what you’re looking for.

Also, you will get clues from the players during play about new items that you can use to relate their characters to future stories. Just add them to your handy list.

Create Loose Ends

Introduce 3-5 loose ends, or mysteries, that all get resolved and explained at the end.

Mysteries catch players’ attention and increase their interest in your story. Here’s a challenge for you: take your list from Tip #4 and find a way to turn one item into a mystery and relate it in your story. That would really draw a player in!

Another tip is to leave one loose end open for future plot hooks and plot lines.

Create Moveable Scenes

Design moveable scenes, or encounters, that will turn up where-ever you need them to be.

For example, you want the PCs to fight a group of bandits who are holed up near the mountain passes, but they’ve gone by ship. So, let the bandits be pirates.

Just remember not to force the PCs into encounters the *players* are deliberately avoiding – that way lies scripting.

In practice, my scenes are about 40% fixed and 60% moveable. Fixed means things happen in a certain order, at a specific time or in a specific place. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that fixed scenes give me the most headaches in terms of pulling them off well and triggering them. I’d like to increase my ratio to 25% fixed and 75% moveable in 2001.

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I’d like to give a special thanks to Gareth & Riina, and Aki Halme for inspiring this week’s tips. In fact, in a couple of spots I plagiarized wholeheartedly. ;)They sent me many more story creation tips so keep an eye out for those in 2001.

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Creating stories is one of my weak points as a game master. I’m pretty good at creating a bunch of scenes or encounters and stringing them together into an enjoyable plot. But, I’ve yet to create a compelling story with twists and turns that have the players calling me at 3am to ask when we’re playing next. (Maybe that’s a good thing.) I’d like to spend more time on this topic, if you’re willing.

So, if you have a plot/story creation tip or two, please send them in: [email protected]

Thank you very much!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Spicing Up Your Game

From Korihor The Great

  • If, during your session, the players seem to be getting into the tedium of “we go on to the next room, what’s there?”, try throwing them a curveball. Perhaps the next room has become the lair of a pack of wolves, or the door is locked/trapped.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new. Just because you’ve never heard of a dungeon ruled by a large hippogriff doesn’t mean it wouldn’t turn out okay.
  • If you can find them, buy a set of “Jumbo dice”. There’s nothing quite like rolling a 20-sided dice the size of a baseball….
  • If your playing surface is limited, try placing your dice in plastic/transparent cubes. To roll them, simply shake the cube and slam it down on the table. Great stress reliever, too.
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Character Histories Are A Must

From Casey V. Dare

Getting players involved in a game by having them write their character’s backgrounds is a must in my GM “tome” of wisdom (as Kate Manchester mentioned in her article in RP Tips Weekly # 49).

On the first adventure, game night #1, I speak with each player for a few minutes, alone, just before he/she rolls. If they were pre-rolled characters, I spend a few more minutes discussing where the PC came from, and any special events in his/her life that the player wanted to have impact the game.

BUT, I always ask them to write up what I call a character history, with the explicit instruction that anything they put in the history could become part of the game, and impact them and their comrades. I offered experience and minor items when they brought me the history.

Nope, I wasn’t on any kind of power trip (not more so than any GM ever is!). But, those histories forced the player to think about his/her character, and where he was going, came from, etc. The added bonus was that I could use their histories during slow times in a campaign, and spice things up by introducing something from one of their past lives — OF COURSE, with the inevitable GM twist that makes life just that much harder

Incorporating something a player writes into your campaign will make them interested in their character, and also in your game world since they realize that their actions impact what’s going on around them. It’s a blessed event to hear a player say IN CHARACTER “Maybe we should avoid the fight in the tavern tonight…the constable knows my family.”

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Online Resource For Creating Fantasy Languages

From Kalev

I’m not sure if you’ve seen this before, but if you haven’t, and you want to have a creature in your world use a realistic language (one not based on english), and you’ve got lots of time on your hands, do check out the Language Construction Kit at The Language Construction Kit