Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Pacing is important to every story and the collaborative tale of your tabletop RPG is no different. The ebb and flow of your narrative keeps players engaged and on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. While pacing is bound to change over one-shots and long campaigns alike, the last thing you want at the table is your game’s story coming to a screeching halt.

Yet our games come to sudden stops every session. Did you just build up a big boss fight with an amazing villain monologue and terrifying description only to have a ten-minute pause right before the battle so you could read stat blocks and/or draw terrain on a battle mat? Have your players ever thrown you a curve ball that destroyed your plans so thoroughly you needed a few minutes to figure out where your now rail-less story train is headed? Have you shown up to a game without doing any prep for your players and simply struggled as you tried to figure out what happens next? Fear not! There’s a simple way to keep the narrative going while you prepare for the next steps of your campaign – asking questions.

Whenever I find myself needing a few minutes to prepare the next phase of my story, I ask my players specific questions that keep the game going. The answer to these questions require a player tell stories or have a discussion with each other. This keeps players immersed in the game, gives the world context, helps the PCs learn more about one another, and reveals new plot threads. The best part about these questions is that all you need to do is ask one and the players are off and running with a new scene while you take your time to set things up.

Sometimes the PCs spend days, weeks, and even months traveling together without so much as a few random encounters crossing their path. They hang out together in taverns, at feasts, and at parties. They spend the night in dungeons. In the real world the PCs would tell each other many stories and have many discussions, but because it’s not monster fighting, NPC interacting, or cave diving, we often gloss over or skip these conversations. Asking them to have these conversations during real-world downtime might mean the conversations aren’t always happening in chronological order with other events, but it does mean the players stay immersed in the story of your game while you prep. Besides flashbacks are a storytelling convention. Once you establish that the conversations inspired by these questions are just that, the pace of your game won’t suffer.

Don’t forget to award great stories, role-playing moments, and quick thinking with Inspiration. That extra reward always encourages players to give it their all.

How Do You Know…?

One of my favorite questions to ask a PC before a battle, “How do you know the villain you’re about to battle?” While I draw out lines on a battle mat or drag jpegs into Roll20, one player tells the others how his or her character once interacted with the villain. Maybe the dwarf fighter once crossed blades with the orc lord in the caves of his far away mountain home. Maybe the halfling rogue stole a diamond from the hoard of the dragon circling above. If the villain already has a place in the PC’s backstory, that’s perfect, but if not, it’s ok to put players on the spot and ask them to make something up. They do it to you all the time. The player will entertain the others and answer their questions while you do your thing and prepare the battle. The best part is that this new story will make the encounter you’re about to play out even more significant to the narrative.

What’s Your Backstory?

Almost every PC has a backstory and in Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition every character comes with a built-in background. If you need some time to prep, why not pick a detail out of a character’s backstory and ask them to tell the others about it? Be sure to keep these questions on the vague side so players can give as much or as little detail in their answers. Rather than, “Tell us about Rathebone’s secret affair with the king’s wife,” you might say, “Tell us about Rathebone’s lover.” The latter allows Rathebone to talk about his ladyfriend without revealing her identity. If the player chooses to drop a bomb, all the better. That’s going to make your game way more interesting. The player’s answer might buy you some prep time and give you some great new ideas to help move the plot forward.

What Were You Doing When…?

Sometimes us DMs speed through travel or downtime with a quick montage because we have a lot of story and action to cover in a session. If you find yourself needing time to prep something and want to keep your players engaged, simply ask them, “What was your character doing on the way here?” or, “Hey back in town you had ten days of downtime. What did you do during that time?” You can have the players go around the table and describe their PCs’ recent actions. Even the most mundane of descriptions (“I hung out at the local tavern and hit on all the half-orc dudes”) can inspire and interesting conversation amongst players or a new story thread (“Now an over-protective orc mama is after you.”) When you ask players to flashback and describe actions during travel or downtime, keep it their most recent experiences. Asking them what they did during a montage 10 sessions ago is going to defeat the purpose as they try to remember where there story was.

What About When THIS Happened…?

Of course not every question you ask needs to lead to story. One question in particular can lead characters into great discussions amongst themselves, thus buying you time to prepare. Some groups, like my own, can have something they want to discuss, but they forget to follow up on the issue because the rest of the game gets in the way. For instance, an NPC from a particular character’s background says something cryptic to that PC about their shared past. The other PCs might want to follow-up with some questions, but then a new interaction or encounter begins that distracts them from asking. Those questions would probably come up later at the tavern or on the road of adventure during the scenes we speed through or skip entirely. This isn’t just true for cryptic NPCs. PCs could have a moral debate about an issue like killing goblin children or looting an active temple. One character may need some kind of intervention from the other PCs (“Thog, you really need to bathe!”) The party can use this time to debrief and review a particularly important quest or battle that went awry. Odds are there’s a conversation that would be pressing to the characters in the game world the players aren’t having because they’re distracted by the need to keep pushing forward. When your game comes to a stop, go ahead and prompt them to have those conversations and buy you some time.

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Last Monday night my players were getting ready to teleport their characters over to the ice continent of Glacius when I realized I had made an error. In the session before they had been in the settlement of Dosas chatting it up at the bar. I really wanted them to get to a particular point in the story before stopping the game for the evening so I quickly montaged them through their stay at Dosas and got them back on the road to the aberrant ruin of Uvalor-Merrith which held the portal which brought them to Glacius.

Just one problem – they were about to head into Glacius, a freezing arctic continent and make a 900-mile journey across the tundra without any rations or cold weather gear. If I hadn’t sped them through town they might have thought of buying some gear for the journey ahead. It was time for an Oh Crap Flashback.

World Map of Canus

World Map of Canus

What Is an Oh Crap Flashback?

There are times when us less-than-Perkins Dungeon Masters make mistakes and we wish we could rewind the clock to better prepare the PCs for a challenge they are about to face (or in some cases currently facing). Rather than let the PCs suffer for my mistakes I take a moment and flashback in order to give them the tools they need to face the challenge properly. It might sound cheesy, but it’s an okay thing to do from time to time (and is way more fun than a TPK).

It’s our prerogative as DMs to move PCs thought time and space. Dungeons and Dragons is a storytelling game after all and aren’t flashbacks a storytelling convention? If you use this move to help out your players after you make a mistake, no one will balk. On the contrary I think you’ll find your group is more grateful, having more fun, and less frustrated than they would be had you not provided the flashback opportunity.

In the example above I told my players, “Hey, I should have given you more time in Dosas to outfit yourselves for the journey ahead. Let’s do a quick flashback so you guys can hit up the market and buy some stuff.” Crisis averted.

When to Oh Crap Flashback

So when is it right to Oh Crap Flashback? Let me be clear about this. Oh Crap Flashbacks are meant to give PCs a fair shake but not meant to turn your game on easy mode. For instance if I had given my players plenty of time in town, outlined the quest for them, and hinted that they might want supplies for their long journey and instead they ignored it all and just got on the road, we probably wouldn’t have had an Oh Crap Flashback. Oh Crap Flashbacks are meant to cover your own mistakes when they could make the game less fun and not meant to cover the mistakes of players (though you could choose to use it differently for your game.)

Below are some examples and guidelines of when I Oh Crap Flashback, but ultimately it’s up to you as the DM when to use them.

I Forgot to Allow the PCs Time To Gear Up or Get Information

Like in the example I gave above, sometimes the schedule gets the best of me. I push forward without looking at my notes because someone has a hard out or I’m excited to get to something else I have planned. It’s rare, but even a seasoned DM like me can miss something in the quest notes and forget to introduce a NPC or provide a crucial piece of information. This happens to me more often when I’m running something published and have to refer to dense blocks of text as opposed to my own notes.

Sometimes I have a non-flashback way to correct this mistake if I realize it early enough. For example the PCs could meet a fur merchant on the road with the information or supplies they need. Oh Crap Flashbacks are for times we don’t realize the mistake before it’s too late. The PCs are about to open the secret door and I forgot to give them its key or a crucial clue to help them solve its opening riddle. “Oh crap…” I say. It’s time to flashback.

I Thought of a New Story Point or Challenge Between Sessions and the PCs Need New Information to Face It

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I plop my PCs into a story or dungeon that I haven’t finished designing. This is part lazy, but also part intentional. As players make their way through the dungeon or story different factors may come up that make me want to adjust for next session. (The dungeon might be too easy or hard, the story could be too cliché, a player says something which triggers a new idea, the PCs go down a tunnel I thought they’d ignore, etc.) Anyway that’s another topic for another blog post!

If I’m tweaking things from session to session, there’s a small chance things might change enough for me to need an Oh Crap Flashback. This is the best case scenario for Oh Crap Flashbacks because I usually see the need for one as I’m preparing the game which means I can plan the flashback. In cases like these I usually kick the session off with the flashback to set the tone, remind players of what exactly they’re trying to accomplish, and provide the information or items they need to face the new challenges I added on their journey. Despite the Oh Crap-ness of it all, it seems like I’m a genius storyteller who had it planned all along.

A Player Made an Honest Mistake

If the PCs didn’t prepare or missed a piece of information I provided along the way, that’s not on me. That being said there are times people miss things for good reason. Players leave the table to use the bathroom, grab a bite, or take a personal call. They gotta do what they gotta do. So I’m not going to punish a player who was in the bathroom when the town’s soothsayer told the PCs not to drink from the raven’s head fountain. Later that player’s character jumps in the darn thing which is full of secret acid. What I am going to do is say, “Right before you leap into the pool you remember the words of Cannara the Crone, ‘Don’t touch the waters of the raven’s head fountain!’ Do you still want to jump?” I might even take a more casual route and say, “Oh before you do that just FYI – you were in the bathroom when the soothsayer warned against jumping in the fountain. You still jumping?”

So there you have it! Oh Crap Flashbacks. Let me know how (or if) you cover similar mistakes in the comments below.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

So it probably goes without saying, but in this post I’ll be discussing trigger warnings at the game table. While I won’t go too in-depth into any one topic, there will be mention of some topics that might make people upset. Just a heads up because I love you all and don’t wish to offend.

I’m almost 30. When I started playing tabletop RPGs as a 10-year-old kid, my games were a lot like The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. By that I mean simple tales with simple themes of good folk battling evil folk and scoring some treasure. As I got older my games became more complex and sometimes verged into themes found in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin (that’s Game of Thrones to all you HBO viewers out there). Plots certainly became more complex but the stories of my games also dealt with more adult issues. While these themes and ideas made for more interesting narratives and more realistic characters, many of these issues can make players, even fully grown adult players, uncomfortable. Suicide, sexual assault, sexual intercourse, physical and mental abuse, torture, addiction, physical illness, mental illness, and a lot of other serious, complicated real world topics can make for a moving story, but they can also ruin a game for a person who just showed up to have a good time and forget about the worries of the world for a bit.

It’s a Game First, Art Second

Personally when I read or tell a story, anything goes. As a professional writer and producer, I believe in a storyteller’s right to portray these topics as they choose and I believe an audience has the right to not watch, gripe, and criticize as they choose. That’s not to say I’m always comfortable with tasteless storytelling where gratuitous violence or offensive material of any kind is itself the entertainment, but I am comfortable saying storytellers should be able to make what they want and people should be allowed to pick it apart and/or not consume the product as they see fit.

All of that being said, remember that role-playing games are games first and the art of storytelling second. Players and a GM tell a story together for their own fun and entertainment. It should not be a GM or player forcing the story they want down the throats of others. People have given up hours of precious free time to come and sit at a table, often with strangers at a friendly local game store or convention, and don’t need to leave the experience feeling uncomfortable, offended, or ostracized. That kind of stuff doesn’t get people to come back to a game. I’m reminded of a Vice article in which a DM forced an NPC onto a female player’s character. That player left the table in tears and never returned to the game. I think most of us can agree we do not want anything to get that far at our tables even if most people think a topic is harmless. These situations are even more likely to come up at conventions and organized play events where the group may be strangers to one another and have no idea who is comfortable with what. We need to be able to put all people involved in the game at ease. That doesn’t mean these triggering topics are off-limits, but it does mean we need to be mindful and respectful of our fellow gamers.

Here are some handy tips and methods for keeping everything cool and comfortable at the table when you story heads into questionable territory.

Ways to Mitigate Trigger Activation

When someone has a visceral uncomfortable or hurt reaction to an event or description in a game, a trigger response has been activated for that person. Here are a few ways to avoid trigger activation.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

When it comes to trigger activations, nothing helps more than simply talking with your players. Before you get started ask them what style of games they like to play and what books, television, and movies they like to watch. Remember that just because a person enjoys book containing a triggering topic doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy it in the shared environment of a role-playing game but it gives you a good idea of where to start. This is also a great way to break the ice before getting going during a game at a convention or local friendly game store with a bunch of new players.

Remember to set up questionable events with trigger warnings before you play. If you aren’t sure about how a description or event will go down with the players, ask them first. “Hey this adventure includes a possible suicide, but let me know if you’re not ok with that because I can change things very easily. You don’t have to tell me why, just let me know if it’s a problem,” is a great way to give a warning. Make sure the players know they aren’t inconveniencing you or ruining the fun of the game for anyone else. Don’t make them give you a reason why the topic makes them uncomfortable since that defeats the purpose of the warning. Be cool. Everyone is there to have a good time.

If you’re playing a longer campaign made up of multiple sessions, spend some time talking to your players about what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable throughout the run of the game. Let them know they can come and speak with you if they have a problem with anything that comes up. Establish trust by listening to concerns, and by not asking probing, personal questions when concerns are brought up. In addition to providing trigger warnings, talk to them after a questionable event as a check-in to make sure everyone’s still feeling good about the campaign and story. It’s definitely better to over communicate than to have a friend get upset and leave a game.

Set Ground Rules

Before a long campaign there’s time to talk with your players and go over a list of questionable topics that might come up in the story. Why not immediately check off all the things that someone says are off-limits for them? You could email the list to people or talk with people one-on-one so they can respond individually and not in front of the rest of the group. Then you can just let your players know topics that won’t be part of your game so they don’t bring them up at the table as well.

If you’re playing with a group of good friends, you could always have a larger discussion about setting ground rules before a game starts. A discussion like this can even allow for ground rules to be more specific. Rather than removing an entire topic from your story (e.g. physical disease) you might be able to cross off a specific item within that topic (e.g. a specific terminal illness).

Tap the Card

Setting ground rules and lots of communication are great, but what happens when you don’t have the time cover everything before a convention game with a group of strangers? Or maybe you’re playing a game with so many questionable topics, like Monsterhearts, that going over a list would be maddening and time-consuming.

On an episode of The Round Table podcast where we discussed sexual harassment at the game table panelist Barak Blackburn brought up the idea of placing an index card in the middle of the table. Whenever any person for any reason felt uncomfortable with what was happening in the game’s story, that person could tap the card without a word and the GM would simply fast forward and move the story past the scene and the topic wouldn’t be touched again. If you’re running a short game with a lot of questionable material and don’t want to upset anyone, this is a great trick. It’s commonly known as an X-card, because the DM typically draws a large X across the index card.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!