—Stacy Dellorfano, Unframed
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CHAPTER 20:THREE TRICKS FOR GROUP STORYTELLING
“Every game has some level of improvisation.”
—Stacy Dellorfano, Unframed
It’s easy to focus too much on the mechanics of an RPG and forget about the story we’re sharing at the table. Players might fixate on the combat details of their character sheets. GMs will focus on the statistics of monsters and the accuracy of encounter balance. When we run our games, they sometimes look less like the cover of a fantasy novel and more like a war simulation as a result.
Creativity leads to more creativity. So if we want to build off the creativity of the players, we need them to think creatively as well. We want to work together to elevate our games from mechanics‑focused simulations into action scenes worthy of any good novel or movie.
Moving players into creative improvisational thinking isn’t easy, though. We’re all familiar with how society pushes people to leave imagination behind once childhood is done. And it’s that imagination that we need to open up once again. So instead of starting big, we start small. We ask specific questions that shift the players away from the mechanics of the game and into more creative imagery.
Like much of the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master, these techniques serve multiple purposes. Group storytelling isn’t just about getting everyone into a more creative mood. It also makes our games easier to run.
“DESCRIBE YOUR KILLING BLOW”
When a character lands a fatal blow against a monster, ask the player to describe what happens. For certain players, this request will inspire a moment of looking at you, then looking at their character sheet, then looking back to you. But usually, this initial reluctance will be followed by a childish smile and a gory description of the killing blow.
This is a small, focused question that nearly every player can answer in an interesting way. It’s a far cry from collaborative world building, to be sure. But it can help break players away from thinking about their characters as just a collection of statistics, even if just for that one fatal moment.
“WHAT’S AN INTERESTING PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTIC OF THIS MONSTER?”
The first time a character attacks a monster, ask the player to describe an interesting physical characteristic of the monster before they hit it. (If they describe the monster after the attack, it inevitably just becomes the creature with an arrow sticking out of its eye.)
This question is a useful exercise in multiple ways. It helps you identify individual monsters for the rest of the encounter—particularly useful if you’re running combat in a narrative theater-of-the-mind style, and you need a way to identify monsters without miniatures. It helps you and the players connect with the monster as a distinct creature, rather than focusing on its mechanical aspects or giving it a label like “Orc 3.” It also makes every monster unique, which makes the world feel more real.
If you’re using a laminated flip mat, you can write this characteristic on the mat so that everyone can see it. Then use that identifier when tracking the monster’s damage.
Asking the players to identify a physical characteristic of a monster can inspire a small improv session that even the most introverted gamer can enjoy. These characteristics can then become something important to the story, or they might expose a secret or clue. When the players get creative, you never know where it might lead.
“WHAT’S AN INTERESTING CHARACTERISTIC OF THIS TAVERN?”
You can expand the previous question to places as well. Whenever the characters enter a tavern, an inn, or some other location, instead of you describing the entire place, ask the players to join in by describing one interesting or fantastic feature of the location.
Questions like this can be the first steps in the process of taking the players outside of their characters and into the act of helping create the world. By focusing on small, familiar elements of that world, you don’t have to worry that things will get too far outside the story you all want to tell. But as you grow more comfortable with this process, you might find yourself giving the players more control over shaping larger and more important parts of the game.
“WHAT HAPPENS ALONG YOUR JOURNEY?”
This next question is a little deeper. Handling travel scenes has long been a challenge for Gamemasters.
Describe them too quickly, and they feel so effortless that they don’t matter. But if you run a large number of random encounters to help define the characters’ journeys, travel can start to feel like a grind.
During organized play games for 13th Age, designer Ash Law came up with the interesting idea of turning travel montages into a small improv session. The following guidelines offer a variation of his approach.
When the characters begin a long journey, you set the stage, describing what the overall journey will be like, where it will take place, and some interesting but general features of the area. This gives the players something to work with. Then you ask the players to describe an interesting event that occurs while they travel. Ask for events that aren’t about any player’s specific character, but rather about the group as a whole.
You don’t have to pick out any particular player. That way, no one is singled out when they might not be comfortable jumping in. But it’s always worth asking the quieter players if they’d like to answer before the more outgoing players end up dominating the scene. Players can always pass.
You can also ask for a player to describe a challenge the group faces, but to not describe how the party overcomes it. Then another player can describe how the characters overcame the challenge. This creates a good back-and-forth improv session between players.
By the end of this exercise, you and the players will have created a unique story of the journey that none of you could have expected. And at the sametime, this process lets the players engage with and add to the creativity that shapes the game world.
TAKING BABY STEPS INTO GROUP WORLD BUILDING AND IMPROVISATION
These small and simple questions can help draw players into the world of the campaign, letting them take more control over what’s happening and breaking them out of the confines of their character sheets. The more comfortable everyone becomes with this idea over time, the wider ranging and more detailed your questions can go.
CHECKLIST FOR GROUP STORYTELLING
• Help open up the players’ creative ideas with guided questions.
• Ask players to describe their killing blows against their foes.
• Ask players to describe the interesting physical characteristics of monsters to help you identify them during combat.
• Ask players to describe interesting details of locations they visit.
• Ask players to describe interesting events or conflicts that occur during travel scenes