So You Want To Be A Game Master – Part 5: Story

Previous Entries
Part 1: The Beginning
Part 3: NPCs
Part 4: Villains

The stage is set, budding Game Master. The tools for preparation rest at your fingertips. A cast of colorful characters await. The nefarious antagonist is poised to hinder the player characters at every turn. You almost have everything you need for a game! You are only missing one thing...

A Story.

As far as elements for a good game go, it's a big one. Paramount, some might say. Perhaps you have a tale in your head already, just aching to burst out like a a xenomorph out of a supple chest cavity. That is excellent. You are a step ahead of the game. But let us pretend like you have nothing. Zip. Zero. Bupkis. A clean slate. 


What Is A Story
A good story can be very memorable. In our modern, super sciency futuristic media, we consume all manner of stories every day. TV shows, movies, web series, comic books, even good old fashioned books with their pleasing creak of the cover when you open them (bibliophile). Each kind of story is drastically different, but each is intrinsically the same, because each possess the same three elements.

1. Character(s): These are your players. They are the main protagonists of your story. In a way, it is their story, because all you are doing as the Game Master is telling a story about these people, their struggles, their triumphs, and (if it is one of my games) their brutal and unnecessary demise.

2. Setting: This is where and when the story takes place. There are several published settings you could adopt for your game. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, you could build your own homebrew world. If that is the path you want to walk down, I know one thing that could help (shameless self promotion is shameless).
But a setting is more than just the world you decide to play in, it's the region, the town, the building. This is where you as the Game Master get to shine. You are tasked with painting this picture in the heads of your players, helping them to see what you see. Are you in rolling green hills with large, snow-capped mountains in the distance? Are you in the searing hot desert, with course sand blowing against your skin in the dry breeze? Are you on the open sea with the salty spray in your face, the sun on your shoulders, and a stiff wind at your back as you rock back and forth across the waves? The choice is yours.
Just as important to where is when. What time period are you running? Stone age, bronze age, the dark ages something akin to Victorian London, or the far-flung future? This can be very important, as it tells you thee limits of technology your players have available to them. There aren't be many gunslingers in the stone age.
What season is it? Is it summer? Is it a hot summer or a mild one? Have the leaves turned and begun to fall in the midst of autumn, or are the first snows of winter falling? Being fortunate enough to live in an area with four seasons (technically 5 if you count mud as a season, which we do), I am a sucker for sneaking them into campaigns. Truthfully, they are important, as they show the passage of time, and useful, as they let you know what holidays and festivals are near in your world.

3. Plot: Ah, the meat of your game. The plot is a series of events and character actions that relate to each other in a sequence. It is the foundation of your story. It begins with the conflict. This what you decide what is antagonizing your characters. Next you have the rising action. This is the series of events that build up the the plot until the final confrontation with the conflict. This could be how the characters get pulled into this whole thing. Now comes the climax. This is the turning point point in the story and is meant to be culmination of the rising action, where the characters face their antagonist. It is a point in the story with the highest level of interest and emotion. What happens next? Does everyone live, or die? The fourth element of the plot is the falling action. This is where the events of the rising action and the climax effected by the players are resolved. The final bit is the conclusion. Does everyone live happily ever after, or are you going for more of a sad ending?
Below are a couple of examples of all these elements at work.Example #1
An evil wizard that wants to build some arcane super weapon to kill her enemies and impress her friends (c
onflict). She requires materials to build this imposing weapon, so she sends out raiding parties to places where the pieces of this device can be found, like the towers of other wizards and arcane universities (rising action). The players could catch wind of this and try to cut her off at the pass by getting to the final piece before her, It is at that location where they encounter the wizard. A battle ensues, with the victor walking away with the final piece (climax). If the wizard is defeated, the characters decide the fate of this arcane super weapon. Do they dismantle it so that it never makes its way into the hands of evil again, or do they keep it? (falling action). Do the characters live happily ever after, or do they become overlords of the land with their new unholy doomsday device (conclusion)?Example #2
A series of terrible storms rocks the region, and a great flood is heading straight for town (conflict). Townsfolk need to be evacuated and there aren't enough wagons to get them all out in time. The characters frantically think of a solution (rising action). Suddenly a tidal wave of mud and water crash into the town, but there are a few children trapped in a building, and if they don't escape, they will soon die (climax). The flood subsides. Who made it out alive? How will they rebuild (falling action)? Do the characters stay to help rebuild the town, or do they move on (conclusion)?

Go Big, Or Go Small?
Now that you have the basics down, it is time to decide whether you want a large, overreaching story that runs the length of several games, perhaps even the entire campaign, or a short and simple adventure that lasts a session or two. Both are equally enjoyable, but it really comes down to the sort of game you intend to run.

Long adventures have a slow build, with a lot of rising action. I find it's best to map these out with plot points, that way you know where you're coming from and where you're going. The beauty of this type of adventure is that it doesn't need to be an all present force. You can small elements play into the narrative subtly. One of the best uses I have seen of this type of adventure is in the first leg of the VoxMachina game. From the very beginning of their campaign, in each town the players went to, there were always reports of missing children, all last seen playing with a boy with dark hair and gold eyes. This wasn't the primary focus of the campaign, but it was an area of interest. After saving a city, the party was being honored in a large festival. In the middle of it, they saw the son of a Sovereign walking off with a boy with dark hair and gold eyes. The pursued them through a portal, finding themselves in a demiplane controlled by a being called the Dread Emperor. Easy, subtle, not too intrusive, and with enough mystery to make it interesting.

There is nothing stating that the long adventure is something you need to focus on all the time. On the contrary, RPGs thrive when there is a variety of adventures to engage in. Personally, I enjoy sprinkling short and medium length adventures through one long narrative. This lets you hit on all the strengths and weaknesses of your player characters with stories that are central to them. This is a good way of getting them invested in the story and the world.

Pay Attention To What Your Players Do
Some of the best stories will come from the actions of your players. Letting that pickpocket go free could create an ally of enemy later down the road. If the party fighter is having bad week, and kindly tells the high priest of the local temple to shove his holy symbol right up his aspergillum, the party might have to make nice before they can partake of the beneficial healing services. This could be a quest to rid the church of some manner of enemy, or to collect some relic they have long sight.

Build It Up
A good campaign is a collection of stories that build off of one another. Weave them together in such a way that your players can't tell where one begins and the other ends. In my Dragonslayer campaign, the main antagonist is a shadowy man in a gold mask that seems to be manipulating events in the region to further his goals of awakening an ancient dragon that was on the verge to ascending to Godhood. The players meanwhile are dealing with his ground troops and local-level machinations. One such instance was the kidnapping of a beloved NPC and the removal of his soul. While the body survives, it is little more than an empty husk. This NPC had vital information pertaining to a party member's family, their involvement with a secret order of dragon slaying knights called The Sundered Scale, and of the main villain; the man in the gold mask.

The players resolved to find his soul and return it to him by way of a magical device, which they needed to assemble. Meanwhile they had to find the missing residents of a town that had been emptied, an adventure that lead them into the depths of the Underdark, where they discovered a piece they needed for the soul-locating item. Currently they find themselves in an ancient forest searching for another piece, and are thrust in the middle of a conflict between the peaceful druids that live there, and the loggers encroaching on the lands that claim they were attacked, all the while they uncover the involvement of the man in the gold mask in the area.

That is like, five stories woven together. It flows organically, because there are quests that are somewhat time sensitive, and others that can be resolved over time at a more relaxed pace.

What kind of story do you want to play? Something comedic like Acquisitions Incorporated, or perhaps a horror game, akin to Call of Cthulu or Ravenloft? Is it high action, big on intrigue, or a mix of the two? You could spend weeks wondering exactly what you want to run, but in this humble bard's opinion, the best place to draw inspiration is right from you players. As the folks that will be playing in this story of yours, it only seems prudent to let them decide what kind of story it is.

The story is coming together. Now we just need to figure out how to get your players to go along. For that, we will have to wait until next time, when we discuss Plot Hooks!

What kind of stories do you run/play in your group? Let me know in the comments below.

Weave a tale the bards shall sing about forever,
+Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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