Role-playing games are exercises in collaborative story-telling. We may just be playing a game, but out of this game will come stories that last. Everyone playing the game, both DM and players, are the authors of these stories. The DM is the author responsible for filling in details about the world as well as providing the general story arch.
However, for most of the story the DM is mostly just an editor, compiling stories as they are written (and played out) by each of their individual players into a cohesive story (hopefully a saga of epic proportions). Each player contributes in their own way to the story, whether it is through their legendary valor on the battlefield or their smooth talk to get the party out of a tight spot. How often has your group lapsed into reminiscence about the glory (or follies) of past adventures?
While many players excel at creating exciting stories about their own characters, many groups suffer with the collaborative part of collaborative story-telling. It requires dedication to the story outside of your own character and an awareness of the big picture that is easily lost when you’re in the midst of authoring your own smaller picture. It’s not the responsibility of the DM to make the group’s story interesting; that falls solely on the shoulders of the players (however, a good DM will provide players with ample opportunities for good story crafting). It takes more than just making your own character epic to make a good story. Here are three things to keep in mind in regards to the group’s story as a whole:
1. Know when to be in the supporting cast. (Being The Main Character vs. A Main Character)
When you are playing out story of your character, you are the protagonist. Everything in your story revolves around what your character thinks, says, feels, and does; he or she is the narrator and star. This is not the case for your group’s story. Your character is no longer the main character. They are still a main character but the difference between the two is important. The main character is involved in all aspects of the story; a main character can play a minor (or no) role in some parts of the story. The main character makes the decisions regarding the narrative’s direction; a main character contributes their skills and knowledge to the pool of all of the main characters when making decisions. Too many times do we as players get caught up in our own stories and try to be the star of everyone’s, to the detriment of the collaborative story. There are situations in which your character should play relatively little part. If you are your party’s macho muscle-man, you should probably not be involved in the chapter of the group’s story that involves sweet-talking the delicate local politicians. In such cases, your character would play a role as supporting cast to the silver-tongued smooth criminals. Allowing other characters to have the spotlight enriches the story as a whole as well as the playing experience of everyone at the table.
2. Know when to progress the story even when others aren’t.
Pacing is an important but often overlooked quality in a story. Ever hear anyone talking about that page-turner, Moby Dick? When a story gets too bogged down in detail or discussion, interest can sag. This can occur in a group setting in a variety of different ways. A group can spend too much time discussing how to best approach a situation. My group once spent an hour trying to figure out how to cross a guarded bridge. It inspired a suicidal charge by an exasperated player, which, while certainly a failure of epic proportions, certainly moved the story along. A group could routinely give too much detail about unnecessary elements unrelated to the story. I once spent an entire 4-hour play session shopping for an excursion. The time was spent between figuring out what to buy, role-playing negotiations with shopkeepers, and logistical management. That’s longer than I have ever shopped in one sitting in real life. When your group’s story comes grinding to a halt, do your best to try and get your fellow characters back on track, preferably without exhibiting any suicidal tendencies, though I wouldn’t rule those out in dire shopping circumstances.
3. Know when it’s time for you to go.
This is can be a tough one. Death is one of the most powerful literary elements in literature. It’s no different when it’s collaboratively written through an RPG; the hard part comes in that the death of a character is the ending of a player’s story. We spend so much time and thought into bringing our characters to life that their deaths are very personal. The story we were trying to write with that character has come to an abrupt (often violent) ending. Your character’s death should ideally have a profound impact on the group; if it doesn’t, you may not have been a major contributor in the collaborative story. When your end comes, accept it with grace and use your final moments to inspire your party members and create a legacy for your character that goes beyond death. Take a cue from the theatrical arts: everyone is always dying to do a death scene. Why? Because those scenes carry the most weight. My group contains an absurdly high number of actors and they know how to die. Live it up! Do a monologue bemoaning your life that was cut short. Die spitting blood into the face of your foes. Don’t let your character just whimper into non-existence; die in such a way that your character will be remembered in ages to come (even if in ages past he was but a seemingly dimwitted lawful stupid paladin). Leaving may not always be dying, either. If the time comes when circumstances would lead your character to be written out of a story, leave honorably and memorably, and begin writing the first chapter in a new story with a new character.
Everything boils down to knowing what your group’s (not your) story needs and attempting to fill the gap. It’s not the job of a DM to craft a good story. Sure, he or she is the story-teller and the quality of their craft can have implications on the experience of the group, but years later, what is remembered is not the skill with which the DM related the story but the heroics of each character in turn. By seeking to improve everyone’s story, even at the expense of your personal one, you will create a more memorable experience for everyone, including yourself!
Jake is an avid board gamer, outdoorsman, and low level role-player who lives in College Station, Texas. You can read his latest article about playing less powerful characters here and you can read his article about what sections of the D&D 5th Edition Player's Handbook everyone must read here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.