Bad Stories are Only the Beginning!

D&D Ideas -- Nightmares
D&D Ideas -- Lairs

Writers and Game Masters have a ton of things in common. A writer’s main goal is to tell a good story to entertain their target audience and sell a profitable amount of their work. A GM’s goal is to facilitate fun through a good story and entertain their own target audience — the players. Because of these similarities, GMs can learn a lot from studying good storytelling tactics. In this week’s RPGtube video, I discuss my top five tips for GMs, as coming from the perspective of a writer.

Ask ‘where?’

By analyzing the stories we experience through books, television, movies, and so forth, we as GMs can learn what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Have you ever left the theater feeling underwhelmed? What about the last chapter of that otherwise great book? You know the television show that gets you screaming, “What the hell!” at it repeatedly? I think we’ve all been there. However, experiencing unsatisfying stories  isn’t a lost cause, at least not for us GMs.

When we experience unsatisfying stories, we should ask ourselves, “Where did that go wrong?”

By asking ourselves what went wrong, we learn about storytelling and grow as storytellers. We begin to understand the nuances of our taste and enjoyment of entertainment. Once we gain that fundamental knowledge, then we can ask ourselves a very important question.

Ask ‘why?’

Once we understand where a story went wrong, we can then ask, “Why did it go wrong?”

Sometimes, these two answers are very closely related, but that isn’t always the case. There are some times when the why is something behind the scenes, possibly related to interpersonal drama, financial constraints, or any number of other factors. Sometimes, these circumstances are unavoidable. In those cases, there isn’t a means to really help the problem.

However,for others the bad turn is a result of poor plotting, poor worldbuilding, or poor character development. It’s these stories that could have been salvaged, and I think as storytellers, that’s a big reason these stories frustrate us the most.

Ask ‘how?’

Once we understand where a story went wrong and why, we can then ask the oh-so-important question, “How would I fix it?”

I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat among my friends and we’ve dissected how to fix stories that just got it wrong, in our opinions. It’s true you could argue these discussions are an exercise in futility, but I think as GMs we have a rare opportunity to set things right, though maybe not necessarily in the context of the current work as it stands.

RPG storytelling
In Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, D&D adventurers will be part of a story that takes them from the mean streets of the Forgotten Realms to the meaner streets of the Nine Hells! [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

Shamelessly steal and salvage, like the lizardfolk!

When stories go awry and you understand where and why, plus how you could fix them, you take the first steps toward salvaging the story through retelling.

Here’s the thing: as GMs, we tell cooperative stories through our games, and because we’re not profiting off them, there’s nothing that says you can’t shamelessly rip off some of those stories you know that could’ve been epic, if only…

Take the answers to the aforementioned questions and then adapt the story you want to retell into your current RPG setting. In fact, there’s nothing that says you can’t just play your RPG using the story’s original setting as a basis, provided you have the means to either run it or develop it.

If you adapt the story into your current campaign setting, and it differs from the original setting of the story, it’s entirely possible your gaming group won’t even realize what you’re doing until after the story is finished. This will add layers to your players’ enjoyment, and it will likely foster growth for you as a GM.

So, next time you experience a story that leaves you unsatisfied, take a step back, ask where, why, and how, then salvage your favorite parts and retool them into something truly epic!

Have you ever adapted elements from a story and made something great?

Let us know in the comments! If you liked the video here, please subscribe to my YouTube channel, where I post new content for writers every Tuesday and new content for gamers every Thursday!

Hopefully next time you see a story crash and burn, you can try to pick up the pieces and make something even better!

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Follow Steven Partridge:
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer. As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply... adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre. When he's not working on his debut novel or filming YouTube videos, Steven can be found lap swimming, cooking up some pescatarian cuisine, or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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