The Storyteller’s Tools

One essential part of storytelling is that the teller knows the story.  This seems self evident, but it’s worth calling out because of what it means to the process – because the tell knows what’s going to happen, she knows *how* to tell the story.  She knwo when to lower her voice, when to pause for effect, when to make a humorous aside and when to pitch her tone to reflect that now is when things get *really* interesting.

This is noteworthy to hold up in comparison to GMing.  Even in the case of a game creating a story, it’s not a story that the GM already knows.  In fact, the more oriented the game is towards generating a story, the less the GM is likely to know.  Less story oriented games are more likely to to benefit from greater GM knowledge (or in some cases, railroading) which can allow the GM to “get ahead” of the story.

Now, what’s interesting is that the lack of knowledge does not completely remove these tools, but it definitely changes the relationship with them.  For example, an experienced GM may be able to read the room, so to speak, and make good guesses regarding what’s going to happen.  And even in the absence of that read, the tools at the GM’s disposal often tie directly to changes in the narrative – the moments when storytelling tools are most useful.  For example, if the GM us about to unleash ninjas upon the party, she can absolutely start describing things in a way that inspires and escalation of tension.

It’s not always reliable, of course.  Players can derail things (can’t they always), or the emotional note of the event can be out of tune with the buildup.  And making it work requires the GM shuck and jive a lot, which can get exhausting.

Now, in theory, the idea can be turned on it’s head with a bit of improvisational thinking – the cues can be predictive rather than descriptive.  That is, if someone lowers their voice into the “Something horrible is about to happen” tone, then that could effectively be a declaration that the next thing to happen will be horrible.  It’s an intriguing thought, especially if you ave a table that’s narratively in sync, but I suspect it’s a flawed model.  We are too drawn to the twist – the unexpected outcome – and that instinct would result in overuse.  It takes a lot of work and discipline to not beat that horse to death.[1]

Now, for me, these storyteller tools are well worn and well loved. A lot of things that might be discussed in terms of design theory are – for me – simply tricks to try to reclaim their use in the medium of play.   This is something I’ve always instinctively known, but I’ve never really conciously thought about it’s interaction with play.  It’s always been a dirty little thing I do on the side which ends up being a sign of disrespect for, well, everythign in gaming that is not happening at my table right then.  I’m ok with that, but it makes  certain part of play hard to discuss in theoretical terms, and it’s a reason I really like to focus GM advice on eliciting a reaction from players.  Get them mad, get them angry, get them engaged.

Rules can help with that, but I find them a poor substitute.   But rules are a LOT easier to write about.  So I guess my question to myself is how to better talk about that.  Of all things, I think this may be a good reason to pull down Amber Diceless again, just to look at.  Among its many virtues, it was really written with an eye on the idea that the game exists to engage the players (often in bastardly fashion) and that everything else was in service to that.  It’s ass backwards from most modern game design, but I am just now realizing that it’s maybe one of the reasons it never leave my heart.


1 – For evidence of this, read any collection of super-short stories – the 50-100 word kind. They’re fun snack food for a while, until yous tart noticing that 95%[2] of them follow the exact same pattern of spending most of their words establishing an expectation before revealing the unexpected twist.  Once you see this pattern, they start reading more like bad knock knock jokes than flash fiction.

2 – The remaining 5%? Pretty awesome. Flash fiction is like Haiku – it’s easy to master the form, and easier to use it to produce junk.

13 thoughts on “The Storyteller’s Tools

  1. Reverance Pavane

    It’s why I prefer the directorial model for rpgs rather than the authorial. The purpose of the director is to get the actors to tell their story in the best possible way. Essentially you need to bring the players scenery to chew, hand them their spears on time, and block them so they present the best possible appearance to the audience (themselves and me) – and incidentally not block another character.

    The problem is that you need your players to be active rather than reactive or it simply doesn’t work. Most gamers have been trained to be reactive – they have been trained to respond to the gamemaster, reacting to the clues she lays down in front of them. Until you teach these players that it’s perfectly fine to craete their own stories it doesn’t work, but once they get the bug, once they realise that they are in control…

    And yes, rule systems often get in the way of engaging with the players, because they often create a distinction between the actor and his character.

    1. chatty

      I think I see what you mean here, but am not sure. I mean, I can’t imagine you set up a session where the PCs are at a tea party and you drop no hooks for them to play against/run with in terms of a larger narrative. But maybe you do?

    2. Rob Donoghue

      It’s a balance thing – if your players have their own agendas and they’re pushing them forward, then anywhere you drop them, they’ll move the ball. But it is a different mode of play and looks really alien until you do it.

  2. MegaBill

    I’d love to hear more about the sorts of tricks that can be pulled from Amber to be used in other games. It isn’t a game I ever played but it is one I’ve heard referenced quite a bit.

  3. Christian Hollnbuchner

    Engage the players. I must say that I usually have an easier time doing that if I don’t focus on telling the a story and advancing a plot.

    It is easier for me if I play the NPCs as characters as much as the players do with their own. Characters that have goals they will try to achieve. The plot is only one way to (almost) get there.

    Playing the NPCs makes it much easier to react to unpredictable player input as well. And really, shouldn’t the GM roleplay just as much as the rest of the group?

    1. Rob Donoghue

      See, the thing is, I think “advance the plot” may be a bit of a bugbear, because the more I look at it, the fuzzier it becomes. Assuming the GM is not doing something really blatantly railroadey, I’m not even entirely sure what it really means in practice. It’s kind of like keeping things moving forward, but that’s a much more open ended idea.

      Not criticizing, I should add – just pondering the sticking point of a particular term.

    2. chatty

      Had longer post. Deleted because in writing it I realized I really like the GMing I do (but could always use improvement). I just hope my PLAYERS do.

      Precis: “NPC as Characters” + “Advancing my (the NPC’s) Plot” as the motive for the NPCs in question goes a long way for me. PC interaction results in unforeseen outcome and NPCs needing to adjust either their goals or the means to get to them.

      The big issue here is that it becomes very easy to make the game about NPCs and how the PCs react (which, I think, is not always bad. But be sure your group is cool simply being spoilers. In a supers game that’s probably more acceptable than in a game where everyone plays Amber royalty [disclaimer: I’ve never read or played Amber Diceless]).

      MY question, which is especially apparent in a game wherein the characters are trying to be heroic, is how do I get them to be proactive without becoming what they are fighting? They have done it on occasion (deciding to out the secret conspiracy within the government of the US on their television series and using every legal method at their disposal to make sure the episode aired), but part of me would love to see them go all Authority and really shake things up.

    3. Rob Donoghue

      So, first off, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with them becoming what they’re fighting, depending what that means. Not saying they need to become villains, but that doesn’t mean they can’t develop goals and agendas (though, yes, that’s a weird one in supers games because usually only villains have any reason to be proactive).

      This is not to say that reacting to and messing with the actions of NPCs is not a solid driver – it totally works – but the next layer to put on top of that is things that the PCs want, even if they’re small things.

      The problem, of course, is that once players want something, both a very good and a very bad GM have a bad habit of grabbing it and beating the player to death with it. You want to get your brother into a good school? Well, expect to be offered the chance for that AT A TERRIBLE PRICE, or to have aliens kidnap him ON THE DAY HE HAS THE BIG INTERVIEW AT HARVARD. There’s a lot of GM training that says that any PC interest is an opportunity to get greater buy in from the player by using it as a lever. And it’s true, to a point, but as a player, it’s REALLY easy to get burned by this.

      I’m a big believer in letting the player’s make some real progress under their belt, and let them really get some traction before threatening ONE of their efforts – at that point, they’re more likely to feel they can fight for it.

      That said, it can be hard to introduce such things directly, especially if the players aren’t already doing so. One trick you might try is to attach some mechanics to it, if only loosely. If, for example, they’re defending a city, come up with some stats for it – say, Law, Infrastructure, Community and Prosperity (or Crime, Decay, Breakdown and Poverty). Rate them on whatever scale you like (say, 1-20) and then chart them over time. Let the player’s adventures impact them, sure, but also allow them “downtime” opportunities to improve the stats, with the sole qualifier that they need to be very specific in what they do. Just patrolling or throwing around money won’t help – they need to build a school, visit a program, invest in a local business and so on.

      Respect those actions, and show that respect in play. Have those elements show up and matter. Yes, they can get threatened too (and, I note, your villains should have the same specific-item logic in their crimes as they bring down the numbers) but the key is to make it clear that you’ve bought into the player’s ideas.

      Feel free to be hand-wavey about what stats do – they’re great modifiers on random GM rolls to check things like if the police have enough resources, if someone gets a job, how safe an NPC will be and so on. It also has a fictional component – S.T.A.R. labs is not going to have anything more than a satellite office in your town until all 4 are at least reasonably high. If Law drops too low, don’t expect to get much sleep. Hopefully, you get the idea.

      Anyway, I hope that helps.

  4. Leonard Balsera

    I think one of the problems is that the word “story” carries a lot of connotation, only some of which is useful for RPG play. The degree we tend to perceive it after the fact is as much about mental editing as anything else – a bunch of engaging stuff happened over the course of the three hours or whatever, and looking back on it, we can see how it was a story. We emphasize the details that contribute to that perception and diminish others, as confirmation bias dictates. I hold this to be true even for self-titled “story games”, but we can slay that bear in another conversation.

    I wonder if this might be one of those areas where the analogy falls down. I’ve gotten a lot more mileage inspiring a reaction in players by ditching the idea of myself as a storyteller and embracing the idea of myself as a fellow person along for the ride.

    So, sure, I’ll use vocal tricks and performance stuff to set up a moment or cue off players’ reactions, but I use them in the exact same context I use them as a player – as a way of establishing my expectations for the scene, subject to the interplay of the mechanics.

    If dice rolls or whatever change the moment from what I was setting up, I just use that part of it too – turn the suspense-building into an opportunity for comedy, or even step out of character and say, “Aw, I was so hoping you were going to get knocked out by that ninja, you bastard,” or whatever. Like, it’s only a derailment, in my opinion, if you were holding on too tightly to your expectations.

    And I suppose that for me, I don’t see those things as storyteller tricks because they’re not manipulative, in the way that storytelling inherently is – more often than not, they come from my desire to telegraph my honest emotional response to the moment. I know what I’m about to unleash on the players, so if *I’m* tense and excited about what’s going to happen next, they’re likely to start getting that way. If it turns out anticlimactic, I can react to that in an honest way and keep people engaged.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      There’s an implication there that storytelling is dishonest, which I’m not sure about. I mean, it’s true, at least insofar as all fiction is lies, but there’s also the matter of a lot of fictional things being very true all the same.

      Maybe closer to wonder if it’s deceptive, but again, that gets an ‘it depends’ – is the magician _really_ fooling the audience, or is everyone going along with the idea.

      So that makes me wonder. Let’s set aside “performance” tricks for a moment, and look to fiction. Rising tension, unexpected twists, character motivations, conflicting desires are all staples of good fiction, and the reasons they make good fiction makes them pretty potent in play. Those seem very much like storytelling tricks Are they really something else, or is it just a semantic dodge from a word which is (I fully concede) super dangerously overloaded with meaning within the gaming context?

    2. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions)

      I think there’s something to be said for what you refer to as “predictive” storytelling. An example or two in the post might have been performance rather than story, but I think — heck, I know, from my ages-old Born to be Kings campaign — that being aware of what the story-after-the-fact *could be* helps chart a good array of possible directions in reaction to player choices. This isn’t rails-in-action — there’s no derailment if the players head in direction C instead of A or B — so much as recognizing that until events have occurred and choices are made that there’s not one story you’re heading towards. There’s a cloud. But knowing what could be inside that cloud, knowing what sort of stories might be coming to pass, can get you a good “predictive” set of things to throw into the mix if their triggers/justification/made-choices end up happening.

    3. David S. Goodwin

      I would argue that the “story” is what you have at the end of a session or campaign. Some of it is going to be plotted in advance, some of it will arise from mechanical outcomes, and some will spring from the back-and-forth between players (GM included.)

      Which means that the craft of storytelling is in shaping those moments essentially on the fly into something that will feel like a story, rather than a bunch of stuff that just happened. A good GM/storyteller uses the tricks of the trade to shine the spotlight on certain moments, and to recognize how they are meaningful to the players… a failure of storytelling results in events that feel meaningless or, at the opposite extreme, forced into false drama. (And the GM is never the only storyteller at the table.)

      But at the end of it, the story is what you get out of the game, not what you put into it.


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