Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.52: Game Mastering and Collaborative Storytelling, with Natasha Ence

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Natasha Ence

Natasha Ence is a professional game master.

(Yes, you read that correctly.)

She joins us to discuss collaborative storytelling, and how the principles of game mastering for role-players can be applied to creating a fulfilling, engaging story.

Credits: This episode was recorded live at LTUE by Dan Thompson, and was mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write about a role-playing game experience that has gone badly. Really, really badly…

Thing of the week: Tales of the Table, the Patreon where Natasha Ence creates RPG setting materials you can use.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you design a story knowing that your audience is going to have direct control over what happens? Like a landscape architect, set up little areas with lots of seeds. Go in knowing the beginning story, the big arc, where you want to end up, and the big markers on the way. Then let the players add characters. How do you keep the story going? Remember your story seeds, and your notes on what they liked before. Collaborative storytelling let’s you come up with things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. Take what someone else throws out there and roll with it. As GM, steer the story by asking them to make choices, then telling them what they find on that fork of the road. Good GMs make sure everyone has a fun experience. You have to let go, and let the other people tell their own story. Beware the recurring villain who cannot be caught. Also beware the main characters always succeeding! Make sure that every player gets to be special in their own way.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 52.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, GMing and Collaborative Storytelling, with Natasha Ence.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We are live at LTUE again.

[Cheering. Applause.]

[Brandon] We are super excited to have Natasha Ence on the podcast with us. Tell us just a little bit about yourself.

[Natasha] All right. So I’m actually a professional game master, which means I have the amazing opportunity of learning an amazing life where every day I get to wake up and play tabletop RPGs with really cool people who have hired me to create stories through them.

[Brandon] All right. I know the first question everyone is going to ask when they hear this is how in the world did you end up being a professional GM and how can they do it?


[Natasha] I decided that pretty much any time you have to spend time doing something that takes in the amount of talent, creativity, and skill, there is a market for it. So you can sell that.

[Brandon] All right, so I’m… I’m going to… Howard’s like, “Wait… What?”


[Howard] That’s very wise.

[Brandon] Yeah. Very wise. So I just want to throw the first question out. How do you design a story knowing that your audience is going to have direct control over what happens? Right? I’m… As a novelist, I… My characters never surprise me. Some novelists talk about this, right? Oh, I didn’t expect my character to go do this. No. I know what my character’s going to do, and if they aren’t doing what I want them to, I either rebuild the outline for them or I force them. I find a way to make it work. But you can’t really do either of those things. So how do you tell a story, not knowing where it’s going to go?

[Natasha] So, my background is… My background and education is in creative writing. I like to consider myself like a landscape architect. I go in and I set up my little plots, my little areas where I plant my seeds. Then I let them grow. But I have to go in and trim that back every once in a while. I go in with my beginning story in mind and a plot that’s big arc. I know where the beginning is, I know kind of where I want it to end up. Along that way, I can plot the big markers. Then I get the characters, right? I don’t get to pick those characters. I get someone else who comes in and says, “Hey, I really want to play this half-orc barbarian with a crush on cats.”


[Natasha] Or “I really want to play a bard puppeteer who is a fallen angel.”


[Natasha] No. This is legit. This is legit with multiple personalities.


[Natasha] It’s amazing. It’s amazing. I love it, though. Okay. Then I get to sit down and plot out, okay, what are these persons’ flaws that they have given me? What are the good things about them? What is this person’s arc going to look like? Very basically.

[Dan] I love that metaphor of being a gardener and planting all of those seeds. Because when you’re doing collaborative storytelling like this, it really is kind of a matter of planting as many seeds as you can, and then seeing which one the audience… The players or the readers or whoever it is… Grabs hold of. There are certain story seeds that they’re going to love. They’re going to be fascinated by that one character, they want to go back and talk to her all the time, or that one kind of magic or that one weird monster. As long as you got lots of those, and a lot of them tied into who the characters are in what kind of person they are, then no matter what direction the players or the readers want to go, you’re ready because you’ve planted enough seats.

[Howard] My friends and I used to joke that our definition of the problem player was when the GM says, “Okay, we’re going to be playing a 16th-century age of sail game, no magic. Let’s talk about our characters.” He’s the guy who says, “I wanna play a ninja.”


[Howard] Reflecting on that now, I think, “Hum, you know what, the GM’s job is to now roll a ninja into a 16th-century, age of sail game. That’s going to make a story that none of us have ever heard before.”

[Natasha] Very much so.

[Howard] Or hadn’t heard before Pirates of the Caribbean.


[Brandon] So, you’re designing a story, you’re coming up with these sort of prompts, these hooks and things like this. When you’re designing this story, do you design everything, every place they could go? I’m going to assume not. So when you’re doing it in the moment, any tips, tricks, suggestions on keeping the story going when it goes a direction you’re not expecting?

[Natasha] So we just talked about story seeds, right? You fall back on those. You keep your notes of things. Okay, they really like this, like two towns back, or three sessions ago, or however many… However long ago that was. Right? You say, “Oh, they ran into Hogar, the bartender, who has a three-year-old who’s kind of sick and need some medicine, and this one character really connected with that.” So maybe I’ll riff off of that and how they run into a medicine woman. Right? You can tie that back in and allow them to take off with those tiny plot hooks when they have nothing else to do.

[Brandon] Dan, I know a lot of the role-playing games you’re a part of kind of go off the rails a little bit. Because I’ve been in many of them.


[Brandon] What do you do? You really like collaborative storytelling. Like I’ve played some card games with you that are collaborative storytelling card games that really are about just building a story. What draws you to this? Because this always scares me. I don’t want to be out of control as an author. But you obviously really enjoy it. What can writers learn from collaborative storytelling?

[Dan] Yes, Brandon and I have been in a lot of role-playing groups together for about 20 years now. One of the things we learned very early on is that one of us had to be the GM.


[Dan] Because if both of us were players at the same time, the game would go so far into the weeds that it was unrecoverable. I know Natasha’s thinking, “I could’ve fixed it,” and she probably could have.


[Dan] I love collaborative storytelling because of your ability to come up, like Howard was just saying, with things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. I know I’ve talked about this on the show before, that if I create a scenario that is exactly what I need to be, it runs the risk of feeling very artificial. If I didn’t know that that story was going to have a ninja in it, or a shepherdess, or a whatever it is, then it runs that risk of feeling flat. So I am drawn towards role-playing games, collaborative storytelling, in general, because taking what somebody else throws out there and rolling with it, saying, “Oh, I was not expecting that twist, but I’ve got such a great follow-up to it.” It ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.

[Mary Robinette] So, much of my background was in improv, which seems like it has a lot of parallels to what you’re doing. One of the things that my coach told me very early on, because I was coming in from being a writer… He’s like, “Don’t let the narrative brain come into this.” Because as soon as you let the narrative brain come in, what it does is that you’re making decisions for the other actors in the thing. We would always talk about this idea of yes-and, that you would say whatever… Like, ninja on the sailing ship? Yes, and… You also have… That you would fold it in. But you are actually… You are the narrator. So I’m curious kind of when you’re doing this, how much… How much do you steer them? Like… Okay. Apparently this question was not as well formed as I thought it was…


[Mary Robinette] Going to be. Because now I want to talk about puppet theater.

[Natasha] Keep going.

[Mary Robinette] Because one of the things that we brought from puppet theater was when we’re doing an interactive story thing with the audience, where they are participating, is that there are ways to actually steer the choices that the audience made. That’s kind of the thing that I’m curious about, if you can do that in this interactive storytelling?

[Natasha] Oh, absolutely.

[Mary Robinette] You’re nodding.

[Natasha] Oh, absolutely. Because you don’t… So, when you put a fork in the road, you don’t have to tell them which fork castle that you want them to go to is that. You just have to say, “Which fork would you like to go down?” Then they pick one, or they pick to go down the middle and go into the field that is between the two forks. But the castle is in there, too.


[Natasha] So it doesn’t really matter, they’re still making the same decision because ultimately you know where that castle is going to be.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is not a book. It’s actually a Patreon. Tasha, tell us about your Patreon.

[Natasha] So, I just launched a Patreon, which is actually encounters that you can plop right into your tabletop games. I wanted to do this because so many times in games, we see repeats of themes. So the first one that I put out was a gamblers’ alley. We’ve seen this in shows like The Road to El Dorado. It’s one of the opening scenes where there playing that dice game behind whatever place, right? You see this multiple times, over and over and over again. It gives characters the chance to be characters. Whereas in so many games, with random encounters, it’s often a fight. I wanted to have some story in there.

[Brandon] Awesome. So, everyone can check it out, just

[Natasha] Natasha Ence.

[Brandon] That’s slash Natasha Ence.

[Brandon] So one of the things I’ve noticed, a big dividing line between good GMs and bad GMs, and I’ve been in groups with both, and I’ve been both in my life… Is that the good GM focuses on making sure the experience is fun for everyone. It’s that sense of fun you’re looking for. That collaboration, but you make sure that every player is satisfied and enjoys what they’re doing. So I guess my question for the whole panel is how do you… What is not fun? What are the pitfalls? What are the things that you’ve done, that you’ve done in a role-playing session, or you maybe even found you wrote it in your books, and you thought everyone was going to enjoy this. Then they ran into it, and people just did not have any fun at all.

[Howard] When we were developing the Planet Mercenary role-playing game, I was… We ran some tests, some play tests, and people wanted to play with me as the GM. That is my very definition of not fun. At first, I thought it would be awesome. But then I realized… I actually realized this very quickly, I’m carrying that whole universe in my head, and I have a firm set of rules for what a story needs to be and needs to not be. The product we were creating needed to not being that. I needed to let those people tell their stories. So what was fun for me was when we did a GenCon playtest, and I was one of the players. People kept turning to me… I was the medic. They kept turning to me, like, “What do we do now?” I’m like, “I’m counting Band-Aids.”


[Howard] Then they ran with the story. That was wonderful for me, because I let go.

[Dan] One thing that I find that can be done well, but that is very often done wrong, is the recurring villain in a role-playing game. That sounds like such an easy thing to do, because everyone loves recurring villains. The person we love to hate. Oh, good, it’s them again, I can’t wait to punch them in the face after the insult they gave me last time, whatever it is. But the way that often plays out in practice is this person gets away no matter what you do. Because I need them to come back again in the future. So… That’s not fun. The characters have spent the whole adventure, maybe several sessions in a row, trying to catch this person or trying to stop this person. Then they get away because the GM has thus decreed that they shall be a recurring villain and will come back later. That really kind of deflates a lot of the energy.

[Natasha] On the other side of that is always succeeding. You also want the main characters to fail, so getting bye-bye the skin of their team sometimes is what they need to feel successful, or so that in future battles or in future scenes, they can still feel successful.

[Mary Robinette] So, I very much enjoy the ones there were doing problem-solving. Like, puzzles, escape stuff, that’s super fun for me. I find it so frustrating when I’m playing with someone like Sam Sykes who just enjoys breaking the rules.


[Mary Robinette] That’s his fun spot. So, for me, when I’m in a situation like playing with Sam Sykes [cough]


[Mary Robinette] What I…

[Dan] Don’t worry, he doesn’t listen to our show.


[Mary Robinette] I’m sure that none of our listeners are tweeting at him right now saying how annoyed I am with him.


[Mary Robinette] Sam.


[Mary Robinette] So what I have to do then is very much what Howard was talking about, it’s like I just kind of have to let go and go okay, this is not one where I’m going to get to solve things, unless it is the thing that I solve is drugging Sam’s character and strapping him to the back of a horse, which I may or may not have done.


[Brandon] This plays into kind of my answer to my question, that one of my big moments is a GM, where I feel like I made great strides in being better is when I realized I could… My job was to construct a story where every player got to be special in the way that they wanted to be. This was a struggle because early on, I would be very, “no, you can’t have this special thing. It breaks the rules, and everyone will get jealous of you.” Because we were all focused on who had the best stats. As we matured as people and as players, we started to realize what Gordo wanted was just to have a secret past. He didn’t… It didn’t have to actually… He didn’t have to have special powers related to it, he just had to have this secret past. What Earl wanted was Earl just wanted to be unkillable. Because it was stressful for him if his character could die. If he just knew that his character could never die… This is a thing that I didn’t want to give him, because I’m like, “Well, if you can never die, there’s no stress and tension.” He did not want stress and tension.


[Brandon] He wanted to enjoy the story. The moment where we realized we could make Earl indestructible and that was a feature… That the rest of the party could throw him into a room of traps, and it would like… They would all go off, he would start on fire, get chopped to pieces, and then come back to life. They could get through… They could use his superpower to problem solve. The whole team loved this. We had a much better experience than when we had been trying to be like, “Who has the best stats? Who’s going to die, who’s not going to die?”

[Dan] We accomplished that, by the way, by making Earl a half-dragon troll, who was therefore fireproof in addition to everything else. I think acid was the only thing that could harm him. Which was, in itself, this beautiful little holy Grail thing that could show up as a MacGuffin in the middle of a story. There’d be the one drop of acid on the floor, and Earl’s like, “I’m out.”


[Dan] “I’m not in there, I’m not going anywhere near this dungeon.” It’s like you said, everybody loved it.

[Brandon] We are out of time. This has been a very different episode. I’m glad we got to do this. Thank you so much, Natasha for making this possible.

[Natasha] Thank you.

[Brandon] Thank you to our live audience.

[Cheers. Applause.]

[Brandon] Natasha, I’m going to ask you, do you have a writing prompt you can give us?

[Natasha] I do. All right. Since we just talked about games going a little badly, I’d like you guys to write about a game that’s gone badly. We’ve seen this in the past, like The Hunger Games. Or, let’s see… We’ve seen this in Ready Player One and some other things.

[Brandon] Excellent. Make that game go poorly. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.