Ninety percent of the stories we know and love follow the outline of a popular piece of literary theory called the Monomyth. Now, before your eyes glaze over, you need to know that the Monomyth is the key to telling a good story. There are several things about role-playing games that tend to get in the way of telling a fulfilling story, usually by breaking the Monomyth. Whether you’re the GM or just a lowly player, knowing how the Monomyth works can help you to structure your game to maximize the fun for everyone involved.
I won't waste time explaining the Monomyth in great detail here, because there are much better summaries just a click away (like here or here). Basically, it outlines the journey that the hero of a story usually takes, and describes the events, characters, and sometimes the objects that appear in the story. Preserving a sense of story is worth many articles; but in this article I will focus on describing the ways that RPG games break the Monomyth, why that's a bad thing, and share some simple fixes to help you take your game to the next level.
1. Role-Playing Games Do Not Have a Single Hero; They Have Multiple Players Competing for the Spotlight
The Monomyth is a tidy story about one hero, but in most table-top games there is more than one player character. The problem is that usually everyone wants to be the hero of the story, at least some of the time. That's why stories that follow the Monomyth appeal to us; we all secretly want to be the hero. Too many heroes, though, will spoil a good story.
To get around this problem, create a situation for each character in which they are the hero, and then share the spotlight. For example, there might be a location in the game world or a story arc that specially features each character. If your group uses this strategy, be sure to give attention to each player long enough for them to tell part of their story. Give everyone a story arc or time in the spotlight because, after all, everyone wants to be the hero.
2. A Convincing Story Requires Multiple Supporting Characters, but Too Many Characters is Confusing
If you know about the Monomyth, you likely know that the hero adventures with and/or faces many characters during the course of the story. Where would Luke Skywalker be without Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo? Or where would Frodo be without Gandalf, Boromir, Sam? Where would Dante be without Virgil, Satan, Beatrice... you get the idea. But if you have 6 heroes at the table, do you need 6 Ancient Mystagogues, 6 Threshold Guardians, and 6 Enemies? Very quickly, the GM could run out of space (or RAM) to run so many characters.
There are a few ways to manage this problem. You could choose other players to fulfill story roles. For character one, character two is their mentor. While for character two, character one is the trickster. This type of thing often happens quite naturally. Similarly, sometimes one character provides a role for the rest of the group: A wizened Cleric, for example, might be a mentor to most of the other characters. Supporting characters that are not covered by the group, but are not necessarily stand-alone characters (like the Threshold Guardian, for example) can be either inanimate objects (signs, messages, weapons) or nameless characters/monsters. Only after these possibilities are depleted will full-fledged NPCs be necessary.
3. Role-Playing Games Do Not Have a Clearly Defined Ending
This is one of the more challenging features of a sandbox-type RPG. The lack of a clearly defined goal or end point leaves the story unsatisfying sometimes; at the same time, however, the freedom to do whatever you want your character to do is what makes role-playing so much fun.
To fix the empty closure-less feeling, try building in an end game for your characters by giving them one overarching purpose. Be careful not to write a script for your character; just be sure that their goals and motivations are defined by whatever it is that they are trying to accomplish. If you reach the goal, you can choose to say a fond farewell to a character as they ride off into the sunset - or, you can create a new endgame, a new goal, each time the character completes the task at hand.
4. Role-Playing Game Plots are More Loosely Structured than the Monomyth.
Every GM who's ever led a campaign knows that even the best laid plans will be foiled as soon as there are players at the table. This presents a real problem because to maintain its integrity, a Monomyth story must follow a fairly well-defined structure: the call to adventure, the threshold, various challenges & temptations, the revelation/climax, and the return.
To account for these steps, often some of them can be written into a character’s backstory (e.g. the call to adventure & the threshold). Sometimes, if the group buys in, the whole group can follow a single adventure plot (this goes well when switching focus between characters, as mentioned in #1). A good GM won't railroad the Monomyth; if the plot is tied into a character’s primary motivation, there should be ample reason for the characters to get involved.
5. Role-Playing Rabbit Trails Derail the Story
Out of all the role-playing sessions I’ve witnessed, participated in, and heard via podcast, I have yet to see one where the players resist the urge to do something silly. Even the most serious players throw jokes around as their character speaks to that nobleman or defuses that climactic bomb. Other times, players will have their character do something to throw off the course of the story, such as attacking the innkeeper or abducting the messenger. These hijinx are a part of the fun of role-playing. If silliness becomes the focus of the game, however, the story will be lost and the game will be less fun.
Fortunately, there are some good ways to keep the story in focus. One is to have occasional character debriefings where, 10 minutes at the end of a session, the gamemaster asks questions of the player characters - what do they think or feel, are they getting closer or further from reaching their goal? This helps everyone maintain a sense of story while at the same time allowing for a few distractions.
Creating a great story makes role-playing more fun for everyone. There are many ways to do this (and many more articles to be written on the subject), and if you take the time to incorporate these into your games, you’ll be rewarded with rich shared story experiences that take your game to the next level!!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.