After reading my article on NPC building a friendly storyteller contacted me and asked me how to deal with players who take the story outside of the material you have prepared. After a short ponder i asked myself why any storyteller would put himself in that situation in the first place. Then I remembered I used to get into these situations myself back in the day so this might actually be a pretty big issue. After three days of pondering and procrastinating I decided to take a crack at this often catastrophic problem
Before I start i want to emphasize my go to rules for any type of storytelling
Rule #1: Don’t be afraid to say “Yes” – This rule states that you should never be so rigid that you turn down a player’s input on the grounds that you did not see it coming as you can never foresee every eventuality of your communal story. Learn to go with it if it makes sense.
Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to say “No” – This rule states that you absolutely have the right to say no and overrule something that you think will have a detrimental effect on the long term health of the campaign.
For clarity I most often rely on rule #2 during character creation but rule #1 during play. I might add more rules later but these are the first two for sure. It’s the same philosophy martial arts fighters use, the more you sweat in the gym the less you bleed in the street
Baby Proofing: So you have a solid idea for a scenario or campaign but are afraid that your players will ruin your vision somehow. It’s a fair view and I have seen it happen a few times. My main advice would be to embrace the freedom of no boundaries and go with it but when you’re starting out that’s a hard thing to do so here are some tricks to tide you over while you gain experience.
Gilded Cage: My favorite trick for short adventures or one off sessions is to construct the start in a way that in no way allows for any idea of deviation. For instance i once built a short adventure that puts the players in peril in the Andes Mountains of South America. So that there would be no going off the tracks the adventure started with the plane already in the air, flying from Lima in Peru too Caracas in Venezuela, and shortly thereafter the hijackers tried to take over the plane sending it crashing into the mountains. After that the story was firmly on its rails but I took great care in hiding that fact by constantly asking the players what they wanted to do and being very liberal with Rule #1. After the session i asked the players if they thought that the story had been railroaded in any way and they thought I was joking even if this is probably the most railroaded story i have ever run. So the moral is that if you lay the foundations of your story carefully your train will glide silently from station to station with maximum commuter comfort.
Conditional Choice: Another trick that i learned from a great storyteller is to present heavily weighted choices to players as enticement. This might take some work but the principle is to always have several ways of solving a problem but one of the choices is obviously the best. Your players feel good that they have chosen well and are less likely to try breaking your story then if your feel they have no choice at all. For this to work perfectly you have to be pretty firm on consequences of bad choices though so don’t be afraid to punish your players for bad choices to encourage them to seek out the good ones. Pavlov should be proud of you if this is your go too style of storytelling.
Hook, Line and Sinker: The other style of play and the one i like more is to prepare less. Most of my preparation goes into the character creation step. I recommend a good look at the Session 0 article published the day before this one for more clarity on this but want to add that before Session 0 I like to build a both what i call a “Teaser” and a “Hook” into my campaigns. The “Teaser” is a short blurb like you would find in the back of a paperback novel that sets the mood for the story with just enough information to get your players interested but the “Hook” contains a short set of rules the players must adhere to when building their characters. It is most often used to force some sort of character connection before the game starts. I learned this from a friend of mine during a Hunter: The Vigil campaign where he asked us to build our characters around the idea of a friendly Poker Night group. The monster then attacked a person tied to everyone in the group and sent us on a very invested tale of revenge. By deciding your “Hook” carefully you signal to your players what you want to do with the story and also make sure that the characters are invested in each other.
Know Where You’re Going: When my campaign start is starting to look pretty solid I take a look forward to where i want to take it. First i consider where the story will end if the players do nothing. Usually this is some bleak end of the world scenario or horrid summoning of a tentacled Elder God, but not always. When i know how a zero effort story ends I can backtrack and determine what they need to change, how they could perceivably do it and what they would need. This allows me to put the actual work I do into the things i foresee while i travel back and forward over the timeline. This creates a branching map of major plot points that become evident during this step of the campaign creation. Keep in mind that you will never foresee all the branches and this is mostly done to prepare you for the inescapable moment when your players surprise you. And when they do you remember to say “Yes”
Be Like Water: There is a great quote by Bruce Lee that i try to follow in my storytelling. He meant it for martial arts but I think it applies for this as well. It goes as follows…
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
I use it to empathise that your job as a storyteller is to make sure that everyone is having fun and that the communal story is running smoothly. If you become to rigid your players will chafe under your inflexibility. But you can run smoothly, calmly or crash upon them like a destructive wave of the tsunami. Just as long as you don’t freeze. The better way is to grab what they give you and run with it. Maybe it’s just a slight detour from the plot you have already laid out or it might be something completely different. And that’s ok. Try it out and see where it goes and if it’s shit you just steer the ship back on course later. It´s ok, you got this.
Well, that´s all for today but I hope you drop me a message in the comments so I can answer your questions and give you more tips. And remember to Game On!