This essay is another in a long 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 ninth 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 introduced the Narrative Outcomes Table.
- Part 8 presented a finished table and reviewed its use in the game.
Part 9 completes my coverage of the crucial Narrative Outcomes Table. Here I expand on the purely narrative prompts found in the Table.
Purely Narrative Outcomes
A few of the entries in the Narrative Outcomes Table presented in Part 8 are simple narrative options. This is another dial you can adjust on your table, controlling the amount of random input into your game. These purely narrative results are where the entry is little more than a short phrase for the GM to use. Such simple outcomes avoid every contest adding a new element to the story. You can adjust their frequency to match your style of play.
The Narrative Outcomes Table includes the following purely narrative results:
- External benefit
- Opportunity to gain
- Blank cheque
- It happens that way
- Equipment damage
- Equal effort
- It cannot be done that way
- A false “fact”
- Tough choice
This is a new story element unrelated to the current contest. Here is a chance to weave in a previous event, or add a new arrival who can aid the Heroes. Reinforcements who arrive like the 7th Cavalry are an obvious example of an external benefit, but the GM can also use this outcome to justify any serendipitous piece of good luck to aid the Heroes.
Opportunity to Gain
A narrow story benefit, typically revolving around loot or a bonus piece of equipment. Vary the exact nature of the gain according to the personality of the Hero in question. Forgotten lore, scientific breakthroughs or social acceptance may equally apply here.
A collaborative style of improvisation. Here the GM makes a statement, such as “A childhood enemy walks into the room, who is she?” The GM thus sets the parameters for the encounter, but “blank cheques” the details by allowing the Player to improvise part of the story too.
It Happens that Way
A simple result where the Hero succeeds with no additional input into the story. This keeps the game focused on current events.
A piece of equipment used during the preceding contest is now damaged. Broken lock picks, or shattered shields are obvious examples. A flat tyre, jammed gun or a cracked phone screen would be suitable modern examples. Now the Hero must deal with this fresh limitation on their abilities, perhaps improvising a new method to deal with future contests until the equipment can be repaired or replaced.
If no tools were used for the contest, then perhaps an armour strap breaks, a backpack bursts open or a space suit springs a tiny leak. This result should present the Hero with fresh problems, but is unlikely to be immediately life-threatening.
The tied result is another outcome from the HeroQuest graded results which is uncommon in RPGs, but appears in other narrative forms. Imagine the beat in a fight where the two foes lock shields for a moment, perhaps exchange a terse comment, then spring apart to continue the fight. This is relatively rare, but still a narrative trope.
The equal effort outcome allows a beat showing how well the contestants are matched, and nothing changes for the moment. To avoid this outcome seeming like dead air, have a pithy insult ready to throw at the Hero. Here is a moment of calm in the contest, before the action resumes with the next Hero. Alternatively, the Hero needs to find another method of dealing with the current problem. This can spur the Players onwards to be more creative in their choice of actions.
It Cannot be Done that way
This simple result is the opposite of the previous “It Happens that Way”. Once more, this outcome limits the number of fresh inputs into the ongoing story.
A False “Fact”
Another trope of narratives is for a previously established “fact” to be revealed as false. Passwords, secret identities or the allegiance of a GMC could all turn out to be false. My general concern with using these in RPGs is their effect on Player behaviour. If too many GMCs turn traitor, then the Players frequently stop trusting anyone, and the tone of the game can suffer.
This entry allows the betrayal trope to be used in the game, but without the GM appearing to deliberately hoodwink the Players. There are thus two ways to implement this outcome:
- Instant traitor – reveal the falsehood at that moment. Thus, a hireling may turn on the Heroes, or perhaps just flee with a bag of coins. A magic item can suddenly turn into a curse, or the shopkeeper reveal that all their money is counterfeit.
- Gut feeling – tell the Player the Hero has a nagging feeling they have been betrayed, but do not detail it. This telegraphs to the Players there will be a betrayal, preferably in the immediate future. Ask the Players to separate their knowledge from character knowledge, to enable a big reveal. Such a metagame approach may not suit all groups, but keeps the narrative close to the traditional betrayal plot. This technique should also exonerate the GM from much of the blame for the inevitable betrayal.
Of all the options in this table, I find this one the hardest to improvise during the game. This outcome asks a lot of the GM, so you may want to skip over it sometimes. The tough choice requires two bad options to present to the Player, and ask them which one they pick.
For example, in a high-speed chase, does the driver swerve off the bridge or crash through the lorry blocking the road? When picking a trapped lock, does the thief allow her lock pick to break, or let the poisoned blade cut her hand? At the Royal Ball, will the dancing noble crash into the tray of drinks or step on the Queen’s foot?
When narrating this result, try to find two contrasting outcomes which take the story in different directions. Ideally, the choice will also allow the Player to demonstrate the Hero’s morality or agenda.
Narrative in the Game
While many of the prompts in the Narrative Outcomes Table guide me where to take the story, these pure narrative options offer me the greatest freedom to improvise. Sometimes inspiration will not strike, and I fall back to my trusty Skuld deck. More on these cards in the next essay in the Improv Gaming series.
At other times, I apply a principle from narrative structure to balance the flow of the game. My favourite pure narratives are the ones where I can weave in previous events or characters. I always enjoy this as it ensures earlier actions by the Heroes matter, and gives the campaign a stronger continuity.
These pure narrative outcomes broaden the range of results in the Narrative Outcomes Table. They allow the GM a more direct input into the flow of the story and provide interesting improvisational challenges. The narrative prompts vary the flow of the story and can add fresh problems for the Players. While the more random outcomes on the table can make the story zigzag suddenly, these narrative prompts pull the game back to its narrative roots.
What is your favourite narrative prompt? Can you suggest any different options? How would you use these prompts 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: Improv Gaming part 8, Narrative Outcomes in the Game
- Something for the Weekend next week: Sample Villainous Plots