Gaming as Storytelling

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Widescreen version here.

Writing and gaming are inextricably linked for me, so I suppose it's little wonder that I ended up authoring game books. I've been playing various roleplaying games since junior high, starting with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I soon saw that one of the biggest differences between a good and a passable GM is the ability to spin an exciting yarn. Gamemastering isn't just about knowing the rules—to be honest, I've always been a little loose in that regard. I think it's more important to be able to vividly describe things and to impart a sense of forward momentum—to know when to run with the die roll, and when to fudge things.

For instance, I believe that if the players come up with a clever way around a challenge, it's more rewarding to let them succeed rather than to insist they solve the challenge as scripted. If a monster still has ten hit points after the characters ran some cinematic tactic against it, I usually tell my players they've finished the thing off. It feels a lot more satisfying than forcing them to hack it a few more times.

I talk a lot about my literary influences, among them Harold Lamb, Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny. I learned a lot about storytelling from these and other writers. But I gained a lot of practical storytelling experience from the games I've run. The villainous plots of numerous Dabir and Asim short stories, not to mention the central conceit of my novel The Desert of Souls, were adapted from adventures I created on my homebrew game world.

Oddly enough, the events from both Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast don't come from any games I've run—not a single scene! A lot of the material in my own campaign world is suffused with elements of gothic horror, and while there's certainly horror and suspense in the Elyana books, in neither one have I played up on the gothic (I haven't ever sent her to fog-shrouded Ustalav). Elyana herself has some of the attributes of my wife's usual characters—she's oriented to the wild and is quite intelligent—but Elyana herself is more grim and jaundiced than any player characters in my group. I think we like to play a lighter game—not a jokey one, but a game where the characters aren't weighed down by the kind of troubles we get too much of in the real world. Elyana and Drelm have some baggage.

And that, I think, is something different between storytelling with a group and storytelling in a novel. When you're gaming, it can wear a person down to play a character haunted by their past and worried about the prejudices of his or her fellow creatures—at least if you have the sort of traumatic jobs some of my players have. In fiction, though, those complexities round out protagonists and make them a lot more compelling.

Howard Andrew Jones
Pathfinder Tales Author

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Sovereign Court

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One of the things I enjoyed about Plague of Shadows is that it had a real adventuring party at its heart.

Does Stalking the Beast contain the same thing?

I am a big fan of the party dynamic portrayed in Plague of Shadows. Fantastic, and looking forward to more!

Also, good advice on GMing, and well timed, in my case.


GeraintElberion, Stalking the Beast definitely has the same feel as far as featuring and adventuring party. I pitched it as having sort of a 13th Warrior Vibe, with Elyana and Drelm at the heart of it, and with a whole lot of new characters.

J Christopher Harris, glad to hear the GM stuff was of use!

To me, gaming is about storytelling, but more importantly it's about the relationships between the PCs and the NPCs that make a game memorable.

For gaming, it's also about the CHOICES we make.

That's why people tune into soap operas and reality TV, it's not for the special effects, it's for the drama between individuals.


I've played with some groups who live only for the actions and tactics, as though it's a war-game. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I prefer a mixture. I want some great improvisational acting and plot arcs, but I also desire great action scenes.

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