Table Techniques: Sharing Narration

As I’ve blogged about before, my gaming is so deeply infested with indie/narrative approaches that I find it quite jarring to go back to a more traditional style of play – even when playing, say, D&D. One aspect of this approach is players describing more about their setting and actions – becoming more like directors of the scene than actors. It can add a lot to everyone’s enjoyment at the table, so here are a few techniques to get started on sharing player narration.

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I guess the first question is, why bother? What are the advantages? Well, I hope we’ve moved a long way from the GM-responsible-for-fun model of RPG delivery – everyone at the table needs to help. These structures let some of the description of the shared imagined space come from players, without jarring too much with the normal GM/player conversation. These techniques allow players to add awesomeness in really interesting ways, and for most of them there’s a sliding scale of how much invention they need to do. 

It’s more engaging – for everyone, since the GM isn’t always describing stuff, and adds ownership to the ongoing plot from your players too. Also, I wouldn’t save it up for experienced players – I’ve used all of these with folks new to the game, and they’ve not met with any resistance. If anything, it’s been more experienced grognards who’ve struggled with them sometimes. So, in a rough order of complexity from simplest to most advanced, here are four techniques to share narration around a bit.

Tell Me How The Orc Dies

Player: I swing my axe… and 18, and… 10 damage!

GM: Great, that’s the bugbear down – what does it look like?

Player: He lunges forward, but I duck to one side and stove the back of his head in!

The first step is to get players to narrate their successful final blows in combat. This lets us zoom in on the awesome shot of their victory like a slo-mo death move in a video game, and happens only occasionally enough to make it a non-onerous task. It also lets your players own their success, and takes away any nerves they may have about introducing complications – there’s no expectation that they do, just that they describe how their axe shatters the skull of their opponent.

If this technique has a down side, it’s that if used in isolation you can end up asking players for a lot of the same sort of narration. Players might start thinking they need a list of finishing blows ready, and feel put on the spot in an already high-adrenaline environment. Still, it’s an obvious way to get players to describe more awesome shizzle.

Why Didn’t You Cross the Chasm?

Player: Now, I’ll pick the lock on that door – and… a 12

GM: It’s DC 15, I’m afraid, you’re not going to get it open in time – why couldn’t you get it open, you’re a master thief, right?

Player: Ah… it’s been down this tomb so long, all the mechanisms are rusty – I’d need heavy-duty picks for that, and I lost mine down that chasm two weeks ago…

An alternative is to hand over the narrative reins when players fail their rolls. When they miss, or fail an important skill check, ask them how they failed – were they distracted, did they underestimate their foe, or did they succeed a bit too well so that it might as well be a failure?

This has the advantage that you’re giving something back – although they’ve failed the roll, they get a chance to control the manner of their failure still. I’ve used this and it’s led to some great background moments – in a recent WFRP game, their escape from the Guildmasters House was delayed by the halfling’s failed Stealth roll – he found the contents of the kitchen just too tempting to stop and raid the larder. Of such momentary flavour details, great sessions are made, and this certainly helps them.

This requires a bit more buy-in, particularly from more experienced trad players, since they may be wary to describe anything that might put them at a disadvantage later – and there’s often an expectation that, if you miss, that just happens and we move on – spotlighting moments of failure takes practice too.

Tell Me About The Elves…

GM: There’s a huge forge at the end of this chamber, although it’s not been lit in years – covered in offerings for Grundelin, the All-Smith.

Player 1: What sort of offerings?

GM: Ah – well, Darak Deathspeaker’s a dwarf, he might know about Grundelin – what kind of offerings?

Player 2: It’s mining and smithing tools, hammers and anvils – but they all have to be well-used, so broken or worn.

Player 1: I was hoping for piles of gold…

Another technique is to give players some ownership of their own PC backgrounds. If someone’s playing a dwarf and dwarvish customs or lore comes up, hand the question over to them – why do dwarves all drink beer then, Branwyn Fire-Druid? This has the benefit of taking place (usually) outside of pace-driven action encounters, so players may feel more comfortable taking time with descriptions and being given the spotlight, and it can add richness to cultures that (apart from said PC) may not be given much spotlight time in the world.

As a GM, of course, listen and reincorporate where you can down the line – plot hooks derived from these will be extra special for your players. This can be a tricky technique in lore-heavy games (or any game where “what year is it?” is a relevant question) – and be prepared to shoot down the adjacent player who pipes up with a canon answer. “Well actually, in the Forgotten Realms, Moon Elves wouldn’t eat meat….” “How would you know, you’re not a Moon Elf – continue”

Some Kind of Skill Check

GM: So, as you disrupt the ritual, the goblins flee in all directions as the roof caves in – you’ve got moments to get out of the cavern before you’re buried alive! How do you escape?

Player 1: I’ll leap between the falling rocks, dodging this way and that to the exit

Player 2: I’ll estimate where the safest route is – where the cavern looks most stable, using stonecunning.

Player 3: The goblins had Wargs, right? I’ll leap onto one of them and ride it out as it flees.

GM: Okay, that looks like Athletics and Animal Handling for sure. Stonecunning normally goes off Knowledge (History), sounds a bit weird but let’s go with it. DC 15 for each of you.

To use this, rather than having set skills or abilities in mind to tackle obstacles, give the players free rein as to how they tackle it. This requires some flexibility in obstacle design, but don’t overthink it – and don’t worry about making it too challenging. Combining this with a good method for perilous tribulations (see part 2 here) allows everyone a skill roll, and so democratises it a bit. It can work in published adventures too – in a recent D&D game in Icewind Dale (using the published Rime of the Frostmaiden adventure) the PCs escaped a frost giant skeleton-infested cave by slingshotting a cauldron over the ice. 

A potential disadvantage of this is that, while you want to keep the difficulties low enough that their clever plans succeed more than they fail, players may only want to use their good skills. To mitigate this, have some other skill rolls in the adventure that use set rolls, and don’t be flexible all the time – make them roll that Stealth check sometimes.

So there you have it, four techniques to bring player narration into your games. Have you any other approaches? Let me know in the comments.

3 Comments

  1. >It can add a lot to everyone’s enjoyment at the table

    … or it can detract.

    >It’s more engaging – for everyone

    … or not.

    Many players don’t like to have authorial power outside of in-character decisions, because it can diminish immersion. Being an author (or “director”) and playing a character (or “actor”) are different things and not everyone enjoys both of them, or both at the same time. What you present here as an universal and objective truth, simply isn’t.

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  2. I mean there’s a distance between “universal and objective truth” and play advice I think – although I’d say that the style of play you describe leaves me bored whichever side of the screen I’m on.

    As a player, if I can’t even describe my character’s cool death blow against an orc, I’m going to be forever experiencing the friction between what’s in my head and what’s in the GM’s head – I’d like to be able to describe what I do, and interpret some obvious dice rolls myself, or I might as well be playing choose your own adventure.

    As a GM, the whole “I’m just a player, don’t make me describe stuff” can absolutely get in the sea. We’re all at the table to make this a success, narration shouldn’t be just down to the GM to do it.

    While I take your point some players aren’t keen on these approaches (although “immersion” is a nebulous term in terms of what it means to different players), I would say that I’ve used these reliably at hundreds of convention games, including with players who are completely new to the hobby, with great success. Different strokes and all that, but I’d still recommend them, especially for one-shot or convention GMs.

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