A couple of years ago, then Pixar storyboard artist Emily Coats tweeted pieces of advice on making stories that she had picked up from working with Pixar, which were later compiled on in several places on the internet, such as this io9 post. Later, Dino Ignacio created image macros of the individual rules which I am using in these posts.
Tabletop roleplaying is, at its core, group storytelling. Narrative control may be distributed in different ways based on the rule set and the dice will have their say, but when it comes down to it, everyone at the (sometimes metaphorical) table gets to write a bit of the story that takes shape. A while back I was looking at the “22 Rules of Storytelling” and I realized that, with only a little modification, they could be very applicable to running an RPG. This series is going to focus heavily on the gamemaster’s perspective, mainly because most of the games I play still rely on some sort of chief storyteller to do most of the narrative legwork. That being said, I’ll try to call out things from the player’s perspective when I see a good opportunity.
Another disclaimer: The rule set you are using and the players at your table will have a big impact on the implementation and impact of this advice. I’ll give examples of how different rule sets can have an impact to give you an idea, but the player factor can only be taken into account by getting to know the people you play with and how they act. In a couple of paragraphs I’m going to talk about how what’s at stake can impact a player’s willingness to try risky strategies, but you will find daredevil players who will look for lateral solutions even when everything is on the line and you’ve laid out a clear path to victory right in front of them, and you will find perfectionist players who will carefully line up every possible bonus and advantage when all they are doing is haggling over a loaf of bread. I’m necessarily going to be speaking in general terms; find what applications to your particular circumstances you can.
Having said that, without further ado, Rule #1: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”
Getting your players to try things is the most important part of running a game. It’s how they take up their end of the storytelling responsibilities and it’s how you move your story forward. Each player is going to come to your game with a baseline willingness to try things, which will depend on their familiarity with the hobby, with the genre of game you are playing, and with their past experiences roleplaying. Your job as a gamemaster is to coach them towards trying.
Note that this has nothing to do with success. Success is not necessary for an interesting story; there are many excellent stories about people who can’t seem to catch a break or who are struggling against forces too powerful for them to beat. What matters is that the character is able to try, and that means that the difficulty of the obstacles you place between them and their goals is less important than the stakes and the consequences of failure.
The kind of stakes you are working with are going to be heavily influenced by your rule set and genre. Dungeons and Dragons, to take one example, generally involves a lot of lethal combat, which means that no matter what else may be on the line, the stakes probably involve life and death for the players. High stakes push the players towards conservative play, because they make failure seem thoroughly unacceptable, so when it comes time to decide what to do, they will focus on predictable factors like the numbers on their character sheet and guaranteed bonuses from well-established rules. They will not improvise, they will not think about their character’s personality, and they will not think about what makes an interesting story, because nothing is less interesting than seeing their character get killed by a random encounter with kobolds. Even when retreat is an option (and you will usually have to carefully teach your players that it is, because it is often assumed to be off the table), if not stopping the kobolds means a village gets destroyed the players aren’t likely to feel like risking failure is an option
Contrast that with Mouse Guard. Mouse Guard features dangerous fights with huge enemies, to be sure, but more often the duties of the player characters involve more mundane tasks with lower stakes, like delivering the mail to a distant settlement, blazing a trail through the wilderness, or gathering extra supplies before winter sets in. These stakes are important, but no so important that the players will feel obligated to put everything they have into succeeding, and that means they have space to try weird ideas and express their character’s personality. Note that lower stakes doesn’t mean easy challenges. Mouse Guard loves throwing high obstacle numbers at the players whenever they try to do anything, but because failure is not the end of the world, players will try to overcome them anyway, and you can admire a character for struggling with a task that’s obviously beyond their capabilities even if the only thing at stake is the admiration of strangers.
Which brings us to the subject of what happens when characters fail. If you want players to be willing to try, which ultimately comes down to them being willing to fail, failure has to be interesting, not punishing. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be negative consequences for failure, but those consequences should keep the story moving forward in an interesting direction. Death in D&D is generally not interesting. It often throws a big monkey wrench into the story because now that player is sitting on their hands while the party scrapes together the resources to raise them from the dead, or they’re stuck making a new character while you, the DM, flails about trying to fill the hole they left in your story. Even in non-lethal encounters, failure in D&D tends to default to “Abort, Retry, Fail.” Didn’t make it up that cliff? You can keep trying that Climb check to see if you get lucky, you can wander around hoping the DM will throw you a bone in the form of a ladder or rope, or you can give up.
On the flip side, Mouse Guard refuses to allow you to just keep trying the same task until you succeed. It either gets you past the obstacle at the cost of a negative status effect or it requires the GM to introduce a new obstacle to shake things up. So if you fail that Climb check to make it up the cliff, the GM might say “You make it up, but you’re Tired from the exertion and Injured from turning your ankle wrong,” or they might say “While you’re having difficulty negotiating the cliff, the noise you’re making draws bandits, who rappel down from the top of the cliff to attack you!” And then you’ve got a fight on your hands, which can end with victorious who can use the bandit’s ropes to easily climb the cliff, or defeated players who are taken for ransom by the bandits and hauled up the cliffs, whereupon they get to try to escape.
All of this is not meant to say “Don’t play D&D,” but rather to illustrate how stakes and consequences can impact players’ willingness to try using someone of the general assumptions baked in to rule sets. A good DM can certainly moderate stakes and set up interesting consequences for failure, they just aren’t necessarily going to get much help in that from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Likewise, an inexperienced GM running Mouse Guard might end up fixating on throwing snakes and wolves and bears (oh my!) at the PC’s and ignore all the advice in the rulebook about varying obstacles. The point is that if you make failure an acceptable alternative, it becomes much easier for the players to try the interesting and audacious actions that make for a good story, as opposed to relying heavily on predictable tactics. Save the high stakes for when you really want to get their attention.
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