Why Novelists Make Great (and Terrible) Game Masters

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Last weekend, NerdCon: Stories came to Minneapolis to celebrate storytelling in all its forms. As a featured guest, I got to give a talk about narrative structure in my favorite medium for telling stories: tabletop roleplaying games.

Ever since I discovered tabletop RPGs, I knew I wanted to be a game master. I wanted to be the person on the other side of the screen, the one who devises the adventures and portrays the world to the players. Coming as I did from a fiction-writing background, I thought it would be a pretty easy switch: I could use everything I’d learned about three-act narrative structure to plot well-paced campaigns, and I was practiced at coming up with compelling characters and antagonists. How difficult could it be to switch gears? After all, the only difference was the inclusion of players and dice.

Both of which, you might have heard, are wildly unpredictable.

As it turns out, novelists can make for terrible GMs.

Some authors are “pantsers,” they’re writers who fly by the seat of their pants as they bang out an untamed first draft. They’re lucky because they’re ready to roll with the punches that the players and dice dish out. They’re used to improvising in their own stories, so improvising at the game table becomes second nature.

Others, like me, are “plotters.” We plan out as much as we can in advance, and we use the revision process to hone that vision into a perfect edge. For plotters coming to gamemastering, traditional three-act narrative structure becomes both a tool and a crutch. Our precious story formula, including ingredients such as the key event and midpoint and climax, doesn’t translate cleanly to RPG sessions because we can’t predict what is going to happen and when. And if we don’t let surprises into our games, the players will quickly become bored or annoyed.

Let’s pretend that our game master is J. R. R. Tolkien, and he’s crafted this epic, sweeping campaign entitled The Lord of the Rings. He plots out the story from beginning to end in about a hundred pages’ worth of campaign prep. Those pages contain everything he needs to know about where the party will go, whom the party will talk to and when, as well as what happens next. He follows the formula.

He gets all of us together, and after the first few sessions, Strider and the hobbits are sheltering on Weathertop when the Ringwraiths attack. The GM asks the players to roll the dice and see how well we do at reacting to the Nazgûl.

That’s when the dice betray us.

We’ve botched our rolls, and in a matter of moments, the Ringwraiths have claimed the One Ring and are riding off to hand-deliver their prize to Sauron in Mordor.

Where does the GM go from there? Does he scrap the remaining eighty pages he’s prepped, saying “that’s it, the campaign’s over—you lose, good days sirs?” No, because he won’t have any players coming back to his table next week.

Thus, fiction writers need to be wary when they cross over into the world of game mastering. They have two ways to avoid the pitfalls of controlling tendencies. First, learn to improvise. Second, learn to use narrative structure as a guideline only.

The improvisational GM always asks her players what they want to do next. Do they try to chase after the Ringwraiths and recover the ring? Do they go to the elves? She listens to the players’ plan and sets the stage accordingly, reacting as the non-player characters might and approximating the threats the players might face along the way. She can’t lean on three-act narrative structure too heavily because nothing is planned, but she can take inspiration from it: she can follow the structure’s upward-slanting trend line of increasing tension, conflict, and challenge.

But if you’re like me, and you can’t let go of that much narrative control, you can instead use narrative structure as a guide to create an outline. This time, you don’t try to forecast exactly how things will play out. Instead, you include possibilities for both success and failure. Allowing for branching paths lets the players retain some agency and allows for the dice to be truly random. (If you really want a particular story beat to go off without a hitch, don’t tie it to a roll at all. Just introduce it narratively.)

Outlining GMs can plan to include scenes that will serve as the key event, midpoint, darkness before the dawn, climax, etc., but they don’t tie those scenes to specific sessions. The game can still play out as the players will it (or as the dice dictate, at least). That way, if the PCs latch onto something in Rivendell and want to spend a half a dozen sessions talking to the elves, you can let them pick back up on the main story when they’re ready. On the flip side, if the PCs have figured out that they should just talk to the great eagles and skip over that awesome dwarven dungeon you prepped, you know where in the story you’ll flash-forward to.

Earlier, I said that novelists can be terrible GMs. That’s true.

But they can also be amazing game masters because they bring with them so many amazing tools borrowed from the elements of fiction. Novelists know how to write fascinating characters whose dimensionality will truly engage and challenge the player characters. Novelists have an entire arsenal of descriptive language with which they can truly bring the world to life, painting the sights, smells, and sounds of the dwarven dungeon with words alone. Novelists understand high-concept ideas like theme: they can imbue the story with meaning like“love and friendship can vanquish all” or “the night is dark and full of terrors.”

What story elements do you like to include in your adventures? Let us know in the comment section below.

Image Credit: Cubicle 7



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