July 19, 2023

Collaborative Storytelling Expanded

Collaborative storytelling is the essence of what makes D&D and every other RPG unique among games and other pastimes. But beyond the baseline sense that campaigns create narrative shaped by the details laid down by the GM and then reshaped by the choices of the players and the actions of the characters, RPGs offer plenty of opportunity for more advanced approaches to shared storytelling. 

One of the coolest of those approaches comes from having players come up with some of the details of the campaign, whether as one-off reveals or as details connected to their character’s backstory. Details and hooks for nonplayer characters, events, locations, and more can all be worked into the campaign by the players this way, creating an optimally dynamic story framework that takes some of the pressure to be continually creative off of the GM. 

However, this process of having the players contribute story can be hard to navigate sometimes. This is particularly true for groups used to the traditional setup wherein the players focus only on directing their characters through a world of events, locations, and creatures that are the province of GM. So for groups who want to engage in richer storytelling, here are a few tips.

Talk It Over

As is true for almost everything in the game, the first step to trying something new is to talk about it. Setting up the idea that players are encouraged to bring their worldbuilding A-game to the table is an excellent topic for your game’s session 0, or for whatever email and messaging about the upcoming campaign precedes your session 0. Whether you’re a GM wanting to make the other players a more active force in the story of the game, or whether you’re a player pitching the GM on the idea of a more collaborative campaign, talk about your goals and expectations. Do your best to get all the players on board with this approach, but be respectful if players who are happiest just focusing on the moment-by-moment story of their own character prefer to let others sketch out the larger world.

Especially if many of the players are new to the game, or if experienced players are taking on a broader role in creating narrative for the first time, talk about how the players’ input in the campaign story should play out at the table. It’s easy to start with the GM calling for the players’ input, focusing on relatively easy campaign details, and encouraging any or all players to work together on those easy details as a means of getting everyone used to the process. “Spending a bit of time in town, it’s pretty easy to learn which tavern offers the best chance to find a somewhat shady broker of information. So what’s that tavern called and what’s it like there? Tell me about it.”

Shared Secrets

As a player looking to pitch in on shared story, your character’s backstory can be a great starting point, letting you shape details in the campaign that feel personal to you. So don’t skimp on sketching out that backstory before and during the campaign. Digging up story nuggets from your backstory helps the GM with that all-important goal of making the campaign feel meaningful to the players by connecting it to their characters. And what better way to do that than by having the players create those connections? An NPC your character knows or has heard of, a location you visited or whose secrets you know, a legend you recall from childhood, a rumor you overheard that offers a hint of what peril the party is about to face — all of it is great grist for the shared story mill.

Timing is Everything

Especially if this style of play is new for a group, think about the best approach and timing to having all the players feed lore into the game. As talked about above, having the GM prompt the other players for information can be good starting point, asking for details when an NPC is met, when the party enters a new village, when a mysterious note is found whose contents the GM hasn’t prepared, and so forth. 

Then at some point, you’ll find that the prompting is no longer necessary. As things start to get more dynamic, the decision of when players should introduce story elements will flow naturally from the way the campaign story unfolds during play. The points at which lore is revealed in the story don’t change with a more collaborative approach. They simply shift their focus away from the GM as the center of all revelations.

The way the game naturally unfolds places most moments of revelation into roleplaying and exploration scenes. But don’t overlook the potential of having players introduce new story elements in combat. This works especially well when experienced players know details about a monster (defenses, weaknesses, tactics, and so forth) that their inexperienced characters don’t. At any point during the fight, a player might suggest that their character recalls having heard some important bit of monster lore that can lend them an edge in the battle. But players shouldn’t try to push this into “cheat code” territory by having their character suddenly remember that the lich lord they’re fighting can be momentarily incapacitated by vigorous tickling.

Trading in Trust

As part of establishing the goal of shared storytelling in session 0, the GM and the other players should talk about the need for trust as they shape narrative together. All good GMs avoid “gotcha” moments involving unbeatable monsters in combat, or traps that have no chance to be detected or avoided while exploring, knowing that such things can violate the other players’ sense of trust. Likewise, all good players know to avoid unwanted character conflict or the tired trope of “But stealing and selling the paladin’s holy avenger is totally what my character would do!” So all players should treat the sharing of story in the same way.

As a player, look to contribute backstory details that potentially enrich the campaign for all the players and characters, not just for you. As a GM, embrace and absorb the lore handed to you by the players. Never reject outright a player’s story detail unless that detail feels seriously at odds with the overall campaign narrative — and even then, talk to the player about your reservations and see if you can come up with a compromise that works. 

“Yes, and dragons!”

One thing that can make some GMs wary of a collaborative approach to game story is the idea that giving players more involvement in sketching out the shape of the campaign will make it more difficult to surprise the players. So as a GM, you want to always look for ways that you can take a story detail provided by the players and give it a subtle twist, turning it into something that holds an element of surprise for both of you.

When discussing theatrical improvisation, people often talk about the importance of saying “Yes, and…”. This is the idea that an improv actor builds on what the other actors are developing around them by acknowledging and embracing those developments, then adding to them. You always want to work with what the other performers give you, rather than rejecting their contribution. For GMs who need to be able to work with the other players’ story building suggestions in real time, this means working to not get flustered if a player’s suggestion seems like it might take things in the wrong direction.

For example, when the party is looking for a wealthy thief willing to buy a hot magical relic currently being searched for by the city guard, having a player offer up that their character just happens to know such a person can seem too easy. If you’re the GM in that scenario, it might appear that the player is trying to just work around the challenges that the game needs in order to be fun. But rather than rejecting the player’s suggestion out of hand, think about what happens if you say, “Cool. But what was the event that put you both on bad terms the last time you met?” Working with a player’s suggestion, then taking it in a new direction, complicates the narrative to make it interesting again. So instead of the initial challenge of finding a buyer for the relic, the party now has a new challenge — convincing a prospective buyer to help someone they might be holding a grudge toward.