World of Darkness - Alpha Network
“Tips, Tricks and advice for Story-Tellers..”
- Celebrate the Awesome: Being a mage is truly awesome! Don’t be ashamed to kick back and embrace the awesome sometimes. Narrate a knock-down, drag-out fight where the members of the cabal brutalize their enemies instead of leaning on dice. Break out the dice and let the players roll huge dice pools with almost perfect chances of success. Give the Characters chances to do the things they’re good at.
As a Player, set up fellow players for moments of extreme success. You’re a group, working together (both in-character and out), work together out-of-character to tackle obstacles like a pack would. Enjoy your buddy’s exceptional success the same way you would your own. Embrace the awesome that happens when your cohort accepts a dramatic failure because she’s just fed fire into the story, instead of looking at it like another obstacle to your “winning” the game. Above all, it’s the job of everyone at the table to be fans of the game and fans of each other.
- Communication: Communicate clearly with your players, and let it be known you’re willing for them to communicate clearly and honestly with you. If you’ve changed a rule or fluff piece from either the Rules As Written (RAW) or your groups usual understanding of things, tell them (unless telling them will ruin the story, of course). If they players raise an objection to something, either admit you made a mistake, or assure them you have a good reason: never, ever simply tell them they’re wrong. If the players aren’t having fun, then you’re failing to do your job properly. Also, if they relate something to you in the interests of improving the game, check to see if you understand it correctly. If a player wants to undertake some task, let them know if it’ll be difficult, but also that you’ll support their efforts. Similarly, always work to create an environment where the players feel comfortable offering criticism of the story: nothing kills the potential of a story faster than lack of honest, respectful back-and-forth. If the players don’t trust you to take their criticisms well, then they won’t offer them, and nothing will ever improve. If the players don’t feel they can offer constructive criticism, then their praise will be meaningless at best, suspect at worst. Sulking, arguing, dismissing and statements to the effect of “you’re doing it wrong” are not examples of taking criticism well.
- Consistency: Be fair and consistent with your rulings, and if an exception comes up, clearly explain to the players you recognise the difference and have a good reason for making different rulings. Explain the rationale for the ruling if you can. If something needs to be made up on the Fly I.e. A new House Ruling made: Discuss it as a group first, gather yourself and make your decision and write it down somewhere so if and when it happens again you can be fair.
- Contrast Dark with Light: It can’t rain all the time! Getting caught up in the misery and struggle of this world can be fun, to an extent. Without touches of light, hope, and success, the character’s moments of desperation seem bland and without purpose. Misery tourism is not the end goal of a chronicle, and while it’s great if the Storytellers and players can enjoy moments of heartache and sadness along with their characters, or watch it from a safe distance, characters who are always down and always losing rarely hold interest for very long. Not all struggles need to be fruitless. Players invest effort, emotion, and energy when stories give both positive and negative notes. Good things happen to even the most wretched of creatures.
- Death: This is a tough world, a deadly world.. it’s a World of Darkness. Death is likely to happen, especially to those poor human mortals at the bottom of the food chain. If they don’t die they may well fall prey to something just as limiting such as Insanity, Physical Invalidity or Social Psychopathy. Be prepared and don’t get to put off, upset or angry. When creating your Character: Make sure you create Two or even better, Three Characters, with them all connected in some way perhaps. They could be from the same family, school or workplace or born on the same day and year, cursed by the same Witch or came into contact with the same strange object etc. etc.
- Don’t say No!: Just that, literally. No is the single most boring answer a Storyteller can ever give. It’s the most boring answer a player can ever give. Gaming, in a lot of ways, is about improvisation, and saying “no” means shutting down the scene. Improvisation is all about taking the threads your partners leave, and building on them. “No” ends the thread, and denies an opportunity to build. It means limiting what can go on next. It means cutting off choice. Frankly, choices are best when they’re hard, not when they’re limited.
As a player, when another Player or the Storyteller offers you a background tie, a character quirk, or a connection that’s wasn’t what you had in mind, find some way to make it true.
As the Storyteller, when players say something, do something, or make a choice that’s “wrong” in your notes or in your head, find a way to make it right. By default, assume the choice your characters make is the right choice. Even if the end result of the “right” choice is tragedy, always treat that choice with respect.
Of course, sometimes “no” is essential. Sometimes, physical laws will stop something from occurring. In those cases, clarity will usually help, since it means the players and Storyteller aren’t on the same page. If a player thinks something could happen which you think couldn’t, that’s because there’s a difference in understanding. As a player, if it’s clear that your choice is wrong, your idea is wrong, embrace the wrong and run with it. Invest in making a mistake in character, and enjoy the fallout. Never let the phrase “but my character would never do that” get in the way of having a good time.
- First Timer: If you’re new to a game and especially if you’re a Novice Storyteller, be sure to make sure your players know and realise this. Make sure everyone at the table knows you’re a Novice. Most people are decent and understanding so don’t be afraid to tell them. If you’ve got an experienced ST in your group, they can be a great source of help and inspiration. But if you don’t tell them and you start struggling with running your game that can cause serious frustration and annoyance at the table. Plus in my experience, players tend to be a little easier on you if they know you’re new to this. This goes just as much for New Players and it will likely be much more fun if the others around the table know and help to guide you at times.
- Fun: Ensure you and your players have fun. The point of the exercise is enjoyment. If your players are having fun, then you’ll have fun. If they aren’t, either collectively or individually, then they’ll be reluctant to play again, or engage with the story in a productive way. This means observing the players: if one or more seem disinterested, or frustrated in themselves (not simply roleplaying their characters), you may need to rethink how things are progressing.
- Host Rules: The owner or full-time inhabitant of the living premises has rights.. it’s their home, after all. These are some handy, basic Hosting Guidelines or Out-of-game Home Rules that are great for face-to-face Tabletop Sessions.
- Car Keys: Vehicle Keys should be left with the wife/responsible other, who verifies you are not drunk before driving home.
- Cell Phones: All Phones should be Off (or on “Silence/Vibrate” if working On-Call) and preferably, put away in a corner.
- It’s My Spot: As the host (of the premises) and the one usually running the Game, I get to pick my chair/spot around the Table. All others are first come first serve, unless someone has a medical need for a certain location.
- Smoking: As a Smoker, I will be smoking, but if anyone’s got issues with it, I am very happy to open windows/put a fan on to blow the smoke outside.
- Snacks: It may be agreed upon beforehand or simply a politeness to bring supplies of food and drink (Snacks) for everyone. Arranged beforehand means you can divide the list between you and in some Rules, the Storyteller (because they’re running the game which is a lot of extra work) and the Host (because you’re using their place and get to clean up after everyone) get let off and need not bring anything at all, though they may choose to if they wish.
- Real Life Issues: Because we all have busy, important Real Lives to attend to, I understand jobs needing you to be On-Call or expecting an important call etc. Phones should be kept in vibrate mode… if I get to your Turn while in Combat, and you are too busy chatting/texting etc , your Character, is just quivering in a corner doing nothing for that round, Defenceless.
- Interrupting Players: There are times when you ask a player what his character is doing and he hesitates while he mulls things over and another player will suggest an idea. Most GMs ask the others to be quite as they are not in the particular situation and can’t help, yet realistically, whenever we do anything risky, stupid or otherwise different from our normal range it usually crosses our minds that Friend A would do this, or Friend B would do it that way. I find that this works a bit like a person battling with his own good or bad conscious so allow it. Also when I work as a whisperer (see Inferno) it doesn’t get noticed.
- Keep everything Organize: Organize everything. Pretty much says it all and another reason why you should use the SAS or a software tool. From basic ideas, the NPCs, to the scenes themselves to how the whole chronicle plays out. It can mean a lot of work but you’re less likely to get caught off guard at the table and its worth it just to avoid that headache. Use a Wiki or Website like “Obsidian Portal” to help construct your games.
- Keep it Simple Stupid: Start off small and let your Story and World grow as you go. Don’t try to make it a big, grandiose, long term Chronicle right from the start. Don’t create a vast cast of NPCs or anything else that can overwhelm you. Do something simple and straightforward that won’t last more than a weekend or two. With this it means you can use what you know of both the Players and the Characters to influence and add to your game. Things may also occur in a session you hadn’t imagined but like so much you can build upon it and use it all later.
- Meta-gaming Players: I have found that no matter what is ran, or what happens in game, there are going to be some that act on information not known by their characters. I suggest solving this by their characters getting a mild case of narcolepsy. I put them to sleep. There have been sometimes when this has proved dangerous, like if the character is driving down a busy road. They learn their lesson, and if not, they die.
- Off Target: If your players go in a different direction to what you’ve prepared, go with it. This isn’t you dictating a story to a captive audience, this is collective story-telling. The players have free will: never, ever punish them for exercising it beyond logical consequences of their actions. Flexibility is one of the key requirements of a GM.
- Pay attention to everyone: It happens at every table. An enthusiastic, well-informed, or aggressive player can dominate the table. There’s no reason to not let a spotlight-craving player grab at it from time to time. How else can you hope for him to enjoy himself? But players and Storytellers alike should keep an eye out for players whose voices are lost in the shuffle. Some players prefer to stay quiet, observe, and intervene infrequently. These players should never be forced to engage, but check in with them frequently to be completely sure they’re getting what they want out of the scene. For players who want more screen time but don’t know how to get it, it should fall to the Storyteller and their fellow players to give them moments to shine. Move the spotlight around. Set characters up for important solo scenes. Set them up for successes and failures. Set them up to make a difference in the story, even if they don’t do it with a grandstanding in-character speech or an amazing dice roll.
- Players’ Actions Matter: Let the players feel like what they do matters. If they’re low-level adventurers, have their efforts to break the hold of the criminal mastermind on the slums have an effect, even if that effect is to make the mastermind notice them and have to take countermeasures. If they’re newly created vampires caught up in the games of their elders, encourage them to develop their own goals: secure feeding territory, break free from their sire, or establish a friendship with the local werewolves. Nothing kills fun faster than not feeling like your actions matter. Note: This is not the same as letting their actions succeed or that they always truly even matter if you are Railroading them but do it subtly so they don’t know what’s really happening behind the Scenes.
- Players are the Stars: The PCs are the stars of the story, not the NPCs. While of course NPCs can be more powerful, effective or experienced than the PCs, if they were capable of solving the problems before them, then the PCs wouldn’t be around. If the king could kill the dragon himself, he wouldn’t need to auction off his daughter to whatever Knight, Swineherd or clever third son who came by.
- Railroading: Don’t be afraid to railroad. Yes, people can hated it when they’re being forced down the ST’s path and you shouldn’t do it excessively. That said don’t be afraid to apply some force to keep your players on track if they start going off the map. One of the worst things a Storyteller can have is the players going off in directions they haven’t planned yet or never anticipated, forcing them to improvise on the fly.
- Random Lists: These can be such a help, truly a godsend! Have lists or tables compiled and ready for such things as “Wandering NPCs”, “Items found..”, “NPC Names” and perhaps most importantly, “Plot Seeds” that can be thrown into Play or used to distract a PC if they seem to have nothing to do. This can give you breathing room and allow you some space while you think on your next full moves.
- Returning NPC’s: Bring it back! If you need a witness to Paradox, don’t use a random passerby, use a Reporter the characters gave the brush-off to earlier in the Chronicle. If the Characters are looking for a Spirit in the area, create consistency in your cosmology by using the same spirit they have confronted before. Build up relationships whenever possible instead of creating new ones. This makes the world the characters live in feel more alive and more real. You can do this the other way too. Foreshadow threats characters could run into, but don’t present them right away.
“You’re just lucky! Tick Tick Clock isn’t here.. If he was, you couldn’t push me around.”
- Rules Lawyers: These players can be difficult to deal with and will often stop the game in order to question the DM on a decision and such interruptions usually last anywhere from 4-9 minutes but more importantly this kind of interruption breaks player immersion in the world so there are two solutions to this, either A. punish the player every time he does this or B establish a rule where if you cannot find the information you think the dm is wrong on in 15 seconds in the book gameplay resumes as it is assumed the DM is right and your wrong due to the fact if you don’t know the rule well enough to find it quickly you clearly don’t know the rule as well as you thought. Note: (added note on Rules Lawyers) “The GM is always right….period!”
- SAS System: The SAS System is your best friend. Seriously, while it was created after the OWoD the SAS system is something that every Storyteller should use to organize their chronicles. And their recent OWoD chronicle books, Dust to Dust and The Skinner use SAS. You can pick up the PDF for free on DriveThruRPG which includes a guide on how to use the system and blank scene cards that can be printed out and used. Ignore the fact that they created it for the NWoD, Scion and Exalted. The scene cards are all the same and can be used with any OWoD, which they’ve done with the previously mentioned Chronicles.
- Seed Suggestions: “You’re just lucky! Tick Tick Clock isn’t here.. If he was, you couldn’t push me around". Story Seeds are a great way to get Characters more involved and to follow the paths of your Chronicle. Drop Hints and Seeds all over but dont make them to obvious or the Players begin to feel forced and Railroaded. Be subtle and let the PC make the choice and the move. If they decide not to or miss it, drop another reworked version later on in the Story. Seed Suggestions reminding PC’s as to who might be around next time, so that when you call back to that foreshadowing, it has more impact. Players should use callbacks whenever possible as well. Never shake down a drug dealer when you can shake down Fast Dee with the glass eye.
- Sensory Cues: n novel writing, if an entire page passes without any sensory detail, the writer is probably doing something wrong. Roleplaying isn’t exactly novel writing, it sits somewhere between theatre of the mind, short stories, and all sorts of other media, but we tend to push toward visual depiction of things because, as humans, we’re visual creatures.
Of course, CoD is not usually about playing humans. It’s about creatures or people with preternatural powers whose other senses are as strong and as important. Spiritual senses in particular don’t fit mundane explanation, since we don’t possess spiritual senses as humans in the real world. Your descriptions should reflect a character’s senses.
Use short, you can contrast this by using simple details for mundane senses. Be factual. Be as scientific as makes sense. This is one of the few times you’ll want to be a bit dull, to contrast the vivid imagery offered by their other senses. Describe a scene in wolf senses using abstract terms. Give imagery aside from what a character might see in the immediate. Focus heavily on smells and sounds, and the stories those senses tell the character.
To reflect that, try this: Any time as a player or Storyteller you would use the phrase “you see” replace it with any other sensory detail. Don’t talk about the blood on the walls, talk about the buzzing of flies feasting on the walls. Don’t describe the verdant canopy, talk about the smell of fresh water and ozone in the air. Especially when describing other supernatural beings, rely heavily on the other senses to describe the surreal and primordial or resonate nature of these creatures.
- Showcase the Struggles: Being a mage is hard. It’s deadly. It’s gruesome. That’s a thing that characters should angst over. But it shouldn’t have to be something that player’s angst over. Give attention to how hard it is in a way that celebrates the struggle instead of dumping in on dice and failure. Paint failure as heroic as often as you paint it as hollow. Paint success as success sometimes, not just pride before the fall.
- Software Tools: Make things simpler and more efficient for yourself and get yourself some Software you like and can use effectively. I use “Obsidian Portal” for writing my Chronicle Information as it gives me lots of structure, a Wiki and some great other things. There’s lots of Websites and Tool Suites to choose from.
- Symbolism: While you’re using sensory details, whether it’s to solidify the strangeness of spirits or to express mage-specific concepts, remember that symbolism can go a long way to make game sessions memorable and powerful. It becomes a shortcut to bringing everyone to moments of understanding. You don’t have to keep describing the incredible anger and heat rolling off of a threatening antagonist if you’ve tied those ideas to his glinting yellow eyes. When you cue those yellow eyes in your description, you put players in the right place. This also helps you to portray Storyteller characters consistently, since these symbols give anchors to fall back on.
Furthermore, symbolism is a great tool for a player to get across subtle truths about his character, whatever she might be thinking for feeling. Saying “the character is sad” is all well and good, but using symbols for sadness such as teardrops, graffiti of broken hearts, dark clouds, abandoned houses, or tombstones in the scene brings sophistication to character descriptions.
- Trust: Trust your players to engage with your game, take their feedback as intended constructively, and try to act on it if feasible. If your players aren’t engaging with the story, ask why, and adapt accordingly. This may involve changing the story, or providing some motivation for the characters. “Oh, a woman has been taken by a group of bandits? Ho hum, happens every other day around here. Wait, her father is a rich lord? Where did those lawless scum take her?” In the extreme, this may also potentially involve just dropping a story entirely until it can be re-worked to be more interesting/fun. While this possibility is the extreme, if it does come up, it is not a slight against you personally: everyone runs a dud sometimes.
- Use Asides: Sometimes, important things happen that have nothing to do with the Player Characters. Sometimes Storyteller characters do things that shake the story. You can run this in several ways. Naturally, you can just choose to let the ripples affect the story and leave it at that; but if your group is adventurous, use Asides.
Take a moment to pull the curtain back and show the players what the antagonists are planning. You don’t need to spill all the juicy details, but let them know that war is in the air, a betrayal is bound to happen, or someone is dead who shouldn’t be. This will add tension and create an air of cinema to the drama. Getting players and Storytellers to think cinematically can encourage players to take more risks with their characters and view the game not just as something to win, but as something to cheer for. Players and Storytellers aren’t just participants in the story, they’re the story’s main audience and biggest fans.