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The storyteller's craft: fine-tuning TTRPG narratives

  • August 15 2023
  • Courtland Goldengate

As artists, writers, and creators, we know the weight every word carries and the resonance every storyline should have. When it comes to Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPGs), the narrative can mean the difference between a forgettable session and an epic tale that will be referenced by your friends for years to come. Here's a guide to crafting stories that not only entertain but resonate deeply on a human level.

Pacing: the heartbeat of your tale

One of the mistakes I frequently made as a new game master is filling the game sessions with too much combat. Large conflicts make for great climaxes within a story, but too much combat can fatigue the players at the table and fail to advance the story in a meaningful way. Rather than filling every moment with action, understand the rhythm. A good narrative has ebbs and flows. Give players time to reflect after a climactic moment; use slower scenes to build up to the next peak of excitement.

Another way to think about it is that conflict is an opportunity for the characters to test themselves. For that test to have meaning, the characters need to know who they are. For conflict to continue to be compelling, who the characters are needs to evolve. A character's relationships with other people, places, beliefs, and their own backstory are what gives characters depth. So you need to pace your game in such a way that creates opportunities for those relationships to develop.

Character depth that goes beyond sheets and stats

Encourage players to go deeper into their character's backstory. What are their fears, aspirations, or unresolved conflicts? As a GM, weave these threads into the main plot. This not only enriches the story but also binds players to it. Give your players prompts and tasks during session 0 that will help get them involved. Some examples:

  • Have each player at the table create an NPC to add to the world. Being involved in the world's creation means they are invested in the world. They are co-creators now, not just passive participants. These NPCs then give you, the game master, ideas to draw from for future encounters and character defining moments.
  • Give players an item with no utility. Something that adds no benefit in combat or even in exploration or skill-based challenges. The sole purpose of the item is to act as a prompt for the player to consider "why would I have that item? When did I get it and under what circumstances?"
  • Provide prompts for your players to determine a situation in their pasts where they would have met other players' characters. Ideally every player character has a past connection with at least one other player character. In a 4 player game, each player can know two others, and the third would be a stranger, so the whole party is tied together but still has someone they are meeting for the first time. 

All of these ideas serve no purpose except to enhance character identity and to ground them in a shared world that they helped create.

Settings that people give a shit about

In the realm of storytelling, setting isn't just where the action takes place; it shapes the world and breathes life into it. Tolkien and Middle Earth are my favorite examples of this. In his works, the reader isn't just told about Weathertop, the Anduin, or Minas Tirith. Instead, they're invited to explore the history that shaped the location and how the location shaped the history.

Tolkien’s meticulous attention to environments wasn’t just about painting a pretty picture; it was about creating a bond. Every time he described a setting, he was forging a connection between the reader and the world of Middle-earth. The reader cares about the conflicts in the story because they care about its stakes. When we experience the ruins of the Northern Kingdom of Arnor, the grand statues of ancient kings flanking the Anduin, and the similar statue in the conquered territory of Ithilien... but with its head lopped off and replaced with a crudely hewn stone with a red eye painted on it... the conflict between Mordor and Gondor (and the rest of the free world) develops an immense weight that commands our attention.

Drawing from such inspiration, treat your TTRPG setting as an entity with its own desires, memories, and scars. Dive deep:

  • Culture & history: Whether it's a bustling metropolis or a quiet hamlet, every place has its traditions, festivals, and stories passed down through generations. These tales give depth and color to your setting.

  • Politics & power: The struggle for power is universal. Dive into the dynamics of your setting. Who holds the power, and who seeks it? This can spawn side quests, allies, and adversaries.

  • Nature as a living entity: Remember the Ents from Middle-earth or the Weirwoods from Westeros? Nature can be more than just trees and rivers.

By giving your setting depth, life, and a voice, you're not only enriching your narrative, but you're also anchoring your players, making them care about the world they're in. As they grow attached, every threat to the setting becomes personal, every victory sweeter, and every twist in the tale more gripping.

Tension, conflict, and resolution

The pulsating rhythm of any captivating tale is its continuous cycle of tension, conflict, and resolution. These elements propel a narrative forward, keep audiences engaged, and provide depth to your story.

  • Tension: Tension creates anticipation. It's the whispered rumors of an unknown threat lurking beneath the surface, the unresolved emotions between two party members, or the foreboding feeling when entering a long-abandoned temple. By maintaining a balance - neither drawing it out too long nor resolving it too quickly - you keep your players on the edge of their seats.

  • Conflict: While tension sets the stage, conflict takes the spotlight. It's the catalyst that pushes characters into action. Beyond the epic clashes of armies or confrontations with beasts, it's the rogue's internal battle with their past sins, a paladin's moral struggle with a necessary evil, or the friction between party members with opposing ideals. These internal and interpersonal struggles add layers to your narrative, making it relatable and deep.

  • Resolution: After the storm comes the calm. Resolutions are the answers to the problems set up by tension and manifested in conflict. They can be triumphant victories, bitter failures, or even ambiguous outcomes that leave room for interpretation. Resolutions provide a sense of closure to a particular arc, but they also serve another crucial purpose: they lay the groundwork for future tensions and conflicts. Perhaps the defeated foe had allies who seek revenge, or maybe the solution to one moral dilemma raises several more challenging questions.

By mastering the ebb and flow of these three elements, aspiring artists, writers, and creators can craft a narrative that is not only engaging but also resonates with the complex emotions and experiences of their audience.

Incorporating player creativity

The magic of TTRPGs lies in the collaborative effort, where both the game master (GM) and the players actively shape the tale's course. Otherwise, we'd all just read more books. When the line between storyteller and audience blurs, it can be amazing... or it can be a source of real-life friction. Here are some tips to make your campaign a gratifying collaboration for everyone.

  • Backstories as building blocks: Every player character comes with a past, rich with experiences, relationships, and pivotal moments. By integrating these backstories into the main narrative, you not only validate the player's creative effort but also introduce new plot threads, settings, and characters. Perhaps a wizard's old rival emerges as a secondary antagonist, or a rogue's hometown becomes a key location for the party's next adventure. These backstories act as seeds that, when nurtured, can grow into significant arcs of their own.

  • Side quests and personal journeys: While there might be an overarching mission or objective in your campaign, giving space for character-centric side quests can add depth and personal stakes. It could be the bard trying to mend a broken relationship with a family member or the warrior seeking a legendary weapon spoken of in their clan's folklore. These detours, driven by character motivation, allow players to explore their characters' growth and depth and even better, they act as a built in way for the players at the table to share the spotlight.

  • World-building as a group effort: Inviting players to contribute to world lore can be immensely rewarding. Push your players to go beyond their character's backstory, and create some world lore that does not relate directly to their character. Perhaps their character heard a song or folktale about a location the party is traveling through, or perhaps they heard a rumor about a newly introduced NPC or faction. 

The key takeaway? As an artist, writer, or creator, you have a vision. But by allowing others to contribute, to blend their voices with yours, you elevate the narrative to something dynamic, organic, and deeply personal to everyone involved. The story isn't just something you present; it's something you build together, and to do that you need to give up some control and celebrate the ideas of everyone else at the table so long as the ideas are a good faith effort to enrich the world for the sake of the shared story and experience

No one size fits all

My final piece of advice is to take a moment after each session to gather feedback. Understand what elements of the story resonated with your players and what fell flat. Listen so that you can iterate and improve your campaign, and refine and hone your storytelling skills further. Feedback is a gift, and it takes courage to provide it, so make sure you don't treat it like an attack but instead show your gratitude to those willing to put themselves out there and share their point of view.

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