It is no secret that I’m a fan of shared narrative in the games I run and create. If you are unfamiliar with the term, shared narrative is essentially handing narrative control of the story over to the players instead of the Game Master. If you want a more detailed explanation of shared narrative, here is an article that I wrote on the subject a while back.
Some games make shared narrative the cornerstone of their concept and I definitely enjoy these types of games. I also love getting those elements of shared narrative into more traditional games. The entire feel of an action sequence changes when the player describes their character’s actions and effects on the game instead of the Game Master doing it. If you’re trying to get a little more shared narrative into your gaming group, here are 5 quick tips that might help you out.
1. Set Guidelines, Ask Questions, Use Examples
As a GM, I’m no fan of telling the players what to do. However, when it comes to unfamiliar concepts it is sometimes necessary to provide guidelines that people can work within.
For example, lets say that the current session has the characters jumping from a fast moving train to a train car that was detached. You’ve decided it would be much more cinematic to have the players describe how it happens, but they aren’t really taking to it. They just say things like: “I jump and grab onto the other car.” Not very cinematic, but a necessary part of the description nonetheless. In order to get something more dramatic, take that easy answer away and ask them for elaboration. Give them an example to build off of. Say: “Ok, you make your roll and jump to the other car. What does it look like? Is it more heroic and dramatic like Indiana Jones being a badass, or is it more comedic like Wiley E. Coyote, but with your character barely making it? How does it happen?”
Now the player has scenes in his head that he can pull elements from and change around, instead of a big blank canvas that might seem intimidating. Since you ended with a fairly open question, the player is encouraged to break away from the examples you gave.
2. Shared Narrative Is Much Like Acting, Get Up And Move
Shared narrative is not larping, but it is like acting. The player has to get much more into the mindset of the character and the landscape of the current game situation when they take some of the narrative control. To help achieve this, have them stand up and show you some of what is happening. When they player describes that they grab the ledge right before they fall, ask them to show you how they are holding on. It sounds silly, and it is a bit, but it can help break some narrative barriers. One of the most awesome game moments I ever had, as a player, was a one on one combat with a yeti type creature. The GM and I mimed out our actions and attacks, and then rolled our die consecutively. The rest of the group stared with rapt attention for the entire fight. It wasn’t anything more than two geeks swing imaginary swords, but the narrative we were telling grew to epic levels because of the aid it gave to the visualization.
3. Award A Mechanical Bonus For Good Narrative
Players who are entrenched in the mechanical side of a game might need some mechanical incentive to get into narrative. Offer up a bonus of some kind for good shared narrative on the players’ parts. Set a generic diplomat in front of them and ask them to describe his mannerisms and personality to you. Tell them you will act it out based on what they describe and that you’ll give them a small bonus (+1 die, +2 on their roll, etc.) when they negotiate with him. Tell the players that a really nifty description of their attack will give them +1d6 damage on their roll. It can be a great incentive. It can also cause a kind of storytelling min-maxing, with players telling just enough that they expect the mechanical bonus. I’d suggest the mechanical bonus method as a sometimes bonus.
4. Award An Extra Experience Award For Narrative
One way that I like to award players for getting into narrative is by giving them an experience award for narrative throughout the session. Since the players know they aren’t getting one bonus for one really good description, but a bonus for their multiple descriptions, they tend to do it more often but with less fervor. Rewarding a player for taking narrative control with a mechanical bonus is like giving a kid a toy for being good at that moment. Rewarding a player with extra experience at the end of the session is like getting a child to be good all year so they get presents at Christmas.
5. Provide Good Opportunities For Narrative While in the gaming room at this year’s Con On the Cob, I overheard someone running an Arabic themed storytelling game. The goal of the game seemed to be getting the players to tell stories, ala 1001 Arabian Nights. The person who was running the game used a framework where the characters were forced to tell the stories to save their characters from the evil sultan. While this was incredibly blunt, it did the trick. A player isn’t going to jump in and start utilizing narrative control in a traditional game without an opportunity or a reason to do so.
5. Provide Good Opportunities For Narrative
While in the gaming room at this year’s Con On the Cob, I overheard someone running an Arabic themed storytelling game. The goal of the game seemed to be getting the players to tell stories, ala 1001 Arabian Nights. The person who was running the game used a framework where the characters were forced to tell the stories to save their characters from the evil sultan. While this was incredibly blunt, it did the trick. A player isn’t going to jump in and start utilizing narrative control in a traditional game without an opportunity or a reason to do so.
Make the opportunity relevant. Asking a player to describe the decor of the Inn they just walked into will provide an opportunity, but not a very good one. Asking the player to describe the Inn that they grew up in and are returning to after 5 years is much better. The narrative suddenly became personal to the character, and thus to the player.
Shared narrative is a great tool that can really liven up a game and a story. The best thing that I’ve found about shared narrative is the player getting to make their character cool through their own description. Sometimes all it takes to get a player into narrative like this is to say: “You killed the monster, tell me how it happens.” Sometimes it takes a little prompting and reward to get a player into it. Shared narrative isn’t for every player or group, but it is definitely something to try. Hopefully these tips help you to incorporate it. Do you use shared narrative in your more traditional games? How did you introduce it?