GM Lessons: Creating a Story

Last lesson we discussed how to treat your players before and during your sessions, how to sell them on your game, and also how to use encounters to change your game on the fly. Both things are ways of making your game better; but are definitely more work for you, dear GM. However this time, we’re going to think about ways we can make our job easier!

Something that you’ve probably read that you shouldn’t do: have a story. The fashion at the moment for veteran and new GMs alike is to embrace the sandbox model of roleplaying games – i.e. Create a ‘sandbox’ which can be altered and modified as the players go through it, with no apparent direction or desired outcome from the GM. However, this can be a lot of work for the GM; creating a whole world that the players may not even see, as well as trying to string together an epic narrative and not just the players going from shop to meaningless conversation to threatening the innkeeper for a discount.

On the flip side of the RPG adventure coin is the ‘railroad’ type of game. Named as such because there is only one way forward in these games, and the players cannot deviate. The GM has to say ‘no’ a lot, because put simply only the railroad and its immediate environment has been thought-out. There is a predetermined narrative that the players are lead through, and this is seen as ‘bad’ by some current GMs and players, as the freedom – or, Player Agency – is taken away, making it no more than a board game or pen and paper video game.

I’ve tried both of these, and the extremes are not desirable. I tend to stick somewhere squarely in the middle. Have a story…but don’t set it in stone. Allow for the story to change. Set the story inside the sandbox. Be prepared to build a new deviation on the railroad, and have the confidence to interpret how it will change.

I’ll sum up the way that I create such a ‘story’ in a game in bullet points now (A lot of credit has to go to Adam Koebel and his partner who co-wrote Dungeon World and wrote an excellent chapter for GMs on creating ‘Fronts’ for adventures. You can find it on their website or get the rulebook for a mere $10 (So worth)):

  1. Have a world – this could be an existing one such as Star Wars or the Sword Coast in D&D, but have one in mind.
  2. Create factions, a locale, points of interest and non-playable-characters (NPCs). In that order.
  3. Set up friction between factions, note how they feel towards one another; animosity or neutrality or friendly.
  4. Choose one or two factions to be the foils of the players, the ones who will want them out the picture no matter what. The rest can be neutral or friendly to the players.
  5. Give each faction an overall ‘goal’ to achieve, potentially with steps to make towards it. Remember real groups of autonomous people do not wait around for adventurers to turn up to do something.
  6. Create encounters based off of these objectives. Remember Lesson #1? If you have an evil necromancer cult faction, if one of their objectives is to raise the dead from the town graveyard, have an encounter where players stumble into it.
  7. Finally, let players influence the progress of each faction when interacting with them: setting them back or helping them along (intended or otherwise).

And there you have it. I find that this is most rewarding way to play and yet does not require a enormous amount of prep work. In between sessions you can sit down with your factions and take note of what the players did: Would their actions affect the factions, and in what way? Move their progress up or down, or add new objectives. This is one of the most fun parts of being a GM – running your universe! The players may get to have characters, but you get a whole vampiric sect and a Holy Order of Lizardmen Lumberjacks to play as, if you so desire.

Players will appreciate it too. If they come back in the next session to find their actions have had real repercussions, then suddenly it has become more than a game. They will start to take these things into account and think like actual people in this world, in lieu of video game protagonists who can kill anyone. This is what we want, dear GM, oh yes.

Next time we’ll have a look at what to do if your players are stumped in your game, and how to avoid it entirely, that includes pre-made adventures!