Apply Pixar’s Storytelling Lessons For Your Next RPG Session

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Pixar has created several free online courses for Khan Academy; their newest addition is a course on “ The Art of Storytelling.” It gives a glimpse into Pixar’s process when they develop a story idea and turn it into a full-fledged film. The course is broken up into six lessons: Storytelling, Character, Structure, Visual Language, Filmmaking Grammar and Storyboarding. Only the Storytelling section is available so far and I went through the course material to see what insights I could learn from it.

The course is fairly simple, you can get through it in an hour or two. You’re given a few activities in between short videos featuring Pixar’s story artists. It’s exciting to get a look behind the scenes of artists such as Pete Docter (director of Monsters Inc and Inside Out) and Sanjay Patel (animator and director of Sanjay’s Super Team). It’s basically a window into seeing how Pixar goes about their story development process. They come up with story ideas by simplifying the brainstorming process to its bare parts: emotion, world, and character. These are the takeaways I got from Pixar’s class which can be applied to storytelling in RPG campaigns:


The first point that the story artists make is that everyone is a storyteller. We have been storytellers since we were children playing in the playground. Not only that, we each have a unique perspective. No one person sees the world in the same way and for that reason, we should feel compelled to share that perspective with others. When you run an RPG campaign, you are telling a story to your friends and including them in your world. If you are new to being a GM, don’t let your inexperience get to you. Remember that storytelling comes naturally and with practice you will get better.

Start from a Strong Emotion

Story artists at Pixar come up with ideas by thinking back to moments in their lives when they felt strongly about something. If you are trying to come up with conflicts to put into your campaign, think about the last time you felt sad, angry, joyful or fearful. What specifically happened to make you feel that way? What were the consequences you or someone else dealt with as a result? You don’t have to put that exact story or memory into your campaign but you can use the bare bones of it to inform what happens to your characters in the game.

What If …

Which brings us to the prompt that Pixar loves to use to activate the imagination: “What if…” What if toys could come to life like in Toy Story? What if there was a family of superheroes like The Incredibles? What if a band of adventurers stumbled upon an unattended dragon’s nest? Try to write at least 5 “What if” statements like these and see where it takes you. You might come up with several exciting ideas you could put into your campaign.

World & Character

The next step in the equation is to take the “What if” scenario and imagine the world it takes place in. Is it more realistic or is it outlandish or genre-specific? Really build that world in your mind, what it looks like, what kind of creatures inhabit it. Draw a map of this world, think of all the little details.  Next, what characters come to mind in this “What if” situation? Can you envision your hero? What kinds of NPCs would inhabit the world? Who would the big boss be? The story really comes to life when you can humanize it with your characters. This step in the creative process is the really fun part, especially if you are home-brewing an RPG world.

If you are interested in getting more specifics,  take the course yourself and check in later for future lessons. It’s a great intro into storytelling and the inception of a good idea. It also gives you the confidence to mine your own life and experiences for content.

Have you taken any of Pixar’s previous courses on Khan Academy? What have your experiences been? Do you have any tips about storytelling for RPGs?

Image Credits: Pixar

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