The Storyteller’s Tools

One essential part of storytelling is that the teller knows the story.  This seems self evident, but it’s worth calling out because of what it means to the process – because the tell knows what’s going to happen, she knows *how* to tell the story.  She knwo when to lower her voice, when to pause for effect, when to make a humorous aside and when to pitch her tone to reflect that now is when things get *really* interesting.

This is noteworthy to hold up in comparison to GMing.  Even in the case of a game creating a story, it’s not a story that the GM already knows.  In fact, the more oriented the game is towards generating a story, the less the GM is likely to know.  Less story oriented games are more likely to to benefit from greater GM knowledge (or in some cases, railroading) which can allow the GM to “get ahead” of the story.

Now, what’s interesting is that the lack of knowledge does not completely remove these tools, but it definitely changes the relationship with them.  For example, an experienced GM may be able to read the room, so to speak, and make good guesses regarding what’s going to happen.  And even in the absence of that read, the tools at the GM’s disposal often tie directly to changes in the narrative – the moments when storytelling tools are most useful.  For example, if the GM us about to unleash ninjas upon the party, she can absolutely start describing things in a way that inspires and escalation of tension.

It’s not always reliable, of course.  Players can derail things (can’t they always), or the emotional note of the event can be out of tune with the buildup.  And making it work requires the GM shuck and jive a lot, which can get exhausting.

Now, in theory, the idea can be turned on it’s head with a bit of improvisational thinking – the cues can be predictive rather than descriptive.  That is, if someone lowers their voice into the “Something horrible is about to happen” tone, then that could effectively be a declaration that the next thing to happen will be horrible.  It’s an intriguing thought, especially if you ave a table that’s narratively in sync, but I suspect it’s a flawed model.  We are too drawn to the twist – the unexpected outcome – and that instinct would result in overuse.  It takes a lot of work and discipline to not beat that horse to death.[1]

Now, for me, these storyteller tools are well worn and well loved. A lot of things that might be discussed in terms of design theory are – for me – simply tricks to try to reclaim their use in the medium of play.   This is something I’ve always instinctively known, but I’ve never really conciously thought about it’s interaction with play.  It’s always been a dirty little thing I do on the side which ends up being a sign of disrespect for, well, everythign in gaming that is not happening at my table right then.  I’m ok with that, but it makes  certain part of play hard to discuss in theoretical terms, and it’s a reason I really like to focus GM advice on eliciting a reaction from players.  Get them mad, get them angry, get them engaged.

Rules can help with that, but I find them a poor substitute.   But rules are a LOT easier to write about.  So I guess my question to myself is how to better talk about that.  Of all things, I think this may be a good reason to pull down Amber Diceless again, just to look at.  Among its many virtues, it was really written with an eye on the idea that the game exists to engage the players (often in bastardly fashion) and that everything else was in service to that.  It’s ass backwards from most modern game design, but I am just now realizing that it’s maybe one of the reasons it never leave my heart.


1 – For evidence of this, read any collection of super-short stories – the 50-100 word kind. They’re fun snack food for a while, until yous tart noticing that 95%[2] of them follow the exact same pattern of spending most of their words establishing an expectation before revealing the unexpected twist.  Once you see this pattern, they start reading more like bad knock knock jokes than flash fiction.

2 – The remaining 5%? Pretty awesome. Flash fiction is like Haiku – it’s easy to master the form, and easier to use it to produce junk.