What makes a great story? | A Quick Guide to RPG Storytelling October 29, 2015 20:11

The Storyteller for RPGs are like goaltenders in ice hockey. They have the load of the team's responsibility and they take on the job no one else seems to want to do. Whether they are forced to do it, enjoy controlling the events of a campaign, or are simply into that sort of thing; they are a rare breed (especially if you get a good one). Coming up with a compelling story is a monumental task. It requires a lot of man hours, especially when you consider that the players hold considerable weight in the pathing of a story. I’ve done my share over the years but always apprehensively.

As an aside, my storyteller (the co-founder and chief creative writer for Of Dreams and Magic) has been crafting elegant tales that traverse the spectrum of elated joy to dark despair for the last 20+ years. He knows what he’s doing. He has a unique perspective on what make characters pop and comes up with memorable interactions that make you feel like you know that “person, alien, robot, etc…” intimately. He also wrote the chapter in Of Dreams and Magic on storytelling. If you’re looking for a master’s tricks of the trade go through that chapter, even If you read nothing else in the book. Enough brown nosing, it won’t earn me any additional XP… he doesn’t give out XP (at least it seems that way).

So, what makes a great story? It’s a loaded question really. Stories usually take on a life of their own if you let them. They have the potential to write themselves, but there are some general rules to follow:

  1. Know your players - Are they looking for a lighting fast paced hack and slash story or do they want to delve into the inner thoughts and motivations of their characters. To a certain extent, give them what they want. It’s a collaborative story after all and no one wants to go see a movie they have no interest in. Here’s a real life example, I was telling a sci-fi based story about a pit-fighting alien and his friends looking to restore honor to his long lost race of people. I actually received an applause break after the first session. Half way through the campaign, I elevated a simple story to epic proportions and the group turned on me like savage, hungry, wolves. They tore me to shreds and with my dying breath I uttered, “It’s a good story”. They didn’t care, I ruined the story they were interested in playing.
  2. Outline - Know where your story is going and set milestones throughout. Use the 3 act structure. If it worked for W. Shakespeare, it will work for your RPG story.
  3. Put in the work - If you know every detail about the setting, main characters, and NPCs your story will appear to be very cohesive. Pacing is key, if you’re shuffling through notes every time a character approaches an NPC or has a question regarding the setting, you’ll look unprepared and the story will crawl to a halt.
  4. Set a mood - I use music, soft lighting, and good food. Believe it or not it works on dates and an RPG session. Lots of distractions will take your players (mentally) out of the story. Your pacing will suffer and the importance of each scene will diminish. Try to keep a mood throughout, but not at the expense of fun for the group. Sometimes joking around and blowing off some steam will make a session more memorable. Again, know your players.
  5. Learn to B.S. - Knowing every single detail about your story and rolling dice for every encounter is, realistically, not going happen. However, giving your players the impression that you’re in full control is critical. Don’t let them see you sweat.

These are 5 super simple storytelling tips. This list could easily be 100 or 1,000 bullet points. Becoming a good storyteller takes time, practice, and repetition. They more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be. In addition to the storytelling chapter in the Of Dreams and Magic core rule book, you can watch John dreamweave on the news & events page.

What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below.

~JE