This essay is another in the series exploring my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming. I hope you can take something useful from my techniques, and ease your progress towards faster prep.
In my approach to improv gaming, I have seven supports:
- Background Reading
- My Players
- Instigating Incident
- Collection of Story Elements
- Reference Sheets
- Narrative Outcomes Table
- Skuld Cards
This is my seventh essay on the topic:
- Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element.
- Part 4 outlined three more story elements.
- Part 5 offered guidelines on using story elements at the table.
- Part 6 explored the various reference sheets I have in my GM folder.
Part 7 introduces the Narrative Options Table, the overview of contest outcomes which adds random elements into the story. As this is such an important document in my improv process, I have broken the topic into two sections. Part 7 outlines the components of this table. Part 8 presents a finished table and reviews its use in the game.
One of the many things I love about the HeroQuest RPGs is the way every contest produces a graded outcome. The results are not the binary pass/fail so often encountered in some RPGs. I wrote previously how the hierarchy of HeroQuest outcomes translates perfectly to the following series of narrative outcomes, from best to worst:
- Yes, perfectly
- Yes, and
- Yes, but
- No, but
- No, and
- No, disastrously
The language used is only superficially different from the HeroQuest outcomes. I have simply replaced the mechanical terms, such as “Marginal Victory”, with a narrative phrase I can use smoothly at the table.
Yes, but what?
Replacing the HeroQuest labels with narrative phrases makes for a less meta delivery of the outcome to the Players. However, it then begged the question “but what?” If the Heroes succeed in their task, but something else happens, then what is this fresh narrative input? What twist of fate has intervened to make the Heroes’ goals more difficult?
Sometimes the current narrative made the “but” easy to improvise:
Yes you pick the lock, but the guard walks around the corner.
Yes you hit the troll, but your axe breaks
Yes the barman smiles at you, but his scowling girlfriend is now walking over
At other times, I had no immediate inspiration arising from the contest itself. I needed a way of randomly adding a fresh element into the story. From this desire was born the Narrative Outcomes Table, a list of events to complicate the story.
The random outcomes in the table fall into two main categories, the first of which I classify as mechanical outcomes. These effects are linked to the rules, character or established facts about the setting. Some of these are system-specific, but when it comes to designing your own table, apply the corresponding mechanical effects from your rules to match these outcomes:
- Lingering Bonus/Penalty – A small bonus, or penalty, to a dice roll. The duration and severity of this effect can vary.
- Ongoing – applying to all future physical rolls, for example a wound or broken equipment.
- One-off – applies only to the next roll, representing a momentary effect such as a dropped sword, or the opponent being off-balance.
- Delayed – a bonus the Hero can stockpile, to use at a later date, such as knowledge of a certain weakness in the opponent.
- Wyrd Card – These cards are the equivalent to bennies in our game, being flexible tools the Players can use for personal gain, or otherwise influence the story.
- Invoke a Flaw – The characteristic weakness of the Villain or Hero suddenly kicks in, usually to the disadvantage of the individual. My Players tend to build Heroes with interesting Flaws, so this result usually adds an amusing twist to the current situation.
- Location Aspects – An aspect of the environment affects the story. This option helps to reinforce the features of a location within the story.
Adding Random Story
In contrast to the more mechanical outcomes which build on the established story, the Narrative Outcomes Table also contains entries which add a brand new element into the story. These options require the most improvisation to make them work. However, these random additions to the story so often initiate an event which becomes the focus of our sessions. These are my favourite narrative options.
Of course, simply inventing a narrative twist on the spot is not simple. Instead of improvising something from scratch, I find it much easier to work from a prompt. Therefore, to help kickstart the improvisation, I use story tools to provide inspiration at the table.
I have three tools for randomly generating new story elements to weave into the game. These tools are:
- Skuld Cards – My custom-made cards, and the GM version of the Wyrd Cards used by the Players. Each Skuld Card represents one of the many runes in my setting, with notes on interpretations of the rune. This prompt is usually enough to improvise an interesting twist to the story.
- Plot Twist Cards – This deck is published by Paizo, and each card presents a story twist with several interpretations. These are easier to improvise from than the other tools, and can create some great moments of personal interaction.
- Story Cubes – My latest improvisational tool is three sets of Rory Story Cubes. I bought the Clues, Enchanted and Prehistoria sets. We choose three cubes at random, roll, then improvise from the three images. Often one of these is discarded, to avoid stretching the narrative to breaking point. The Story Cubes are a new addition, but initial results have been fun.
Frequently a narrative prompt chosen at random shows an uncanny link to current events. Such coincidences make the story appear predestined, and greatly add to the emotional impact of a plot twist.
Once the elements of the Narrative Options Table are chosen, you are ready to compile your own table. I will deal with this step in next week’s essay. I will also provide some advice on using these Narrative Options during the game. See you next week.
What narrative tools would you add to your table? Can you think of any other mechanical twists I could include? Do you want narrative options in your game? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: August RPG Blog Carnival
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Gaming 8, Narrative Options in the Game