GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. The GM Quick Tips are single hacks discovered in the minds of storytellers everywhere.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve needed to take over another storytellers game? What about being an improv narrator for an existing chronicle and thrust into a scene with no prep? These situations are often common occurrences for many storytellers. Told to advance the storyline, but with handcuffs. The box problem comes from this: you can’t undo what players had done priorly with their characters, and you often are limited in the consequences for their actions they take going forward. The longer an existing game has been going on, the longer the player and character history there is—the tighter the box you’re trapped in. It is no wonder many games are simply reset or relaunched.
There are other ways to handle this, and our lesson this time comes from Blockbuster LARP. Wrapping up vacations, gaming, live-action, and theater all in one; blockbuster LARP is a paid experience. This is in-and-of-itself, a massive box. How do you engage in a competitive, multi-faction LARP with hundreds of players, while still providing the experience that was paid for?
I recently had the honor and pleasure of trying out Dragon Thrones 4, put on by the Game Theatre at Bryn Mawr College, and had a chance to pick the brains of Chris Bartalis and Evan Michaels about how they handle this conundrum.
Rock Player Agency
“Help to empower and enable the players to drive the plot in a collaborative storytelling environment… and always do what’s best for the story.”
So how does this quote actually play out in practicality? When we are trapped in our storytelling box, the only scenario we have forward is to rely on our players initiative and drive—giving them the tools they need to climb the hill. Once the players have made their choices on where they go, then, and only then do us storytellers have the freedom to weave a compelling tale. This can take many forms at your table or LARP. At Dragon Thrones, the preferred method was giving players multiple outlets to engage with the storyline (from tabletop side quests to strategy mega games). At your home table, asking your players to run a quick downtime session or even a ten-minute lead up to the scene you are about to narrate for them can help. It gives the players a chance to set up what they want to do AND it gives you the time to settle in with your players’ ideas.
As for consequences; there are worse fates than death. Players are often more than willing to kill themselves for the chance to have a lasting impact on the game, so you don’t need to be a ruthless storyteller. The tighter the box you are placed in, and the more limitations you have as a storyteller, the more rope you can give to your players. Even though Dragon Thrones was a paid LARP, multiple players chose to have their characters die of their own volition to achieve a great end. One faction in particular, Princes of Caenervon, saw their high ruler willingly die midway through the event (and thus having to change roles) because of an amazing scene that was a bit player-vs-player at its core.
For every high point, there are cases of abuse and low points as well. Sometimes when left to their own devices, players and factions will attempt to ignore negative consequences coming their way. This is where the balancing act as a GM comes in. You have to do what’s best for the overall story, and while you may not be able to force consequences on players who aren’t consenting to it—the world itself can suffer them. If the Elves in the high forest are ignoring the poison creeping into their lands, it might not be a plot they are interested in. If it’s being driven by other players though, then you’re back in the GM Box of having to deal with it. Try empowering the elves with clues and means to solve puzzles or change the framework of the story. If crop poisoning is boring and dull, maybe the tale should be about these brigands who show up at night pouring oil in the fields and why they are doing it.
Keeping the story moving, but in a way that lets the players collaboratively add in what they want to experience is a surefire way to storytell your way out of any scenario. Special thanks to Chris and Evan from the Dragon Thrones team for these ideas! You can find out more information about Dragon Thrones here!
What’s the craziest storyteller box you’ve ever been trapped in? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Dragon Thrones
Image Credits: Princes of Caenervon House Photo
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age Series, Dread Adventures, and a storyteller with a focus on D&D For Kids, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and an overdose of LARPs. You can follow the game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook or reach out for writing at [email protected]