Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Metagame - Showing and telling the story

A good GM has to balance many necessary parts of the game: combat, skill use, experience and rewards, the players' lines of inquiry and curiosity, rules and illegal actions--these are just some examples. In this post, I want to consider only one of those tasks: the story. 

In a basic sense, a game is a situation with a goal and a distraction. The reason I like GMing a game is because I see the story's completion as the goal and the game play as the distraction. Game play is a fun distraction, of course, and at its best, game play can change the story in ways I didn't expect; at its worst, when we're caught up in metagame talk or discussions like whether a stone golem can be targeted with a petrification spell, the storytelling can move to a halt.

I think the best storytelling a GM can do is to make the story sound like it's being told in the game. No GM should want or have to recite a lengthy prepared narration for the PCs (except maybe in the first session), but on the other hand, a game session shouldn't just be a series of combat encounters or skill checks with no sense of direction for the PCs.
So how can you balance story with gameplay? Consider these two opposing words to discuss how a story is told: diegesis and mimesis. Diegesis is the narration that makes part of a story, while mimesis is the presentation, or unfolding of events, that make part of a story. If we consider the table-top rpg to be an act of storytelling, the GM often reveals the story through diegetic means while the PCs experience the story through mimetic action.

Here are some suggestions for diegetic and mimetic storytelling for GMs:


Use in-game media to recite backstory you've already written. Here are some examples: newspapers, scrolls, journals, signs, bloody etchings in tree trunks, crystal balls, fortune tellers, seers, possessed animals, hypnotized minions, town criers, long-lost letters, ornate object inscriptions, magic writing revealed through divination.

Devise dialogue trees that you can apply to any NPC. For example, the PCs are guests at a castle. There are various functionaries, dignitaries, servants, soldiers, courtiers, etc. milling about. You would like the PCs to poke around and talk to people and eventually discover that there is a secret cult dungeon under the castle. If I were running this adventure, I might write several lines of dialogue in advance, and allow the PCs to talk to three different people who appear clueless about the cult. The fourth person will accidentally reveal that he or she knows of a secret door--but that fourth person might be a soldier, a royal priest, or a servant, etc. I'll use the dialogue tree as if I had pre-planned it for this NPC.

Create item descriptions that will push the characters in a plot direction. You might recite: After killing the tentacled wolf, the four of you take a closer look at the treasure chest built into the thick tree trunk. There's a small plaque to the right of the lock. It says: if you're reading this, you might be the right person for a special job I have. Come to the mansion on the hill for some extra work--and the key to this chest.


Incorporate player-created backstory into the game. Has your adventuring party stumbled onto a PC's hometown? Ask them to prepare a description and plot twist during character creation, share the notes with you, and ask the player describe it in the game.
As the party enters a town, one PC might read from a page of notes: I can tell you about this place. Growing up in this mining town was tough. Everyone was poor, and there were bandits who camped out in the northern forest. But the worst part was the mine itself--we knew something was wrong when workers started disappearing but leaving their clothing behind. I recently got a letter from my mother that said my youngest brother was the latest to not return from the mine. She wants me to go find him.

Establish connections among NPC skills/attributes to the world. This works especially well if the players are inquisitive. Let's say you're creating a encounter in a tavern to move the plot. The players will find themselves in this location and then exchange dirty looks with a group of evil robed monks, who will demand a fight. If the story after the fight is important to you, you might just want to use NPC templates for the monks. But you could also use this opportunity to flesh out the in-game world for your PCs. Perhaps one of the monks uses an old fighting style that identifies the monk as a local villain in disguise. Or maybe the monks all speak in the Goblin tongue, and they're being controlled by a terrible goblin bard. After combat, the PCs can use this information to decide where to go next.

Assign the players some homework. This deserves a post of its own, so I'll keep it simple here. The best way to avoid just telling story is to ask the players to devise their own parts of the story. For example, at the end of one gaming session, ask each player to take 5 minutes to write down ideas for one NPC, item, location, or plot twist on an index card. Collect the cards and consider their ideas for planning the next session. Combining their ideas can be extra fun.


  1. I think you've made some good points here, and I think preparation is key. But a lot of what you're suggesting will sound a bit too prerehearsed. To keep the flow going in a way that will inspire your players to creatively engage with and drive the story forward I would recommend giving them the information, and then letting them share it in a way that makes sense to them, and is in their character's voice.

  2. By prerehearsed, you mean if PCs recite some kind of backstory document they've written? Yeah, that's a possiblity.

    I think my main shortcoming as a GM is that I'm used to playing with the same people all the time, so it affects how I think GMing generally happens.