August 31, 2014

Storytelling: Engaging Your Players

Anyone who has played an RPG has probably run across this. You're in a party with a bunch of people you have no idea why you're together, looking for something for some reason because some guy you don't know wants it. There comes a point where you're facing an incredibly dangerous threat and you think "Why am I even here?" and you continue anyways. In that game, everyone is probably off in their own little world. No one is engaged with the story. Turns start to drag slower, decisions take forever to make, "I don't care" is a phrase batted around by a few people. No one is smiling.

This is a game that lacks player engagement. The players are only there to chuck the dice, kill some goons, and head home after. Most of the laughing and talking happens outside of the game, causing turns to slow down. No one is really too concerned to get to the next fight or trap.

Luckily, I've put together some tips that you can use to help keep your players engaged from start to finish. It will take some practice and a fair amount of work on your end. Some of these tips you'll have to finesse throughout the game, while others you will need to start with them already planned. But it will greatly improve the quality of your games and players will be eager for the next week to come.

Set The Scene
Before the first NPC talks, before the first action done, before ask "What is your character doing?", take a minute to describe the scenery. What season is it?. Is it Summer or Winter? Spring or Fall? Add abnormal weather. A sunny or partly cloudy day is boring. You can add rain or snow, but there are other meteorological phenomena like wind, fog, or hail. This little detail give the players something they can all interact with immediately. Don't hang too long on describing the scenery though.

"It's a chilly late fall day. Strong winds blow leaves off the trees and they collect in piles around the buildings. Many people spend most their day cleaning up the mess caused by the wind."

In Medias Res
One of the best tricks to immediately immerse the players into a game is to start in medias res. In medias res is Latin for "in the midst of things". It's used to immediately propel characters of a story into a conflict or event. This could be nearly anything from a car chase, to a talent show, to a heated debate between store owners. If starting a game in medias res, be sure to have a justification to why the players are all together at this point and time.

"As you and your friends wait in line at the local coffee shop you hear a car come screeching to a halt. Out pops three men in suits and wearing gas masks. One of the men chucks a smoking canister through the front window of the shop and it immediately starts to fill with eye watering smoke."

Make Them Connected
This will probably take the most work on the side of the GM. Your goal is to make the players care about the story now. Hopefully your characters created a little blurb about them or a back story. If not, make one up for them without them knowing. Speckle bits of each players story into yours, making them choose directions and actions based off their backgrounds. If every player has a bit of his story in the larger one, everyone is now invested and care about what to do. Now when their facing that giant dragon and they're thinking "Why am I even here?", they'll remember that there's more on the line than just character experience. Whether its gold for the thief, the girl for the guy, or revenge for the beaten, make your players invested.

Don't Get Creative
Have you ever heard of the acronym KISS? It stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. Keep your plot as simple and straight forward to follow. Keep it to a single twist at the end. A simple plot allows for a couple of things. It allows for flexibility on the part of the GM to include immersive details at points on the way. It allows your players to clearly focus on the task at hand. Keep the goals of the bad guy simple, but still meaningful. Keep the names of NPCs down to a minimum and keep them easy to remember. The simplicity shouldn't hinder the overall story, and will allow your players to stay immersed because they're not constantly thinking "well, what could that have really meant." If you have concern about the simplicity of your plot, take a look at a typical quest and see if yours can fall under one of those categories.

Let the Players Do the Work
There are two points behind this one. The first is point is very simple: let your players create the story. Don't know what to name girl behind the counter? Ask the players to throw you a name. Got a couple of ships that need naming? Ask the players. One of the players joked about something that could happen? Let it happen. Not only does this allow the players to create aspects of the world and story around them, it allows you to hone your story to exactly what they want. For better or for worse, take a players out of game comment and throw it into the story. If you kept your plot simple, you should be able to easily slip these into your game.

The second point is a little more complicated. Your players have brains, so let them use them. Don't give them every last detail on the story. You want them to have an idea of whats going to come next, without actually telling them. This can be more elegantly summed up by Pixar's Andrew Stanton's TED Talk on storytelling. If your players aren't spoon fed plot points, they will be thinking of the story, plot points already found, and be immersed in the world.

Be Excited
Emotions are contagious. Be excited when telling the story. Wave your arms about, ham it up, talk loudly. If you're doing that, you'll have eyes on you. They won't be talking to each other or working on their computer, they will be listening to you. Slowly, it will influence the others around the table. Get them to talk loudly, and laugh. Get them to shake their hands at you, swing an invisible sword, and make sound effects. Describe your actions to be cinematic, instead of just "I attack." Instead describe how "he recklessly swings his ax over his head at you." The more theater you and your players can do, the more listening everyone will do to each other. If you're not excited to tell the story, why should they be excited to listen?


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