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Personally, I've always had difficulty telling coherent stories, even from my own experiences. My wife has even coined a term (jokingly) for the type of story I tell, one that either makes no sense, is lacking important details, or ends abruptly or awkwardly. I don't have the same problems writing, because I have time to lay out my thoughts and edit them as needed.

In my storytelling as a GM, I quite frequently find myself saying things like "Oh wait, I forgot to say there's an [important thing] over there." Or when a PC tries to do something, "You can't do that because of [legitimate detail that I forgot to mention]." Quite often this affects gameplay, since if the players knew it earlier they would have acted differently.

I also face this when improvising NPC dialogue. I sometimes have long pauses or say something that isn't in-character. Most NPC conversations are purely "here's what this person knows" because I can't think of any flavor to add on the fly.

Note: I read a lot, so I know the important elements (mechanics) of telling a good story, but my brain just doesn't work fast enough to improvise.

As a GM, how can I become a more coherent, fluid storyteller?

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Do you keep your campaign notes/script nearby when you DM or are you working from your head all of the time? –  wax eagle Jun 15 '11 at 14:22
    
@waxEagle I always have them on hand, but the important details aren't usually all in one place. Maybe it's just a poorly organized adventure. –  dpatchery Jun 15 '11 at 14:25
    
I think that my answer here may offer you some assistance. I find that when things follow logically, obviously, even, they're easier to manage. Especially on the fly. –  gomad Jun 17 '11 at 1:28
    
(this does not address your problem directly) Have you considered finding a co-GM: you write the story, he directs the game? I.e. you are the strategic guy and you need to find a tactics one. In-game you could direct the rules / world physics, while he would play the NPCs and give the descriptions. –  Lohoris Jun 23 '11 at 8:15

8 Answers 8

up vote 25 down vote accepted

There are two broad categories of "fix" available to you here. The first is to work on preparation, the second is to work on failure recovery.

Preparation

From your question, the biggest issues you have are leaving out details in descriptions, and ad libbing NPC dialog. Your preparation should shore up those weaknesses:

  • Organize your notes such that all of the descriptive portions of each area/character are in one place. When you go to describe something, refer back to your notes whether you need to or not.

  • When you know that an NPC is going to be interacted with, prepare a list of talking points for them. In addition, try to take note of general opinions and moods the NPC has. Is he a coward? Does he like having adventurers in town? Is he big on politics?

  • For NPCs, choose one or two "gimmicks" (the dumb one, the hick, the snob, the greedy one, the one who doesn't like his landlord) for the NPC and work around those. For locations, choose a few important and awesome details to include.

If this is a recurring problem for you, you should also practice. General advice about public speaking applies here: Practice until you know what you need to say, but don't get hung up on precise wording (that tends to make you sound like you're reciting).

Practice delivering NPC "set piece" speeches, or describing locations. If something doesn't sound right, tweak it until it does (this applies to the "real world" too: If one of your stories fell flat, try figuring out what went wrong and polishing it up).

During this practice, make sure you're actually speaking out loud. There's a huge gap between what you say in your head, and what comes out of your mouth.

Failure Recovery

No matter how much you prepare, some degree of failure is inevitable. Learn to smoothly deal with and recover from mistakes.

Mistakes are generally going to fall into two categories:

  • For many mistakes, just keep going. If the mistake or omission isn't critical to what's going on, don't worry about it. Try to work it in later (if it's an omission), or keep going forward using the mistake as truth. Interesting things can happen when you push the boundaries of what's unimportant.

  • If the mistake is critical, there's not much you can do other than calmly asking your group to hang on a minute while you correct things. Don't get frustrated, and don't treat it like a big deal. Verify your facts, add the missing information, and then ask the players if that would change anything they did.

  • In a few cases, something important will be missed in a way that it's impossible to roll things back (an ambush is sprung, or you don't think about it until much later). At that point, I would recommend erring on the side of your players, and taking the first opportunity to go back and figure out what needs to change. In particularly extreme cases, you may need to end a session early, or call a break while you sort things out.

The key is not to get flustered. Mistakes happen... As long as you stay calm, and give the mistake the appropriate amount of attention you'll do fine.

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Thanks, this helps a lot. There's a huge gap between what you say in your head, and what comes out of your mouth. - So very true. –  dpatchery Jun 15 '11 at 15:29

I write outlines of the things that are important to say. Basically each NPC has a number of topics he can talk about. Each of those topics gets a sentence of notes. This keeps me from leaving out anything important. I also make sure to check off talking points as they come up. This way if the players are unintentionally avoiding a piece of info or plot hook, I can steer the subject towards it without totally hijacking the conversation.

Scenes get noted the same way. I list all the things that are tactically important. If there are arrow slits in the tower, I read off the note that says so.

I could also write out everything ahead of time, but that's no fun. The players can tell when I'm reading a script. After three sentences, they go into audience mode and stop interacting. By improvising around talking points I can keep the players engaged without dropping important detail.

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In a question I asked some time back on this forum I got a fantastic response about a book that helped me in the handling of NPCs/monsters both acting/roleplaying and story telling in general.

Source Question: What is a good way to become a better NPC/monster actor?

There are many fantastic recommendations there that address a number of your concerns but one in particular stood above the rest.

Graham Walmsley - Play Unsafe. This book covered so many of the story telling elements you are talking about in such a straight forward and understandable way. In my opinion this book should be required reading for every game master out there. I am a way better story teller now than I have ever been hands down because of this book.

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  • Go to events nearby(or far away when you are inclined) and watch how other GM's do it. You can find some styles that work for you and make you feel comfortable.
  • Take an acting class, join drama club, get involved with a community play. The directors will help you learn to play the parts. A big part of being a GM is playing the parts.
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Know your plot. Not the nuts-and-bolts of attributes and bonuses and stats (you have notes for that), but know the basic "this is what's going on, this is what my NPCs are like and what they're doing". If you can internalize the basics of what the adventure is, that removes a lot of the heavy lifting in-game.

e.g. NPC is there to relay points A, B, and C. Obviously your players will ask about X, Q, and %. If you have a grasp as to what the NPC is about (greedy, kind, in a hurry), that goes a long way to letting you ad lib your way out of those corners.

Same applies to plot - if you know not just the monster tactics, but a general "this is why they're here", it makes it far easier to change encounters on the fly. (Your PCs showed up early and camped all the spots the monsters were supposed to be in. Monsters then sneak up behind the PCs.)

And always, the cardinal rule is Practice. If your area has a Living Campaign (for your RPG of choice), volunteering to run one of the pre-made modules is a great way to get the practice. Back in the day, I ended up specializing in two or three mods a year, running each four or five times. By the third time, you know your part cold, and you can concentrate on making the player's time as good as possible.

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There are some tricks that could be used to enhance your DM abilities, but none is guaranteed to work so I believe you should try them out and see what fits you well.

  1. NPC Crafting and Preparation: Identify the main problematic point in your DMing experience and plan ahead. Write notes about what a NPC is supposed to do, what he/she knows, what are his motives and beliefs. Take time to craft a whole personality for an important NPC of yours and make use of it. During this creation process please focus on thinking how the NPC behaves on his duty, with comrades or family. You should be able to visualize his social interactions and emulate it during the game. If we are talking about simple NPC like the standard blacksmith or stable boy, rely heavily on stereotypes. Yes, I know it may emphasize prejudices and all, but it shall make your life easier and creates a common interface for your players.

  2. Scenario Conception: Take time to create maps and sketches of the scenario. If you are using a module, please study ALL the encounters and places descriptions beforehand. After this step you should be able to visualize the details of the scenario and write down a checklist that will help you remembering what's relevant.

  3. Description Checklist: It really doesn't matter if you are going to describe a dungeon room or the marvelous impregnable fort on Lonely Rock, have a checklist on things you MUST say to your players in order to get them to understand the place. Some items on mine are:

    • How large is the place?
    • Who is visible here?
    • Does it have a peculiar smell?
    • Are there devices to interact with? Where? How?
    • Is the terrain somewhat special?
    • Are there clues about what happened before?
    • How many passages are there? Where? Are they accessible?
  4. Have Props: It's really easier to explain the scene to the players and to avoid forgetting about important descriptive details if you have the proper tiles, minis, tokens and other props. Rely heavily on them and try to keep abstraction to a minimum.

  5. Study Fiction Writing: Please note that eating a lot of gourmet food doesn't make you a better chef yourself. I hold the same principle when it comes to telling stories. You should not only read a lot but also read about how to write the kind of fiction that you plan on DMing. The internet is full of nice places where you can find tips and tricks on writing a novel, start with those. Take a look a this site and it's author handbook on writing great fiction.

  6. Find Your Style: Respect yourself and know your strengths and weaknesses. There shall be a narrative style that suits you better, focus on that and start building your history on top of that. It will make you feel comfortable on improvising and naturally better on managing the details.

I know that the tips above rely mostly on beforehand preparation and that it may seem quite boring. Keep in mind that they are intended to make you use you creative muscles before the game not during it. With time, practice and a bag of tools you will make it faster and easier and by them you may just plan the adventures with a MindMap and improvise the small details on the fly.

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+1 for checklists! They can be NPC-independent, checked off as various NPCs divulge in the info. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 17 '11 at 7:32

Try only introducing NPCs that have no important knowledge pertaining to the storyline. It's a lot of pressure to go into NPC dialog thinking of what should be said to advance the story line and what you can't say without ruining it.

Good examples of this are NPC escorts. The players will likely want to make conversation with them and this is a great way to get used to NPC dialog with no pressure. Get used to playing within the bounds of a specific personality with history and motivations, maybe do voices if you can manage it! Have fun, the point here is to train yourself in the art of Roleplaying, just like your players are doing.

Later, go ahead and give some NPCs exclusive information. With time, you will learn to compartmentalize this knowledge just as their personality.

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Immersion, immersion, and immersion. Make sure that you have the right music, lighting, and setting. Those things make a huge difference. Make sure you players know the mood you're trying to set. Nothing spoils a horror mood as someone cracking a joke.

Finally, ask the players to do some of the background for you. Contacts, locations, etc... those can be player generated, GM modified and used to great effect. Look at how Japanese anime characters always have multiple hooks into the main story line. try to adapt this to your players' characters.

For example: PC is an orphan. Well, he has a twin who happens to work for the bad guys and looks out for his little brother. But who killed the parents? Why?

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This doesn't seem to address the question. The Q is about improving improv narration skills, not plotting. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 21 '11 at 15:32

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