Jeff Jones invited me to appear on his most recent RPG Rambling podcast a few weeks back. He noticed I was posting on social media about a local writing conference and he had questions.
Jeff was wondering what lessons I had learned from creative writing classes and conferences that applied to tabletop role-playing games. We went off on some interesting tangents and I don’t know that I ever truly answered the question. I revisit the main question in this post.
Understanding story convinced me that stories and games are not the same thing.
Once I started looking into how skilled storytellers think about and work on stories ; I saw clearly that games and storytelling are very different things in practice. The technique of storytelling is hidden behind a curtain like the mechanisms of a magicians trick. We only see the lovely assistant sawn in half.
Since the output between story and game feels almost indistinguishable, we don’t realize they are different.
A lot of gamemastering advice givers come at story from the point of view of the gamer. From that perspective, games and stories seem to be the same thing. Role-playing games often feel the same way a good book or a good movie feels. Our brains are using the same meat to process both games and stories.
Stories and role-playing games have very similar structures and produce similar emotional effects but they are not the same thing.
Professional storytellers are doing something subtly different. The details of those differences is where I think game masters get confused. Here is a short video illuminating some of those differences.
Is this what you do when you play through an encounter?
Great game masters tell stories but only to create context.
The storytelling skills that are most relevant to game mastering are those applied to telling stories to the players, not telling the story of the player characters.
You are creating the story of what happens before the player characters get involved. Once that crucial moment occurs, then you are playing the game. The rules, the players, the dice decide what happens and the GM only intrudes into the outcome when rulings on player actions are necessary to fill rule gaps.
Techniques from storytellers that are useful for game masters.
Many story skills are useful for game masters. Though I don’t always call it out, several of my blog posts are about using techniques I learned from storytelling classes and books.
Here are some blog posts where I share some of these skills.
- How to describe a scene by showing and not telling.
- How to build NPCs that elicit an emotional responses from players.
- How to deliver exposition without boring the players.
- Characters reveal themselves through word and action.
- Inserting themes into your campaign.
- A technique I learned from a screenwriter to avoid cliches
You can use storytelling processes and techniques to create encounters and adventures.
Every genre has requirements. If you are writing a murder mystery, you must have a murder. You also need a murderer, a murder victim, murder weapon, a motive for the murder, clues, and a detective.
When creating an adventure, you can use genre conventions to determine what encounters and locations you need to create for the adventure. If I want to make a wizard tower for the party to raid and loot, there needs to have been a wizard, a tower, the magical contents of the tower, the wizard’s experiments and books, what happened to the wizard? Once you have those written down, you can see places where you can do something surprising or unique to your wizard tower.
I created a process of encounter and adventure design from techniques I learned from storytelling. It’s heavily modified but it does have its origins in the way writers think about writing scenes. I have a PDF accessible to monthly newsletter readers describing it in detail.
Some storytelling resources.
Story Grid was created by Shawn Coyne, a fiction editor who worked at a Big 5 publisher for 30 years. He gives a great overview of the structure of stories.
Shawn has a book I refer back to from time to time. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know If you only read one book on storytelling and have no interest in writing novels or screenplays, I recommend Shawn’s book. It will give you tools to assess stories and your adventures.
Steven Pressfield‘s blog. Every Wednesday, Steven publishes a short blog post about the writing life, story, and being a pro.
The Film Courage YouTube channel interviews people in the film and TV biz. I find that screenwriters are able to communicate story concepts better than most writing teachers.
Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock. More literary theory than storytelling but still useful for any game master who runs OSR games.
How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
Here’s a bonus exercise.
Here’s an opportunity for audience participation.
Screen and TV writer Glen Gers breaks stories into 6 essential questions.
Based on what Glen has to say, Do you think that my statement that an adventure is not a story holds any water?
If I’m wrong, tell me why.