This month’s RPG carnival, held at Mad Brew Labs, covers the topic of growing the hobby.
Topics of new player recruitment and teaching come to mind. We might also consider the industry’s image, how game companies market their products, which companies get shelf space in book stores and what the media says about RPGs. We can also muse about generating more exposure through playing RPGs in school, gaming conventions and local comic and game stores.
However, these things are big new project opportunities that take time and commitment you probably do not have. I commend all the people who create and publish games, organize cons, start up RPG clubs and grow the hobby in those ways. Thanks very much, your hard work is appreciated!
But what about people like us who just try to eke out enough time to keep a regular campaign going? You already have a group of friends you game with, so you do not need to be recruiting and teaching new players all the time. You can game with your kids as well, but again that does not constitute an ongoing recruitment effort.
My solution, to add to this mix, is for you to become a great game master. You already run a campaign, so no extra time must be carved out of your week. The other solutions need you to spend a lot of time away from the game, organizing, running a business or designing. You just want to GM. If there is a solution that lets you continue to game and grow the hobby at the same time, we then have a structure in place likely to succeed. The growth takes care of itself while you carry on having fun. That’s a recipe we should all cook.
Each time you play, get better. Read this blog, subscribe to Roleplaying Tips, and think about how you want to improve. Figure out what techniques or ideas you want to try out. Picture the success you want to achieve as a GM. Research the areas where you want to improve. Most importantly, keep your campaign going. Run games as often as your life and your group permits. Each session improve in one little area. After a year or two or five, the results will be amazing.
A great GM runs a great game. This will get you and your group talking about your hobby to others. This is how you can grow the hobby without even trying. It just comes from applying yourself and focusing on reaching the next level of GMing.
Do you talk about your campaign to friends, family and co-workers? Probably not. Do your players? Nope, but if they do and you are in hearing distance, you might wince. “Then I rolled another 20 and I critted the lich for 103 points of damage. Man, that was a crazy fight.”
But become a great GM, and with a bit of coaching for your group, you can and will spread great stories about your hobby to others. If we all try to become great GMs, and those stories spread, the hobby grows at a grassroot level by making connections with non-gamers and capturing their interest and then their imagination. You get them curious and wanting to play. A world filled with great GMs generating interest in others to try RPGs out is a powerful force.
A great GM generates momentum to play more often, which creates a positive feedback loop. You and your group will take more time out to game more often if everyone is having a blast.
A great GM is a confident GM. This confidence becomes a subconscious message in the stories you tell others about your campaign. People are attracted to confident people and will listen more attentively.
A great GM gets everyone excited about the game. This excitement generates more conversation outside the game. If you see a great movie you tell others about it. So it goes if your players have an awesome game session they will tell others about it. Make this happen by running those awesome games.
Help players represent the game better
The Achilles heel of RPGs is how we talk about our games to others. Even if we are excited and confident, we tend to push non-gamers away with our terrible re-tellings of campaigns, sessions and memorable moments. It’s our curse. But we can lift it, and you can help your players lift it, with just a bit of coaching.
Think how you tell others about great movies, TV shows and books. Treat your game just like those things when you go to tell others about it. Learn how to communicate to non-gamers in compelling ways about your campaign, then teach your group how to do the same by example and with a bit of coaching.
Imagine one of your players is at a comic store picking up his monthly stack. He talks to the dude at the cash register about the awesome game he was in last night. He’s seen how you talk about games successfully outside the game session, and he uses a couple tips you’ve given him. And lo and behold, out comes a funny story. The guy at the cash register laughs appreciatively. On the way out, a customer asks him what game he was playing. Your player strikes up a short conversation. Afterward, the customer asks Mr. Cash Register if he can order a book called “GURPS” or “Mongoose Traveller Core Rules.” Hobby +1. Then +1d4 as that customer recruits a couple friends to try the game out.
How to tell great game stories
Here are the keys to telling great stories about awesome games you GM to non-gamers.
First, a couple things to avoid:
No jargon. If you use words specific to RPGs you will push away your audience. This is difficult, but persevere. Do not mention character classes, monster names, rules, dice or anything that comes out of a rulebook. You are not hiding something here or ashamed to be playing a game, but when communicating to someone unfamiliar with the jargon, they will lose interest immediately if you employ it. It does not matter if you are talking about games, computers, sports or even (especially?) your work. Avoid jargon and insider language.
No numbers. The numbers have no meaning in a good story. In a game sense, the numbers drive the results. But you are not in game mode now, you are in story telling mode. Do not mention ranks in skill, ability scores, dice rolls, total damage done. No numbers.
Next, some things to focus on and practice:
What is the story? Tell that. I define plot as your pre-game plans for the campaign, adventure and session. I define gameplay as all the things that happen during the game session including character actions and results. And I define story as what comes out of gameplay, minus the jargon and numbers.
Tell the story, not the plot or the gameplay. What actually happened in-game?
Great stories have a bit of structure. RPGs are interactive though, so you cannot guarantee this structure will emerge from gameplay. So how is a good story possible?
Consider how people tell good stories about interesting things that happen in their lives. People have stories about their kids and pets, stories of strange or funny incidents, or just anecdotes about things going on in their lives. These stories also have no guarantee of great story structure before the events occur. So it is with RPG. Make do with what you’ve got, it’ll be just fine.
A good, everyday storyteller actually does use a simple structure you can follow to change your RPG stories into compelling ones for non-gamers.
The hook captures listener interest. Often this is a segue in the middle of a conversation so the conversation flows naturally. “Speaking of being bitten by a dog, I was playing a game the other night and….” That’s a great hook (assuming you and the others were already chatting about dog bites).
The introduction sets the scene. Orient the listener to the elements of the story. Who and what is involved in the story, and why?
Conflict covers the meat of your story. What is at stake? What were the struggles? Who did what? Because you are describing some kind of conflict, the story becomes interesting. Talking about paint drying will drive your audience away. Talking about paint drying on a park bench just before your boss sits on it will keep your audience hanging on what happens next.
Resolution provides details about how things ended up. It is the pay-off to the story and reward for listening. Do not put pressure on yourself to provide the ultimate twist or most amazing resolution ever. It just needs to be interesting.
When you tell a gaming story, consider the resolution first. Only pick stories that have interesting endings. A boring ending, one that makes no sense or one that is obvious, kills your story.
“So what happened to the kid?”
“Oh, they let him go with enough food and water for a week and a warning to find a new job. He seemed grateful and I think he might actually part ways with his family. I mean, what kind of father makes his son hunt people down to collect their bad debts?”
Cliffhangers make great endings and lend themselves particularly well to gaming stories as campaigns and adventures are ongoing things.
“So what happened to the kid?”
“Oh, they let him go with enough food and water for a week and a warning to find a new job. He seemed grateful and I think he might actually part ways with his family. I mean, what kind of father makes his son hunt people down to collect their bad debts?
But, just as the group turned to go back inside, a carriage rolled up and hands seized the kid, hauled him inside and the carriage raced off before anyone could react. I guess we’ll have to wait to find out what that was all about.”
Talk about character and relationships and conflicts. A good story involves interesting people. Though ironic, a good gaming story is not about the game. It’s about what happens to the PCs and NPCs in the game. You can talk about crazy explosions, bizarre places and weird events, but they lose all meaning because they never really happened. It’s all make-believe. Who cares if a house blew up if the event did not happen in real life?
Instead, people get hooked on characters and what happens to them. PCs and NPCs are just characters in a story to your non-gamer listeners. Work this to your advantage and tell the story accordingly. Focus on who, first, then what happens to them.
Again, pretend you are talking about a great movie or book.
“The game we played last week was about five people in a fantasy world on a quest. They have to discover a cure to save a small village from a plague that turns your skin black and kills you inside a week. It’s a terrible thing and a lot of people are suffering.
So, this group of people travels to a nearby village. They have to go on foot because it’s a fantasy world and there are no cars or planes or anything like that.
Well, one of the group members, who is supposed to be a hero on this heroic quest, right? He disturbs a monstrous creature from a deep sleep and attacks it. The thing has scaly skin, teeth the length of a baseball bat, and a tail with spikes on the end, that if they puncture your skin, they poison and kill you almost immediately.
The group fights this creature and wins, but several group members were wounded. When they asked the guy who woke the creature up why he attacked it, he said he wanted the thing’s treasure. Paul, you know him? He plays the game with us. Paul asks if the creature has pockets!
Anyway, they make it to the neighbouring village and learn the cure for the plague is blood from the creature they whacked en route. D’oh! Some heroes they are. They teased Paul about it the whole night.”
Talk about actions. Describe what the characters do. Focus on the action. Tell things as a sequence of events. Character A does something and then XYZ happens. That’s a great recipe. Repeat several times until you reach the conclusion and you’ve just told a story in a great way.
Things often happen to characters. Avoid getting caught in the trap where you only describe forces that act upon the characters in your story. You need to have characters do something in your story, else the story comes out disjointed or weak. A mix is fine, where action and reaction take place, but include a lot of character action at the minimum.
Tell a funny story. Make people laugh and they like you and what you are talking about. Not every gaming story needs to be funny, but if you have a knack for humour, use it. Look for ironic and funny angles in events that happen during games to make your stories accessible to non-gamers. Tell your stories through this lens.
For example, for the people who know Paul in the plague story above, even if they do not like fantasy or do not understand the game, they will appreciate him getting teased by friends about something he did. If nothing else, your story would connect with others and speak to others in this way.
Be quick. Long stories fall flat. Tell your stories fast and efficiently. Get to the punch line or resolution in short order, else you lose your audience’s interest and attention.
I have another motive for advising you tell to quick stories. As GMs we track a lot of details about our games. It becomes tempting to dive into detail when telling gaming stories, because we know them and think they might be fun or important for the story. It never works out that way. Lift your head out of the game aspect and look at just the story angle, and you’ll find the extra details hamper your story, not help it.
Force yourself to summarize encounters, game sessions and even whole adventures into short stories without jargon. Your audience will appreciate it. More importantly, they’ll listen to your next story, and they might become interested in the game you are talking about.
Practice on your players
Practicing on a friendly audience helps when you go to tell others about interesting game moments. A dry run or two hones your story. The more often you tell a story, the better your delivery.
In addition, telling stories in the way advised above to your players gives them real examples of how they should relate their game to others. You become a living example. You also give them great stories to repeat. Perhaps they start to dig up stories of their own that they tell at the game table for *you* to re-tell!
Telling great stories about your game is also a great game mastering technique. What better way to engage your group than with awesome storytelling?
Here are some ways to put this to use:
Reminisce. During downtime or between sessions, tell stories about past campaigns. This keeps the game feeling alive and well when you’re not playing. It keeps the group excited about gaming. It creates a social atmosphere about gaming that sometimes gets lost if you tend to be all about getting down to business while gaming. Reminiscing also helps new players learn about the group, start sharing common knowledge, and fit in faster.
Recap. Start each session with the story so far. This is an awesome tool for getting everybody in the zone fast and kicking off serious gameplay soon after a session begins. You can also funnel in missed clues and hooks to give them another chance. You might ask a different player each session to recap instead, following the storytelling tips above, to help them practice, and also test their knowledge of what has happened in the game to date.
Roleplay. Have your NPCs tell great stories. If you can tell a short and entertaining story as an NPC, you can do it away from the game table as well. As a campaign tool, have NPCs recount parts of the campaign’s story from their point of view. Use this to distribute new hooks and clues, lay down false rumours, or encourage more roleplay in a combat-focused group.
Game log. Writing and speaking are two different skills, and you want to hone your oral storytelling. I recommend creating a video or audio game log in story format. Break sessions down into a few short stories. Record these and post them on your campaign site, email them to your players, and keep them on your computer for later replay. Recording your stories gives you an excellent tool for critiquing your storytelling!
Use these tips to start sharing awesome stories about your hobby with non-gamers. You will find great stories are universally enjoyed, so talking about RPGs to non-gamers becomes a non-issue for you after awhile and your confidence grows. Coach your players to develop these skills as well.
It all starts with great game mastering. Provide a super game and you generate super story potential. Learning to be a great GM requires little to no extra time, so you can just make it part of your hobby without hassle or cost. Being a great GM requires a desire to become one first. Actions will follow.
So, please, try to become a great game master. Enjoy the path this will take you on. Help the hobby grow as a result.