Storytelling in RPG's


We often think that it is the job of the GM to do the storytelling in a roleplaying game. Many groups approach the game with this model. The players make a backstory for the characters and the GM provides the plot. This is the normal model that was espoused when we first learned about the "Dungeon Master" and "Game Master." For my RPG project I kept the acronym GM -- but in my usage it means "Game Moderator." "Moderator" has several meanings that improve, expand, and curtail the scope and role of the GM.

A moderator moves elements of a traditional module or adventrue into the middle:

* Flattens over-arching story plots and moves them more into middle from the fore-ground
* expands the background elements to give them more depth -- moving them into the middle ground

As both items move into the middle it is the job of the players to fish them out of the middle ground and put them in the foreground. In this way the background of the player characters does not stay in the backgound (as is often the case). Players should pull out items that resonate with their background -- regardless of how it relates to the story of the kings.

A GM's goal when creating a world is to fill it with moving parts. Every moving part has a story and function. When characters encounter situations the NPC's will be trying to co-opt the players to their goals... even if their goal is just "join me at the pub for a drink. [I want to bask in your glory.]" When an NPC is connected to a larger plot; they are seldom cognizant of it. While an NPC is often fairly flat in terms of function, most GM's make them too flat. Create tension within your NPC's by giving them two stories rather than one. A soldier who wants to be a sailor. A priest who used to be a thief. A thief who is studying to be a priest. A baker who was once a member of the Ravenous Cult. The NPC is still fairly flat, but one sentence is frought with much more tension and possibility than one word. The sentence gives the NPC motion, which is what I suggested as the topic sentence -- you want moving parts. Moving parts create dynamism and interest.

Mark any NPC's that the players actually take an interest in and move them along in their own story. "Hey, weren't you a guard last year? Yes, but..."

It is more organic, more difficult to explain, and more prone to failure than other role-playing approaches. I suggest that it is more fulfilling because you are able to coax the "meaty" stuff of roleplaying from the players and can end up with surprising and original stories.

In a story...

A broken item is more interesting than a working one.
A wounded villain is more compelling than a wholly evil one.

Story idea... after hundreds of years of war two kingdoms have settled on peace. Within your kingdom there are factions who are angry and seek to re-ignite the flames of war. There are plenty of stories of horrors on both sides. Suspicions of plots and intrigues abound.

This is a good sandbox for a campaign. There could be real or imagined plots on both sides. Players could choose to pursue peace; foil plots against their kingdom; foil plots against the other kingdom; participate in plots against the other kingdom; work with folks from the other kingdom; or try to accomplish other goals in a context of mistrust and anger. Adventures that cross the border are heightened by these problems. This is what I mean by placing the story of the war in the middle ground. It will permeate everything that they do. It is easy to understand. It will shape and create action.

That's a very interesting way of putting it. I've always thought that 'moderator' may have been a better word for the 'M' in GM, but I hadn't considered the middle-ground type of description that you used for where the elements of an adventure or module should go.

I suppose I've always been used to being, in some part, the 'teacher' as well. Being the type of person who finds difficulty in interacting with total strangers (at least, in actual living breathing form), I have tended over the years to draw players from my already-established group of friends and acquaintances. This is rewarding in that there are always people who want to play, but also frustrating in that story-telling for them is a difficult endeavor, although in many instances it has been very gratifying personally as well.

However, I tend to find that oftentimes, I have to take the time to initially guide players through the storytelling experience. Not that I mind, but it leaves a very interesting outlook on the experience I think. It never ceases to amaze a little how people can read many stories, play many games with excellent narratives, watch many films and shows and yet when they must make a living, breathing character on their own (with some GM help), they stumble. They can't see the story. It's also interesting in the reverse, where some can create interesting narratives that in the end usually require me to expand my story and world even more to work with these players. This is never a detriment in my eyes though. The GM and player creating content in parallel with each other to bring more lore and substance to the world of the campaign has always been something that I have enjoyed doing. However, I digress a little.

It's interesting to observe that early on in the storytelling experience, it's almost like some new players want to simply be told a story. Go here, do this thing, fight this invincible dragon, get this treasure. Linear modules aside, it's almost surreal to work so much on a narrative only for the players, so used to structure and cliche, to forget that the game part of the Pen and Paper is only just that: a part. A part of a bigger whole, with story being the much larger portion.

That being said, the group I have is a good set of folks, better than I have had in years. There was some slow going, but it's a good solid group now. Some members have come and gone, but I remember distinctly helping one with her character and it was very frustrating to have her give up so many times on creating a narrative. I had never thought about it, but the experience gave me a new perspective on the storytelling experience. She kept asking me what the 'right answer' was, and being frustrated when I told her that the right answer was whatever answer she wanted. She expected, I think, that I had a specific purpose in the story for her character, that any straying outside that imagined boundary would ruin the character for me. And I never realised that could be a considered possibility. The joint storytelling experience I wanted to create had become so natural for me, I had forgotten the possibility that someone could see or think that I had a desired result or goal and that everyone else was just along for the ride. Even now, I wish she'd stuck with it, and learned to enjoy the medium.

My thoughts are less collected on this one. I'll let you take a stab at it, Gil.

Sometimes "Storytelling" gets a bad rap. Some think that it belongs in the purview of the erudite, educated, or dramatic. I don't see it that way. Shared storytelling happens when players make decisions based on how their character sees a situation. A cavalier charging an enemy even though he only has 1 HP left could be good storytelling: because it is what the character would do, not what is the most logical. It could be good storytelling and good role-playing, even if the player only says "I charge."
I'd like to talk about two things: story, and telling.
When the player says "I charge" the story has advanced in a new and important way. The action has emotion and consequence. The action creates either a hero or a tragic hero. It doesn't take a great orator to perform this task at the table. But, it does take a player at the table who will take an action that can shape or change a story. A great story is about the events that happen and the roles that the characters take. According to Plato a good tragedy will be tragic when just the details, devoid of all artistry, are related. The events are the story. So, if a player contributes to the story they have contributed to the "storytelling."
The telling can come from another. It is a collaborative effort. How the various characters respond to and remember that action adds to the experience. The GM may describe the clash with vivid imagery, or with a scant one-liner. It doesn't matter whether your group's style is Conrad, Hemmingway, or twitter. So long as you have events that are remembered. If the charge of the Cavalier is remembered and alters what happens next -- you have storytelling. If the module continues without alteration then you don't. If the players can change the story then there is storytelling. Many GM's will have a flair for dramatic sequences and complicated back-stories. These are a dime a dozen -- the ones that think it is their job to do the telling. The GM that lets the players do the telling is a rarer breed. They use their skills to emphasize what the players have done.

We aren't all great dramatic actors. I'm not. Even in the absence of dramatic greatness you can find a great story. A story is a set of events. If those events have conflict and joy and sadness -- you have a story worth enacting.

Too often people see the GM as the "great obfuscator" hiding all the mysteries and trying to trick the players. They miss the times when the GM is supposed to make things clear. So here are some suggestions for GM'ing to bring out role-playing and story-telling.

Take the time to understand the characters at the table. Ask questions about each character and write down the answers. Ask for clarification about the character's central themes. "So you are an anarchist. You don't like any authority because you where wrongly abused by the system when you were young. Is there any kind of authority that you like?" This will help novice players solidify their understanding of their own character.

Phrase situations in terms of their stated character traits.

After an encounter or a session ask those questions again about how they have changed, or become more militant.

In the beginning steer players towards some of the easier RP archetypes:

anxious or nervous characters,
defiant characters (teachers who have worked with ODD kids will be great at these),
and popinjays.

Recap: don't build stories, build events. Stories are just a set of linked events.

Aside for the literary types: A story is an artificial construct. Conrad's heart of darkness, though written in the 1890's, was considered by many to be the first 20th century novel because of the deconstruction of the plot methodology and the various meta-structures within its embedded narrative. Modern literature is aware of itself and how unnatural the whole concept of "story" and "plot" is.

Good lord, law school ate me alive. I'll be back after the holiday for an attempt at a return reply to facilitate discussion. Have a good holiday everyone!