As a game master, your purpose is not to tell the story of the players’ characters.
You can have a story. You will get that story when the encounter, the session or the campaign is complete. You will get dozens of stories, if you play the same campaign long enough. The trick to getting the best, most amazing stories from a role playing game is to not try to tell the story of the PCs. A scripted story where there’s a plot that happens and the players fill in the details could be entertaining but that almost never is. Yet, that is a line of thought that I see far too frequently.
Making up stories is not hard. Making up good stories is very hard. The people who make great stories and tell them well get paid absurd amounts of money and become incredibly famous. We know the names of writers, playwrights, directors, comic book creators and celebrate their work. We do that because we know that most of us don’t create good stories or tell them nearly so well. It is a difficult set of skills and it can take a decade or more to learn them. Many labor at it their whole lives and never become good at it. I have a shelf full of books on the subject, studied with an O’Henry award winning writer at college and I would call myself competent at best.
As a game master, you don’t have to be a highly skilled story teller to get a good story out of your game.
The foundational understanding you must have in order to be a great game master, in my opnion, is that stories and role-playing games are different things. Once you have this concept firmly in your mind, you can create great games that themselves create great stories.
Games are events.
Stories are accounts of events which have already occurred.
The character choosing to jump into the pit and sacrifice themselves to the unimaginable horror from another dimension so that it is appeased and his friends have a chance to run away from the cultists who summoned the thing up is an event. The account I give after the event has occurred is the story.
Story is made up of four parts:
- Obstacles to the characters’ desires
- The decisions the characters make in an attempt to overcome the obstacles to their desires
- The outcomes of the decisions the characters make in an attempt to overcome the obstacles of their desires.
A table top role playing game has similar parts but they are different in important ways.
- Obstacles to the Characters Desires
- Decisions the players make in an attempt to overcome the obstacles to their character’s desires
- The outcomes of the decisions the players make as mediated by the the game system and adjudications of the game master (if the game has one)
If the game master had decided the players are actors in his story who are simply filling in the details how the outcomes are to occur, then yes, that’s a story and not a game. The game master, in that instance, has ceased being a game master and has become a story teller. Even if it is a “choose your own adventure” type approach where the players have the option of three different outcomes the game master has pre-determined, it is still a story.
A game master’s job is to create the obstacles which stand in the way of the characters trying to achieve their desires. Through the vehicle of the game mechanisms, the game master adjudicates the outcome of the decisions the players have made.
The best game masters, in my opinion, are the ones who come up with the most interesting obstacles and an interesting context in which those obstacles exist. That’s where the story telling comes in. Storytelling, in role playing games, is context. The stories the game master makes up are about the obstacles, the NPC’s, the history of the setting. Story telling is a skill needed by a good game master but it isn’t the only or the most important skill of game mastering. It is very important that the game master does not tell the story of the player characters. Those events have not yet occurred and therefore that story can’t be told.
If you as game master, create interesting obstacles to wants and needs of the characters, the players will come up with interesting ways to address those obstacles. The outcomes of those events will produce far better stories than you can come up with on your own unless you are an incredible talent. If it is indeed the case that your stories are better than the ones that naturally emerge from the interaction of the obstacles you present the players and the actions they take then I would suggest you pack your bags and head to Hollywood to become a screen writer. They are in desperate need of your talent.
If that’s not the case, then create interesting problems for your players to solve and you are golden. This is much, much, easier than creating a five act sequence with intertwined sub plots.
Many players seem to enjoy having the story of their characters told to them while they fill in the detail of how their characters accomplish their goals. I’m not one of those people. When I sit down to play a game, I want to play the game of me deciding what my character does to overcome the challenges the game master has set before me. The outcome of those events is the story I tell later.