My Guide to RPG Storytelling


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At the request of his players, Aron has written this guide to his method of RPG storytelling. This guide includes suggestions on how to prepare a campaign, running each session, dealing with problem players, how to create memorable NPCs and more.

Please note that this is not a basic how-to for role-playing and it is not affiliated with any particular gaming company.

On Storytelling

First, what to expect

This guide contains a lot of advice about how to run a role-playing game (RPG), but not the basics of what they are or why you might want to play in one. That’s not what this is about.

If you’re reading this guide, then I assume that you’ve got some basic knowledge of RPGs, the systems for running them and where to buy a bag of your preferred snack food. Every role-playing system has entire books dedicated to the rules of the games. While I’ll cover some rules issues, this guide isn’t about any single rule system. It’s about how to tell your story.

A life-long love

I’ve been role-playing since almost before I can remember. My first games were informal and amateur, without paper or dice. Every kid plays make-believe, but this was more structured and collaborative: describing a character’s actions to another kid, who then told me how the world responded. It was a great way to fill some long afternoons. Since those first days, I’ve played in a lot of different games and run many more of my own.

It’s rewarding. The time and effort I invest into my games shows, I hope. My players have a good time. They talk about my game between sessions and they look forward to playing. They whine when I call the session to end and when the game is finished. They reminisce about old games. It’s great to know that I showed them such a fun time.

Telling the story together

Storytelling is interactive. I may create and run the game, but that’s only half the story. Every player brings their own character to the table, their own story. It’s like writing a book and saying, “I’m writing a fantasy novel. Hey buddy, who do you want to be in it? What are you thinking of? A dwarven beard-smith? Sure! Let’s see what I can do with that.”

As Storyteller, you present them with choices and challenges. They react, but then you have to react to the players. Back and forth it goes. I can never guess what the players will do and it’s a surprise for everyone. Not that you can’t stack the deck, but more on that later. The end product of the game is a story that we all created together and that is always much better than anything I could have thought up alone.

What I do differently

The way I run a game is a little different from what many other groups do. I don’t run dungeon crawls. Action scenes are exclamation points that change the pace of the game and inject energy into a session. Non-stop combat loses its effect when there’s nothing between butchery sessions but preparing for the next roomful of battles. In my games, characters are seldom attacked at random and each combat scene moves the story forward. An occasional session full of fighting can feel dangerous and challenging, but that’s not my typical game.

My advice is all based on certain expectations. I figure that you’ve run a game or two, or at least read up on all the rules of the game you want to run before you pick this up. I’ve got a style for running them and I’ll share my philosophy so you know where I’m coming from.

Of all the titles for the person running the game, the one I like best is Storyteller. At the most basic level, that’s what I’m doing. Every story has heroes, villains, and danger. The Storyteller is the one who weaves it all together to entertain their friends. For me, it’s a story rather than a fight or even an adventure. It’s not a competition between me and my players. I’m not out to beat them or to “win.”

My games are greatly influenced by the tone and pacing of books and movies. Whereas many (though not all) role-playing games and video games center on combat, good books and movies have complex plot lines, engaging mysteries and rich characters. I like to create investigations and social scenes that are as important as combat. Some of the best sessions contain no fighting at all, or even a single roll of the dice. The goal is to create a sense that my players are in their favorite film.

It can be difficult to balance your players’ contributions to the story. If you don’t leave the players enough room to add their own flavor, they may wonder why you didn’t just hand them a script. On the other hand, if the Storyteller doesn’t make anything happen, then the players are left to figure out the whole game on their own, often wandering aimlessly or even leaving the whole story to rot.

The key is to remember that role-playing is a team sport. Everyone takes part and everyone contributes.

“The human imagination is boundless and this style of storytelling taps into that.”
– Cedar

Why me?

In my own defense, this book wasn’t my idea. It was my players’.

Aside from a well-worn Achievement in Storytelling certificate printed up by my players, I don’t have any real credentials. Sadly, they don’t offer degrees in role-playing. But I’m happy to share everything that I’ve learned from twenty years of game campaigns. If any of my ideas are new to you, try them out. If you haven’t made any of the mistakes that I have, maybe this book will be a checklist of things to avoid. Use what works for you and your players. Forget the rest.

Published 10.27.2012 by Loose Leaf Stories