Games, role playing games in particular, have stories embedded inside of them. Why is the dungeon here? Why is there a ruin of a tower with a set of stairs going down into the dungeon? Who built the tower? Who or what dug out these tunnels? These questions lead me to a story that gives context to the adventure location, NPC, McGuffin etc. The problem is, players don’t want homework and they don’t want to listen to a 10 minute lecture on the history of the made up kingdom that doesn’t exist anymore. Here is how I convey the story of a character, place or thing in my campaigns.
First, give out small details in as few bits at a time. Example:
DM: This is old construction that you recognize as typical of the dwarfs from 1,000 years ago.
That’s it. A sentence or less. Two if you absolutely have to.
Second, utilize the identities, skills, experiences of player characters to reveal the story. Going back to our example:
Dwarf PC: Do I recognize the builder or anything peculiar about the construction?
DM: There are a number of relief carvings of King Arvo III. That’s strange because there is very little known about him. He was called mad and it was written that he heard voices speaking to him when he worked at the forge.
Dwarf PC: It is strange that this is here at all. The dwarf lands are months away from here even on horse.
The DM has introduced two anomalies. 1. King Arvo’s mark is all over the place. 2. Dwarves, to the PC’s knowledge, never had a settlement in this region.
Third. Make the information you reveal a catalyst for further questions. In the example, the players will start wondering, “Why is there dwarf construction here at all? Why did the builders construct this and why did they build it to commemorate King Arvo?” This provides a spur to the players. Even if they get in over their head and have retreated to safety, they will likely return back to the dungeon because they’ve uncovered a mystery and they want to find answers to their questions.
As the PC’s move through the dungeon, they can pick up little clues that eventually tell them that Arvo went on some crazy quest and his loyal followers came with him. He never came back because he died here and his followers built this tomb for him. He’s buried with his axe (a magic item) and a lot of treasure.
This is my favorite way to tell stories in RPG’s. Little clues that the players pick up, one at a time, and put together to figure out what is happening or happened. Sometimes they don’t always figure it out or they only figure out pieces of it and that is part of the game too. Mysteries for players keeps them guessing and that adds the enjoyment of the game.