Charlie’s recent post, outlining his character’s apocalyptic plans for my current Cabin Trip campaign, certainly got my attention. His plain statement of his intentions for his character, other PCs, and the campaign itself initially seemed to me like a secret he probably should’ve kept under wraps. What better way to draw the ire of the group or the scorn of the game master than to declare your intentions to compel certain events to transpire, even if it means the death of another PC? Of course, I quickly realized that while the actions he described seem to be going against the party’s best interests Charlie himself was simply soliciting some teamwork in telling an epic tale. Other Intwischa colleagues have made that point before; a secret shared isn’t necessarily a secret wasted.
In fact, the approach is pretty ingenious. What if you could read the first 10 chapters of a book, then tell the author how you want to see it end? As role players, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling the game master what we want to see happen in our games. Most players have no qualms about mentioning an enchanted weapon they’d like to find or a mechanical need they need filled (healing, hit points, ammo, etc.). Why be shy about what you’d like to see included in the story? Likewise, not all the elements of a GM’s story need to be jealously guarded from the players. After all, role-playing is a collaborative process. The story gets even richer and more intriguing when everyone’s on the same page.
As game master for this current campaign at the cabin, I’ve learned a lot about finding the narrative path we’re on, and allowing the game to unfold in such a way that the story fits the characters who are telling it. All throughout this adventure, even before we rolled dice, there have been hints, clues, and outright petitions from the players to indicate what kind of story they want their characters to be a part of. While I always have my own ideas, an interactive approach to storytelling is infinitely more fun for me. And while I have no problem keeping a few tricks hidden up my sleeve for our game’s finale, much of what’s going to happen has already been decided by the players.
Yeah, the group template helps the players form meaningful connections before the game. Sure, the group template streamlines the introduction to the campaign by generating a coherent adventuring party. Most importantly, however, the group template is the perfect way for the GM to spy on what kind of game/story the group has in mind. The origin of the party can be mined for helpful NPCs or vengeful enemies. The players’ choices of what motivates their characters to adventure tells a GM volumes about what will motivate the players during the adventure. The players’ perceptions about the purpose of their party can aid an attentive GM in establishing some checkpoints throughout the campaign, unique and attainable objectives that will serve to move the party forward through the story.
For our ongoing desert-themed adventure, I’ve actually written a new group template for the players to fill out before each separate game session. There is, of course, the intended benefit of focusing the group’s collective chi after a prolonged break from the campaign. However, there is a deeper benefit to me as the narrator/storyteller/game master. It gives me a window into the evolving attitudes of the players as my storyline for the campaign progresses. If certain themes crop up in every player’s answers- let’s use redemption or national unity as examples- then I’d do well to include these themes as integral parts of the progressing narrative. If other motifs I’ve introduced are largely ignored, then it’s very likely that they no longer hold any meaning in this adventure.
Make sure not to make the group template questions too obvious though. Especially savvy players may call out your efforts, or worse yet, sabotage your plans with red herrings. And by ‘savvy players’, I’m of course referring here to Chase.
While the group template can be applied pretty universally, short fiction as a window to the party’s soul requires a special kind of nerd. Namely, it necessitates the kind of player(s) that are invested to the point that they continue to tell their characters’ stories even when you’re not rolling dice. This may be done through a gaming blog, group wiki, or even by email- either between players or between players and the GM.
In our current cabin campaign, I’ve used short fiction via email to establish a kind of side mission for a particular character at their request. Player-published stories have resulted in certain mechanical benefits; specialized mounts and caste powers in this case. If nothing else, these between-game-tales have strengthened bonds between characters that almost always show up during role-playing.
More importantly to me as GM, many of these stories have a theme in and of themselves. It may be a character’s current inner thoughts, or a glimpse into their past, or their fears for the future. No matter what takes center stage in these short fiction pieces, I’m almost guaranteed to find a narrative thread that can be woven into the overall adventure.
Call me vain… I’ll wait… but I don’t think I could put this any better than I did in my previous post that admonished myself first, and you the readers second, to just let the game happen:
“I am not the ‘story teller’; I am the ‘story listener.’ I can certainly introduce elements into the tale our campaign is telling, but they are only a catalyst for the story’s action and not the action itself. If I play my role correctly, I will introduce the right elements to inspire the players to create a memorable story.
How does one know which elements are the right elements? You’ve got to learn to speak “player-ese”. What kind of questions do they ask? Which plot points do they appear most interested in? During which encounters you’ve designed do they quote Monty Python the least? Listen to the conversations that happen between the characters; many times, these are really conversations about what the players hold most dear. Key in on the common factors in these dialogues. Repeat as necessary.
When in doubt, use the direct route and (gasp!) just ask them. Follow Charlie’s lead of unerring honesty and shameless story promotion, and question the group as to which themes they’re most invested in. Find out which encounters worked, and try to determine why they worked. Is the group intent on hack and/or slash story-telling? Throw a few more (theme-appropriate) monsters their way. Are they showing concern for the plight of a certain NPC? Move them to the front of your plot hook queue. How you integrate their answers into the campaign can remain a satisfying mystery, but it takes some of the guess work out of your campaign planning, and won’t waste your time spinning yarns they’d just as soon not unravel.
Chase’s earlier meditation on memorable moments is a great example of how leading questions can also generate some substantial information for story development. What part of the tale you were telling got stuck in their brains, there among the stats for their character and their favorite Led Zeppelin lyrics? If certain plot points were meaningful enough to be remembered, they’re most likely meaningful enough to be repeated. You may be disappointed that certain elements lacked the impact you’d planned for them, but these memorable moments allow you to engineer more and better epic encounters that the group will talk about for years to come. Just make sure the most memorable moment in your story isn’t the TPK…
How do you decide where to take your gaming group’s story? Is your GM especially gifted at making your campaigns personal and memorable? Do you think Justin will ever live down the shame of killing off our PCs during my first Cabin Trip adventure? I doubt it- but weigh in by leaving your Comments!