Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Narration of the Real

How do I approach storytelling as a DM?

That's a tricky question.  On one side, I don't approach it.  That is, the narrative that follows the players actions is not 'told' by me, it manifests as the characters make decisions about what they will do and how the dice fall once events occur.  My campaign does include sets of objectives that I prepare . . . 

For example, I felt confident that the party in Egypt would eventually gain access to the ship that would aid them in pursuing their present quest.  I felt sure since the players were willing to pursue any request the sphinx He-ni-te made once it and the party became friends.  He-ni-te was interested in seeking out a lost city and she offered the party compensation if they would help her find it - she needed someone who could enter the large city of Minya and speak freely with sages there and she needed multiple eyes on the ground to spot the ruin once the sun rose.  The details don't matter.

I don't see this all as a 'story.'  If I ask the reader to help me haul some wood, because I want to light a series of hearth-warming fires this winter, is that a story?  It is, after a sense, but not a very interesting one.  If I promise that beer and pizza will be provided, is that a story?  If the players are told, "Help me here, I'll make it worth your while," that sounds like a contract, not a story.

As it happened in the campaign, the lost city was found and after that the entrance to an enormous tomb.  At this point, He-ni-te told the party that the tomb possessed 13 levels below the 'dock' where the ship was found.  She warned them that these levels were very dangerous; that it was best she go alone; and that the party should not follow.  The party was interested in their own quest and did not want to enter a dungeon at that time anyway.  Moreover, they trusted the sphinx.  Thus they parted company, on good terms, with the party going off in their new ship and the sphinx descending into who knows what.

This is how many of my adventures run.  The party meets some entity that is acting according to a purpose of their own.  The entity may be one person or creature or it may be a group.  Sometimes, they help each other.  Sometimes, there is conflict.  Most often, the alliance is made, produces results and then broken up as the party moves off in their own direction.

Is it a 'story?'  I'm not sure how, not by any definition of story that I've read or heard.  There are elements of story-like narrative . . . but there's no specific purpose here, no predestined result.  The party can choose to separate at any time or remain as part of the alliance if that's their wish.

They could have gone down into the lost city's tomb.  They could have decided the sphinx was too dangerous or that they didn't trust her.  They could have let the sphinx die on the road in Anatolia when it was first encountered.  They made the decision.  At that time, I only knew that the mystic ankh they needed to return was to be put into a drowned tomb between Luxor and Minya, where it would serve to restore energy to a long-forgotten jackalwere cult that existed some six thousand years ago (this the party eventually did).  I had no ideas for introducing a sphinx into the campaign - until I rolled one up randomly on a wandering monster table.  To fit it into the scene, I conceived of the sphinx being wounded and nearly dead, then letting the party decide what to do when a party of orcs led by one big ogre turned up, tracking the sphinx they knew they had wounded.

The party fought the ogre and orcs (not my decision) and then healed the sphinx (again, not my decision).  They asked the sphinx about the Egyptian symbol (without prompting) and being a sphinx, of course He-ni-te could give them a good solid lead on where they should go.  She is, after all, nearly 4000 years old.

Now, if they had killed the sphinx, would that have meant they couldn't find the needed location to return the ankh?  Nonsense.  He-ni-te is not the only person in the universe to be an expert on ankhs.  There are many, many experts in Egypt and the party did have to go to one anyway to narrow down the general lead He-ni-te could give.  Things just worked out that instead of having to go first to Alexandria and then perhaps to Cairo, spending weeks talking to sages and scribes, they were able to go directly to Minya and talk to sages there.

Did He-ni-te tell them a story about the ankh?  Not really; she didn't recognize it.  It's older than she is and her information could only be general, as it did not apply directly to her species.

He-ni-te did tell the party a very long story about the gestation of sphinxes, how long they have dwelt in the Sahara and how once most of the Sahara was vibrant grassland, full of creatures and beasts and communication between the jungles and highlands to the south and the north.  She talked about religious cults that once worshipped sphinx and about how the truly ancient Egyptians of 4000-3750 BC were much more aware of the world beyond the Nile delta than anyone today supposes.

The party really enjoyed all of this knowledge - but they did not in any way act upon it.  It was a 'story' in the real sense but it was full of vague details that might someday be interesting to a party seeking something in the desert . . . but not the party running, as it happened.

He-ni-te also told the party the stories about the ship - the same stories I've told on the blog.  These too were interesting . . . but not particularly inspiring as it happened, for the party is much more interested in the tangible qualities of the ship than in its origin.  The origin (or attempts to find the ship) aren't really necessary to the ship's function.  That was how I wanted it.  I don't need to know who made the hammer I use in order to nail a shed together.  I saw the ship in the same way - even though someone did make it and that story is interesting.

When the party succeeded in returning the ankh, we did discuss for a little while what might be the fallout once this source of power was able to transform the jackalwere cult.  There are jackalwere communities all along the south edge of the Sahara from Darfour to Kano (northern Nigeria) and these are fairly warlike.  In fact, the Bornu Empire in my world is a jackalwere empire built on great masses of human slaves.  My other offline party (the one I haven't been talking about, the one based in Transylvania, that includes my daughter) is on a quest of their own in the Sahara just now, seeking a crystal of perpetual ice that is apparently keeping a small town in the Sahara comfortable temperate - the party wants to steal it so they can hatch a remorhaz egg in Transylvania and cause terror (not, sincerely not, my idea).

This other party is just beginning to find out about the jackalwere.  They are also adventuring 2 years later in the timeline than the players who returned the ankh . . . so, do the jackalwere the party is venturing towards have it?  And is this a 'story'?  Or is it just a series of events that happen to have something to do with each other.

Am I reworking this one campaign's story specifically as a set-up for my daughter's party?  Actually, no.  I don't even know if the party will move far enough south to find the jackalwere cult where I perceive the ankh has found it's way.  They might.  At the moment, my daughter's party have no idea about any this.  At most, just now, they know there is a jackalwere empire to the south of where they are (unless they happen to read this post).  I'm just pointing out how I keep multiple events and narratives in my head - because everything, even in an immense world like mine, is connected.

Meanwhile, the players who returned the ankh have used the ship to get to Afghanistan.  They're trying to return a Zoroastrian symbol . . . who to, they have no idea.

Try as I might, I cannot tell precisely how I am telling a 'story' to the players.  The 'connected events' are only connected if the players continue to act in accordance with the details that will come to light if they go here instead of there.  In ordinary life, we don't perceive the events we experience as a story because there is no storyteller (except for the one we invent so this all makes sense).  I argue that as a DM, I do my level best to produce this effect by not automatically making every connection between events that I might.  By ridding many connections from my world (the sphinx that is not conveniently in possession of every detail about the ankh) I create greater freedom for the players.  I intentionally break the sequence that stories are usually presented through.

I don't want to manage a sequence of tailored, logical events.  I prefer a cacophony of multiple irrational, unconnected details that might go in any direction, depending on how the party wants to go.  I'm busy making an interactive model.  That is all.   It is the game I want to play: total player agency, interesting places, interesting things to do, time to make up my mind about what to do and a DM that just didn't care.  I run the world I would want to run in.

As a player, if I didn't want to stay here, I'd want a DM that could run the next valley, the next country, the next entity or whatever with as much passion as the one I left behind - so that when the party agreed upon a setting feature that appealed to us, the DM would smile, tilt his head and say, "Sure, I've got great ideas for this place."

Then we could settle down and run in our way, with our ideas and our motivations for making stories that suited us.  Hell, as a player I don't want a DM that 'makes stories.'  I want a DM that rolls dice so that I can find out if the plan I made worked or if the fallout was manageable.  I want a DM that can see past the telling of stories and dive right into the narration of the real.

Hey, that's a good title.


Some bright soul is going to latch onto the ogre/orcs wounding the sphinx and tracking it as a 'story' that I'm telling the players.  The problem with that is that the players aren't part of that story and not in any way required to take action once they find the story going on.  There was plenty of opportunity for them to fade into the background and take no action at all.  As such, I'm still not telling the party's story - I am only shedding light on the presence of endless creatures moving about my world and doing things to one another.


  1. Hello Alexis !

    Just finished reading every post you made since August - life has been very demanding those last months ...

    Great posts, very great. Sad that you're still in the kitchen, and that you cannot write as much. But you still deliver damn good blows to the mind ! :)

    Once again, you left me more inspired, feeling greater and more motivated - and much ashamed to lack the drive and willpower that you have. The daily grind and the obligations have hit me more than I knew ...

    Still, tonight is game night, and I'll do my best to be as good a DM as I can, following the leads you so generoulsy give us ^^.

    Best things to you, and happy Un-Birthday !

  2. Thanks for the extensive answer! Thinking about NPCs as agents in the world with aims and preferences makes it a lot easier to consider how they should interact with the players. Probably because, well, one can more easily portray NPCs who act like real people.

  3. Perhaps, Tim.

    Some people seem to have this idea that it would be less interesting.

  4. Funny . . . I got into a conversation yesterday about that. Apparently, we should have annoying NPCs whose only purpose is to harass the PCs, because that's a trope and (as best I can understand) tropes are good things.

    Alexis, thank you very much for your blog. I've learned more about the Art of DMing in the short time I've been around here than in my previous three decades of gaming.

  5. So the conclusion of the conversation was "I've been running games for 20+ years, and in that time I've been asked to run more games, so obviously my style works."

    It's like I was reading How To Run all over again.

    The enemy is "good enough." I don't want to be "good enough."


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