Storytelling 101: What to Remember as a Big-Game Storyteller

Storytelling: It’s something that every human does. Even if you’re just telling someone about the day you’ve had, you’re telling a story to them—one about your trials at the grocery store, the challenges you faced at work, and that altercation with that weird homeless dude on the street. Storytelling is also the core of any LARP, and helps bring the fictional world you’re playing in to life.

Today, I want to talk about being a storyteller for a game that regularly averages 200 to 300 people. Why? Storytelling for a larger game comes with its own drawbacks and challenges—things you don’t necessarily face with smaller games. I’ve encountered these challenges time and time again not only as a storyteller, but also as a director for Dystopia Rising: New Jersey. And it’s also a topic that I haven’t seen covered much.

Now to quickly nip any complaints in the bud: No, I don’t think smaller games are “worse” or “better” than larger games. They simply have different challenges to face as a storyteller. My experience largely revolves around larger games, which is why I’m talking about them today.

Now let’s get started! First of all, I’m going to tell you a little about me (I know. Ew. Gross. But bear with me.). I’ve helped put on two Dystopia Rising: Downfall events (averaging 800-1,000 people), and have been storytelling for Dystopia Rising: New Jersey (which averages between 200 to 300 players at a game) for the past two years. Before that, I ran numerous convention LARPs and spent time as a journalist studying how LARPs differ from one another. I’ve also written and have been involved in the creation of 11 game books, and am currently working on another game book which, editors willing, will be published in the Fall of 2017. I am also the new Director of Storytelling at Dystopia Rising: New Jersey, which means I work with storytellers (STs) on a regular basis.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s talk about storytelling! I’ve gone point by point when it comes to things you should watch out for as a storyteller for a larger game. In this case, I’m using Dystopia Rising as an example, but some points are likely applicable to other, large games.

Engage as many players as possible with as few non-player characters (NPCs) as possible.

When working with a larger game, your goal as a storyteller is to engage as many people as possible with your modules (modules are basically the “script” that a storyteller uses to help engage players) and your NPCs. Many times, you can’t afford to send out a module that only engages 6 people. If you do, the other 294 people have no plot to engage with in the meantime. Even if the module is intense, dramatic and fun for those 6 players, it’s not a great way to spend limited resources.

To go further into this, storyteller shifts usually have a defined amount of NPCs, which are effectively actors for the modules. If you send out all of your NPCs on a module that engages just 6 players, you’re not using those NPCs to their fullest capacity. Instead, ask yourself “how can I use less NPCs and make this module accessible to more people?” Nine times out of ten, all your module needs is a little tweaking. In a perfect world, you can take one charismatic NPC and entertain 10 people. However, a good rule of thumb is aiming to use one NPC to entertain at least three people.

Encourage player-driven events—and allow them to happen.

In the past, I’ve heard players say that they weren’t sure if they should hold an event in game. Apparently, they weren’t sure that the STs would approve of their actions.

Now, let me let you in on a little secret: Player-driven events are one of the greatest gifts on this worldly plane for STs. Why? Because PLAYERS ARE ENTERTAINING THEMSELVES. This means that STs can focus plot in other areas to get a broader blanket of entertainment across an entire LARP site.

Recently at Dystopia Rising: New Jersey, a player held an academic lecture in character. About 30 other players showed up for the lecture, and were entertained throughout (this is literally one person entertaining 30 people—which is an amazing ratio). During that time, we left the lecture area alone and instead focused on other areas where players weren’t being engaged.

Avoid the urge, as a ST, to break up a party or other player-driven event with plot. Instead, focus on other areas. You’ll be able to entertain more people that way.

Cast people who aren’t you as face NPCs, and make sure the face NPC has a purpose.

Face NPCs in a game are effectively reoccurring characters. A lot of the time, STs have a tendency of casting themselves in a role. This is fine if you don’t plan on having that NPC in plot that you’re running on your shift (STs act as directors during their shift, which means they need to be within a set location to direct everyone). These face NPCs should be used to help drive plot forward or do plot when you’re NOT on shift in the form of small, one-man modules. If you know you’re going to be running a lot of plot involving this face NPC, though, it’s always good to cast someone else.

In addition, there’s another thing every ST should watch out for with face NPCs. Sometimes, STs can become as invested in their face NPCs as their character and this can influence the plot that they run. A STs job is to always be impartial and, at the end of the day, have their NPCs lose (assuming the players don’t royally mess up). The goal of a face NPC is to NOT grab the spotlight, but instead to hurtle players into the spotlight. Not only that, but face NPCs should be expendable—killed as easily as any other NPC or PC. Having a face NPC that survives anything and everything frustrates players, especially if it’s a “bad guy” NPC.

Face NPCs should also always have a purpose. Having a face NPC just for the sake of having it isn’t a good reason. The Face NPC should have a specific directive, such as being a main antagonist in a multi-month plot, leading shady meetings on a regular basis, or some other necessary function. If you just want a strong NPC, then you’re better off tagging a regular player NPC for the role instead of creating a face NPC.

Write engaging modules with layers to them.

This is one of the most important things to remember is when it comes to modules. As a storyteller, you should never write a module that involves two guys going to sell things. Likely, that module will only interact with a few people, and it won’t help their characters grow or change at all. It also won’t necessarily be fun for the players since it’s a simple transaction.

Instead, give layers to that module. Make the two people refugees from a huge calamity. They’re selling things because they need to get enough money to be able to hire mercenaries to help them. They know of a group of individuals in the woods who ransacked their home. If the players can help them out, they may be able to recover some of their resources. Once they lead the players to the spot, the “bad guys” explain that the two merchants had screwed them over on a bad deal and they had what’s coming to them. It’s up to the players now to decide who is right or wrong.

Now, do you see what happened with that module? It had a merchant component attached to a module rather than the merchant component behind the whole module itself. When it comes to transferring more information to players or when it comes to merchant modules, you should always use these as components rather than the “meat” of the module. Not only will this attract different types of players, but it will also get more players involved.

Also, NEVER do NPC vs. NPC modules with no player involvement. You might as well be putting on a play when you do that, and most players won’t have a horse in that particular race.

The End

There are tons of other tips and tricks I could mention, but these are some of the main things (at least, in my opinion) that storytellers should keep in mind when it comes to larger games. I may write a follow-up post to this one just to go more in depth into some of these points, and also bring up ones I haven’t mentioned (such as the proper etiquette to follow when it comes to stabbing the shit out of characters), but this is a good start.

Remember that as a storyteller, your job is to entertain. So always make sure you create the best goddamn entertainment you can.