Advice for running great interactive stories
From time to time, people ask me for advice on how to be a better game master or how to run more engaging roleplay events. I’ve tossed out my ideas piecemeal before, but I’ve never distilled my thoughts into a list of actionable steps. Today, that changes!
Below are my top 10 tips for becoming a better interactive storyteller, especially in the context of real-time writing and roleplaying games.
The tips in this post can be applied when:
- running events for text-based roleplaying games
- hosting open tabletop sessions and one-shots
- implementing plots for live chatroom games
But first, just so we’re all on the same page…
What is a game master (GM)?
A game master (also sometimes written as “gamemaster”) is a person who organizes and oversees a roleplaying game, such as a tabletop RPG or a multi-user dungeon (MUD).
Game masters arbitrate the rules and use narrative to bring the setting and its challenges to life. In short, they help players tell an exciting story.
Among text-based RPGs, you might also hear the terms “storyrunner” or “plotrunner.” Among tabletop RPGs, you might hear the term “dungeon master.” These are all terms for the same thing: someone who oversees a roleplaying game for the enjoyment of others.
The advice in this post is for anyone who runs roleplay events, regardless of their exact title.
Though, personally, I prefer the term storyteller. 🙂
Challenges to interactive storytelling
Interactive storytelling for each type of writing game comes with its own set of challenges.
Unlike regular tabletop sessions among friends, you often don’t know who will show up for an event until the moment it starts. As a result, improvisation becomes a lot more important, and planning can have diminishing returns.
For that reason, I try to be thoughtful in my planning and account for possibilities, but I don’t spend a ton of time on the particulars.
For example, I might leave room in my session for a rogue to pick a lock or a gunner to blast through a door, but I usually allow for a few alternatives in case a rogue doesn’t join the party or the gunner isn’t available that day. Just something to keep in mind as you peruse the tips below.
Regular tabletop sessions require improvisation too, of course, and part of the fun from the perspective of the game master or storyteller is just seeing where players take the story.
Often, it’s the unexpected choices that make collaborative storytelling exciting.
How to be a better game master or storyteller
First, a disclaimer: I’m not perfect, and I don’t get everything right 100% of the time. To be a better game master, you don’t have to hit every single checkbox, either.
The list below represents goals to aim for and methods to try, not a baseline requirement. So don’t feel like you have to do everything perfectly the first time.
Much of what I’ve learned, I learned through trial and error and just figuring out what worked well for the game I was playing and the folks at the table. You will, too.
For your next event, try focusing on one or two areas that could use some improvement:
Tip #1: Drop a teaser to get players excited about the story
If you read other articles on how to be a better game master, you likely won’t find this tip on the list! That’s because other how-tos already assume you have a regular captive audience.
With open events and sessions, however, that’s not necessarily the case.
Indeed, you can plan out the most amazing story event ever, but it’ll be a wash if no one shows up, so I always try to market my game events and get players excited.
Some things I try to do each time:
- Hook players with a mystery or the promise of excitement.
- Let players know how long I expect the session will last so they can plan around it. (I always double my initial estimate, but sometimes I should probably triple it instead.)
- Let players know whether there will be much conflict/combat. If so, remind them that medics and support roles will also be useful too. That way, even if the event is combat-heavy, non-combat types can still expect to play an important and exciting part.
If you already know who’s coming to your event, you don’t necessarily need to advertise, but you might still want to hook players with a teaser to get them pumped about it. 🙂
Tip #2: Set the scene and the tone from the start
The next step, when you’ve got the group together, is to set the scene and the tone for the event. Explain what the party is walking into and remind them why they’ve gathered.
For example, maybe they all heard a distress call, saw an advertisement, or received a secret note.
That said, you can usually leave the details of character motivation to the players themselves.
You don’t need to tell Billy the Warlock that his curiosity was piqued, only that he received a summons. Leave it to him whether he arrives out of curiosity, indignation, or fear of reprisal.
I often see game masters ignore this step, and I think they’re really missing out on an opportunity to get players psyched and in the zone. To really immerse them in the story.
How you describe the opening act can set the tone for the whole event. If you want it to be fun and lighthearted, be sure to convey that in your scene-setting description.
That said, you should make sure the IC tone doesn’t bleed over into player communications. Try to keep all OOC discussions chill, no matter how dark and intense things get for the characters during the story.
One of the best ways to maintain a good OOC vibe is by setting an example. Players will take their cues from you.
Tip #3: Create a sense of urgency
Once the scene is set and everyone’s on the same page, a tactic I commonly like to use is to introduce a sense of urgency.
A sense of urgency helps to focus everyone’s attention and build some forward momentum.
Perhaps someone is in immediate danger, or there’s a ticking time bomb (literal or figurative). Or maybe there’s a flash sale of extremely rare goods.
Whatever the premise, the point is to hook players and get things moving.
Even if you’re just staging a tavern brawl, you have the opportunity to introduce urgency in the form of:
- gathering bets
- a timer for the fight
- having an NPC run out to fetch the guards
If your event is purely social, it may not make sense to throw a burning building in the mix (or maybe it does!), but there could be a celebrity passing through. Maybe attendees need to move fast if they’re going to grab an autograph. 🙂 You get the idea.
Tip #4: Focus and engage your players – including the quiet ones
From here on out, it’s all about maintaining focus on the story and engaging players.
Is someone lingering on the sidelines, unsure of what to do? Does the party seem stumped by what’s expected of them?
These are signs that you need to focus and engage. If I had to choose the most important tip from this guide, this would be it.
Personally, I’ve found that the quicker you can help the group select a leader (whether official or unofficial), the better – even if it’s someone completely new to roleplaying. As long as they’re willing to take the leap, give them a chance.
No one wants to mill about for two hours just trying to figure out who is in charge before the excitement really begins. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time, including yours.
Sometimes, someone will quickly step up to the plate and identify a next step; at other times, you might need to give the group a nudge.
Remember: when it comes to online sessions, you may not have the advantage of visual cues to tell you when players are frustrated, distracted, or simply losing interest.
Check in with the quiet ones and make sure they feel included.
Tip #5: Introduce obstacles and be ready to run with unexpected solutions
For most players, this is the fun part. This is where the teamwork (or in some cases backstabbing) happens!
To be a better game master, you don’t need to spend hours upon hours concocting a super complicated fight scene or puzzle, though. At some point, someone’s going to pick an action you didn’t anticipate, or they’re going to get creative in ways you didn’t expect.
The key is to find some way to run with the unexpected, especially if it’s clever, creative, or compelling.
If you need to, take a short break so that you can decide how to move forward. Your players will be understanding, especially if they just threw you a hefty curveball.
Don’t forget to reward players when they come up with something particularly awesome! Whatever currency you choose, bonus points are great for positive reinforcement.
Tip #6: Play to characters’ strengths
If you’re ready to delve a bit deeper, it’s time to use what you know about individual members of the party to really hook them and engage them.
Is the combat character getting enough action? Is the medic getting to perform first aid? Has the rogue picked any locks, yet?
This is where those improvisation skills can come in handy.
Even if this is your first time GMing for these characters, you can still play to their strengths. Review their character descriptions and pay attention to their activities at the start of the story. The details will clue you in and provide you with something to work with later on.
Tip #7: Play to characters’ weaknesses
A good game master can play to characters’ strengths; a better game master can play to their weaknesses, too.
Use a character’s flaws or weaknesses to hook them instead of only capitalizing on what they do well.
Imagine: an evil sorcerer who threatens harm upon a warrior’s only daughter, or a cruel corpo boss who uses an underling’s stim addiction to manipulate them.
What both of these examples have in common is that they leverage a character’s weakness/soft spot to raise the stakes or create meaningful choices.
The point is: make it personal. For the characters, that is.
When executed well, this strategy can be really effective because it often means that other members of the group will have to swoop in to provide support.
Tip #8: Throw a few curveballs to keep players intrigued
Chances are, your story contains a few tropes. Mine often do. Tropes are popular for a reason, after all. They’re familiar; they’re tried and tested.
The trick here is to prevent the story from becoming too stale and predictable.
To keep players on their toes, I usually like to throw a curveball or two.
Try to present a twist they didn’t expect. Maybe a detail that seemed inconsequential at the start becomes critical to the story. Maybe the villain they thought they were after is really a victim of some greater scheme.
Tip #9: Make choices matter
Now this tip you will find in other guides on how to be a better game master, and for good reason.
If players feel like their activities are inconsequential to the story, they’re going to be less invested in the journey. It’s as simple as that.
Not every action and every roll of the dice needs to have some huge consequence, but if the roll wouldn’t change the outcome or whatever happens next – don’t ask for the roll.
Players want to feel like their choices matter.
Similarly, NPCs should be there to help provide context and clues – not solve the group’s problems for them. Players will get frustrated if they feel useless compared to a GM-controlled NPC.
Tip #10: Leave a few minutes at the end for a wrap-up
This last tip can be hard to stick to sometimes, but I still think it’s important to close out the event thoughtfully.
If it was an hours-long open event, you might have gained a few players and lost some along the way, but a wrap-up is still worthwhile.
Usually, my brain is mush by the end, but I try to use this time to resolve any lingering questions or loose ends and give everyone a chance to see the results of their efforts.
During the wrap-up, you can use the NPCs you created for the story to:
- hand out rewards
- express gratitude for a job well done
- pardon criminals
- throw the bad guys in jail, etc.
If you intend to host a sequel, the wrap-up is a great time to toss out a teaser for it or introduce a cliffhanger – bringing us full circle back to tip #1.
And to really end on a positive note, don’t forget to thank everyone for attending your event!
Final notes on how to be a better game master
You might have noticed that nowhere in the 10 tips above did I talk about story content. That’s because when it comes to real-time interactive story events, the premise of the story matters far less than your approach.
If you want to be a better game master, start with better engagement.
A story can have the most interesting premise in the world, but that means little if you can’t engage other players and help them enjoy it with you.
On the flip side, even the simplest storylines can be extremely satisfying for players when approached in a thoughtful way.
I’ve run very successful events around simply saving a boy from a well or fetching a cat from a tree (remember those tropes I talked about?), and it all comes down to:
- Did each player have a chance to shine or do something important?
- Did you respond to their actions? (In writing games, it’s often easy to miss things in paragraphs of scroll.)
- Did their actions have consequences?
9 times out of 10, if you can answer “yes” to the above questions, it doesn’t matter how hokey the story’s premise or how rocky it started, players will still enjoy themselves and have fun. They’ll walk away feeling like the event was worth their time.
Of course, not every event will meet everyone’s expectations – you can’t expect to please everyone all the time – but I hope the tips in this post help you get closer to your goal. 🙂
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