Friday, December 2, 2011

DM Advice - Telling Stories

As Peter puts it on his blog CanadianRPGGuy in his post on Cheating Players "DMs should remember they are not gods but very powerful bards." As I was reading his post on cheating players I laughed at a few of his examples. For instance, he describes one player new to his group that tried to bring in a 5th level Paladin with a +5 Holy Avenger! Obviously that's a cheating player! Then he ended with the part about DMs being bards and how he fudges like most DMs I know in favor of the players. This got me to thinking about some gamers I've played with over the years that are confrontational and what I did to attempt to curve the issues.

I think Peter puts it very well in his blog in giving some examples of what a DM can do to try to prevent these issues from occurring such as describing how a hit misses instead of just saying that the players misses and to monitor dice rolls to some degree. All of this can be very good tools for DMs who want to try to encourage players to not cheat but I think the key point he hit in his article was that of the fact that gamers like description.

To expand on this idea let's consider for a moment the fact that almost all gamers play the games they do because of some hero (or villain) they saw in a movie or read in a book. In many cases this is amplified multiple times and even exponentially when one considers the multiple sources in fantasy and science fiction literature and media available. So then what is our jobs as DMs? Is it police? Is it storyteller? Is it rules laywer? It is judge? In a word. Yes. It is all of these things.

I believe a good game is centered around three principles.

1) There is a defined story arc or campaign in which the players are involved and are corporately working together to complete. I say corporate and not cooperation because it is not always a cooperate game and the characters may be willing to work towards a goal but not always in the same manner.
2) The rules (for how characters are able to interact) are clearly defined and the players and DM understand that the rules are mutable for other situations (such as monsters, encounters, environmental effects) and the like.
3) There is a level of trust between the players and the DM

For me the first and third principle are probably the most significant with number two following a close third. What really makes it for me is that there is a trust between the players and the DM that allows the players to be less concerned with the arbitration of the rules and the results of their rolls and more concerned with the telling of their story. Again, Peter hit the nail on the head - we are bards.

It is our job to tell the story. We are the eyes, ears and other senses of the players. We describe what they see and they describe how they react. Together the storytelling can form intricate cycles where the DM describes and the players react that involve other external circumstances and individuals.

So what's a good story all about then?

A good adventure story has three elements within its plot.
1) Antagonist(s) - The bad guy(s)
2) Protagonist(s) - The people who help (not always good guy(s))
3) Reason - This is the reason for the story/motivation of the bad guy or environmental condition that persists that has brought about the consequences of what is about to occur

I realize this is a super-simplified version of the storytelling process and there are red herrings, plot twists, danger, investigation, discovery, betrayal, love, death and conquest among other elements within most stories but the point is that you have to have the three basic principles before you can really have a story. You have to have bad guys - after all what's Zeus without Hades and what's Simon without Goliath? You have to have helpful guys - where would Hercules be without Mentor? Finally, you have to have a story - "And they all got into the boat because they felt they really should" is not as compelling as they were seeking the golden fleece to save the kingdom.

A good story can be long or short, come quickly or slowly. Sometimes good stories are made on the fly while others take time to craft. Sometimes a good story takes root right from the beginning of what you had originally thought would be a throw-away adventure whereby your players were to take out the local kobold leader. Sometimes a good story can take time to develop through random clues throughout adventures. This is a good way to have a larger campaign working behind the scenes while your heroes work on seemingly unrelated issues.  The key to a good story though is one that is believable and that has all of the elements that allow the players to become significant characters in the town, in the city, in the country or in the world.

This is a game about heroes and heroes have stories - lots of em. If you take a look at any classical Greek Mythology you see a myriad of stories around the heroes. Look at the Iliad. Did the heroes only have one story? Only one adventure?

So get out there and tell some stories and let the dice roll where they may!


  1. A fantastic article! Lots of food for thought.

  2. @Peter - Thank you Peter. It was inspired I must say! I like to share what information I've gained and the different tricks I have learned as a GM over the years.