Roleplaying covers a large swath of gaming; from hack-n-slash dungeon-crawlers to war-game simulations to intense story-centric narratives. There is not a right or wrong way to do it; whichever way your group likes, that’s the right way. But, there are some conventions in gaming that can skew the playing experience of RPGs towards a mechanical, robotic repetition of endless combat. If your group is looking to fight that drift, here are some tips to help induce a state of storytelling back into your game.
The big problem in writing game systems is that the concrete part of the game (i.e. how contested things like combat work) are easier to write than the “softer” parts of the game (i.e. how does a group get together and collectively tell a story). The result is that you will generally end up with a game manual that explains how the statistical mechanics of a contest are resolved, and nothing else. Since characters are often only then described in game terms as how well they can do certain things (usually stabbing things or shooting stuff), players may default to thinking that those skills define their characters, rather than backstory or ongoing interactions. And it doesn’t have to be.
Realize you are in charge, not the game system.
Your group isn’t a collective leaf on the wind, being blown wherever the game rules say. The game mechanics are a tool for you to use how, when, and why you like. They should always be used to advance the story and never interfere with it. If your group wants to get together, roll a ton of dice and have the evening be about that, that’s totally fine, but then you might as well play Arcadia Quest or Imperial Assault (which are both good games, but not you’re not roleplaying). If you want a narrative-focused roleplaying session, then just do it: use narrative instead of dice as much as you can. In other words; don’t do anything with dice that you can do with story. Your brain and mouth are your main tools, the dice are an occasional back-up. A simple roll as a “coin flip” is certainly fine, but if your group is spending their time looking up and using a complex mechanical system, ask yourself, is that how you want to be spending your time, or do you want to be crafting an engaging narrative?
Involve the players as much as possible, adopt a collaborative attitude.
It’s possible for a Game Master have a really concrete and well-crafted story, and the RP session is about getting together to explore the GM’s brain. But that can be a missed opportunity. One of the beautiful about roleplaying is that it allows a collective approach to fiction where the story is experienced rather than watched from afar. When your players articulate what they want to do and how they want to do it, the default should be “yes, tell me how that looks.” When the GM has to constrain a player–and that will happen, since there’s also a ton of things to balance in a campaign–it should be to some purpose. The general attitude of the whole session is encapsulated with the improv chestnut “yes and…” You want the players to be emotionally engaged with the story, and the most thorough way to do that is to spread around the storytelling so that everyone has a piece in some regard.
Incentivize cinematic actions and descriptions; draw your players out so they paint as vividly as possible.
As players do the heavy-lifting of the narrative, try to draw out their language so they can recreate for others the lush landscapes in their mind. Everyone in the session should feel like they are in the midst of the scene. In roleplaying, you have to engage imagination, problem solving, and narrative; then use words to effectively recreate all that is in other people’s brains. That can be hard for anyone to do consistently. The group should do everything it can to help facilitate the process, and the game system should play a role too since, after all, it is a totally mutable tool. If you want a cinematic description, incentivize that by rewarding it in the statistics of the system. Maybe a vivid description gets you a plus on your dice roll. Maybe a vivid description IS the mechanic, if the player paints a lush picture for the group and it advances the narrative in a good way, that’s what happens. Why stop to roll some dice?
Try different narrative techniques to shake up the routine.
Your party members have all the shared narrative conventions and tropes of our culture rattling around in their brains, so plug into them. Work flashbacks, foreshadowing, cliffhangers, unreliable narrators, and meaningful consequences into your story. Stay clear of tired tropes like arbitrary MacGuffins, and deus ex machina solutions. If you read or watched this somewhere, would it draw you in or have you rolling your eyes?
Use fresh ingredients when you’re cooking narrative.
Characters are the basis of most stories, so don’t use canned ones. What is your character about? Don’t let the limitations of the game system constrain your imagination. Your character is not about “+15% to sniping.” They have backstory, motivations, and unique ways to express themselves. Flush your characters out. If you need help, no worries, we already have you covered with many types of character guides. Here’s one to get you started.
Again: when it comes to roleplaying, whichever way your group has the most fun is the right way. Some game systems, both old and new, have interesting ways of helping you out with narrative. Some may fall into all the standard traps, but give you such a rich world that it’s easy to craft your own tales. While picking the right world and system will help, how you craft your story is totally up to you.
What are some of your favorite ways to construct narrative when you roleplay? What advice to you have to players just beginning their roleplaying journey? Please share in the comments.
Feature Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast