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The Simple Way to Run a Story Game

Written by Nicholas - Published on January 14, 2010

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Some people like to play D&D the board game, jumping from combat to combat with a flimsy premise and little plot and character development. While that can be fun, it isn’t for everyone. If you want to turn your D&D game into a larger world with an ongoing story then this is a guide for you!

Cut Away at Combat

There is an idea out there that combat is the opposite of story. This is absolutely not true. The essense of story is conflict and sometimes that conflict takes the form of physical, violent battle. I want to say in no uncertain terms that combat has a place in story games.

With that said, if a fight would serve no story purpose then cut it! In a combat heavy game you might have 2 or 3 fights with the lower tier goblins before you reach the back of the compound and battle the leader, foiling whatever evil scheme they had cooked up. If you like combat that works well enough, but it kills the time for story. As a general rule, if the combat isn’t going to shake something up about the character or the plot then cut it!

Open it up

Now instead of planning a few filler encounters, apply that time to making more real encounters. Rather than having 3 fights on a goblin king storyline, plan one encounter for the goblin king, one where the players take down the fence the goblins sell their stolen goods to and an unrelated undead problem. It’s no more work than 3 related encounters and you’ll probably find it more exciting to plan. It allows you to play with a great diversity of creatures and scenarios. Besides that it makes the world seem like a much more exciting place for your players. There isn’t one thing happening that is up to them to solve, there are many chances for heroism and they can take up some of them.

Hug it Out

When I say plan an encounter I am indeed talking about combat stats. That doesn’t mean that all encounters must be combat, I’m just saying that it is not always up to the DM. Combat encounters are hard to improvise, conversations and even skill challenges are significantly easier. Just because you have the stats doesn’t mean you need to use them. Let your players begin a fight or avoid one. Most creatures in the D&D universe have some measure of intelligence and intelligent creatures don’t rush out to engage in fights to the death. If you’re villains are fleshed out then they should have goals and those goals could probably be accomplished without the death of the party. Working out the differences a non-violent way opens the door to future interactions and plot hooks. A corollary to “dead men tell no tales” is “dead men give no quests”.

Like a Fishing Contest

Speaking of hooks, throw them out constantly. Give every NPC a name so you can build on them later. Throw out names of places, organizations and important people. Have the players discover cryptic clues or messages in seemingly random places. You don’t need to know what these things are connected to, in fact it is often better that you don’t at first. As time goes on and you can see where the plot is heading you can start tying the loose ends into a coherent end that it looks like you were building to all along. The ones you don’t get around to using are likely to simply be forgotten by the players.

What flavor of game do you enjoy? Talk about your style in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



10 Responses to “The Simple Way to Run a Story Game”
  1. scott says:

    Great advice, some other tips i like to adhere to are:

    Don’t let stats rule.
    Just because your goblin king has full health or a healing surge left, doesn’t mean it has to be adhered to. Stories can quickly die if your stuck in grind combat. if people are getting bored, let the combat end, quickly.

    Let your pc’s try anything.
    This also relates to chatty DM’s always say yes mantra. If your fighter wants to cut the gobling kings head off with one mighty blow. Let him try with a skill check or some other mechanic, if he succeeds sure the battle is over before it starts, but more importantly your pc’s feel like heroes as they should and that they can achieve anything. Besides who says the real goblin king wasn’t using a decoy!

  2. person says:

    a good way to integrate the fights and the story:
    for some fights, you should just throw out the rules and let the characters be all powerful, but u should only use this strategy when the enemy is just as powerful
    make the fight less about luck and ur character’s skill and more about tactics and seeing an opportunity
    for some fights, if u want a good story combat encounter, just throw out the rules for a minute
    forget rolling for the goblin king’s dying curse (it should automatically hit), make it important, make it big, make it a long term thing (i.e. make it take a couple levels to go away) and make it have a large but obscure loophole in the wording, make the pcs find it, if it’s good they won’t forget things like this for a while

  3. Wayfinder says:

    Depending on the audience, and the game you’re running, don’t be too afraid to make it sordid a bit.

    I mean, you really have to know your group before you start going into R rated material suitable for a Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction or Usual Suspects crowd, but hey, if you have the kind of group that could dig that sort of thing, go for it.

    But the key to remember is that less is more in this case. Describing sex and drug scenes in detail is not cool. But cutting away, showing just a little taste of it here and there, is more than enough. If it looks like you’re describing something best left in a porno film on the internet, you’ve gone too far (make that mistake anyway – your players will forgive you, I promise).

    I mention all this because we’re all getting a bit older and some of us need something a bit more grownup than the standard hack and slash fare. But it needs to be done with a bit of class so that you don’t come off as some sort of pervert when you do ti. Just saying, is all….

  4. Palm says:

    Woah, this is exactly the kind of advice I needed right now. Thank you. :)

  5. Kolbold Minion says:

    I love dropping names of places and people throughout my adventure, relevant or not. It makes the game feel as if it takes place in a larger world. But be carefull not to make the outside world to interesting, or current objectives will seam boring in comparison.
    My players never cease to amaze me in how they react to the outside world. When the players’ bartender mentioned that worship for the demon lord of mischeif ,Mezzanine, was becoming more popular, what did my sorcer do? He started worshipping Mezzanine himself.

  6. quinn says:

    Another thought for making a game a story game: encourage the characters to have a back story. The more hooks that they have to attach story ideas to and to use to draw them in to the adventure in a personal way the more involved they will become in the story. The more involved they are in the story the less focused they will be on the combat. This is especially important if you are transforming a group of hack and slashers in to story players.

  7. Nicholas says:

    Yeah, I will often drill down on my less story inclined players about their backstory when the game starts. If they mention a particular piece of equipment or combat style I will ask them where it came from and then just keep going with the line of questions.

  8. LordVreeg says:

    This post is near and dear.
    I run a high-mortality system partially to induce parleying and other solutions. I sometimes feel like a complete throwback due to the stress on combat many current games have gone to.
    I’ve always thought that games that make combat only one solution encourage more roleplaying; so it is nice to see a post like this.

  9. hannah says:

    I’ve just gotten started as the DM for my friends and i have to say, it’s a lot harder than i thought it would be. but none of my friends will write a back- story for their characters. I keep telling them it would help me make an adventure they would enjoy more, but they say that it’s too much plannning, or that im making it way too complicated. Are they right? am i getting myself too caught up in the planning? or is it a good idea to make a compelling adventure that takes advantage of the background of its players. I’m still making things that arent planned, areas that are open to exploration and interpretation. can someone help me?


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  1. […] The Simple Way to Run a Story Game, from Dungeon Mastering, advises on how to run a game that’s more than just combat. […]

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