Friday, June 6, 2014

How to be a Storyteller (or a Game Master or a Dungeon Master or…)

How many people think of this guy when I say "Dungeon Master"?

            When you write a gaming blog, you spend a lot of time reading other people’s blogs or listening to their podcasts.  It’s a great way to get a few new ideas or just to see what’s going on out there.  Regardless of which RPG the authors play, one common thread runs through nearly every RPG podcast and blog – a focus on being the Game Master or Dungeon Master or Storyteller.  (Although Game Master is more generic, this is a blog primarily about Classic World of Darkness games; so I’ll be using the term Storyteller.) People ask for advice on how to run a better game or how to deal with a problem player or how to handle a problem with the rules.  The questions asked and the advice offered revolves around the Storyteller.  Even I am guilty of focusing on the Storyteller as I capitalize “Storyteller” but never “player.” 
The Storyteller is the central figure in any role playing group.  He or she is responsible for many aspects of the session not just limited to running an individual adventure.  The card board Storyteller Screen is the fortress that not only defends the Storyteller’s campaign notes from the prying eyes of players and allows hidden dice rolls that the Storyteller may fudge to the PCs detriment or benefit, but that same castle-like screen is also a metaphor for the daunting task of transitioning from player to Storyteller. 

Amongst my former gaming group, the shift from player to Storyteller was a common topic of discussion.  Many of the players wanted to run their own games but were intimidated by the work involved and the thought of being responsible for every once else having a good time.  And I tried to encourage all of my players to at least attempt running one session.    Eventually, some did try their hands at running a game. 
Taking up the mantle of Storyteller is a frightening prospect.  Players are only responsible for creating and role playing their own character and showing up prepared with their character sheet, dice, and pencils.  The Storyteller must create a variety of NPCs, role play each of them, create the setting, determine the plots of the game and how players’ actions affect those plots, adjudicate rules fairly, and most importantly ensure that everyone at the table is having fun.  Being a Storyteller is time consuming as well.  Storytellers have to invest time to design NPCs, dream up action set pieces, draw dungeons or any of the other various activities required to make a session work. 
The difference in responsibilities is tremendous, and I know many players who have played RPGs for years and never stepped behind the screen.  Storytellers are a rare breed because it’s not easy to run a game.  Others, like myself, who have been Storytellers more often than they have been players feel trapped behind the screen. They get burnt out because of the time and effort required. 
Players spend many hours asking for advice from Storytellers on how to run a game or looking for information on blogs like this one.  It seems like these nascent Storytellers don’t want to run their game until they are prepared for every eventuality.  Personally, I’ve spent hours in conversation with my own players offering advice on what to expect when running a game. 

The simple truth is that until you run a game, you don’t need any advice.  Stop thinking about running a game.  Stop asking for advice on how to run a game.  Just run the game. 
For the rest of this article, I’m going to write under some assumptions: the person making the transition from player to Storyteller has played a table top RPG at least once prior, has a play group, has access to the appropriate dice for the system, has read the necessary rule books and is familiar with the rules.  Those assumptions are also the only things that anyone needs to become a Storyteller.  Being the Storyteller for a game, regardless of the complexity of the rules, is simply a matter of doing it, “Storytelling” or “DMing.” 
The only way to become a Storyteller is to run a game.  Let me say that again.  The only way to become a Storyteller is to run a game.  Plan the adventure, invite the players over, and run the adventure.   Whether it’s a good session or a bad session is immaterial to simple performance of the duties of a Storyteller.  Most likely, the first session will be bad, but that’s a good thing. 
I’m not fond of extended analogies, but Storytelling is like swimmig. You can read all the books that you want, watch all of the how to videos posted on Youtube, and practice on dry land all you want, but until you are in the water, you aren’t going to swim.  And like your first time swimming, it’s a struggle to just stay afloat.  Unlike swimming, there really isn’t a shallow, safe end of the pool in which to practice.  Thankfully, no one is going to die if a first time Storyteller runs a bad game.  Well, maybe a few PCs, but the players will be fine. 
Taking the swimming analogy all the way!
And like swimming (yes, I’m going to continue this analogy), with practice you become more proficient.  With help, you could learn how to do the backstroke or sidestroke.  You might even get so good that you try swimming in open water, like a lake or the ocean.  With special lessons you could even learn to SCUBA dive.  But none of these enhancements are possible without actually swimming for the first time, flailing about in the water, and being very bad at it. 
Simply put, the only way to be a Storyteller is to dive in and run your first session.  If it’s anything like my first time running a game, then you will fail miserably.  Not just the first session either, you’ll have lots of bad sessions.  I made a lot of mistakes and screwed up a lot of games.  I ran some games that I just should not have run.  I allowed players power game and run roughshod over plots and NPCs.  Honestly, I might have encouraged power gaming at one point.   I did pretty much everything that a Storyteller shouldn’t do.  I am infamous for some spectacularly bad Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 games and Legends of the Five Rings games.
I'm pretty sure this guy's ran a few bad sessions too. 
Players in my last group once told me that they didn’t want to run their own game because they thought their games wouldn’t be as good as mine.  They didn’t see the point in running their own games when they had me and my games were so good.  What they forgot was that I had been running RPGs since 1997.   From all those bad games and mistakes, I learned what worked and what didn’t.  I also made use of the resources around me.  I asked for advice from players and other Storytellers.  I studied and ran other systems.  I played in other people’s games and I learned from their successes and mistakes.  Now, I listen to gaming podcasts and read blogs about gaming to further hone my skills as a Storyteller, but these activities are peripheral to actually running a game. 
At the beginning of this article I talked about how intimidating it was to take on all those responsibilities of being a Storyteller, and those responsibilities remain.  Many of you are worried about failing in front of your friends.  No one wants to fail, and no one wants to be laughed at.  And this is going to sound weird coming from a pessimist, but those of you considering stepping behind the screen and running a game can’t think about the possibility for failure.  You have to think about the future successes and all the great sessions you’ll run.  Until you actually start running games, those successes won’t come.   Take a chance and see what happens. 
The only way to become a Storyteller is to run a game. Only after you’ve become a Storyteller can you start the long process of becoming a good Storyteller which is the goal of any Storyteller.  


  1. Almost the same, but the absolute lack of worry about any other question excepto to storyteller is a flaw too. Again, depend upon the game, the Storyteller (the term is correct to Ars magica games too) is a player too, the problem is forget than there are no competitive mandate on the table... Again, i am one Storyteller/DM/GM/whatever specific term to the game many more times than player, and others i play more but i feel the impulse to return to the place again.
    Good article!

  2. Heey Anthony, I really love your posts and just how passionate you are about VtM :) I was wondering if you have some free time to perhaps help me with conceptualizing a character I'm planning to make for VtM? You seem like a good storyteller and a Toreador fan, and I want to make a more different Toreador, so I was wondering if you had the time for a small discussion? If you do, I'd be happy to send you an e-mail :)

    Best regards,

    1. Just send me an email with your questions. I'll be happy to answer them! Thank you!