Tabletop RPGs can be a blast, but they also have a steep learning curve. While there are plenty of articles that break down the ins and outs of being a Dungeon Master (DM for short), I’ve seen a distinct lack of tips for crafting good storylines for campaigns. After some rough years studying at the “Tabletop School of Hard Knocks,” here are five lessons I’ve learned and recommend to any new DM that wants to give their players not only a great game, but a story they’ll treasure.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
This is a vintage story telling rule: At every chance you get, show the players what is happening, don’t tell them. Paint them a picture: don’t tell them that the enemy army has a 500 soldiers to the South. Let them stumble across rows and rows of shouting orcs, all clad in identical, dirt-and-blood coated armor, banging their swords and shields so loud the next town over can hear.
It may seem excessive, but when you give players visceral, immediate details it draws them into the world and subsequently, into character. It makes them grab their swords and get moving.
BUILD THE DESTINATION, NOT A RAILROAD
When designing campaigns, come up with your ending then leave everything that happens in-between loose and flexible. I’ve found that doing this helps keep me open to the ideas and surprises of my players whilst giving me a compass to tell me if I’m moving closer to the endgame, being led off track, or if I need to readjust altogether.
Even if this tip doesn’t give you the exact ending you want, everyone will have more fun, and this works much better than railroading the players, forcing them to do what you say so you can have your perfect little plot, gaining you bored, irritated players as a result.
GET CREATIVE WITH EXPOSITION
At some point or another, your party needs to know what is going on. That said, exposition does not always have to be a long winded diatribe. Voice recordings, drawings, diary entries, and music can all be great ways to show your players the world you’ve built for them. Then again, so can letting the players have a poignant chat with an NPC (non-player character) or another player.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to ask yourself one question: “For a player, what would be the most interesting way to get this information across?” The more memorable the exposition, the more likely your players will remember it. Funny how that works.
THE BATMAN RULE
Now let’s be real, there is nothing original under the sun—and that is OK. That said, do not use other people’s works, characters, or settings as a crutch. Do not let Batman hijack the spotlight from the players playing with you. Come up with a compelling reason for him to be in your setting and with these players. Give him your own personal twist or interpretation.
Borrowing and paying homage to works that came before with skill is the mark of a great storyteller—and makes for memorable campaigns. Forcing players to sit through a fan fiction of all the things you love, does not.
PLAYERS ARE NOT OBSERVERS
Tabletop RPGs are a great medium for storytelling. They are also still games. From a player perspective, nothing is more obnoxious than to feel like what’s happening isn’t your story- that nothing you do matters. Even if that story is great, even if the NPC’s are lovable, even if the quests are invigorating, if it is not the player’s story, why bother? It’s not a game anymore. It’s a group of observers come to watch the DM’s one man play.
As the DM, make sure your players have a reason to be there. A reason to care. Make sure that when you give them choices, those choices matter and have an impact down the road. At the end of the day, it is a Tabletop RPG’s ability to grow, change, and encourage player participation—not being shackled to the DM’s will—that makes for great stories.
Feel free to share your thoughts, as well as your own story wisdom in the comments below!
Image Credits: Wizards of the Coast; Wikimedia Commons; DC Comics