August 26, 2015 by brennon
I’ve done a lot of role-playing in my time as a tabletop gamer both as a player and a Dungeon Master, Game Master or Storyteller (dependant on what kind of system you’re playing!) In that time I’ve had my fair share of peaks and troughs when it comes to telling a story that the other players will love so I thought I’d share some of my experiences and tips for a great session.
There is a fine line to be trod when it comes to planning. On the one hand you have to make sure that you have an idea of where the storyline is going and what obstacles you should be putting in your Player Characters way (PC). You should also be aware that too much planning can lead to a couple of pitfalls.
One of these pitfalls falls on the lap of the GM/DM/Storyteller. You could sit there crafting a huge and incredibly in-depth world but your players are probably not going to see 80% of it. It’s great for creativity but you could be spending a lot of time crafting this world for no reason whatsoever.
The balancing act here would be to come up with a broad backstory for the world you’ve made and the key locations that are of interest, trying to anticipate what the players might ask. Then potentially invite the idea of cooperative storytelling with your friends. More on that later.
The second pitfall (or spike trap?) with too much planning is that you can end up rail-roading your players down a very specific path. This of course is something that can affect some groups more than others (some like a linear storyline) but if you are adamant that a story WILL end up at a certainly point you can potentially cripple the interactivity within the story for players.
Too little planning can end up with you having a very boring play session. Making things up on the fly is great but that’s something that takes a while to get used to. Not knowing how to react to your players and/or leaving them at dead ends in the story because you didn’t come up with anything can lead to things feeling very shallow.
I know the last point is one that seems very obvious but you’d be surprised at the amount of Game Masters I’ve had who had no idea what was going to happen past the first encounter they’d written.
“Roll For Initiative…”
Combat is a big part of many role-playing games even if you might not end up getting them involved in a scuffle more than once or twice a session. However, when you do engage your PCs in a life threatening situation you have to make it something they will remember.
There are once again a few approaches to this that I’ve come to learn more about. The first of these is when you give the heroes a power trip. Minions are a good example of this from Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and of course when you just pit them against fodder foes and have them die after one hit.
This can give the characters a sense of power and show them their potential. This is a way of doing combat that should be used sparingly however. Too much of this kind of combat and the characters won’t feel powerful, they will just get bored.
I find this kind of combat is good for use when doing instances where the storyline might be held up by the action or in mass battle situations where the very minute details of the overall scene might not really be that important.
The other end of the combat spectrum is not being afraid to give your PCs a challenge. Actually feeling like they might die in an encounter is key to character motivation, especially in a game setting like World of Darkness where combat is lethal – no magic potions here folks.
Of course many systems have guidelines as to appropriate challenges dependant on level but don’t be afraid to shake things up. Just don’t make it a silly challenge just to make yourself feel powerful as a Games Master.
Don’t be afraid to let players come up with alternative ways of solving combat encounters as well. Monsters aren’t stupid (well, most of them) so if they come up with a clever way of twisting situations in their favour let them do it.
Death By Dice
In the right group don’t be afraid to kill your PCs. If they do something stupid – kill them, within the rules of course. If you have given them sufficient in-game warning and they still do something silly then they deserve to take the consequences of their actions.
An example of this was in a game of Dragon Age I was GMing. The players were hunting down these bandits who were using blasting powder to destroy key parts of the cities infrastructure.
They came upon these bandits shovelling a vast quantity of this power into pouches and in a prolonged fight one of the characters threw a fire bomb at a keg the stuff. He knew what would happen and as it landed it engulfed the player in flames destroying everything around it.
Even after sufficient warning ‘in-game’ (I didn’t stop him from doing it etc) his character died, killing all of the other assailants AND another of the player characters too.
It was a shocking experience that the player STILL feels bad about to this day but if I’d held back I think I would have removed a sense of realism from the experience and the weight of choice.
Of course this isn’t going to be for every group. Just remember that when you’re battling monsters not everyone gets out alive.
Cooperative Storytelling & Player Agency
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from being a Game Master is that you don’t have to have all of the answers. When crafting a world for a Fantasy adventure or playing out a mystery in our own world let the players influence some of the background.
A key example of this happened in a story where someone asked about a long forgotten war between Dwarves and another race. Well, one of the player characters in the game was a Dwarf so instead of me telling the story to them I just let him do it.
You might think that this defeats the object of me being there at that point but it gave the character a wonderful moment to build on his race’s history and colour it with his own opinions. Of course another character might have a different point of view on what happened. It certainly created some interesting scenarios later down the line.
There is a line here however as some players won’t feel comfortable doing this. If not, don’t worry about it, and keep the storytelling within your realm of responsibility. However, if you think that the players can handle it and not abuse your trust then it’s something to consider.
Another important part of this aspect of role-playing is to make sure they players have plenty of agency. This means that what they’re doing feels like it is having an impact. Don’t have your villain be beaten by the PCs only to then vanish in a puff of smoke – if they got him, they got him. Just because you had plans for him later on down the line doesn’t give him ‘plot armour’.
Give your players plenty of chances to influence the turn of events within your story focusing on them being at the centre of it all. Make sure the weight of their decisions also has an impact since in real life choices have consequences. The grey middle ground between good and evil is much more exciting than straight up ‘Lawful Stupid’.
Keep Everyone Involved (Party Size)
You should always be trying to make sure that the players all feel like they are involved in some way. Some characters might be particularly suited to certain situations, and of course let them shine, but always remember to reference the other characters too.
Even if it’s something as simple as ‘what do you think about this -insert name-?’. It can make a Barbarian feel involved in a noble’s house or a Mage feel important during a bar room scuffle.
Party size can also be a killer. While it might seem harsh a party as big as six might become unwieldy. I usually find that four or five players is a good number. Anything more than that and you have a lot of players feeling redundant.
There’s a reason the golden four is a Fighter, Cleric, Mage and Thief!
One of the ways in which I still to some degree slip up with GMing is when giving out rewards. I sometimes vastly overestimate the value of some rewards or end up giving the players too much for what they’ve done.
This then swings in two directions with the players feeling ripped off or having so much money to spend they don’t know what to do with it becoming bling monsters covered in flashy armour.
I suggest taking a good long hard look at what exactly the economy is within your game world before you think up rewards for players so you balance it accordingly.
Don’t forget that money isn’t always a good reward. Maybe the reward could be an advance in the plot from a key character or their own survival! Just getting through a day might be enough of a reward for some folks.
One of the all encompassing rewards though is experience which exists in nearly every system out there. Ration this out much like their monetary rewards being fair and adjusting what you may have planned dependant on what happened in a challenge.
An interesting way of doing experience that I’ve looked at over recent campaigns is to not award it as per normal, after each encounter (in the case of Fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons), but instead at the end of key plot moments.
A player reaching level four in the middle of a story and suddenly getting better with his weapons is a very video game thing to do. Instead think about awarding experience and advancement at the end of narrative arcs giving the players downtime to improve.
This way the players still get better but not at awkward times and stops an age old problem of players getting different experience rewards and levelling out of sync with each other.
Separate from planning make sure that you have everything ready for your session. If this is maps and miniatures then make sure it’s all ready to go. If it’s character bios and handouts, have them all typed/written out and ready to go.
I always have a pad of paper with me when I’m GMing which allows me to record all the initiatives and other passive skills player characters might have plus I can keep a record of anything potentially pivotal that happens in game.
This is always a lot easier than having to rely on a laptop or computer even if it does give you a little more clutter in the interim. All those notes you took should also go into one document at the end of a session so you have a narrative to refer back to as you go.
When it comes to maps and such I suggest using a whiteboard that you can sit on the table. Then, give a pen to each of the players so when you’re doing combat and the like they can move around where they ‘want’ with you watching of course, and takes some of the work out of your hands as a GM.
White boards are also great because you just wipe them down and draw a new location on them when you need to. They are particularly useful in mind’s eye style games where your players might need a helpful reference point. Still no need for miniatures either!
This is my no means an exhaustive list for helping our GMs starting out telling their stories but I hope it’s helped. With that in mind remember to bear in mind the main focus of why you’re doing this, to have fun.
You can have the most serious storyline but even in movies and TV shows where things are intense there are still moments of comic relief. If these happen in your story, where players start having a laugh and responding to something in a way you might not have thought, let them do with it. However there is a caveat…
If it keeps continuing like that then you have to be able to say to your players that it might be time to take a break and relax. Let the funny moments happen, they always will as you’re all sitting around a table pretending to be someone else, but know when to reel them in and get the story going again.
Don’t be afraid to call a break during big long sessions either to let people blow off some steam and talk about things out of character if they need to.
There have been many times, especially during World of Darkness sessions, where things have got a bit intense (because of the emotions running high within the story – no fists fights…yet!) and it’s probably a good time to take a break and order pizza.
Do you have any tips and tricks for being a GM/DM/Storyteller? Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts?
Get chatting in the comments below and let me know what you think!
"Don’t be afraid to let players come up with alternative ways of solving combat encounters as well..."
"When crafting a world for a Fantasy adventure or playing out a mystery in our own world let the players influence some of the background..."