Lead With Story

Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rich Hershey / Fat Goblin Games

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It’s time for a little player advice. I know! Most blogs (including this one) are all about those DM tips and tricks, but the players need love too. Why? Glad you asked!

Players Need to Build the Story Too

I’ve been playing RPGs longer than I’ve been doing most other things in life. In that time I’ve run games for many groups who expected me to do all or most of the story building as a GM. I lost track of the number of times I’ve had a person hand me an elaborated, twisty, turny backstory only to have that player sit back at the table and only interact with the game mechanically. You know what I mean. When players don’t engage with the game’s story as much and instead interact with a GM’s masterfully roleplayed NPCs as if they are pieces in a board game, saying things like, “Can I roll a Persuasion check to see if this lady will give me a deal on the plate armor?” No roleplaying on their end. Not even a counteroffer for the plate armor! The same thing happens as player characters explore (“Can I roll Investigation to see if this door is trapped?”) and as they battle (“I make an attack roll with my longsword”).

When players get bogged down in the mechanics instead of the story, it can be a drag on some games. No matter how hard a GM works to immerse players, most people can never be fully invested in a story unless they choose to be. If you’re playing a horror game and refuse to be scared, it won’t be much fun for you or the GM.

Even so, I understand why this happens. First roleplaying games often have a lot of rules. Players, especially new one, are concerned with getting those rules correct. Second, putting yourself out there is a difficult thing. The pressure of saying something funny or dramatic can get to people, so they use the rules as a crutch. To help get player’s heads out of the rulebook and be less anxious, I propose a simple mantra: Put the story first.

The examples above are easily remedied if players start with the story first and save the mechanics for last. You’ll remember not to cut right to the mechanics and say things like, “But my dear, Lady Ashsmoke, you and I both know the blacksmith down the street is selling plate armor for 100 gp less a suit. Now you are my father’s friend, so let’s say I pay 50 gp less than asking price… Can I roll a Persuasion check?” This method is far better for most games. What you say doesn’t always have to be dramatic or funny or get a reaction. Saying, “I take out a small knife from my thieves’ tools and carefully run it over the seems the door, checking for traps… Can I roll Investigation?” is better than straight up asking for a roll, even though the action itself is a bit mundane.

An even better method is to put the story first without ANY mechanics after it. Let the GM be the one to ask for a check or attack roll. This keeps you focused on the story and allows the GM to do their job as rules referee. Who among hasn’t asked to roll one skill only to have the GM rule it should actually be something else anyway?

But why is the story first method a good one?

It Benefits You

Putting the story first benefits you. Not only does making yourself a more willing participant in the story help immerse you into the narrative, you’re also more likely to automatically succeed at some tasks without a check. Make a great argument, and you won’t need to roll Persuasion. Describe your character disarming a trap in a careful, logical way, and the GM may rule that no dice need to be rolled. Story first is better for you in the story and mechanically!

Like all things, describing your actions is something you’ll get better at with practice. The more you do it, the easier it will become. If you struggle with roleplaying your actions, it benefits you to do so early and often so you become great at it in no time!

It Benefits Fellow Players

If you describe the way your character overcomes obstacles, not only does it immerse you into the story, it also helps bring the narrative to life for your fellow players. Each time you do this, it encourages them to engage with the narrative the same way, which increases YOUR immersion. Win-win!

Another benefit is that your fellow players will get to know your character better, and you theirs. By roleplaying out combat and task resolution, you’ll also be able to set each other up for amazing spotlight moments.

It Benefits the GM

By helping immerse yourself and the other players in the story, you help the GM in a huge way. Why do you think bennys are given out in so many RPGs for good roleplaying? It’s a thing we want to encourage. Plus when you roleplay well, GMs can set you up with better spotlight moments that the whole table will relish watching.

How DMs Can Reinforce

DMs, here are some easy ways for us to reinforce this behavior in players.

  1. Have a chat with players. Tell them you want them to describe their actions and lead with story before asking to make a roll.
  2. Lead by example and do this for your NPCs!
  3. If you RPG allows it, reward players who lead with story by handing out bennys. If your RPG of choice doesn’t give something like FATE points or inspiration, you can likely create some little +1 tokens (or similar) without unbalancing your game!
  4. If a player doesn’t describe their action and skips right to mechanics, don’t admonish them. Instead ask them, “What do you say to the blacksmith to persuade them to give you a deal?”

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