3 Tips For Better Storytelling
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #600
The Question-Dangle Technique
Great stories have mystery. They create a question and leave you dangling for the answer until the end. Use this same sequence to create story tension in every part of your game.
For example, you could say that Black Razor is an evil sword that steals souls. But there’s no mystery when delivered that way. It’s a poor story.
Instead, tell your players they’ve found an obsidian blade that thrums with evil intent. It’s gives off waves of power and malice.
In example one, there’s no mystery. Your players will just absorb the information and play on. But in example two, you’ve set up a question, and your players will want to know the sword’s powers. The story gets created from their actions that follow until the question is answered.
Another example. You could say, “The orc strikes you for fifteen points of damage.” Or you could say instead, “The orc emits a terrifying scream and deals you a major wound. [pause] The dirty blade depletes you by 15 health.”
Here you got pulses racing with the setup “major wound.” It begged the questions, how much damage and is the PC ok? Then you paused to let tension build for a moment. Then you finished not with just the answer but another story lead – what does “dirty blade” mean for the PC’s wound?
A third example. The PCs are hired to whack some bandits. You could hook them with a bounty and backstory about recent bandit behaviour. I’ve actually seen it done this way in boxed text in a published adventure.
But much better is to create a question and leave it dangling. Perhaps the PCs hear an old friend is missing but not how, why or for how long. They arrive at the village and are pleaded with to solve recent disappearances and random acts of violence. Create rumours (more stories!) of monstrous beasts in the night. Then have them find tracks and clues of monsters in the woods. Finally, spring an ambush or some other encounter that reveals human bandits riding strange monsters.
Framing things this way takes practice.
Step 1) Reframe the situation into a question. Use Who, What and Why to help do this.
Step 2) Provide details to flesh out what’s happening, to delay and tease the ending.
Step 3) Answer the question.
In all cases, as much as possible, show don’t tell. Act things out, or describe things as the PCs would experience them using all five senses.
Practice first by literally asking a question. “Guess how much damage the orc does?” This teaches you how to frame things into questions.
Then get more subtle and use statements and description to create the mystery.
Finally, master the technique by using player actions to tease out the ending. Instead of handing out the ending, game it out. This applies to encounters, events, and plots, but not damage descriptions – those can stay nice and short.
Learn how to take something a player offers you and turn it into a question and game out the ending, whether it takes two minutes or two weeks.
We often get trapped into thinking stories have to be long. But everything you communicate to players, whether it’s a description or the GMing of an entire adventure, can become interesting stories with the question-dangle technique.
Tie Details To PCs
Run the game through the PCs’ point of view as much as possible. Work in character sheet and backstory details as much as possible, especially past gameplay.
First, speak to the characters, not the players. Use character names and the word “you”.
Poor: “Krug, there’s something in the bushes up ahead.”
Better: “Krug, you see something move in the shadows up the trail and hear a snap like someone just stepped on a stick.”
Second, only give details the characters would know. PCs are not omniscient. Restrict your information to what they can perceive or what experience and knowledge might suggest.
Poor: “Krug, a red-fanged tremorlisk leaps out to attack.”
Better: “Krug, the creature that slew the toughest guard in your town launches from its hiding spot and tries to sink its red fangs into you!” At this point you can name the creature, ask for a skill check with a chance to reveal some useful information, or let the player try to remember his PC’s backstory.
Reference Previous Sessions
Third, bring up previous gameplay for inclusion in descriptions. This reminds everyone of great details from past sessions and creates immersion. It connects players to the campaign.
Poor: “Krug, make a perception check. [roll] Ok, you spot a snare trap.”
Better: “Krug, roll a d20. [roll – you check his skill in secret and then tell a story] Your senses tingle of nearby danger. Looking around everything seems ok. But then that trail in the Trollhorn Forest comes to mind. Remember that time you triggered a snare and got tangled up just before the trolls attacked? Well, you see a similar trap now just a few feet ahead. And the forest around you has just gone deadly silent….”
Reveal the world through the PCs’ eyes as much as possible.
Caring Is Believing
Great games have high player investment. When players care what happens, you just need to keep stirring the pot.
The first thing players should care about is their PCs. Obvious, but sometimes hard to do. Take extra time at character creation to work with players on PC details. Delve into character appearance, history and motivation.
The Mother of All Character Questionnaires might help.
Bring PC details into gameplay often, especially through NPC roleplay. If a character looks fearsome, have children run away in fear and village wives lock their doors and peer through shutter cracks.
Study character sheets and look for options players have picked. Those are your instructions for future encounters! If a player has an acrobatic ability, start thinking 3D and destructibles for encounter design.
And deliver character rewards that players and PCs will truly enjoy. I maintain a treasure wish list. Players email me between sessions with requests for magic items, henchmen, sometimes even game situations. “More rooftop fighting please!”
Always be asking yourself, “Why is this player playing?” Find out what motivates your players to show up to each game. Where do they get their kick from, as Robin Laws would ask.
If you can’t intuit this, ask your players. Have a conversation before and after sessions. “So, what did you like most about the session, Jim?” “How did you get into gaming, Bob, and why do you still play?”
Listen to the answers and build up an understanding of how to please your group.
Also pay attention to players during sessions. When you spot a bored player, stop and think about what they’re experiencing. What could be the cause? Lack of action, lack of purpose, can’t get a word in?
Likewise, when you see a player excited, try to figure out the cue and note it. Facilitate more such moments in future sessions.
The third thing players should care about is the story. The NPCs and places PCs get to know should be cherished.
Spend time at campaign starts to reveal NPCs and your setting to your players. Let your group discover delights, secrets and surprises before hitting them with the villain. Let the PCs make friends. Reward them with the respect of NPCs they respect. Build relationships. Use recurring locations to create familiar ground. Employ a home base for the party and flesh out the details.
Tying things back to the PCs helps players care more about the story. If what’s at stake is important to them, it’ll matter. But also let players wander and build upon choices they make. This also helps them care more. If your Dungeon of Doom gets blown off by players who instead chase a comment you made about a fairy festival, run the festival. The Dungeon will still be there, getting doomier.
Use time between sessions to make changes to your setting and campaign instead of plotting more rigid storylines. React to the PCs. Think cause and effect. How did the PCs treat NPCs? Are the characters flashing a lot of money around? Are they bumblers? Did they get in anyone’s way?
And always have a few events in your back pocket to put them on their heels from time to time.
Getting players to care will generate the best stories of your GMing career.
I hope you found these three tips useful. Storytelling is not just a plot diagram. It can happen throughout the game in moments small and large. See the game through the PCs’ hearts, minds and eyes to co-create a campaign everyone cares about.
Brief Word From Johnn
Today’s tips mark another milestone for Roleplaying Tips. 13 years, approximately 2.17 million words, and 600 issues. What a fun time it’s been!
I hope the 6500+ tips from me and your fellow readers have helped you have more fun at every game throughout the years, as well.
Ok, enough celebration. Back to work. 🙂
What’s in store for you and Roleplaying Tips in 2014?
I started work on the roleplayingtips.com website. It’s been transferred to a new host and faster server (thanks to http://ZendyLabs.com for their help and for providing a great new home for the site). I’ve got some back-end chores to do on it next, and then I think I can finally start updating the blog and back-filling past archives.
I’ve also started work on a new tips contest. Once I get a project called Productivity Quest finished (a system for helping people get more done each day) I’ll organize a fun new contest for us.
Finally, I’ve also started planning an ebook version of all 600 past issues. Its working title is The Ultimate Game Master Encyclopedia. I’ll keep you posted as the planning progresses.
Oh, and I’m still chugging away on my first published adventure. Look for news about that in 2014 too.
I don’t know about you, but to me it seems like after 600 issues I’m just getting warmed up! If you have a chance today, give a toast to another 600 issues of Roleplaying Tips.