Since the very first, “Roll Initiative” was uttered way back in the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop RPGs have held a special place in the realm of storytelling. “I can’t control my characters!” took on a whole new level of meaning and tales of epic battles, questionable logic, and great friendships were born. It’s an incredibly valuable learning tool for storytellers of all genres and mediums.
If you’re not familiar with tabletop RPGs (roll-playing games), the easiest way to think of it is as collaborative storytelling. One person serves as the narrator of the adventure, while the others in the group each choose a character to play and control in the context of that story. There are lots of different kinds of tabletop RPGs and a plethora of ways to play each. For our purposes, we’ll focus on what you can learn as a narrator.
The danger of most forms of storytelling is that the creation process takes place largely inside your own head. Characters are apt to make choices because you need them to, or because you have trouble imagining a decision that you wouldn’t make. Tabletop storytellers have quite the opposite problem. Even the most docile and well-behaved players run off on their own, reason, and make choices you never would have dreamed (or feared) about everything from menial plot-pivotal moments. It’s a healthy dose of reality for any storyteller who’s been cooped up at their desk for too long.
For better or for worse, once the session gets underway, your players make up a captive audience to your story, just as much as you are captive to their critique of your work. One of the great advantages to tabletop gaming is that you can test a variety of storytelling elements and receive immediate feedback. Is the plot lagging? You’ll see your player’s eyes glaze over, and their characters start acting out. Is your character work solid? Watch as players risk their characters’ lives and hard-earned loot to save the day.
World Balancing Act
Storytellers tend toward two extremes when it comes to world building. On the one end of the spectrum, storytellers build skeletal worlds, populated by only that which is relevant to the plot. In literature, this shortcoming makes it hard for readers to imagine the events, in comics it results in minimal background work, and so forth. On the other end of the spectrum, some authors have a hard time getting their stories off the ground in the midst of their attempt to create a world-lore on the scale of Tolkien’s lifework. Tabletop storytellers are pushed more aggressively to strike an appropriate balance between the two. With too little world-building, they lose their players. Those same players who saunter glibly past excessive exposition on their quest for adventure.
Develop Unique Voices
One of the biggest marks of amateur storytellers is that their characters, especially second-string personalities, all start sound the same after a while. When your players look at you, confused, and ask “Wait, which guy is this again?” you know you have a problem. Tabletop storytelling is a low-stakes opportunity for you to experiment with (really bad) accents, character mannerisms and lines of reasoning. You can practice with whatever hapless villager your characters stop to ask for directions. Succeed or fail, you make a note, and move on.
There’s a lot more that can be learned from time spent narrating a tabletop game, but these four benefits are helpful tools across all mediums and genres of storytelling.
What do you think? How has your storytelling improved as a result of tabletop gaming? If you haven’t ever played a game, and are reticent to try, what makes you hesitant to jump in? Share your thoughts on the comments section below.