LAST post of the 30-day challenge! Which actually took me 32 days, but added up to 74 pages and 31,000 words.
Tonight’s topic is “Best Storyteller You’ve Had” — but I’m usually the Storyteller. So….
Though the first Vampire game I played in was pretty cool—that Storyteller was the one who taught me to mostly take the spirit of the rules and not sweat the specifics, to use dice only when necessary, and to focus on the characters and the STORY, not the dots on the character sheet. He did tabletop roleplay a bit more like guerrilla theater (he had some acting background) and could take on an NPC’s persona (complete with hand gestures and sometimes accents) at the drop of a hat.
He let us (the players) drive where the chronicle was going, and let me get away with things like introducing my Lasombra elder (from another chronicle) into his chronicle’s world, disguised as a low-status Toreador ancilla – and never let the other player know the truth (because he could never have separated in-game and out-of-game knowledge).
So what makes a good storyteller?
Know the game, know the setting. I confess I’m not the best at knowing the game, when it comes to the rules and what dice to use and when. And with my players, I don’t have to; we’re kinda lax on that. But it would be a problem if I was running for anyone else (so I usually don’t). Knowing my setting, though—that’s where research and making notes comes in handy. If you know your setting and its inhabitants, you can handle whatever the players throw at you.
Tailor the story to the players and the setting. The chronicle isn’t about the NPCs, it’s about the player characters. They’re the protagonists; the NPCs are there to enrich the players’ stories, not the other way around. So while you can have a rough idea of the NPCs and available settings in the city or other location, you really need the player characters’ information to fill in the details. Some NPCs are going to be created specifically around the PCs’ backgrounds, to give them connections within the story, or to provide an adversary that makes sense with the story they seem to be asking for. This means getting started takes a while—discussions of the player characters and the setting, and what kinds of stories (in general) are available. This also means a new player character may need to be adapted to fit what’s already present in the story and setting (and to match up with other PCs). A vampire chronicle is a cooperative effort; both storyteller and players need to be on the same wavelength.
Be creative under pressure. Because stories NEVER go the way you expect. NEVER. Trust me. (or ask any Storyteller). That was one of the problems I had with some of the scenario modules as published. They were broken down into scenes, expecting the players to go from one to the next… but players never do that. If you have come up with contingencies A, B, and C, they will find option D or E every time. The only time you can rely on a linear progression is in a computer game, when choices A, B, and C are all that’s on the screen. In tabletop or LARP? FORGET IT. So go ahead and plan the most LIKELY options, based on what you know of your players and their characters… and then be prepared to have to wing it because THEY decided to do something else entirely.
This can go for their entire approach to a story. If it’s plausible, just go with it. Whatever path the players are set on taking – even if it’s not exactly what you’d expected or planned – that’s now become the story’s path. Go with it. Even if that means changing something major about the story itself. IF it makes reasonable sense, and if you can’t seem to get the players back on the original track… change the story. Players can be really stubborn once they’re on a tear…
Beware the Red Herring. Players are looking to you for clues, and they WILL go off on whatever clue that gets dropped. Red herrings (clues that look plausible but are totally wrong or misleading from the real plot) are dangerous in RPGs. If you use one, make sure the players can figure out within one game session that they’re on a false trail… OR adjust your plot to make it a real clue and use it to take the story forward (even if this means changing your plot from what it was originally to what the players THINK it is.) Nothing annoys players more than finding out they’re on a wild goose chase after two or three sessions. It works in fiction. It doesn’t work in gaming. Beware the red herring.
Make them earn it. In any novel, movie, TV episode, etc.—no protagonist has an easy road. In fact, they are usually WAY outmatched by the obstacles and adversaries that stand between them in their goal. (I mean, really. Frodo walking on his own furry feet all the way to the heart of Evil Overlord territory. Getting terrified, chased, stabbed, stung, exhausted, bitten, starved, and very nearly failing at the very end. Can you get much more outclassed than that?) Now this comes with a caveat: The Dice are not your friends. Which is a constant hazard in RPGs; and certainly the prime reason why most player characters don’t like to dare the odds that a character in an adventure novel seems to rush headlong into. So that means that sometimes the Storyteller can—and should—overrule the dice. You want them to be up against substantial obstacles. You don’t necessarily want those obstacles to be insurmountable (unless tragedy is the them you’re going for, of course). You want it to be hard. You want them to feel a sense of accomplishment. You want it to COST them something, in terms of effort (or sacrifice). But don’t make it impossible.
Don’t screw them over. This isn’t a competition. This is a story, a game. It’s not them against the NPCs, exactly. They have to earn their success, but don’t let even a bad dice roll screw them out of something they’ve earned in terms of story achievements. This takes trust on both sides. Which means if they fail at some story point, they have to trust you that it’s not the end, that the story can continue even so. If they’re taken captive by the Sabbat (or whoever is the enemy of choice at the time), it’s a setback (maybe), but it’s not the end of the story. Don’t overpower them just because you can. They’ll take their losses much better if they feel they still have a chance (however slight) to succeed. Story is a cooperative effort, and it has ups and downs.
Keep everyone engaged. Try to avoid long periods of time where one character is off on his or her own and the others are reading Twitter, texting, goofing off or distracting each other. Let them play minor NPCs (like each others’ ghouls or childer, etc.). Write up minor NPCs with short descriptions, and goals for a scene: (You are the prince’s press secretary. He’s out of town, but that’s NOT something you’re allowed to let slip. So whoever calls, he is Unavailable, or On another line, or Just Too Busy. Well, except for Elder T, or the Nosferatu agent Z. Those two you can put through his private line. Everyone else…. Unless they give you a really REALLY good reason, take a message, and his highness will call them back. Probably not tonight, however.) We’ve had a lot of really good minor characters develop into good supporting characters this way….
Don’t let single-player scenes drag on too long, either. Find a way to get everyone back together, or put that scene on hold and go do something with the others for a bit, then come back.
Be respectful of personal limits. Seriously. Personal horror is different for everyone, and sometimes it’s actually personal. Some people have certain issues or kinds of plots they cannot tolerate, that make them—them, not their characters—actually uncomfortable. They may have been victims of trauma or abuse. They may dislike certain horror or gaming tropes—and whatever their reason is, it’s their reason and it should be good enough. If one of your players is stressing over something in-game, you can ask (in private) what’s wrong; but don’t expect the full story. Just be aware, and change the damned plot or encounter accordingly. No story point is worth making a player NOT have fun. This also goes for inter-player interactions. Be aware. Everyone should be having fun.
Communicate. Listen to your players. Listen to the ‘planning’ their characters do. Make sure they get extra clues or guidance somehow if they seem to need it. If they’re going WAY off track, find a way to bring them back (or as I said above, change the story appropriately if possible). Communicate from the start what IS and IS NOT acceptable in terms of what kinds of stories or player characters are needed for the chronicle. Listen to what kinds of character and story they’re interested in. Encourage them to create characters that have connections to one another already, and to the setting and/or NPCs.
And MOST important of all. Have fun.