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 one. That’s not what this is about.

If you’re reading this book, then I assume that you have some basic knowledge of RPGs, the systems for running them and where to buy a bag of your favorite snack food. Each role-playing system has entire books dedicated to the rules of that game. While I will cover a few rules issues, this guide isn’t about any single system. It’s about how to tell your story and how to use the rules to do it.

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. This was just more structured and collaborative: describing a character’s actions to someone else, who then told me how the world responded. It was a great way to fill some long afternoons. I graduated to proper character sheets and dice at about ten years old and 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 in my games shows, I hope. My players seem to have a good time. They talk about my games between sessions and look forward to the next one. They whine when I call the day to an end and when the campaign is finally finished. They reminisce about old games in between and it’s great to know that they had so much fun playing through the story I made for them. That’s what keeps me coming back to run another game.

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 and their own unique flavor. It’s like writing a book and saying, “I’m working on a fantasy novel. Hey buddy, who do you want to be in it? A dwarven beard-smith? Sure! Let’s see what I can do with that.”

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

What I do differently

The way I create a role-playing game campaign is a little different than what other gaming groups I’ve played with do. I don’t run dungeon crawls. Action scenes are designed to be exclamation points that change the pace of the game and inject energy into a session. Non-stop combat quickly loses its effect when there’s nothing between butchery sessions except preparing for the next roomful of battles.

In my games, characters are seldom attacked at random and each combat scene is supposed to move the story forward. An occasional session full of fighting can feel dangerous and challenging, but that’s not how I run my typical game.

Now, all of my advice is based on certain expectations and taste. I figure that you’ve run a game or two at this point, or have at least read up on the rules of the RPG you want to run – enough to know what you like, what you don’t, and whether what I’m talking about will work for you at all.

Of all the titles for the person running the game, the one I like best is Storyteller, so that’s the one I’ll be using in this guide.

At the most basic level, Storytelling is what I’m trying to do. 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 and I’m not out to beat them or to ‘win,’ just to tell the best story that I can and to entice my players into telling the story with me.

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

It can be difficult to balance your players’ contributions. 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 overlooking the story entirely.

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 defense, this book wasn’t my idea. It was my players’. Aside from a well-worn Achievement in Storytelling certificate printed up by a few of my players, I don’t have any real credentials. I don’t know of any colleges that offer RPG degrees. (Damn!)

But I’m happy to share everything that I’ve learned from twenty-five 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 serve as 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