I was looking over some of the roleplaying games that are consistently top scores and began to mine them for some specific trends based on what people said about them, and here are a few of the top examples that should help Gamemasters get the most out of their own games.
One of the big things is to remember that no matter how heavy the tone you want the story to have, you’re going to need to take some time to step back and have some lighthearted moments. Earthbound never took itself too seriously, Chrono Trigger had times where the characters could tell jokes or show off their humanity, even Final Fantasy VI had moments where you took a step back from the epic world changing wars and went to an opera or helped bring a father and son together again. Your players will usually break into levity outside of the game, but for the characters, they need a moment to relax too.
Narrative sandbox is tossed around in a lot of games these days, but look back to classics like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy series, Uncharted Waters series, Ultima series, Shadowrun console games, Rings of Power, Phantasy Star series, Secret of Mana series, Sword of Vermillion… These were games for 16-bit Consoles or DOS games that allowed the player to pretty much explore the world in whatever direction and way they wanted. Some of them had ways to skip parts of the story by completing other challenges first, some cases even letting you come back and see a changed scene, or in the case of Chrono Trigger a different ending. Players like their freedom, they don’t want to be dragged about by their nose if they are telling their story.
A rich, interactive world and NPCs makes the game feel all that much more real. Look at MMOs that had crafting systems, like Ultima Online or Everquest where you could go harvest materials, bring them back to refine them and use them in crafting. You cut trees and take them to the sawmill who turns them into boards for the carpenter or blacksmith, you mine in the mountains for minerals for the blacksmith and alchemist, your hunter gets meat for the butcher, leather for the armorer, while your farmer grows for the baker and the tailor. It could be a whole adventure doing this and in a tabletop game, you could require players to have to hunt down specific materials to build specific things. Maybe your players are combat rather than crafting, so they need to deal with the NPCs to get what they want, and these NPCs are real people who want and need things, so give them desires, like they would give a reduction if the heroes would go see why their latest shipment hasn’t come in from the mines. Have the NPCs act on their own accord and seek the players out if their reputation has it possible they are known enough, like someone coming to them for help in dealing with a thug who is tormenting them. Even those who you encounter as enemies have a reason for doing what they are doing more than just mustache twirling, they have a goal they are trying to achieve and this was their best way. For example, Magus from Chrono Trigger trying to summon Lavos to beat it in his castle is the act of a man thrown into a situation out of his control and who reached the end of his rope so he tries to solve it in the way he knows best.
Keeping your players interested is the key to good storytelling, and to do that you want to keep the surprises and twists coming to keep the players on their toes. Again, Chrono Trigger is a great example of this because it is watching from the first moments, because once you rescue Marle from the past, you are put on trial for her kidnapping and everything done up to that point is used as evidence either for or against your case. So, if you did things in the early carnival thinking it was just a harmless fun center, you’ll see that actions have consequence. The Virtue system in Ultima is like that, as you can see in games 4 and on, as the system tracks when you lie, steal, kill fleeing enemies, run from combat and so forth. It allows for you to test and challenge them in many ways, especially ways that seem like a test but aren’t. Walking Dead had the ‘X will remember this’ in dealing with NPCs, after you chose your options, making you wonder how they saw you. You could look to things like Star Wars for some morality choices
Making your combat meaningful is probably the hardest part. A lot of games get bogged down in the random battles like Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star where you encounter fights at random and earn XP and items. In tabletop, random fights are a fallback to where the GM wants something they hadn’t prepared, whether you are going somewhere they don’t expect or they just want something different. However, tabletop games can learn something from some games and make combat an integral part of your storytelling. Craft big encounters for your bosses so they get the epicness they deserve but don’t skimp on the smaller ‘grindable’ battles, give them some flavor of their own so the players don’t glaze their eyes as they fight the fiftieth pack of wolves. In a forest, use the trees and even the brush to your advantage as cover for monsters to get close, in a desert remember the heat is a factor so exerting themselves in combat could lead to fatigue, your giant monster needs to be climbed on to be hit a la Shadow of the Colossus, and so forth. You find one or more things to make combat different for the area you’re in or the monster you’re fighting and it will invigorate your players.