Storytelling: The Pleasures and Pitfalls

Posted: October 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
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So you’ve found yourself with a World of Darkness book or perhaps the much talked about Fudge system or maybe the Dresden Files book and its Fate system, maybe even the Marvel diceless system is in your hands. And you’ve decided that you want to tell a story, to be the master of a game world and lead players through it. Well, it turns out that there are a lot of dangers and pitfalls for the novice storyteller, especially those who come from a strong Dungeon Mastering background. While very similar, Dungeon Mastering and Storytelling actually have a significant number of differences from the standpoint of a beginner. I feel I should take this moment to just add in a sort of disclaimer here. There are DMs who run things like the STs I intend to talk about. They are by and large considered to be some of the best DMs out there and are fairly rare. So remember, that everything that is talked about in here about the Storytelling systems, can also be applied to the more traditional D&D style table top with little effort. The thing that makes being a Storyteller so much different from being a Dungeon Master can be found in the theory of the 3 different game types. These are gamist, simulationist and narrative.

Narrative: A narrative based game is big on story, possibly to the point of decisions by the ST being made on what will make the story the best or the most like what they have envisioned.

Simulationist: A simulationist based game is based on realism. In this type of game, it would be perfectly normal for the bad guy to have resources and be just as able to use their resources as the good guys.

Gamist: The gamist based game is the closest to the traditional views of table top games. Its based on what the dice and the rules say and nothing else matter. Gamist games are the place where you are most likely to hear “I want to talk to that guy.” “Okay, make a diplomacy check.”

What I’m talking about today is the Narrative style of storytelling, the style that I personally find works best with the Fudge system and other storytelling based systems. To run a good Narrative style game, there are a few lessons you need to learn. They aren’t just lessons on how to do things, but also things you should brace yourself for.

So you’ve mapped out an adventure and you want the players to go left when they hit this intersection over here…but you know they could go right, so things are planned over there too. Sounds like you’re bases are covered, right? Nope. The players are going to try up, down, backwards and every other direction they can think of that isn’t left or right. Lesson 1 of the Storyteller is don’t sweat it, and just roll with it. Keep some paper near by to jot down notes and just freeform the parts of the world that they are now encountering because they went in an unplanned direction. This doesn’t just apply to going in directions you weren’t expecting. They might decide that a random unimportant NPC is actually the key to everything and suddenly this person who had just been scenery now needs a personality and a name and possibly a full character sheet. That happened to me once, I had a character who was supposed to just be a slightly helpful NPC who gave them specific information and some healing spells. Instead she became the worshiped deity of one of the characters and instrumental to the rest of the plotline.

Lesson 2 is don’t rely too heavily on the rules. If you look at Dungeons and Dragons, the rules will tell you that will enough work, a player can balance on clouds. Sure, it takes a balance DC of 120 and the odds of a player getting there before hitting epic level is almost impossible, but with sufficient effort they might just make it. Does it make sense for your player to be able to do it? Then let them, otherwise the answer needs to be no. On the other hand, if your player wants to do something and there are no rules for it, make something up. No one ever said there have to be dice rolls for everything. Remember that, that part is important.

Lesson 3 is an interesting one for a lot of beginning storytellers. You can write a beautiful, glorious story that does everything you want, but the second the players touch it, everything will change. Players change everything they touch, even just by interpreting it. Don’t hinge everything on your players making the choices you want them to, or even of interpreting the story the same way you are. Brace yourself for your masterpiece to go in directions you never saw coming. You wrote a beautiful story about a rebellion? The players might decide that their characters would support the rightful king. Just prepare yourself for whatever may happen.

Don’t be afraid to go about and run a storytelling game. They’re fun to run and I find them to be much more satisfying that your normal tabletop. Be brave and give your players a story to remember.

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