Gamemastering School 1: Tell The Story Right

This is another mutli-part blog series I am starting to cover different topics that may be of use for those looking to get into Gamemastery or Storytelling or Dungeonmastery or Refereeing or whatever your system chooses to call it. Some may be old news to GMs who have been around for a while, but give it a skim, perhaps it’ll spark some new ideas.

My initial concept for this was an article talking about how video games had a lot of things they could teach GMs, even without going into the storytelling tropes to get various twists and turns for plots, just fundamental game design topics that would play into whatever story in whatever system you’re trying to tell, sort of in the style of these Revenge of the Gamer Chick  ‘Everything I need to know about GMing I learned From…’ articles on  X-Files and Babylon 5. However, as the writing went on, I began to find myself looking at other media for certain examples of things and with that brought about the idea of breaking it down into different genres but instead, I think I will break it down into different topics. Today, we’re going to look at some of the key fundamentals of storytelling.

The very first one I want to start with is one a friend of mine told me about. Always have something your players are striving towards, to keep them invested in the game. Now, this doesn’t mean always keep the players under the threat of death or failure but instead, always have it so they have at least one thing to keep working on. A perfect example of this is the video game Civilization. To quote Sid Meier when referring to the ‘One More Turn’ issue with his game, ‘There was never really a good place to stop playing. I’ve often found myself playing and then realized I’m late for a meeting.’

A great way to make use of this is with the Levitz Paradigm. This is named after Paul Levitz, a writer for DC Comics. What this does in comics is to have plot A, your main plot, getting the attention in the issue, but have Subplot B going in the background and getting a little attention, while other plots get little to no attention. Then in the next issue, you can switch things around by changing plot positions, keeping different plots going to keep people interested as there are still at least one plot they are interested in seeing resolved, and with the shifting it also helps negate boredom of doing the same thing over and over again. Also, with some planning, this allows to do foreshadowing by using events in one plot to tie to another. Imagine looking at the Skrull Invasion and then realizing that is why this character did what they did back two missions ago.

When you look at plotlines, they’re always about the story and how you tell it. There are a few basics that all work together for storytelling.’Give everyone a chance to shine’, a big one that you will see used in Squaresoft games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy and Bioware games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect; every character has their own moments to shine, sometimes it is as simple as certain parts of their character, like skills, being central and others it is whole character driven storylines, such as Lucca’s sidequest in Chrono Trigger where she even was separated from the rest of the group to do it. Of course, many players will focus on the idea of Never Split The Party as Spoony discusses here (language warning), so sidequests usually turn into a group thing unless you’ve got players that are willing to be challenged but still intelligent about it. I understand that mindset, but a lot of that comes from the GM using it as a way to ‘pick on’ the party, seeing it as a way to challenge the PCs. In D&D/Pathfinder especially, which is a lot of people know as ‘the default RPG’, the main way to challenge them is in combat. After all, the way to get XP is overcoming challenges, and to use 3.5 edition D&D as an example, monsters and traps have challenge ratings based on how well a group of that level could survive.

So, to boil that down, make sure that your sidequests are not going to rely on only having certain people there, unless you are good at adapting on the fly. Look at any superhero group as an example; how many times could a problem be solved by having Superhero X going to Superhero Y to use their power on Villain Z, but if that were to happen it would wrap up the story too quick to be interesting. Justice League Unlimited did a great example of that many times, but one of the best I can think of right now is episode Patriot Act, because it has a bunch of regular folks going up against a super powered beast that wanted to fight Superman who was away on other business. Another good example, and plays somewhat into Splitting the Party, The Greatest Story Never Told, where we see glory seeking Booster Gold is assigned crowd control and ends up having his own adventure.

One of the key elements of a roleplaying game is having your players connect to the game and especially the world you created and the NPCs you populate it with. Many gamers will tend to glaze over NPCs, intent on their stories and not wanting to get involved in needless ‘social stuff’ when there’s things they could be slaying.Again, a lot of this hack and slash mindset I think comes from that being how players got their rewards by beating monsters, and GMs do it because that’s how the systems and the stories do it. Video games, movies, even books, there’s always the huge battle scenes where the hero(es) stand against the enemies and have these detailed battle scenes, and in a lot of cases (especially for video games), they are there to pad things out and keep people involved in the story. Just look at ‘The Princess Bride’, where the tale is told ‘leaving out the boring parts’ because the son is only interested in certain elements of the story.

So, how can you get your players connected to the world around them? Read The Sympathy Of The Player and The Power Of Narrative Involvement which is a great essay that shows by giving your PCs, but more importantly, a way to genuinely connect with the NPCs of your world, they will want to do it more. A lot of video games will have cardboard cutout NPCs which dispense information, give you a quest, challenge you to a fight and then otherwise play little to no impact in your journey beyond that. MMOs especially are guilty of this where you’ll be given a few NPCs to deal with as part of a quest and rarely, if ever, will you ever see more than maybe a ‘Thank You’ from an NPC down the road.

As mentioned in The Sympathy Of The Player, The Walking Dead game by Telltale had a lot of people hooked, salivating until the next episode releases as it had characters they could connect to, characters with flaws and faults but it also had a story of a quest for hope, seeking a safe place to end their journey, all the while watching the challenges and interactions. I’ve watched Let’s Plays of the game where players would try and treat their charge Clementine like a living, breathing person, in what they would say to her and what risks they would expose her to, trying to keep her from seeing the bad stuff, let her embrace her innocence for as long as she can. That is a successful NPC, because you aren’t viewing her in terms of ‘she gives me this bonus’ and while it is an escort mission (one of the most hated types of challenges by gamers, probably tied with fetch/item exchange quests), it is not a mission where a lousy pathfinding code and monsters spawning all over the place have you essentially trying to escort a lemming through a maze of cliffs with them running towards every edge they can. Instead, it is a gripping narrative with realistic characters.

To borrow from Knights of the Dinner Table again, they actually have a good writeup on this in the form of the “Hartz-Felgur Principle”, KoDT Special Edition #2 and #3 for the full story. Weird Pete says ‘Basically it involves winning over the hearts and minds of your players. You get them emotionally involved in the adventure or setting you’re running, let them invest themselves. Without their knowledge, you turn your players into your allies. You give them ownership in your campaign.’ There are some excerpts from the book shown that actually discuss some options pretty well:

  •            NPCs have desires. They desire food, the company of others. Personal Wealth. Power. Love. Happiness. Protection from the elements. Safety from Harm. The gamemaster should keep this point in mind at all times. To achieve these basic desires, NPCs can be cunning, manipulative, treacherous… in short, your NPCs should be every bit as clever as the typical player. Alignments aside, any given NPC will lie, cheat, steal and deceive in order to get ahead or to preserve his or her life and those of the family, friends and loved ones. Don’t run an NPC, BECOME the NPC.
  •          Too many GMs become overwhelmed with the details of running a game and forget this most basic of principles – that the Gamemasters most powerful weapon is not the Monster, Trap or Deity. No, the most powerful weapon in the GMs arsenal. is the lowest of NPCs. The most unlikely of allies.
  •         Choosing your allies with the aim of pacifying your players. When considering NPC canidates, aim low. High level NPCs will be seen as threats by paranoid players and dealt with accordingly. On the other hand, low-level types often fly under the radar. They are viewed as being harmless by most players. In fact, zero-level NPCs routinely have close contact with player characters. The stable boy sees to the party’s horses and personal property. The bar wench is all too willing to blah, blah blah…. The GM may find it useful to MATCH a particular NPC to a PC based on knowledge he has of the player in question.
  • Who Better to Lure a PC to his doom than a seemingly inert, harmless and all to willing to please NPC?
  • Stroke a Players Ego and watch him bend to your will.

Also, in KoDT Tales from the Vault #2, there was a town that B.A. the GM created called Badger Falls. He based it off of Mayberry, from The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. and players loved the town and the NPCs so much they did not want to leave, instead spending over a month of RL time just interacting in the community and not working on any plot hooks given. Table Titans, a webcomic about a D&D groups adventures in character (and some out of character bits) has a section for anyone to tell tales of their RPG experiences, one GM wrote about using Soap Opera Digest to populate his village with various plot hooks for players to take advantage of, and if you have a social group that can be the way to go, but I would suggest doing some studying on acting and especially improv before going for a purely social soap opera style storyline because your players /will/ throw you curve balls.

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