We at Angel’s Citadel spend a lot of time focusing on, talking, and writing about collaborative storytelling and roleplaying games. I suppose you could say it’s our “jam”. Both Joann and I love the feeling when a story unfolds spontaneously and there’s a tangible energy between the GM and the players in that creative space. It’s energizing and invigorating, and it creates shared experiences that stick in your mind for years. But how do you create an environment where that kind of energy feeds your storytelling process? That’s what we’re going to discuss in today’s advice post.
The Team Mindset
If you spend much time in the greater roleplaying space of the internet, you will, undoubtedly run across story after story of gaming groups where a GM is trying to kill off player characters or player characters are trying to mechanically show up the GM. The older I get, and it was my birthday recently and I’m pretty old now that I’ve become the answer to life, the universe, and everything, the more I realize the potential for issues that such a mindset causes. The opportunity for bad feelings between players and GM is higher, and there is a greater potential for table arguments. In our experience, we have found that when you are building your gaming group, that you set the expectation of working together as a team to tell stories. Similar to a discussion about Consent in Gaming, the idea is to discuss potential problems and how to avoid them in the first place.
The Team Pre-Game
Before a game or a campaign, it’s a good idea to sit down and discuss your expectations for the game. Not just from a safety standpoint, but what kind of stories are you interested in telling. Because we are talking about a GM-Player team, input from everyone is important. The GM is primarily responsible for worldbuilding, but the Players can be invaluable resources for them both in ideas and in direction. There are lots of different tools to help with this. One of our new favorites is Arium: Create by Adept Icarus. The idea here, though, is that if all the members of a gaming group contribute to building the world that you play in, all of the members of that group are vested in the story and you will have more of an opportunity to see participative storytelling and interaction in-game.
The Team in Combat
One of the biggest ways that I have seen to get players narratively involved in combat is to take time to move past the dice rolling and into description. Consider this exchange:
Numenera GM: “Your Glaive, Korin is attacking the Ravage Bear with his sword. Roll your attack. The Difficulty Level is 4.”
Player: “OK, I’m trained in Medium Weapons so that brings it down to a 3, and I’ll spend a level of effort to bring it down to a 2 so I need a 6 or better. <Rolls Dice> It’s a 8!”
Numenera GM: “Good job! Now describe for me what happens.”
Player: “Well… My foci is Bears a Halo of Fire, so maybe… Yeah. Fire shoots down my sword as I slice upward into the Ravage Bear while sidestepping its charge, cutting and cauterizing a gash in its side.”
Numenera GM: “Great! It roars in pain and stumbles away, trying to shield it's now-wounded side from you. Next up is Farik the Nano.”
By encouraging them to participate in the combat not only by rolling dice and adjusting numbers on a character sheet when pools get used, the story becomes more exciting and it draws them into the energy of the session you are trying to create. The more you encourage players to participate in the narrative, the better they will become at doing so in all aspects of their roleplaying. It’s a muscle – the only way it gets stronger is through practice. This MAY even have the side effect of encouraging others to pick up the GM hat and run their own games because they begin to really enjoy the immersive energy of storytelling (just a side note for all you “forever GMs” out there).
The Team in Non-Combat Encounters
Non-combat encounters are similar to the combat ones, but in my experience there is even more you can do. In addition to simply asking for more detail and description of your players (and giving them more in return), there’s another neat trick you can use (and a couple of different ways to play it out). The idea is this: If you’ve been GMing as long as we have, you know that your players will eventually find an NPC that you don’t have planned out and then think that they are the most interesting person in the world.
There’s a few ways to solve this. You can pre-make lists or have NPC cards (such as Monte Cook Games’ NPC Deck). But in the spirit of team work, I’d do one of the following:
- Have the players at the table give you similar details to what you might put in a list or find on an NPC card (taking notes of course so that you can come back to it later if they really do decide that this NPC is someone they need to stay in touch with). Then, you play the NPC the way they described him.
- Have one of the players at the table actually play the NPC. While this puts more responsibility on the players, it becomes interesting because they are now directly involved in Worldbuilding the thing that they found interesting enough to interact with. It does not likely mean anything for the adventure, and as the GM you can rule that none of the major plot points get affected, but you may find that the players themselves offer interesting flavor and even potentially new plot points for you to hook into and run with.
The Team Post-Game
After the regular gaming session there are several things that can be done to encourage such teamwork. There are meta-conversations that can be had, where you discuss the world in a detached way, but one that is becoming one of our favorite ways to interact is in a quasi-session that was introduced in Monte Cook Games’ Invisible Sun, called Development Mode. Development Mode is kind of like a side scene in which one or two players and the GM (not the whole group) sit down and roleplay out a scene. The scene is typically related to character development for that smaller group of players and is not necessarily related to the main plot at the point the entire group is at. It may even be something like a flashback that could be played out in a roleplaying session, but is not something that the entire group needs to be present for. This is an excellent tool for continued, long-term game immersion and keeping the creative energy going.
The Team Long-Term
Long-term, the discussions are often similar to what they are pre-game, and focus on expectations. But these are more maintenance discussions. Is everyone still having fun or is someone feeling left out? If not, do we need to transition to a different type of story? If the arc is nearing its end, what does the group want to see in the next one? Continued involvement and openness in these discussions will both tell you when problems are arising early enough to do something about it before they derail the campaign, and help you to tailor the story and the campaign to the group (and using the tools above, help them to help you do so).
In summary, both Joann and I have found that we (and our groups) get more enjoyment out of playing when the whole experience, front to back, is as collaborative as possible. Early, frequent, and varied player involvement seems to change the energy at the table and in the group (even away from the table) and increase the excitement level and creativity in the game. In our experience, this leads to more dynamic and exciting storytelling at the table, the kind that you and your group will want to talk about for years to come. Don’t forget, this is not a program or set of ideas that you have to swallow whole. If it works better in your group, just try some of them and see what happens. In our experience, experimenting in roleplaying games is fun too. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles
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