Most of the appeal of TTRPGs comes from their storytelling aspect. These games are designed to tell a story, regardless of their individual mechanics. The best part is that this story doesn’t belong to just one person. Every player is an active contributor to the progression of the story. Each part of the story allows your players’ characters to grow and evolve in ways they hadn’t anticipated. Of course, it goes without saying that the majority of the weight of storytelling falls upon the shoulders of the DM. Difficulty telling a story well can make an otherwise sound campaign suffer and leave your players bored or confused.
The Basics Of Storytelling
The most basic part of storytelling is having a story to tell. Real deep, huh? Don’t let the simplicity of the statement take away from its meaning. If you don’t start with a firm foundation, your story is going to be in trouble. Unless you’re brilliant at improvising. Which, if you’re just starting out as a DM, you’re probably not. So how do you create a story? When you’re first starting out, as low-key as possible. You really only have to keep two things in mind: know your audience and know your general direction.
Know Your Audience
Since you’re not going to be the only person involved in this story, you have to keep your audience in mind. In this case, your audience is your players. More than likely you’re gaming with a group of your friends, so odds are you know things that interest them. If you’re gaming with a new group of strangers, you’ll learn their tastes in time. Just pay attention to how your current material is being received and adjust as needed. Or, even better, ask people what they’d like to see. Being direct with your players can go a long way in reducing your stress and workload. If you’re not an illithid, you probably can’t read their minds. Just ask. As in any relationship, communication is key.
Know Your General Direction
The biggest mistake new DMs make is planning every single eventuality to their story. Focus instead on a general direction you’d like your story to take. A basic beginning-middle-end is all you really need. You and your players will fill in the gaps as they become relevant.
Even if you have 100 different ways you think an encounter or storyline could play out, your players will usually decide to take an option you didn’t even consider. That’s part of the magic of D&D. The other part is the actual magic. D&D is not a Telltale game where every choice players make is an illusion. Each action is allowed to have consequences, and your players will be reacting to those consequences. So don’t get bogged down with details. It’s isn’t necessary to have the genealogy of all the acting rulers of your world written out ten generations past. It’s not even necessary to create your entire world yet. Start your players in a small enough area that’s easy to manage and grow your world as you grow as a DM. Focus on the immediate details and let your players help you fill in the rest.
We use the word “advanced” slightly tongue-in-cheek because they’re just barely harder than the basics. But use the following tips if you want to take your basic skills to the next level. Each of these is easy enough to implement whenever you feel comfortable. The more you use them, the more natural it will feel. Your players will definitely notice an improvement in your storytelling over time.
Tone is the overall feeling or mood that you use while telling a story. It’s more than just the sound of your voice, it’s your style and the way you present your story to your players. It allows you to add emotion to your story, which is how you get your players invested into the world and characters you’ve created.
Your players will get bored and wonder when they’re going to get to hit stuff if you try to tell a story in monotone with the least amount of description possible. Which of the following sounds more engaging?:
- You walk into the barracks to meet the captain. You pass a lot of soldiers running around on the way to his tent. There is a blacksmith busy making weapons and most people don’t pay any attention to you.
- The groan of the heavy wooden door welcomes you into the barracks. A group of solemn soldiers passes you in a hurry, most of them pale-faced and some of them injured. You catch the smell of sweat and hot metal as you pass the blacksmith, loudly crafting the most basic of swords and seemingly oblivious to the somber energy around him.
I know our players wouldn’t be able to resist asking the blacksmith questions in #2. It’s because we’ve made him seem like a real person who’s in the middle of a real situation. There’s a sense of danger in #2 that you can feel without knowing the real problem or obtusely being given a quest. Tone doesn’t always have to be somber or dangerous. It can be happy, funny, or scary, or just a weird combination of moods. All that matters is that a.) there is one and b.) it fits the story you’re trying to tell.
Exposition vs. Description
In layman’s terms, this is the difference between telling and showing, respectively. Exposition and description each have their place while you’re telling your story. Try not to lean too hard on either one of them and you’ll be in good shape.
Exposition is all about facts. It’s a way to communicate information to your players quickly and directly and is easily done by having an NPC info drop on your players. It’s also the best way to move a story forward. Without exposition, your players wouldn’t ever be able to do anything. Describing the landscape doesn’t move your players from one town to another. It’s important that your storytelling isn’t all exposition. Add some flavor here and there to engage your players.
Description paints a picture for your players. It’s incredibly useful when you want to add emphasis to a particular moment in your story. Description is the backbone to the “theater of the mind” and is what gets your players invested in a particular character or place. Just make sure not to go overboard. Your players don’t need 5 minutes of you describing each room. Give them enough detail so they can envision what’s happening in their mind with enough clarity and then move on to the meat of the story.
There is a very large addendum to these storytelling tips that deserves its own section. Coincidentally enough, that catch actually is your players. You could write the best story in the world, no plot holes, incredibly moving, all of that. But we can guarantee that at some point at least one of your players will do something that you just can’t plan for and it might totally mess up your story. And that’s ok. In fact, that’s more than ok. Because the story that you’re creating is for your players, not just for you. If you want to write a story where other people aren’t involved in its creation, well… that’s called a book. You’re not writing a book, you’re playing a game. And your players can help you tell a much better story.
If you’ve never created your own story for D&D before, it can feel overwhelming in the beginning. But try to keep in mind what both you and your players want to experience. Be aware of the tone of your story and the mood you’re setting. Adding descriptive flavor is usually a good option, but don’t allow yourself to get bogged down with details that aren’t relevant at the moment. Be able to paint a picture in your players’ minds, but make sure to advance the story. Be willing to let go of elements of your story, even if it disrupts your original vision. Remember that the story you’re creating isn’t just for you. You’ve got a whole table full of people who want to be a part of your creation.