Seven Principles of Storytelling
From Phil Nicholls
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #675
- Keep the Story Moving
- Say Yes, or Roll the Dice
- Ask the Players
- Challenge Their Beliefs
- Share your Energy and Creativity
- Be Good to Each Other
- Take Risks and Escalate Conflicts
- Story at the Table
- Congrats to Culix
- Who’s Rooting For The Hobos?
- Creating The Characters
- Setting Up The Game
- During The Game
- Timing And Dramatic Sense
In my games I want a story that emerges collaboratively at the table. My current HeroQuest 2 campaign provides this for me. Yet, as I read through RPG rules for pleasure, it is clear many games reference the importance of story without providing a satisfying explanation of how to help it emerge. Spark RPG is one game that does address this issue.
Spark was designed by Jason Pitre, and published by Genesis of Legend Publishing in 2013. This storytelling RPG spotlights building worlds and challenging the characters’ beliefs within those worlds. The introduction describes the game as follows:
The Spark RPG is about imagining, building, and exploring fictional worlds. It gives you all of the tools and guidance you need to create an evocative and engaging Setting. It shows you how to find inspiration and collaboratively build a world with your friends. Most importantly, it teaches you how to create a place each of you find compelling.
The game is purpose-built to foster creating dynamic, custom Settings. You can work together to create a world that interests all of you, one that gives you a context for rich stories.
Jason outlines seven principles of storytelling:
- Keep the Story Moving
- Say Yes, or Roll the Dice
- Ask the Players Questions
- Challenge Their Beliefs
- Share your Energy and Creativity
- Be Good to Each Other
- Take Risks and Escalate Conflicts
These principles apply to everyone at the table, players and GM. Let us examine each one a little closer.
Keep the Story Moving
A story has a rhythm of its own, with peaks and troughs.
For all this change of story rhythm, it is important to keep pushing the game along. Time at the table is probably limited, so everyone needs the plot to move along steadily. This is not to jump immediately to the final confrontation. However, there is no reason to spend half the game session on one conversation with a shopkeeper just to roleplay the haggling process.
At the Table: If the players seem bored, then the GM can hand wave less exciting parts of the game. Anything from shopping to travel can be skipped over to re-energize the plot. Likewise, it falls to each player not to drag a game to a screeching halt just to pursue a personal subplot that does not involve the rest of the group.
Say Yes, or Roll the Dice
This common indie gaming mantra has parallels with improvisational theatre.
Saying “no” outright blocks the previous suggestion and stalls the game. The conditional response “Yes, but…” is useful in those situations where you would otherwise be tempted by an outright “no”. The “Yes, but…” allows for all manner of obstacles and interruptions, without closing down the conversation.
The other option is to invoke the dice and see where that takes the game. An initial “Yes, but…” can be good at setting the parameters of a conflict prior to rolling the dice. Once the rules mechanics are invoked, then it is the dice that determine the outcome. This is different from the GM vetoing a plan.
At the Table: Players should build upon the suggestions of other players. Take what one player suggests and move the story forward. Likewise, GMs should approach the game with the mindset of agreeing with the players, or initiating a conflict and allow the dice to resolve it. A story game is not about the GM imposing a plot on the reluctant players.
Ask the Players
Jason promotes the same process by encouraging questions at the table. Gamers are familiar with the principle of asking the GM for more information about the setting, or the current location, but this principle applies to more than these areas. Likewise, it also falls on the players to question each other, but in a supportive way.
At the Table: Ask leading questions of players to establish their motivations. These can be important for the portrayal of character, which is not easy to express during the game. We often focus on what is happening, at the expense of WHY it is happening. Spark provides some sample leading questions:
- Why did you abandon the church?
- Why were you so angry with Kevin?
- How did you feel when Luke ran away from home?
Challenge Their Beliefs
This principle is targeted at players of Spark, which revolves around the beliefs of the heroes. However, this is still a good concept for other RPGs. Any game with an alignment system or religious beliefs can be enhanced if the players have more chances to express their beliefs. Facilitate this process by engaging in debate and questioning these essential beliefs.
Even better, have situations arise in the game where a player’s doctrine is challenged. Will the player choose to do the “right” thing, even if this causes more problems for the character? Or, will the player take the easy route and let the teachings of their doctrine slide? Neither outcome is wrong, but both outcomes drive the story and provide fascinating insights into the character.
At the Table: Belief is important, and can be explored within the game. Have situations in the game present moral or ethical challenges to the heroes. Observe how the players define the morality of their characters. It is not for the GM to assert a set of moral rules and demand the players adhere to them. Instead, allow the players to define these rules, then push them into difficult positions where they fight against their own previously established rules.
Share your Energy and Creativity
I cannot emphasize this principle enough. Roleplaying is the ultimate collaborative hobby, and is driven by us all sharing our ideas at the table. Be enthusiastic about the game, and thankful for the friends who share it with you.
Share your plans and dreams for your character, and draw the other players into your personal subplots. Even those plots that turn against your character can strengthen the unity and camaraderie of the group. Likewise, be aware of the personal goals of the other characters, and be prepared to switch the spotlight onto someone else when the opportunity arises.
At the Table: Playing with positive, engaged people is always more fun. Build the story with your friends, even when the spotlight is not focused on your character.
Be Good to Each Other
Considering Jason’s seven principles, this one is the most important. Roleplaying is a game that builds friendships and shared experiences. The whole game is better when everyone treats each other with respect. You do not have to embrace everyone at the table as your closest friend, but that is no reason to be rude or aggressive.
At the Table: Create an open, supportive game for all the players. If everyone is supportive, then the ideas flow and maximum game fun can be achieved. So much is lost when ideas and players are shut down by loud, aggressive or rude behaviour.
Take Risks and Escalate Conflicts
The final principle is two sides of the same coin. Essentially, this is about driving forward the plot. The techniques for players or GM vary, but the impact on the story are broadly similar.
The players are encouraged to take risks with their characters. This refers to bravely moving the story forward, rather than adopting death-defying stunts every session. Players should be proactive and assume some responsibility for propelling the story. Do not wait for plots to come to you, initiate a story of your own and see how much fun that can be.
Likewise, the GM should also have tools to accelerate the plot. The game is not all about reacting to what the players do. Occasionally, it really is time for the villains to burst into the room and kickstart the plot.
At the Table: Everyone needs to take their share of responsibility for driving forward the story. Players should be bold, take action, and embrace the tropes of the genre. The GM needs to intervene quickly to kickstart a stalled plot.
Story at the Table
So what should we take away from the seven storytelling principles of Spark?
The central ideas are to be supportive of everyone at the table, and to drive forward the story together. My experience has been that the best story emerges when everyone works together to advance the plot.
Beyond this more formal agreement, it is down to the GM to guide the group towards implementing these principles.
Spark is unusual among RPGs by setting out the principles for good storytelling. Jason makes it clear the responsibility for a great story lies with both the players and the GM.
How do you encourage storytelling at your table? Have you read any great advice in an RPG? Hit reply to share your tips with Johnn.
Brief Word From Johnn
Congrats to Culix
A player on long-term hiatus in my group just got a new level in fatherhood. Congrats to Culix for his healthy new 1 HD wyrmling!
Who’s Rooting For The Hobos?
RPT Patron Peter Sinkis told me he was rooting for the Murder Hobos in my campaign. “I keep hoping their story will lead them to redemption for some of their more…questionable actions. Plus, seeing how the town and the blue diamond interact has caught my interest.”
Me? I’m rooting for the villains. They’re good people and creatures – just a little misunderstood. 🙂
Who are you rooting for? Take this quick and fun poll if you’ve been following along to my Murder Hobos campaign logs:
Ok, on with the tips. And get some gaming done this week!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
From Ole Peder Giæver
Creating The Characters
Create the characters together in the group, or at least spend some time in a physical meeting or via e-mail/Facebook Group talking a bit about the campaign you want to run.
Make sure the characters have some points of contact to each other. Figure out why they will experience things together as a group (most roleplaying games still presuppose this as a default, though there are exceptions). Do they already know each other? Are they stuck in the same situation? What ties them together?
Make sure the characters have some interesting weaknesses/challenges to overcome. Preferably also some clear goals (that do not conflict with each other to the extent they can’t cooperate).
Drama = conflict, but if the conflicts between characters are too big, the campaign might be short-lived.
Setting Up The Game
Plan adventures and campaigns based on the character’s background, interests, skills, goals, and motivations. Let them be the main characters. Tie important elements of the plot directly to the characters.
Plan starting points and hooks, not solutions. Preserve the player’s freedom.
When preparing an adventure: give yourself a framework for improvisation, not a finished map over how events will play out (players generally dislike being railroaded). This will ensure both you and the player’s freedom during play. The game is created at the table, not in your study in advance of play.
Don’t cling too tightly to your secrets. Bring them into the game. The true excitement is in seeing what happens when the secrets are revealed.
Non-player characters are one of your most important tools. Plan a handful of these in advance of the game. Write briefly, just a few keywords about who they are. Sketch them out in a simple relationship map. How do they relate to the characters? To each other? How do they relate to the plot? What’s their agenda? Write them down between each session of play.
Having prepared a simple list of a dozen typical men’s and women’s names from the setting can come in handy when you have to name NPCs on the fly.
Don’t spend lots of time preparing things you feel reasonably certain will never see play.
During The Game
Make sure all characters get some spotlight, and all players get a chance to speak.
Follow up on players’ initiatives and ideas. Reward them, add to them. Maybe their ideas are just as good as what you’ve planned.
Players will rarely do exactly what you expected. This is a strength, not a weakness, of roleplaying. Relish the opportunity to improvise and think at the drop of a hat. Take a short break if you need to gather your thoughts.
Breaks are good. A bit of food before or after the game is good. Some snacks is good. Many groups like playing with a bit of atmospheric music. Some GMs use prepared handouts. Most groups will need dice, books, and some pencils and paper to make notes with. Cell phones are a distraction. Ask players to turn off the sound and put them away. They can check them during breaks.
It’s better to allow frequent, short breaks than a lot of off-topic conversation during the game.
Use the players’ imagination. Ask them what the setting looks like, what the character is wearing, how she’s feeling, if the character knows anyone in the area, etc. Never reduce them to a passive audience. They should be active participants and co-creators (otherwise, they might as well be watching a movie). Build on and add to their input.
If you are not ready to have the character fail at a given task, don’t ask the player to roll. “Say yes, or roll the dice.”
Be careful giving the players challenges where there is only one possible solution. Try to leave challenges open, possible to solve in various ways. You don’t always have to picture a solution in advance, leave it to the players.
Make some notes as you go. Write a brief synopsis (half a page should suffice) after the game. This documentation will prove a gold mine when planning future sessions.
Timing And Dramatic Sense
As game master in traditional games, you have a lot of freedom to establish scenes where you want, decide which characters and NPCs are present, and what is going on when the scene starts. You can start in the middle of the action, spend time on exposition, cut a scene when it feels *dramatically right* rather than when the players are starting to get bored. Keep the action moving, at the same time as you’re preserving player freedom (you’ll get better at this balancing act given experience).
Timing. You’ll train your sense of dramaturgy by experience, and start with what you got. You’ve seen movies, played games, read books. A lot of this is already in your blood, and you’ll learn as you go. We are never fully taught as game masters. Timing has to do with when you reveal secrets, introduce new threats, cut scenes, raise your voice, whisper, sit quietly and just stare at the players for a quarter of a minute, or put on *that particular* song.
Best of luck!
Murder Hobos S2E3: The Case of the Disappearing Fort
Last session the PCs had just finished mopping the cavern floor with a necromancer who’s been turning miners into monsters.
We start Season 2 Episode 3 with the group headed back to town. Upon arrival the PCs come upon a cantankerous miner kicking at the door of the Lionshield Coster. He breaks a window and gets shot by a crossbow. Belenos the cleric PC intervenes and heals the miner. He says the Blue Diamond coster have bought all the shovels in town and nobody can sell him one.
Meanwhile, the other PCs see the two agents of Torm standing on a street corner, watching the party impassively. The group provokes the pair who shout back, “Justice will be served!” The PCs walk away shaking their heads and head back to their inn. Coincidentally or not, however, dark clouds begin to gather over town. Within minutes a funnel cloud appears. The party secures inn doors and windows and waits the storm out.
In the aftermath, Belenos discovers his holy tent has flown away, and the Tormites are nowhere to be seen. The people of Phandalin assess the storm damage and begin repairs, always looking over their shoulders in case the Red Brands decide to descend down the hill from their manor and start bullying and extorting gold again.
The group decides to pay the Blue Diamond leader a visit. They want to ask him some questions and propose an attack on the Red Brands. Khemed meets the party outside the coster’s compound, which is steadily growing. Roscoe the rogue spots through a fast-closing gate a huge mound of earth in the middle of the compound. Khemed defers and deflects all questions about the shovel purchases and the big mound of dirt and agrees to talk with the group in two days about the idea of assaulting the Red Brands.
The group returns to the Stonehill Inn and rests. Refreshed, they then go back to the wilderness to help a miner find three missing friends. The miners were drinking two nights ago and decided to take their party to a spooky tower one of them discovered a few minutes out of town. The PCs find the tower and spot three bodies on the ground inside. Suddenly, a whirlwind appears and the bodies begin whipping around in a cyclone and reaching out to attack anyone nearby. After a tricky battle, the undead air elemental creature is killed, but the miner bodies vanish. Mystery solved, the group is about to head back when their old enemy Venomfang flies by.
The dragon strafes the party, who duck and cover. The wyrm flies back to attack again but is caught off-guard with the group’s improved prowess since their last encounter. Injured, the creature flies off. The Murder Hobos stomp back to Phandalin and rest.
The next morning the party wakes to discover the entire Blue Diamond compound – wooden walls, palisades, buildings, people – has disappeared! All that’s left is a large crater. The Hobos investigate and discover the stone tops of a dwarven henge. They deduce the henge transported the fort someplace, from past knowledge gleaned about other henges discovered in the region.
Scratching their chins in thought, the Murder Hobos buy a cow. Then they return to a ruined tower previously explored that the PCs figure is Venomfang’s roost and wait, using the cow as bait to attract the lizard. The dragon does indeed come and it flies overhead but does not descend. Instead, it flies east along the Triboar trail. The Hobos give chase and soon come upon a scene that surprises them.
Several members from the Cult of the Dragon have captured the weakened Venomfang in nets. The dragon appeals to the PCs but they cannot understand draconic. So the party attacks at range, killing Venomfang, which shocks everyone! Angry at their prey being killed, the cult members attack the party.
A long, difficult, and harrowing battle ensues. It’s nearly party annihilation, but the cultists are vanquished.
We end the session there and clean up all the dead minis. The group is now close to 6th level. We agree to play again in two weeks. Everyone is curious about the fate of the Blue Diamonds, and Six has volunteered to organize townsfolk to dig deeper into the mystery, by, er, digging deeper into the crater.