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RPG Superstar 2015

Power Story Telling


Pathfinder RPG General Discussion


With all the threads about "power gaming" and "optimizing" and "min-maxing" and all that other "crunchy" stuff about how to numerically maximize the advantage a character has, I got to wondering.

How do you "power story tell"?

I'm not suggesting that power gaming and story telling are mutually exclusive, far from it. I'm just asking what techniques people use to optimize the story telling aspect of the game.

For example:

Do you attempt to advance the plot using any of the following techniques?

1. Characters receiving dreams which are intended to direct their actions in some way.
2. Divination spells are resolved by revealing important plot guidance.
3. Special NPCs who provide particular information that directs characters to pursue specific goals.
4. Visions, apparitions or other "supernatural" encouragement
5. Quests, missions, rewards

Also, beyond the use of specific techniques to advance the story, what special techniques do you use to attempt to make the story more compelling to the players? Do you use any of the following?

1. Extensive role playing of key NPCs, including, but not limited to, unique accents, signature sayings, special clothing, or mannerisms?
2. Detailed plot/story exposition outside of the gaming table, with emphasis on story telling techniques that might be used in movies, novels or TV shows?
3. Do you introduce romance to the game in an attempt to make one or more players feel more engaged.

Finally, do any of you approach story telling with environmental adjustments? Do you use music, bring candy, dim the lights...

How do you do it?

Liberty's Edge Star Voter 2013

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I would call that Deus Machininating, and it is just as big a problem as power gaming.

I think the best way to approach being a GM is to not be married to a story, but instead committed to a world. The players should dictate what happens in the world based on what they do.

Even in adventure paths, no two groups have the same experience. Stuff is happening around them, they are interacting with it and changing it.


I like to get the players personally involved, the want to do the quest it's not just a job.
Giving the charaters the opportunity to make friends works a well. A DM a play with used the fortune telling cards from Jade Regent.


@ Ciretose

I believe that Deus Machinating (Ex) is a GM class feature gained at first level.

Star Voter 2013

I find, particularly when running a published AP, that requiring from the PCs an interesting yet open backstory allows me to add extra storylines based on their ideas. For example, if a PC has run away from her evil Hellknight parents to become a universe-loving ranger hippy, you can be certain the folks are going to add some drama to the storyline sometime. If a PC is driven by vengeance, which was caused by betrayed love, I will integrate themes of potentially redeeming romance, as well as ways to achieve those vengeful goals if the PC doesn't find healing.

I really like that stuff. And I think my players enjoy that every 4-6 sessions, the story is about them, or at least includes personal themes for their character.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber
ciretose wrote:
I would call that Deus Machininating, and it is just as big a problem as power gaming.

Depends on how you go about it. If the character has the choice to ignore the revelation and go another way, it's not a bad thing.

My dwarven cleric of Sobet, the dragon goddess, was gifted a relic of his deities by a dragon. He learned that it would allow him to have divinatory visions. He waited some three or four sessions and months of game time before he decided it was time to use it.


In my circle, we call that stuff (1-5) The Rails.

As to your second category, I've had (and been) DM(s) that have heavily utilized 1, rarely 2, and almost never 3.

I myself am a map/mini-oriented person, and once took great pride in crafting an original encounter for a 4E module because said adventure was completely boring and I needed to do something to spice it up.

Later in the module I introduced a Flumph to the campaign, and had fun crafting him out of a toy crab and some pipe cleaners.


Power story telling is the power to tell a story that has suspense and conflict regardless of where the players choose to take their characters. That doesn't mean it has to be a sandbox, some APs are very capable of doing just that.

One of the best ways I've found to power story tell is to introduce multiple interesting plot hooks at a time, through various means, and letting the players decide to follow one of them, or none of them. In my experience, thankfully, the players usually trust the GM to tell a great story, so they want to follow one of the hooks.


In my view the "rails" are when you require the characters do react a specific way. There is a difference between presenting an opportunity and forcing a direction. At least in my opinion.

Items 1-5 are common, almost ubiquitous, techniques in fantasy stories. I find them quite common in adventure paths or modules as well. In fact I would say that it's a rare published adventure that doesn't rely pretty heavily on at least #3 and #5. We just went through a series of modules and almost the entire campaign was following the orders, advice or secret rumors of NPCs.

So many replies were so focused on indignant outrage over the possibility of some sort of "rails" being employed that almost nobody even addressed the other questions... So thanks joeyfixit for at least realizing there was more to my query.

MendedWall, if you aren't using techniques 1-5 to "introduce multiple interesting plot hooks" please tell me just exactly how you get that information into the characters brains in the first place. Because in my experience, items 1-5 (and maybe a few similar things you could add that are functionally nearly identical) are typical means to do that.

Littlehewy, the same is true for the case of adding story elements from backstory sources for the characters. Once you have the backstory information, other than steps 1-5 above, how do you introduce the characters to the realization that they can follow that backstory hook once you decide to provide that option?

Oh well, thanks to you all for at least taking the time to reply.

Star Voter 2013

Oh, I certainly employ what was instantly derided as "the rails"... But I'm usually quite happy to let the players disregard the opportunities I offer them for certain "backstory quests". But I find that making them personal to the character means that they rarely do ignore them - everyone likes it when the story's about them for a session, and I like to include altruistic, financial, and other motivations for the same thing so that, if the story idea requires the PCs to actively pursue a goal, it offers something for everyone to chase. Of course, the possibility that they will choose not to follow up a plot hook means that I don't tend to prepare much more than a quick sketch of a map, a few custom statblocks, and references to online monsters, NPCs etc. That way I haven't invested so much time and energy that I feel disappointed I'd they say no.

Havin said that, many of the backstory stuff gets sprung on them. Re: the Hellknight parents, the PC knew her folks were in Magnimar, and was wary of unwanted attention while they were there. So when it came to completing the AP goals, she had to make the choice of doing "the right thing", which could lead to her exposure, or being more circumspect and staying safely anonymous. Even knowing that I would certainly bring the parents into play if she gave me a chance, her character did what she had to, and of course a familial showdown ensued.

I guess my players are just very co-operative when it comes to story time. If they want to do something that I haven't planned for, I'll always let them do it, as I know they'll come to the party when it comes to the "big overarching quest" stuff. It's a happy balance.

As far as your 1-5 techniques go, I use all of them to some degree, but the dreams (1) and visions (4) don't get a huge run. For me, if I want the players to seriously consider a course of action (ie accept a particular "quest") I make sure that I'm offering their characters sufficient motivations (as mentioned above)that make it attractive to the players and the characters. If the evil wizard PC wants to discover and harness the ancient power of Thassilon, I'll pepper quest offers with hints of ancient magical items, tomes, or knowledge of some kind.

Edit: In conclusion, I guess my main technique is "dangle the carrot".

Star Voter 2013

I also offer regularly possible love interests. The PCs don't often pursue these opportunities, but occasionally they do. More often than properly romancing an NPC, the player in question will use a long-running joke at our table: "You want me to make a sex roll?"

Always get a laugh :) Maybe we're just juvenile...

But I think it's good to have those opportunities for romance there, if and when a player ever wants to take his character's development in that direction.


A D,

I wasn't trying to say I don't use any of your items. In fact I use all 8 to varying degrees. I was actually trying to support you and your description of story methods. Sorry if that came off as contrary. I didn't mean it to be. The reason I specifically mentioned APs is because, in my experience, some players tend to think modules and adventure paths are railroads they can't get off. I wanted to point out that that is not the case. A well done module or a well done adventure path can be just as "sandboxy" as anything. As long as there are multiple ways for characters to get to "the conflict of the story," then there really isn't a railroad, so to speak.

In fact, I have two different groups running today, and in both of them I'll be using all but one (the first number 2) of the items you mentioned. :)

Like I said, I'll be introducing multiple hooks, and we'll see where it goes from there.

Liberty's Edge Star Voter 2013

TriOmegaZero wrote:
ciretose wrote:
I would call that Deus Machininating, and it is just as big a problem as power gaming.

Depends on how you go about it. If the character has the choice to ignore the revelation and go another way, it's not a bad thing.

My dwarven cleric of Sobet, the dragon goddess, was gifted a relic of his deities by a dragon. He learned that it would allow him to have divinatory visions. He waited some three or four sessions and months of game time before he decided it was time to use it.

Oh I agree. If there is choice, there is choice. I've mentioned before before the best campaign I ever played in stemmed from the group doing something mindblowingly "dumb" to the GM and him having to go on pure improv for months because we derailed his plan.


I don't know if its railoading in the strictest sense, but I try to make certain choices the players can make more obvious or appealing than others. They're free to go elsewhere, but they may or may not find much there.

As for the other stuff, I come up with one or more traits, quicks, flaws, motivations, etc. for every NPC I want the party to eventually meet. I typically have a voice for them too, but although I'm pretty good with accents and such, some of them certainly sound alike. Some have brief histories or secrets written down that may never come up, but could alter their choices.

I try to put more thought into towns and the people there, and detail what I think is important. They are living, breathing things that change with time, but need to have constants as well.


Adamantine Dragon wrote:

With all the threads about "power gaming" and "optimizing" and "min-maxing" and all that other "crunchy" stuff about how to numerically maximize the advantage a character has, I got to wondering.

How do you "power story tell"?

I'm not suggesting that power gaming and story telling are mutually exclusive, far from it. I'm just asking what techniques people use to optimize the story telling aspect of the game.

For example:

Do you attempt to advance the plot using any of the following techniques?

1. Characters receiving dreams which are intended to direct their actions in some way.
2. Divination spells are resolved by revealing important plot guidance.
3. Special NPCs who provide particular information that directs characters to pursue specific goals.
4. Visions, apparitions or other "supernatural" encouragement
5. Quests, missions, rewards

All of the above are good in and of themselves. #1 sounds like the main usage of spells like dream, and is useful in a Obi-Wan sort of way. Hell, divination spells are practically meant for #2 (the 3.x DMG even mentions building your adventures with the idea that certain facts, clues, and so forth can be acquired via divination). #3 sounds like most adventure paths (CotCT begins this way). #4 was one of the best plot-hooks I've ever seen by a GM in an Eberron game. The game was small and I was playing a Kalashtar (who specifically do not dream) which made it all the more incredible when she had a vision dream when she slept (it scared the hell out of her on multiple levels) as was his intention. #5. Also known as an RPG.

Quote:
Also, beyond the use of specific techniques to advance the story, what special techniques do you use to attempt to make the story more compelling to the players?

If possible I try to work character-specific stuff in now and then. I enjoy including family and friends (and not in the evil-GM gonna kill your loved ones sort of way). I may appeal to a sense of chivalry or humanity. Include recurring NPCs and/or love interests. And present paths that ultimately lead to adventure (no wrong way to eat a Reese's) that aren't obvious (a Medusa may seek the help of the party, a called outsider may request help returning to its plane, etc).

Quote:

Do you use any of the following?

1. Extensive role playing of key NPCs, including, but not limited to, unique accents, signature sayings, special clothing, or mannerisms?

Yes to all, but I suck at unique accents. I have a low Charisma and Perform (Acting/Impressions) is not a big one for me. But as to quirks, special clothing, mannerisms? All those things are definitely on the table and clearly spelled out. I might not be the best at keeping up accents and voices the whole time, but I try to keep them interesting (in online text-based games such as OpenRPG it's a bit different because I'm better at writing than speaking).

Quote:
2. Detailed plot/story exposition outside of the gaming table, with emphasis on story telling techniques that might be used in movies, novels or TV shows?

Absolutely. Some really good places to check out some story-telling techniques are tvtropes and this cool pixar storytelling thing.

Quote:
3. Do you introduce romance to the game in an attempt to make one or more players feel more engaged.

Absolutely. It's often a very powerful motivator in a game, and often romance between PCs and NPCs happens seemingly at random. For example, in one game I ran online there was a half-elf enchanter that the party met. She joined up with the party because they were helping her with something. One member of the group liked her and initiated a romance and learned about her family (a powerful merchant family), why she became a wizard (she was schooled in it because her father thought it would make her more useful), and so forth. Later when she was hit with something that was dealing continual damage to her as a natural part of the game (adventuring is dangerous) the player practically leaped to save her, and told me that the skill checks to remove the burrowing insect thing in her were for him more thrilling than all the horrors up until that moment.

Good times!

Quote:

Finally, do any of you approach story telling with environmental adjustments? Do you use music, bring candy, dim the lights...

How do you do it?

I've experimented with a few of these. I like playing music but it can be distracting (it's something I always do on online games though, because it doesn't distract me and I don't have to worry about not-hearing someone over the music or changing tracks to fit the current scene. Often if there's some cool music on youtube I feel fits the scene appropriately I'll include a link to it embedded in a description of the area or events).

Bringing snacks is always a good idea. Dimming the lights can be cool, but you definitely want to be able to see your dice and sheets (but I've always wanted to run a Halloween game with candles).


Power story telling sounds funny.

I guess the key to telling a compelling story, and lets face it telling a compelling story IS power story telling, is to draw your players in and get them involved emotionally in the game. There isn't one simple thing that works with everyone. So learn what your players are looking for. Ask them a ton of questions about who their character is in the game world. And when you learn both you can tailor the adventure to personally interest each of your players.

Look at novels. You don't read the cover and suddenly decide you love or hate the book do you? No. You read the book. There IS a difference however between writing a book and game mastering. In the first you have to get your readers interested in the characters. But in a role playing game that part is already done by your players. Your task instead is to get them interested in the way their character can interact with the story. So start with a story hook. My players love action. So I often start the game off with a fight. Then give them plenty of room during and after the fight to show off to each other and me what their character is like. Don't drop the ball however. Make sure they have a clear path forward and it often makes a big difference if you tie in a personal reason to head to the next part of the story. Also, don't spoil the ending! I hate when people spoil a movie or book and your players will too if you give away the bad guys nefarious plot in the first session. Give them a small piece of the big plot and let them chase the clues. The best games come together in the perfect synergy of backgrounds, personalities, situations, and resolutions. Once your players are emotionally involved the epic battle at the climax is SO much more exciting.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

I'm just looking for advice on how to beef up the story telling aspect of the game. My players always tell me that they enjoyed the sessions and they express plenty of appreciation for the work I do (custom terrain, miniatures, maps, session summaries, world backstory, etc...), so it's not that I feel my campaigns are boring or unfulfilling....

But I'm just not satisfied. I want them to be more fun, engaging and even compelling. I want them to be epic.

The most epic campaigns I remember always occurred when the player party finally became powerful enough to come to the attention of the real Big Bad Evil Guy. At that point the game became a constant battle between the ultimate forces of good and evil.

It's harder to do that at the lower levels, or it has been for me. My group just last night defeated the local junior boss, a bandit lord and his group of bandits. They advanced the story, rescued the captured NPC who has the information they need to advance the overall plot, and what they do with it is up to them.

But it felt sort of anti-climactic. This is the boss they have been in direct conflict with for the past four sessions and when he went down it just didn't feel as satisfying as I think it should have.

So I'm looking for ways to get that feeling of accomplishment even as they move through the world and work their way up the bad guy boss ladder.

I apologize for getting a little snitty about the "rails" comment. I believe that I am about as non-railroady GM as there is, but I recognize that some sort of path or hint about the next steps are not only useful for the players, but they actually need them. Having them defeat a boss and find a clue that leads to that boss's boss isn't, imho, a "rail" it's a clue. The vast majority of groups will follow that clue, that still doesn't make it a "rail". Not in my opinion anyway.

I appreciate the comments. Ashiel, as usual I greatly enjoy your thoughtful and comprehensive reply. Good stuff there.

Any other comments/ideas would be greatly appreciated.


i like using this method.

It directly engages the player's creativity and asks them why they are invested in what is happening right then and there. It takes some of the burden off the GM, letting you use creativity for other things. It works great for when you're drawing a blank on something but want to keep things moving.

I also like it, because often times as the GM I get to be surprised by plot developments too, which makes the game unexpected and fun for me as well.

I also listen to table talk from the players. If they start talking about a conspiracy they suspect, or how it would be awesome if something happened... that stuff becomes true in a fashion.

Scarab Sages

Adamantine Dragon wrote:


Do you attempt to advance the plot using any of the following techniques?

1. Characters receiving dreams which are intended to direct their actions in some way.
2. Divination spells are resolved by revealing important plot guidance.
3. Special NPCs who provide particular information that directs characters to pursue specific goals.
4. Visions, apparitions or other "supernatural" encouragement
5. Quests, missions, rewards

1. Extensive role playing of key NPCs, including, but not limited to, unique accents, signature sayings, special clothing, or mannerisms?
2. Detailed plot/story exposition outside of the gaming table, with emphasis on story telling techniques that might be used in movies, novels or TV shows?
3. Do you introduce romance to the game in an attempt to make one or more players feel more engaged.

Finally, do any of you approach story telling with environmental adjustments? Do you use music, bring candy, dim the lights...

How do you do it?

1. If you are a cleric, paladin, oracle, or inquisitor in my games, this is the #1 way your deity will pass direction to you. Occasionally it will come through the church. They start out with a lower minion and eventually become angels/devas/avatars. Keeps the mystic aspect involved. Druids, shamans, witches, and to a lesser degree rangers their their divine insights via omens. A white stag, a hawk taking a songbird in flight, lightning hitting a tree right nearby, etc.

2. Our group only meets every two weeks. I use Obsidian Portal and usually write extra RP encounters, things the players know, etc to various members in between sessions. ALL my portraits of NPCs come from pictures of real actors or personalities in the real world. I find it conveys extra meaning that is sometimes funny or emotion invoking in some way. If Lindsay Lohan is the queen or William Shatner the general, and you keep some of their RL/typical acting role personality, you have a built in immersion factor for the players right away. Once I made Chuck Norris the Innkeeper, and my players were SURE he was secretly a high level NPC :P

3. Romance where it is appropriate to the storyline, otherwise never unless the player's initiate it. We are gaming not runnnig a dating service here, but there are times when it fits well, especially in a game like Kingmaker where you expect to raise a family before all is said and done (if you are the ruler at least).

I like to pepper my stories with LOTS of NPCs, some important, some less important, some to demostrate the presence of a faction in an area, and some just because they are a colorful personality of no particular value.

I try to come up with something standout visually, accentwise, or personality wise for all major NPCs, as well as a couple of habits, quirks, etc that may come up while players are watching them. One great trick, if you want your players to notice an NPC, either for real or as a red herring, make them roll a perception check. There is a blind belief among players that perception checks=important info.

I occasionally use accents, mostly for NPCs that I know the players will talk to a lot, like a friendly advisor, mentor, etc. Otherwise, this is a LOT of work to do if it doesn't come naturally. The only game we ever used a lot of accents in was one I ran where most of the players were theatre or ex theatre and literally everyone adopted an accent. If you are lucky enough to GM a group like this, your NPC accents just come naturally. It was a beautiful thing, but apparently never to be repeated, since it seems like hard work since then :)


I find interesting that you use the word «power storytelling» as proper to a GM but still compare it to power gaming, which is a player's thing. One can imagine a player trying to power storytell as well, i.e. trying to be the most efficient and influential possible over the plot line using not only a deep knowledge of the rules, but a knowledge of what's going on in the story. In fact, I do like my players to use both: reasonable optimizing both in terms of stats and roleplaying.

You can balance those. I never say no to my players right away - for example, one wanted to play a catfolk. I thought through what place could that species have in my world, and told him that he could if he wanted, but his social status would basically be similar to a gnoll child. He's playing a human.
I also make sure I have a very good mental picture of npc hierarchy and various social functions so they know they are adventurers by choice; they still choose to do it rather than to be merchants, but it's their choice. I'm ready to roll with it if they change their mind (and get the message about what this means about my game..)


Irontruth wrote:

i like using this method.

It directly engages the player's creativity and asks them why they are invested in what is happening right then and there. It takes some of the burden off the GM, letting you use creativity for other things. It works great for when you're drawing a blank on something but want to keep things moving.

I also like it, because often times as the GM I get to be surprised by plot developments too, which makes the game unexpected and fun for me as well.

I also listen to table talk from the players. If they start talking about a conspiracy they suspect, or how it would be awesome if something happened... that stuff becomes true in a fashion.

Hm... that's interesting.

Oh, I am the master of adjusting my games based on table talk. I encourage them to speculate. Some of my best encounters have grown out of the players speculating wildly about the situation and I find myself thinking "now THAT would be cool! I'm totally gonna do that!"

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