The Burden of Narrative in Tabletop Roleplaying Games: Part 2
By MARK WILSON
In Part 1 of this article series, we looked at the burden of creating a compelling narrative in an RPG system, one that involves other players and their input as well as the integration of mechanics into the story being told.
In this entry, I’ll be talking about some broad strategies through the lens of the system I’ve been learning and prepping to run for my group, the Avatar: Legends Roleplaying Game.
Strategy #1: How Teaching an RPG System Matters
I often lament the poor job some gamers do in teaching board games. I don’t mean to judge, but how you teach matters a ton toward the type of experience you’re most likely to have.
I don’t have to teach RPGs as often, but the same holds true.
And here’s the other point: it’s mostly NOT about mechanics.
If I can get players interested, excited and invested in a game’s premise before it starts, I’ve already won. Because the rest will come a lot easier. So for the first portion of any rules teach, I’m a pitch man, not worrying about mechanics but selling them on the idea of the game.
So if my players love the Avatar universe (and they do), this needs to be the lead-in, not an afterthought. They get to live in the Avatar-verse!
Once that’s established, the rules really do need to follow. Lots of nuance exists in any system, and Avatar: Legends is no exception. To that end, I have an ordered list of items I’ll teach in sequence. This ensures that one idea builds off of previous ones, and also that I’m not forgetting anything crucial.
For narrative to exist as a result of a game’s mechanics, the players need to be an intimate part of that equation. Getting them on board from the start is the only viable way to do that.
Strategy #2: Clear Problems, Immediate Feedback
Some of the subsystems in the Avatar game are more-or-less separate, but others can affect one another. This can be confusing to a new player.
To that end, the first few sessions I’d prepare would be very explicit in what type of situation they are. Combat encounter? Heated social exchange? Or a non-combat situation that still requires application of talents and creativity (e.g. sneaking into a compound)? Broadly speaking, these types of scenes are what you can expect in the game.
Crucially, though, they’ll often blend into one another. There are even ways to manipulate the primary social system (Balance) for combat effectiveness. This can be confusing to a new player, and was to me as a Game Master (GM) when I was first reading the rules, reading adventure scenarios, and watching live-play sessions.
The solution is to slowly work into that blending, only after the basics are absorbed by everyone. I might even ignore some of the more nuanced rules at first, introducing them into my GMing as we play. My players will know this, and we can explore the intricacies of the system at our own pace.
And in the meantime, crafting sessions with clear, obvious breaks in order to make players comfortable with these transitions can help them feel comfortable more immediately.
Strategy #3: See It Modeled
The internet is lovely, isn’t it? Everything seems to exist on it. And since I’m learning a buzzy new RPG system, examples exist for me to watch.
Much like I watched sessions of Christopher Perkins and Matt Mercer GMing when I was a newbie D&D GM, examples exist of groups whose polished and exciting sessions and campaigns are online for us to enjoy.
For clarity, I didn’t try to emulate Perkins or Mercer. Their styles are not mine. But what I was figuring out is how the game flowed under the care of a seasoned GM. How they framed scenes, how they managed encounters, and how they explained options to players. It was a buffet of game-running ideas from which I picked what I wanted.
I’m sometimes wary of homogenization of GMing due to the internet. Insane quirks should exist at many tables that wouldn’t work as well in online settings. But I also can’t deny that I learn well by seeing something done, so that I can emulate the aspects I like and ignore the ones I don’t.
Strategy #4: Player-Specific Examples and Scenarios
In D&D, I take it for granted that I can craft challenges that will allow all players to use their differentiated abilities in interesting ways.
But I don’t yet know how to do that consistently in Avatar. So I have to plan ahead for it.
Archetypes are a big deal in the game. Think of them as character classes, even more so than the type of bending you might have. And that archetype informs your personality and inner tensions, which help you to roleplay your character.
So if I know what archetypes my players are (and I will), I need to craft specific moments for them to utilize their unique talents.
The same can be true of mechanical options. What’s a problem only an earth-bender could solve? Or a technology expert (another of the game’s options)? Or a water bender? Give each a chance to shine!
Why do we play roleplaying games? There are 100s of good answers to that, but one big one is to play our characters in ways that feel unique to that character. I can’t be sure that will happen automatically, since the players won’t necessarily know how to do that right away. But with the foresight you have as a GM, you can set up excuses for them to utilize their unique talents.
This is the equivalent of setting up a problem that a Druid or Rogue or Ranger is best-suited to solve in D&D. I’ve even seen entire tables of problems specifically designed for a particular D&D class. So this is rooted in a lot of best practices for other TTRPG settings and systems.
I just need to import the idea into a new system, one that doesn’t have decades worth of supplements pre-made for it like D&D. It will take some extra work, but will be worth it.
Strategy #5: Think Episodically
Tabletop roleplaying is a collaborative experience, but Game Masters have a lot of control over the pace, tone and direction of the narrative. And why not start thinking in terms of story, much like if you were plotting out a television episode of Avatar (or any other show)?
I’ve talked before about how television is a great resource for adapting into RPGs, because its episodic format lends itself well to individual RPG sessions. And the season-long story arcs in many TV shows lend themselves well to RPG campaigns, within which you’ll have occasionally unrelated episodes (i.e. sessions).
Many of the Dungeons & Dragons one-shots I’ve run were adapted from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Doctor Who, two of my favorite shows of all-time.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with those two, but plenty of others are just as useful for adaptation.
Avatar is a show that cuts swiftly from scene to scene, keeping us rooted in the action and personal stories of its characters. I’d try to mirror this swift pace in how I frame sessions and how I manage transitions between scenes. We’re not dungeon crawling; we don’t need that sort of protracted granularity.
But like a skilled airbender, we’re gliding swiftly to the next point of interest, the way a TV show jumps to the next dramatic moment instead of lingering in the moments between them.
This will help evoke the Avatar show, and it’s how I’ll be trying to craft ideas for sessions or campaigns.
Part 3 of this series will occur, but it might be several months, as I hope to get some play experiences to corroborate the musings above. They’re already corroborated with extensive GMing experience in D&D and sporadic other systems, but the differences between systems will be the most interesting for me to delve into. So once I have an Avatar campaign under my belt, I hope to revisit this topic and add to it based on my experiences at the table.
Until then, I hope this helps you conceptualize some of your own GMing, whether it’s in Avatar or elsewhere! Good luck and have fun!