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My Storytelling Guides: My Storytelling Guides

My Storytelling Guides: My Storytelling Guides

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My Storytelling Guides: My Storytelling Guides

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Oct 25, 2020


- My Guide to RPG Storytelling -

I've been role-playing all my life and I've run a lot of well-received campaigns. My players asked me what made my games work and this book is the result. This isn't a rulebook for any gaming system, but it's a how-to for my style of creating memorable NPCs, planning games, and engaging with your players.

- Foreword, by Erica Lindquist

- On Storytelling

- Before the Game

- Building Your Story

- Running Your Game

- Players & Player Characters

- Problems

- Rules & Mechanics

- Setting & NPCs

- My Storytelling Guide Companion -

My players asked me how I ran my games and what made them work, so I wrote a book. Then they asked for specific examples and ideas, so I wrote another one.

This companion to My Guide to RPG Storytelling goes deeper into creating in-game crises, with lists of example scenarios and twists. The second half covers using voices, mannerisms, and archetypes to create NPCs, including some of the most memorable NPCs from my own games and what made them work.

- From Dream to Dice -

I've written two other books (so far) on my tricks and tools for running table-top role-playing games. But now it's time to put those tools to the test – making an actual RPG campaign. Right here, right now, on the page. So let's do this!

I'll start with the seed of a story idea, go through world-building and character creation, then expanding that basic plot out into scenes, combats and crises. This is an up-close, behind the scenes look at how I make a game.

Then I'll run the campaign for my group. The second half of this book details what went right, what went wrong, how I kept the game moving and my friends entertained.

From the dream that inspired me to the dice hitting the table, this is how I run an RPG.

Oct 25, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

Erica and Aron are the science fiction and fantasy authors of the Reforged Trilogy, In the House of Five Dragons and the recently completed Dead Beat occult detective serial. Their short fiction has appeared in eFiction and Abomination magazine. They also write paranormal adventure erotica under the porn names of Natalie and Eric Severine. Aron and Erica live together in Sacramento, California, but miss the dark pines and deep snow of the mountains. Their education included medicine, biology, psychology, criminal justice, anthropology, art, martial arts and journalism before they finally fell in love with writing fiction. Now they can’t quite remember why they bothered with all of that other stuff.

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Anteprima del libro

My Storytelling Guides - Aron Christensen

Copyright © 2018

Aron Christensen

and Loose Leaf Stories

All rights reserved

ISBN: 9781643190518

Cover art by Tithi Luadthong

Edited by J. Cameron McClain, Erica Lindquist, Amber Presley, Jason Coleman and Lacey Waymire

These books and their author are not associated with any specific role-playing game company or system.

Find more of my books at


My Guide to RPG Storytelling


1. On Storytelling

2. Before the Game

3. Building Your Story

4. Running Your Game

5. Players & Player Characters

6. Problems

7. Rules & Mechanics

8. Setting & NPCs

9. The End

My Storytelling Guide Companion


1. About Crises

Using crises

Solo & group crises

Tanks & defenders in crises

Parts of a crisis

Free will

2. Crisis Examples & Lists


Medical crises

Technical crises

The showdown



Sports & games

Travel & survival


Fighting on the run


Disarming a bomb



Final thoughts on crises

3. Non-Player Characters (NPCs)


Voice & mannerisms

NPCs in combat




My antagonists

Final NPC thoughts

From Dream to Dice

1. Introduction

2. Getting Started

3. World-Building

4. The Dream

The First Outline


The Second Outline

5. The Dice

Chapter 1 - Outline

Chapter 2 - Outline

Chapter 3 - Outline

Chapter 4 - Outline

Character Creation

Finishing Touches

6. Running the Game

Chapter 1 - Session Notes

Chapter 2 - Session Notes

Chapter 3 - Session Notes

Chapter 4 - Session Notes

7. The End

Also by Aron Christensen

More by Aron & Erica

It was Aron’s story­telling that first inspired me to write. Back when I was in college, he ran a sci-fi game that prompted me to create the entire Reforged series. The characters changed a lot and the books bear only a few similarities to his game, but it was the exciting, cinematic experience that he created which got me going.

If I had started gaming with just about anyone else, I doubt I would have stuck with it. I’m not a fan of the classic dungeon crawl. I’m not interested in rolling hit after hit in an endless series of battles. I don’t want to play in a game where the evening’s progress is counted by the number of rooms we cleared. I don’t like games that feel like a grudge match between the Story­teller and the players, each trying to outlast the other and bend the rules to get ahead. The best game, I say, isn’t a competition. It’s a story we tell together.

When I game, I want to feel like I’m in a movie or a novel. I want drama, tragedy, excitement and romance. When we kick down the door to a dungeon, I want it to be because we’re there to rescue the dethroned king, not just because there’s treasure in the next room. I want a plot arc with a climactic finish that leaves me feeling like I never wanted the game to end, but that this was always the way it had to end.

Aron’s games give me exactly that. For years, he’s kept me playing and writing. He’s my muse, my inspiration. His sense of drama and character even made him my coauthor. I need the flair and flavor he brings. So when another player suggested that Aron write his own guide to story­telling, I quickly seconded the idea. Aron’s role-playing games have been a joy to many and perhaps through this book, to you as well.

First, what to expect

This guide contains a lot of advice about how to run a role-playing game (RPG), but not the basics of what they are or why you might want to play one. That’s not what this is about.

If you’re reading this book, then I assume that you have some basic knowledge of RPGs, the systems for running them and where to buy a bag of your favorite snack food. Each role-playing system has entire books dedicated to the rules of that game. While I will cover a few rules issues, this guide isn’t about any single system. It’s about how to tell your story and how to use the rules to do it.

A lifelong love

I’ve been role-playing since almost before I can remember. My first games were informal and amateur, without paper or dice. Most kids play make-believe. This was just more structured and collaborative – describing a character’s actions to someone else, who then told me how the world responded.

It was a great way to fill some long afternoons. I graduated to proper character sheets and dice at about ten years old and since those first days, I’ve played in a lot of different games and run many more of my own.

It’s rewarding. The time and effort I invest in my games shows, I hope, and my players seem to have a good time. They talk about my games between sessions and look forward to the next one. They whine when I call the day to an end and when the campaign is finished. They reminisce about old games afterward and it’s great to know that they had so much fun playing through the story I made for them. That’s what keeps me coming back to run another game.

Telling the story together

Story­telling is interactive. I may create and run the game, but that’s only half the story. Every player brings their own character to the table and their own unique flavor. It’s like writing a book and saying, I’m working on a fantasy novel. Hey buddy, who do you want to be in it? A dwarven beard-smith? Sure! Let’s see what I can do with that.

As Story­teller, you present the players with choices and challenges. They react, but then you have to respond to the players. Back and forth it goes. I can never guess what my players will do and the result is a surprise for everyone. Not that you can’t stack the deck – but more on that later. The end product is a story that we all created together and a much better one than anything I could have dreamed up alone.

What I do differently

The way I create a role-playing game campaign is a little different than what other gaming groups I’ve played with do. I don’t run dungeon crawls. Action scenes are designed to be exclamation points that change the pace of the game and inject energy into a session. Non-stop combat quickly loses its effect when there’s no­thing else between butchery sessions except preparing for the next roomful of battles.

In my games, characters are seldom attacked at random and each combat scene is supposed to move the story forward. An occasional session full of fighting can feel dangerous and challenging, but that’s not how I run my typical game.

Now, all of my advice is based on certain expectations and taste. I figure that you’ve run a game or two at this point, or have at least read up on the rules of the RPG you want to run – enough to know what you like, what you don’t, and whether what I’m talking about will work for you at all.

Of all the titles for the person running the game, the one I like best is Story­teller, so that’s the one I’ll be using in this guide.

At the most fundamental level, Story­telling is what I’m trying to do. Every story has heroes, villains and danger. The Story­teller is the one who weaves it all together to entertain their friends. For me, it’s a story rather than a fight or even an adventure. It’s not a competition between me and my players and I’m not out to beat them or to win, just to tell the best story that I can and to entice my players into telling the story with me.

My games are very much influenced by the tone and pacing of books and movies. Whereas many (though certainly not all) role-playing and video games center on combat, good books and movies have complex plot lines, engaging mysteries and rich, relatable char­acters. I like to run investigations and social scenes that are just as important to the story as combat. Some of our best game sessions contain no fighting at all, or even a single roll of the dice. My goal is to create a sense that my players are in their favorite movie.

It can be difficult to balance your players’ contributions. If you don’t leave the players enough room to add their own flavor, they may wonder why you didn’t just hand them a script. But on the other hand, if the Story­teller doesn’t make anything happen, then the players are left to figure out the whole game on their own, often wandering aimlessly or overlooking the story entirely.

The key is to remember that role-playing is a team sport. Every­one takes part and everyone contributes.

The human imagination is boundless and this style of story­telling taps into that.


Why me?

In my defense, this book wasn’t my idea. It was my players’. Aside from a fading and well-worn Achievement in Story­telling certificate printed up by a few of my players, I don’t have any real credentials. I don’t know of any colleges that offer RPG degrees. (Damn!)

But I’m happy to share everything that I’ve learned from twenty-five years of game campaigns. If any of my ideas are new to you, try them out. If you haven’t made any of the mistakes that I have, maybe this book will serve as a checklist of things to avoid. Use what works for you and your players. Forget the rest.

Sounding boards & assistants

Ah, the loneliness of command. Story­telling can be a bit like being the captain of a ship. You have to maintain a certain distance from your players while you’re creating the game, and you generally can’t share the burden of decisions with them. Sharing ahead of time ruins the surprise for your players: Hey guys, should I kill off your trusted friend in the second chapter or wait until the climax of the game?

If you’re lucky enough to have someone who likes role-playing but isn’t in your game, then maybe you do have someone to talk with. If you can, find a sounding board for your ideas, some­one who is interested in the same sort of stories and games that you are.

Sometimes I think some idea is just perfect and it’s not until I actually run the scene that I realize it was never going to work out as well as I thought. A sounding board gives you the chance to talk about your ideas, to get them out of your head and in front of you where you can see them from a different perspective. Often, all it takes is a little distance to see where you’ve gone wrong.

Even if all your sounding board does is listen, it’s better than talking to yourself. Just having to explain your idea can show you the places where it doesn’t work. And if your sounding board has suggestions for improvement, even better!

One of the most important things you can get from a sounding board is the player perspective. I’ve played in a lot of games, but when I run a campaign, my mind is in a very different place. I’m thinking about story and theme and system, not the finer points of my players’ tastes. Without a little help and guidance, I find myself doing the same things that I hate when I’m playing… and then wonder why none of my friends liked that scene.

Sometimes it can be hard to listen to your sounding board, but it’s important. It was a sounding board that talked to me about my plan to capture the characters in one game, and how it makes players feel. As I listened, I recalled being in similar positions as a player, how much I hated feeling powerless and thrust into such a passive role. But I really wanted to capture my characters. It was going to be awesome, nothing like when other Story­tellers did it! I was in Story­teller mode and absolutely itching to throw the characters behind bars.

My sounding board was right, though. That kind of treatment makes players feel powerless. They’re trapped and angry and want to get out. They’re not going to sit quietly in cages and listen to the villain’s cool soliloquy. They want to be busting down doors and picking locks.

I finally managed to convince myself to cut the capture scene, but without that outside perspective, I would have gone right ahead with my plan and doubt that it would have ended well. The more open you are to criticism and editing, the more you’ll get out of a sounding board. You don’t have to follow every suggestion, but listen to other ideas and give them a real chance.

If you need more help than just an outside perspective, sometimes it’s helpful to have assistants. A sounding board simply listens and maybe makes a few suggestions, but an assistant is down in the trenches with you, helping you to run the campaign.

I like to use music in my games, as well as a computer-based tool to create maps and track character tokens, and to have all of my notes right at my fingertips. I prefer to do it all myself, but I’m a bit of a control freak. If you find yourself neglecting music or maps or anything else because you’re too busy – or worse, making basic mis­takes while you’re screwing around with a prop or computer – then maybe it’s time to give that job to some­one else so that you can focus on your job: Story­telling.

Working with a Costory­teller

A Costory­teller is a luxury model assistant and sounding board all in one. A Costory­teller is like a copilot. They help you develop your plot, outline the story, run the game and might even play in it, too. (Though they will have to play dumb from time to time.) If you have weaknesses in your games – like weaving mysteries, running social scenes, creating NPCs or managing combats – then consider taking on someone who’s good at those things.

Ever since you did the Costory­teller thing, you’ve been able to keep up with our craziness even quicker.


Initially, I tried out working with a Costory­teller because I was planning an adventure game and wanted to include a mystery element. But I sucked at mysteries. I’m just no good at breaking my plot points down into pieces small enough that the players have to put them together, but not so small that each one is meaningless. My wife, on the other hand, was great at those kinds of games. We decided to combine the powers of her investigation stories and my adventure plots to become one big Story­telling Captain Planet. The result was exactly what I wanted!

Sharing creative control of a game can be tough. Egos vie for dominance and you have to figure out how to work together. Establish early on who is the Story­teller and who is the Costory­teller. A ship can only have one captain – when you run into different ideas, you eventually have to decide one way or the other. Both people have to buy into that idea, and you can’t be bitter when it doesn’t go your way.

Be open to your Costory­teller’s opinions and criticism. Don’t bring some­one else in to listen or help if you’re just going to ignore their feed­back. The more open your mind, the more you will get out of a Costory­teller. You can help each other through your weaknesses and com­bine your strengths.

Here’s the bottom line: you both want to create a good game. It’s not personal. It’s about the project, not your partner. So drop the egos. Maybe you don’t get to use your idea the first time, but experiment and see how the plan goes. Maybe it’ll end up better than you thought, or maybe it’ll suck and you really should have gone with the other idea. Either way, you learned something.

How do you split the work?

I’ve worked with Costory­tellers by talking in person, as well as tossing ideas back and forth via email. Real-time conversations are nice because you can brainstorm more quickly, but using email provides a written trail so you don’t forget the details later on. Email also gives you time to think out your idea so you can get them straight before pitching them to another person. Nothing sucks more than tossing out a completely inarticulate plan that’s entirely misunderstood or misinterpreted.

You can send game notes back and forth as each Story­teller works on the part they’re good at. Or one person can handle all the outlines and notes, melding your ideas into a single plan. Experiment with your creative process until you find the method that lets both of you best utilize your strengths.

I can’t say what’s going to work for you, but you’ll either find a balance or find that you don’t work well with a partner. If not, or if your partner doesn’t complement your style, don’t worry about it – but don’t complicate things by bringing one in.

Collecting your thoughts

Responding to your players’ scenes and unconventional plans is a full-time job. Keeping the plot moving forward is another full-time job. So that’s at least two full-time jobs and it’s easy to let one inter­fere with the other. When you spend all your time reacting to player requests and running their side plots, your story can fall by the way­side. But if you only concentrate on pushing your story for­ward, you may limit your players and miss out on the stories that they want to tell.

Some Story­tellers are comfortable winging their games. They easily juggle the plot and the players and every­thing else spawned by the chaos of role-playing. It’s a skill that helps give players more freedom and can make the game more dynamic.

But that’s not a skill I have. And you don’t have to be good at winging it to run an excellent RPG. Players aren’t going to quit your game if they do something crazy and you need to call a short break to write up some new stats or figure out how best to respond to them. Better to take a breather than paint yourself into a corner with rushed improvisation.

Taking some time to collect your thoughts if you have been thrown for a loop is crucial. Too much stress leads to burnout. Don’t let your­self be pressured if you’re not ready to go. Running a game by the seat of your pants can be stressful and you’ll get worn out if you do it too much. A high-quality game is good payoff for a little patience on everyone’s part, and better than a Story­teller who quits because they’re at the end of their rope.


To plan or not to plan, that is the misquote. It’s a highly individual thing and what works for some Story­tellers will be a disaster for others. Some are great at playing it by ear, writing the story as they go, or even as they run it. Maybe they have an over-arching plot in mind, or maybe they don’t. Some Story­tellers are at their best when they prepare detailed notes and plans and backup plans. Some aren’t.

It’s up to you to figure out how you work best, but don’t start a game that you can’t finish. Whether you need time to plan, or the energy to wing it, do it and dedicate yourself to the doing. An un­committed or half-assed game isn’t fun for anyone.

Good preparation lets you move the story at a good pace.


Story­telling preparation generally falls into one of three categories: seat of the pants (making it up as you go along), planning a single session at a time, or pre-planning the entire game campaign up front.

If you can run an entire campaign making up stats as you go and reacting to the players while still telling a coherent story, then you rock. That kind of game is extremely flexible and nimble. You can go wherever the players or some sudden thought of your own takes you. It’s the most purely collaborative story.

Those who take it a session at a time are pretty close in flexibility. When you start that week’s game session, you have a plan. You may not know what the next session holds because you’re waiting to see how this one goes. It’s a little more structure than total improvisation, but you can still move easily in any direction because you haven’t planned the next session or the one after that.

But here’s where that can bite you in the ass. Let’s say you have a plot, maybe stopping [insert catastrophic evil here] from destroying [insert nice thing here]. If you start following a new storyline, you may move the game away from your original plot. Now you have to split your focus between advancing your main story and reacting to whatever happened in the game.

I got pretty cocky once and tried just winging a campaign. The whole thing. Yeah, I figured I was so experienced that I could come up with a vague plot and then roll it out as I went. It was the biggest train wreck of an RPG I’ve ever run. Winging it is definitely not my strong suit.

One of the greatest dangers of winging it and the one that can really ruin a game – because it’s not all bad; those tangents and the road back to the plot can be a lot of fun – is that you risk becoming a passive force in your own story.

Let’s say you’re being a more literal Story­teller, reading a bed­time story to a child. The child keeps asking questions about what Goldilocks was doing in the woods, what flavor the porridge was, where the bears had gone all day, and why they left their porridge on the table… You can answer all of those questions and you can make as much of a story out of them as you like. But if you do, then you’re not telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears anymore. The kid is deciding what the story is, not you.

One Story­teller told us that he felt like he could never predict what we would do or how we would meet challenges in his games, so he didn’t even try to plan most sessions ahead of time. The group would encounter something and he was forced to react in­stantly, without time to plan. And because there was no preparation, he just used the same maps and bad guys over and over again. The fights were the same, with no surprises and not much variety. We surprised the Story­teller far more often than he ever surprised us.

The players got frustrated because they had no idea where to go or what to do in this purely reactive game. We had to guess at what might lead us toward the main plot and then the Story­teller had to scramble to place something along the path that we had chosen. The game sessions that were more thoroughly planned were the strongest of that campaign, but most of the others suffered.

If you’ve decided to Storytell, then tell your story. The players collaborate and weave their characters into your creation, not the other way around. Make things happen to the players, don’t wait for them to do everything. They don’t know your plot and they can’t guide the story alone. People should come to them for help, villains should menace them, danger should court them. Shit needs to go down and the players’ role is to react to it. You take their reactions and make it a part of the game, but the Story­teller needs to be an active force, not a passive one.

If you spend a lot of time in planning, you have other issues to deal with. I work best when I have time to develop my story into a detailed outline. It’s not unusual for me to spend a hundred hours on a campaign before I even run the first session. While I’m playing in someone else’s game, I will start working on mine. (Quietly, though. I don’t want to distract players from the game we’re playing at the time.)

I function best when I have a well-assembled game, and my players have more fun, too. I usually end up with NPC lists, maps, a high- and then low-level outline, chapter-by-chapter notes, with a second draft of those notes that include rolls, rules and stats and sensory details.

The obvious downside of this approach is a huge investment of time and effort before the game even begins. If you’ve got school, a job, kids, or even one of those social lives I’ve heard so much about, then you may only be able to spend a few hours each week on your game. At that rate, it can take a year to create a campaign – so if you want or need that kind of preparation, plan ahead.

What other problems can detailed planning cause? Well, if you get too attached to your plan or too rigid in adhering to it, then you lose flexibility. You start saying no to players when they want to do anything that’s not in your notes. You can make them feel like actors reading from a script instead of players making their own choices.

Just because winging it may lure you into being passive doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. And just because you plan your game in detail doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically become a dictator.

When I plan out my games beforehand, I don’t have to devote much energy to moving the story along once the campaign begins. I know where it’s going and I know what will happen to the characters. So the rest of my energy can be devoted to running with their ideas, taking their tangents and making them work for the story. Players can enjoy their exploration and experimentation and I can use it to add to the plot instead of taking us away from it.

Or I can let it take us away, confident that I know where we need to go after­ward. My campaign is all planned out, after all, so even if we go way out into left field, I have a whole week to think about the con­sequences of those choices and about where to take it next. I don’t have to spend time on the basics – the story, the scripted com­bats and crises – because that frame­work is already finished. If done right, planning can make you more flexible than rigid.

There are some other advantages to all of that up-front work. I end up with heaps of stats and rolls for doing all the things I have mapped out. I have the time to plan for every crazy thing I think the players could pull, and I have a whole campaign’s worth of stats, scenes and crises.

So when the players inevitably dream up some mad plan, I can easily cannibalize all of those notes to make up the new scene. I either use the one that I planned in whole, or else raid it for parts. I’ve crafted a half-dozen scenarios before­hand and my players only used one, so I just copy and paste the leftovers later when I need some­thing similar. Nothing is ever wasted and it cuts down on my work.

Either planning ahead or playing it by ear can be great ways to run a game. Just be aware of the traps inherent to both and make sure you don’t fall into them.

Sandbox vs. rail games

Sand­box and rail games are a bit like all that stuff about winging it or planning ahead. But instead of being about how you plan the game, this section is about how your players interact with your world and the plot that you’ve created. Sand­box and rail games are terms usually used to describe video games, but they can apply to Story­telling and gaming styles, too. So I’m going to borrow them.

A sand­box game is a wide-open setting in which the players can go wherever they like and do pretty much whatever they want. A rail-type game has a much more linear story that the players are led through from one story event to the next.

You might think that Story­tellers who wing it always run sandbox-style games and those who plan always run rail games, but it’s not that simple. If you have the campaign all planned out but let the characters leave the story for long stretches, introducing their own elements and stories, then that’s a sand­box – even if you have a detailed plan for the game. And if you push the characters along through a specific sequence of story events, then that’s a rail game – even if you’re making up each event as you go.

And you’re not stuck with one kind of game. A given game doesn’t have to be all sand­box or all rail. It might begin as a sand­box, only to narrow in focus once the players dig into the main plot. Or start as a rail, then open up when the players leave the first chapter and step out into the larger world.

Now, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each game type. Sand­boxes are huge and open, and you can find NPCs and adventures anywhere you go. It makes the game feel big and very alive. Players have a lot of room to pursue their own ideas and stories. That’s only a problem when the players go everywhere in the sand­box except where you’ve buried your plot. If you let yourself be passive in running your sand­box game, then your plot can be neglected. But as long as you’re active, you can make this or that corner of the sand­box interesting and lure your players toward the plot, or throw danger at them and drive the characters in the general direction you want them to go.

It can be difficult to keep your story moving in a sand­box. One Story­teller I knew was great at creating large open worlds. Everywhere we went, there were NPCs to talk to, things to do, secrets to find. And she scattered her plot all over the sand­box, so it was like a treasure hunt for us to collect the pieces. But it wasn’t much of a guided treasure hunt and we reached the end with only about half of those pieces. We enjoyed the game, but when it was over, the Story­teller had to tell us the parts we missed so that the plot would make sense. It would have been a lot more fun to find out in game.

Another problem occurs when you’re not particularly good at filling the sand­box. If your players run into the same people and the same situations over and over again, no matter where they go, then the world stops feeling big. Instead, it feels like so many cardboard cutouts, or just empty and fake.

Bottom line – if you run a sand­box game, you have to be good at it. You need the ability to create a lot of NPCs and play them off the cuff. You have to be able to roll with everything your players want to do if you give them a whole world (or universe) to play in. And you’d better be able to keep them interested in the plot.

Rail-based games might sound undesirable at first, but can be just as much fun. Many Story­tellers are simply better at running a linear game than they are at filling a sand­box. When your game is on a rail, the plot unfolds consistently and logically – a lot like a good book or movie. While the players may be brought up short by a challenge they can’t yet overcome or a puzzle they need to solve, the way forward remains unambiguously clear. And a rail-style game is very easy to plan for, too, since you always know what’s coming next.

I’ve created a lot of rail games over the years and most of them have been great. I ran one campaign in which the characters were soldiers based on a battle cruiser in space. The characters spent the majority of the game chasing the villain. They tried to catch up and stop him, even as they strove to figure out his goal. They had to follow my villain every step of the way, rather than choosing their own destination. Their commanders gave them mission objectives and orders, guiding my players through my story one plot point at a time.

So how the hell did I keep that from sucking? Why didn’t the players feel limited and frustrated? For one, I made the cruiser itself a sort of miniature sand­box where they could relax and pursue their own stories while the ship was chasing after the villain. I also fostered their esprit de corps, making the characters proud to be soldiers and loyal to their commanders so that they were happy to charge down the rails. But they were also Special Forces and given a lot of leeway in how to accomplish their missions, so the rails were wide ones.

Okay, I might be stretching the metaphor a little now.

But above all, I made it clear what the stakes were if their mission failed. The threat was such that even if I had allowed the players to run around, doing as they pleased, they didn’t want to leave the rails. A strong story incentive can keep the players interested and enthusiastically pursuing a plot even if they’re playing in a completely open world.


In terms of difficulty for the players, how hard should a role-playing game be? How often do the characters get their asses kicked? Do you want gritty realism, over-the-top adventure or invulnerable super­heroes?

The answer to that comes down to personal taste. What do you and your players want? Does the setting lend itself to a certain level of difficulty? A game based in an anime high school is probably lighter than one inspired by Game of Thrones. Make your game as hard or easy as you want, but also keep your players in mind. They’re the ones who play the game. If they don’t mind rolling a new character a few times because the last one died, then that’s fine. But if your players are invested in their characters or just don’t find repeatedly losing them – or being defeated over and over again – much fun, they’re not going to want to play through a half-dozen deaths.

I don’t do dungeon crawls and strive for a more cinematic role-playing experience, so I look at combat / kicking the players’ asses / killing their characters with the same goal in mind: I’m a Story­teller and I want my game to tell a story.

If my characters are always dying, then we’re also losing all of the development and dramatic growth that went into them. And players can lose their investment in the plot when they don’t make it to the climactic resolution. What if Robin Hood died before con­fronting Prince John or the Sheriff of Nottingham? If someone else challenges them because Robin died back in chapter two, the story loses a lot of punch. Every new character has to start over from scratch and the players may never get as invested in them or the story again.

The game should be challenging enough that players have to think and work, but they’re supposed to be the heroes of the story and I want them to feel heroic. Instead of putting my players into situations where a single bad die roll might cost them a character, I prefer to let them escape with a scar of some kind. Something that’s game-affecting in a small but noticeable way: a limp that costs them a little movement, the loss of an eye that raises alertness difficulties, and so on.

The scar or limp lets the player know how close they came, but they get to move on with their character, even make the near-death experience a part of the story. The scar goes with them as a re­minder that they may come that close again, and that escaping might not always be an option.

I have killed off characters before, and I take game seriously enough that my players know I’ll do it if they risk too much. If a character can receive immediate medical attention or escape with a crippling injury, they will live. But if you ever (intentionally) drop your tenth-level fighter into a pit of molten lava, forget him because he’s gone. I can’t realistically keep a player from committing PC suicide. Knowing that if they push their luck it may cost them a character keeps my players just the right amount of anxious. But knowing that a few bad dice rolls won’t lose all their hard work makes them brave enough to take risks.

Most character deaths in my games are the result of a willfully taken risk. By personal choice or incentivized by the story, players may sacrifice their characters or choose to stand against impossible odds. When that happens, I try to give them the death that they deserve.

But back to the difficulty level of an RPG campaign. Specifically, how to scale it over the course of a game.

In order to give my game the desired dramatic arc, I start off with weaker enemies in early sessions. Level one characters face level one challenges. Beginning characters probably shouldn’t be dis­patching your bad guys in a single swing of their sword or mowing through hordes. Low-level player characters should have to work for victory, but should usually come out on top.

If you start too big, you crush all sense of scale. Ramp up the danger to make the later villains seem more dangerous. You have to start small, or there’s no real basis for comparison. There isn’t much difference for your players between bad guys who beat them down in two hits and a leading villain who can do it in just one. But if the characters are rarely defeated, they will notice – and tremble – when a villain steps up who can. It leaves you some room to grow your enemies, too.

My industrial-sized circular saw blade-wielding bruiser, Clamp, cut through swaths of enemies. When he was nearly killed by one of the main villain’s lieutenants, I knew we had just entered the major league.


Let your campaign’s difficulty curve follow the plot arc, not just the characters’ level. As the characters near the end of the story, things should be more dangerous, more threatening, and death more of a real possibility. Ramp up the bad guys’ power along with that of the player characters.

But don’t throw away those weaker villains you used back in the beginning! We’re not done with them quite yet. Every once in a while, send some of those low-level baddies up against the char­acters – probably in larger numbers. They’re a measuring stick now and the players get to compare them­selves against their earlier performance. The orc that used to take five hits now goes down in just one, and your players are piling up the bodies. It shows them how far they’ve come and how much their characters have grown in power.

It gives them confidence, too. And if your players have no con­fidence, then what do you take away when you want them to be afraid?

You need to build your players and their characters up before you can bring them low, and the little bad guys do just that. And they build up the bigger villains in the same way. Keeping the little guys around shows how big the other villains are. It can make them seem more powerful and strike a bit more fear into your players’ hearts when you most need it.

What makes a good RPG story?

In a word, conflict.

If your whole fantasy world is working together all hunky-dory, then there’s not much for anyone to do. If you want to run a game about everyone getting along and going about their perfectly happy lives, have fun. I just don’t have any advice for you.

But if there are conniving political plots, natural disasters, evil forces, or aggressive invaders… then you have a story. You need something for your players to struggle against. That’s why every role-playing book has got a long chapter or five on combat rules. It doesn’t all have to be combat, though. Battles of wits, battles of wills, and battles of influence or economics can be as thrilling as long as the stakes are high.

So if an RPG story has a conflict at its heart, how do you make it a good one? The antagonists, whatever it or they may be, need to be present in the game. Not obvious, necessarily, but present. Mysterious happenings or villains with secret identities make for fine conflict, as long as the players know about them. If their characters never encounter the bad guy or witness the mysterious events, then they won’t see your story unfolding. Players can’t struggle very well against what they can’t see.

Villains should attack the characters (physically, mentally, ec­onomically or whatever) and dangers should loom. Never let the players forget that something bad is going on. Maybe give them some peace and let the threat fade into the back­ground, but then when their guard is down – WHAM! – hit ‘em where it hurts and hit ‘em hard. It gets the characters on their feet and motivated to stop the bad thing.

I was playing a knight who refused rewards for his good deeds, only accepting enough hospitality to keep him alive and moving. When the villain used a doppelgänger to ruin my character’s good name, it turned personal very fast.


Keeping the antagonists present can be difficult, but you don’t have to attack the characters every session. Terrible things can happen in far-off places, but make sure that news of it reaches the characters, bringing the bad things home to them. Let them see refugees on the road from some city recently devastated. Harried allies may report dark plans in motion. Hell, let the characters see a mushroom cloud blooming on the horizon. They can’t escape the knowledge that the antagonist is out there being evil and must be stopped.

Sometimes it works well to personally tie the characters to the antagonist. The villain could be a fallen mentor or evil twin or whatever. Maybe they’re total strangers, but as the characters struggle against the antagonist, they scar or cripple him or her, earning the bad guy’s eternal enmity. If you do it in every single game, then it becomes trite and loses impact. But implemented sparingly, those personal ties can be used to great effect in keeping the characters motivated and the antagonist lively.

Even if every villain can’t be the former best friend or illegitimate child of a player’s character, the protagonists will, by definition, be fighting and thwarting them. As your story goes on, the villain can still form a personal connection to the good guys. It could be cold respect for a worthy foe, or slavering hatred, but the bad guy in most of the best stories singles the main characters out for special – and evil – treatment.

It makes the heroes feel extraordinary and keeps the villain en­gaged with them, even if all the bile comes in the form of long-distance threats and cursing. If the antagonist goes and hurts the people or things important to the player characters, you can get them to return that enmity. You make the conflict not only present, but very personal.

The villains don’t explain their actions. Their actions explain the villain.


Some stories don’t work for games

A role-playing

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