Saturday, September 28, 2013

Player Advice Regarding Keeping a Happy Storyteller

Yes, I know, we've read all of this before but sometimes it's nice to have a quick refresher and sometimes one needs to read the same thing a different way to really 'get' it. Storytellers are tricky beasts to deal with. If you fuss over them too much, you spoil the game. If you don't fuss at all, they might suddenly and out of the blue declare they're over running games and that's now someone else's turn. They're capricious beings - after all, they are creative types - so every trick of the trade you can put up your sleeve helps you keep your gaming day open. It is a volunteer role, after all, albeit one that provides a creative outlet and willing participants who are also the audience of the world whose appreciative 'coos' and eager dice rolling can hit the spot where other tricks fail. Support your Storyteller Let’s face it. Without your Storyteller, you’ll have no game. A good Storyteller will be too busy trying to meet your needs to worry much about their own so if you have a good one it’s important to help out a little where you can. Sometimes it involves buying that book they were eyeing to help ease off the financial pressure, buying your own dice and pencils or loaning some to other people rather than the Storyteller needing to worry about it, printing out some character sheets for them, or keeping tabs of the snack / food donations so they can focus on the game.

Give Your Storyteller What They Want 

Just as every player has those elements which make their eyes light up, so too does the Storyteller. Unfortunately for the Storyteller the game isn't being designed with their enjoyment paramount in their mind (or at least they shouldn't) nor are the players all sitting around thinking about how much they can make the Storyteller happy with every reaction and interaction. Now this is part of the joy and the burden of running the game. After all, it kills immersion for the players to focus on external concerns and also how arbitrary and dull would it be if the player characters all did what was expected or hoped for? Still it is nice to bear in mind what your Storyteller enjoys so that you don’t accidentally kill it dead. What might look like an irrelevant bit of frippery to you, easily avoided, might be the very thing that has motivated your Storyteller entire presentation. I’m not saying “Trust the obvious betrayer” or anything like that but perhaps try to enjoy the odd political encounter or detective work that your Storyteller throws in if that's what they're into. Maybe pay attention to that bit of historical research or world building they tell you about and find some way to make use of it in game even if it would normally bore you.

Have Faith in your Storyteller 

Sometimes things will happen in the game that don’t seem to make any sense. Everything goes to hell. An enemy long thought dead resurfaces. It looks like your PC stands to lose everything. It might make you irritated or despondent with the way the game is going and you might want to take your Storyteller to task over it. Breathe a moment. Think about it. Think about your Storyteller. Understand that without conflict there is no story. Maybe the Storyteller is trying to build up dread and anticipation and things will work out in the end. Or maybe it'll all make sense once you get to the end of the road. At least hold back judgement for awhile to see if things really are as you fear. There’s no point getting angry over assumptions that a session or two worth of patience would’ve revealed to be unfounded.

Be Open with Them 

If something isn’t working for you then let your Storyteller know. Maybe they’re big on political chit-chat whereas you’re keen on wild action. There may be room for compromise. Maybe you’d be happy to have all the social and political scenes if there’s at least one action scene per session – car chase, fistfight, bit or larceny, whatever. Maybe you’d be happy to deal with all of the action if there were an investigation to string it all together. Be sure to talk in terms of what you would like rather than laying out demands with lots of “You should’s” or, worse, telling them off by saying "I don't like THIS and THIS and THIS". You'll get more luck with positivity then negativity.

Let Them Know Your Triggers  

Don’t force your Storyteller to guess at your personal triggers and no go zones. It may make perfect sense to you that you don’t want to see racism, domestic violence or sexual abuse in a roleplaying game but your Storyteller (or the other players) may see the game as a safe place to explore difficult issues. Some people love roleplaying romantic tension and sexuality. Others find it creepy and offputting. Be honest if there’s certain places you don’t want to visit even in fiction. Be honest with yourself, as well. There's nothing wrong with having boundaries if you're honest about them.

Pay Attention

There’s little more draining than watching your players distract themselves with iPods, laptops, and reference books. If you’re a perpetual fiddler then a low-key activity like knitting or drawing could work to keep your hands busy and your mind on the game. If you constantly need mental stimulation than perhaps taking notes or otherwise thinking about the group’s next moves could help. While every group has their own Attention Expectations, if your Storyteller has to repeat themselves then you’re not attentive enough. Trust me, this is coming from someone with ADHD that is exarcebated by the kind of delays one gets in party-based roleplaying games (as opposed to solo games).

Develop your Protagonist

You’re going to have to settle yourself into the mind of this protagonist for long stretches of time so it’s a good idea to pick someone interesting and who has a nice range of skills that will allow you to do what you want to do. While it can be fun playing against your own type, if you’re a big fan of action then playing a bookish pacifist will likely drive you up the wall. There are many ways to play against type while still being able to get involved in the type of plots you like.

Engage with the Plot

Without conflict, there is no plot. Without plot, there is no game. While a certain amount of reticence is understandable – especially if the plot is quite dangerous – it can really grind the game to a halt if your protagonists refuse to actively meet the plot. Since artificial and contrived motivations often damage immersion and undo all the hard work you’ve done in character development, it’s often a good idea to come up with a few drives that could easily motivate your character to get involved. If your character is conflicted about whether to get involved or not, figure out what might give them that final push. Sometimes it might be simple as letting your Game Warden know: “My protagonist doesn’t want to get involved right now but she would if .”

Help the Mood

The Game Warden can set the mood but anybody can break it. If the game is a light comedy then comments that really reinforce the tragic tones of the game should be kept to a minimum. If it’s a horror game then keep your tension-breaking jokes in-character and ditch the movie references. If it’s a high action game then describe your larger than life actions.

Bring Your Own Gear

While some Game Wardens will have enough dice and pencils for everyone, it’s really not fair to expect them to do so. They already have enough preparations and purchases to cope with and this is really quite a small but nice thing to do to help take a load off their mind. If your Game Warden really is happy to take care of this for you then show your appreciation. They really are doing something nice for you on top of running the game.

Update Your Information

Keep your character sheet up-to-date, jot down your own experience points, and keep any vital notes to ensure that the game can run quickly and efficiently.

Let Your Game Warden Know It’s Working

Your Game Warden might not be able to tell if you’re really enjoying yourself – especially if the game is highly tense or has a lot of negative in character emotions. Sometimes you need to tell them or, better yet, show them with big smiles and much cheer after the session. It doesn’t hurt to tell them exactly what you liked about the session and why.

Optional: Keep Focused

Different groups have different expectations as to how much player focus and out of character conversation is appropriate. Different genres also have different needs in regards to this. Be sure that you’re aware as to what the group’s needs are and try to stick close to it. You can help keep the focus in the game by biting back the movie references and not encouraging other players to chit-chat. If focus isn’t a big deal, then you can safely ignore this, though it’s often a good idea to check that everyone is on the same page with this to ensure that your Game Warden (or another player) isn’t slowly tearing out their hair at your antics.


  1. I think I agree with about 80% of this, and it's definitely really important to remember that the flipside of player agency (about which I've been writing a lot lately) is player responsibility.

    This is purely personal taste, but "Have Faith" mildly irks me, if only because I inherently distrust people who place a strong emphasis on being trusted.

    Similarly "engage with the plot" only really works for me for a very specific style of gaming - I think I'd want to say something more like "engage with the game on its own terms". Obviously if the GM/ST/Hollyhock Got comes straight out and says "this is going to be a plot-driven game, so when the obvious plot-hook comes along, please don't ignore it" then yes, you should probably go along with the plot. On the other hand if the game is billed as sandbox or open-ended then it is unreasonable for the GM to expect the players to go along with any given plotline.

    Ultimately the worst-case scenario tends to occur when the GM and the players have radically different expectations about how linear the game will be, and so the players ignore a plot hook because they assume it's optional, and the GM gets upset by this and tries to drag them back on "track", so the players feel railroaded, so they pull against it, and everything just falls apart.

    1. Sorry, I should have been more clear. By 'plot', I mean conflicts in general. There are some players that will duck any form of 'plot', not just the 'plotted kind' but the spontaneous kinds that arise from player actions. Even a sandbox game has a plot, it's just not a pre-generated one.

      In truth, player passivity spells the death knell of sandbox games all the more than railroad games. At least players that jump the train tracks are making things happen. An ST can work with that. Players who refuse to engage at all make everything an uphill battle. Hope that clears that up.


      I agree with you about how it's suspicious when a person asks you to trust them but I do stand by the point that it's pretty necessary as having a player grill you on suspicion of something you have never done before is pretty draining. It's also pretty awkward for the other players.

      The main problem with it is that more often than not the only way for a Storyteller to extricate themselves is to explain their rationale ... which often involves information that has been withheld from them for good reason and it spoils the entire plotline and, in extreme cases, the entire adventure or campaign by telling them about it.

      "You're right. The bad guys do seem to have a magical understanding of your plans against them ... your buddy has been Dominated into calling them."

      "Well, the PC to your right has set this up and specifically chosen bad guys capable of incapacitating you through every weakness and countering every strength so there you do."

      "The irritating levels of inconsistency are there for a reason and the 'off behaviour' of your favored NPCs isn't me trying to piss you off. You have actually lost more sanity than you realised and this entire adventure was going to be based off a dreamplay wherein I was actually going to break the rules in your favor by allowing you to slowly regain sanity points by managing your mental health. By rights you should be permanently insane. Wait? What's that? Gratitude ... erm, oh, yippee!"

      Yeah, I'm a little bit bitter about it. I have one player whose problem has always been trust due to baggage from prior Storytellers and that last paragraph is the kinda thing that has stung me on a few occasions where something I have specifically done to help them (which they later thank me for) first gets me roasted by one particular player.

      So I guess the most important line in that paragraph was: "Think about your Storyteller." Is it really something that particular Storyteller would do? If not, take a session or two to see if things start making sense before demanding answers.

    2. I agree that non-engagement is kind of a killer. I think maybe I'd phrase it as something like "take responsibility for your own fun". Particularly since I'd be inclined to quibble about whether something counts as a "plot" if it isn't plotted. I think there's a useful distinction to be drawn between "plot" (which is pre-existing even if it's non-linear) and the consequences of player actions (which are emergent).

      As for trust: if you've had players have a go at you, I can see why it's a big thing, but again I think that's something I'd phrase differently (something like "voice your concerns politely and constructively"). I admit I don't run many mystery or horror games, but I think you can answer these sorts of player questions without spoilering things, especially if players raise their issues politely and without becoming needlessly aggressive.

      To take a concrete example, if I had a Dominated character ratting out the PCs in a Vampire game, and the players asked me why the villains always seemed to know what they were up to, I'd probably reply with something like "you're right that it seems like there's something odd going on - this isn't a game abstraction or me arbitrarily hosing you, it's an IC thing that you can have picked up on. They *have* got some way of finding out about your actions, and it's reasonable for you to have come to that conclusion in character." I might even give a list of examples.

      Weirdly, I think sometimes in order to maintain a mystery, you have to clarify things. Otherwise instead of thinking "how are the NPCs finding out our plans" they're thinking "are the NPCs actually finding out our plans, or is the GM just shafting us."

    3. I like the rewords. I'll take a look at editing this article for clarity later when I've had a bit of time to think. Thanks.

      And yeah, sometimes a bit of a *nudge, nudge* works. I especially do that when players are confused about things but it still relies on trust, otherwise the best you'll get is an "Oh really?"

      Luckily with some extra work on both mine and the players' part we've built up enough trust that this is no longer an issue.