How to tell a great story? 4 veteran Dungeon Masters share their secrets to keep audiences engaged

This article is the response to one suggestion from “the Cat” online community on Facebook. It’s a place where we discuss all things storytelling, and you can also join it, dear reader. The request was for “storytelling & mastering tips from expert game masters”.

A Dungeon Master (it’s a “Dungeons & Dragons” definition. In other games, it’s Game Master, Keeper, Narrator, etc) does many jobs at the same time: referee, rules expert, community leader, storyteller. A successful DM is one who keeps the players engaged, tells a captivating story, and ensures that everybody (including the DM!) has a good time. If they have been doing it for some time, it means they must be doing some things right.

In my almost 30 years of experience as an RPG player and game master I have met a good number of very talented, inspiring DMs. People that shaped my own approach to storytelling and gaming. For this article, I interviewed 4 (thank you very much!), asking the questions:

their beginning, the first encounter with role-playing games (as it turns out, everybody started with Dungeons & Dragons, Red Box)

their favorite game(s)

what is a “good story”, in their opinion (and 3 out of 4 mentioned Frank Herbert’s “Dune” as an absolute masterpiece. Not by chance: it’s phenomenal)

storytelling tips & tricks to keep their audiences engaged. This will be in the format of a “mega list” at the end of the article.

In fact, I really liked this interview format. I will definitely use it again, plus I had a lot of fun collecting everybody’s stories; I hope you will find the article engaging and useful for your practice! Enjoy.

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Massimo with Andrea Marengo during the “Ruolimpiadi” in Lucca Comics and Games.

Massimo Antonini, 41, lives in Italy, Accountant. Winner of 4 awards over the years at the “Lucca Comics and Games” (the biggest Italian GameCon, 300 thousand+ visitors every year). I played one of his events in 2018, a high-adrenaline scenario set in a universe inspired by “The Expanse“. The world-building and the attention to detail were truly memorable.
(Q) Do you remember how you started?
Sure, I was 12. I was doing my homework at a friend’s place and he showed me D&D. I asked “Shall we play a game?”. His answer was: “it’s a bit long…”. The entire campaign ended up lasting something like 10 years.
At the time, we were wondering “will we be playing for the rest of our life?” I know now that the answer is “Yes”.

Massimo and Braian, in a picture from 2018.

(Q) What is your favorite game?
I have a passion for WestEnd’s Star Wars (d6 edition): it’s easy, balanced, it allows to do everything. I can’t find any flaw in it. In 30 seconds characters are created and you are ready to play. So I can focus on the story. (I remember the game: it was great fun, but you needed a lot of 6 faced dice…).
I also love Cyberpunk 2020, but it’s more complicated. I am now reading The Expanse, the ruleset is very beautiful, easy, a bit more complex but still far from the level of detail of D&D or Pathfinder. I prefer fast gameplay to minutiae.


(Q) What is for you a good story?
A story that engages you. A story that sucks you in and keeps you glued to it until you forget who you are. One of my favorites, “The Neverending Story“, with the young boy (Bastian) initially skeptical about the whole thing, but who at a certain key moment breaks the fourth wall and becomes part of the adventure – that is an amazing meta description of the identification process between a reader and a book. Similarly, in “The Princess Bride“, at the beginning the grandfather is reading the story and the young protagonist is not sure whether he will like it or not. But then he gets more and more involved. That’s identification – when the audience feels it’s “their” story.

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Braian during a fast-paced moment of his game.

Braian Ietto, 37, lives in Italy, Engineer. Another veteran of Lucca Comics and Games, 2 times “best master of the year” and 1 “best event”. He was co-leading the adventure I played in 2018. I remember the intensity he put in each description, the words were really flowing from his mouth like machine-gun fire.
(Q) Do you remember how you started?
I remember one day as a kid I was invited by some friends who were playing D&D (the red box of course). I was invited to watch but I couldn’t play: how sad! Then little by little, my passion started.
(Q) What is your favorite game?
I played D&D, “The Lord of the Rings“, “The Call of Cthulhu“, but my first definitive love has been “Cyberpunk 2020– because I am a sci-fi lover and because, even if the system is a little outdated, it’s based on very current themes. I like games in which the protagonists are human, anti-heroes with weaknesses that contrast with their powers.

The cover of the original “Cyberpunk 2020” handbook. Everybody is sooooo expecting the upcoming videogame. I will say just two words: Keanu. Reeves.

(Q) Speaking of Cyberpunk, we are now (almost) living the year 2020: what do you think?
On one hand, it’s fascinating to see the future we were imagining in the 1980s, as opposed to what happened in reality; but at the same time, many predictions were really accurate: the difference between rich and poor; the influence of megacorporations, more powerful than States; medicine and human enhancement that are going to be the new frontier of inequality and discrimination. Plus, our relationship with Artificial Intelligence. All these raise moral dilemmas: this is how a game can become a way to explore oneself. It’s easier in a game because ethical choices are mediated through characters and not lived in the first person, but the process is real.

Braian receiving the “Best Event” award in Lucca, 2018.

(Q) What is for you a good story?
Interesting, involving, one that creates identification. Has to be lived in person. It puts the audience right at the center of the action, asking questions like “what would you do now?”. You cannot be a passive observer. A great story is something that raises doubts, that challenges you. I love “The Expanse” – the books, first and second in particular. “Dune” is another example. Movies: “Blade Runner“, because it makes you think, it opens a window on new worlds. Characters have to be strong, deep, with a credible world and events that can revolutionize everything. Another movie: “The Blood of Heroes“, with Rutger Hauer. Videogames: the first Mass Effect, then Red Dead Redemption (the first one).

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Robert excels at playing all sorts of characters. Humans and not.

Robert Avakian, 31, born in New Jersey (US), lives in Prague, Czech Republic. Tour Guide. Robert is my current Dungeon Master in Prague, and thanks to him I am able to play again after (too long) a break, this time with my entire family! As a DM, I love the way he breathes life into every single character he impersonates. No two NPCs are the same in one of his stories.
(Q) Do you remember how you started?
I was 7 years old, my dad made a small D&D adventure for me. I was a thief named Aldor, my very first character. We played maybe 5 sessions, then a new campaign, just the two of us. That game is still going on. We still play: sometimes in person, sometimes on skype. I later realized that there was a bigger community of people playing, some of my longest-lasting friendships grew around RPGs. In a lot of ways, it helped us to grow up, going through the terrible teenage years. (D&D has been at the center of so many similar Stranger Things stories).
(Q) What is your favorite game?
Robert: I will say AD&D (that would be the second edition of D&D, for the laymen). Because of nostalgia. Even if it’s a clunky system not exactly beginner-friendly. But what kept people away from the game, in my opinion, was not the complicated rules. It was social stigma and the way communities were formed: the inside jokes, shared experiences, the expertise in the game. It was always a little risky to bring a new person to the table. A lot of trust was involved.


(Q) Was it a boys’ club back then?
It depended on the environment. But now, I would say that D&D is the most inclusive game environment there is. The developers are especially aware, and when they happen to do something that is a little tone-deaf their response to the community is fast and mature. It’s a very different game than it used to be: some NPCs are described as genderless, and you can meet a gay couple as quest givers (in the newly released adventure called “Waterdeep Dragon Heist” – that’s an exciting name for an adventure if there ever is one!).
(Q) In the videogame industry, this attention to “political correctness” is causing a pushback. Some players resent it. And in RPGs?
Not that I am aware of. There are people afraid of the change, that are reacting against it, but they are not the dominant voice in the community. The online streaming games have a much stronger cultural impact. “Critical Role” – 600k subscribers – or “Acquisition Incorporated” are two of the biggest ones, and they keep a very close relationship with their fan bases.

The cast of “Critical Role”. The show set for itself a crowdfunding goal of $750,000. It reached $11 million instead.

(Q) What is for you a good story?
It must include challenge, conflicting motivations, surprise – sometimes in an RPG, not even the narrator knows how the story will evolve. A key element is choice: endless choice. Players and their creativity collaborate in telling the story. No one person knows the outcome from the start. You also have an element of risk: characters with hundreds of hours of development may die – when Mollymauk Tealeaf permanently died in “Critical Role”, people broke in tears and had real grief to process. Very few experiences can give you this. It’s a character-driven story, and the heroes are mortal. There is a strong emotional attachment.
My favorite story? Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (yes, again: I told you! Just read it!)


(Q) Are you excited about the upcoming movie? No, because I am not really happy about all these new re-adaptations of old classics. I want to experience new stories, and what I see being published is just more and more versions of the same stories, which we don’t necessarily need. I don’t see the need for a black “Little mermaid”. We need whole new stories that can help us to make sense of the times we are living.

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D&D selfie at its best. Notice the half-eaten pizzas on the table.

Fausto Passarelli, 41, born in Italy, lives in Antwerp, Belgium. Operations manager. Fausto was one of my historical DMs during all my teenage to twenty-something years. We spent countless hours at the gaming table. What I remember from his games was the ability to keep together grand stories, with numerous characters and personal storylines interconnected.
(Q) Do you remember how you started?
Like many kids in my town, I used to play football every day. One rainy afternoon, when I was 13, my mother told me I couldn’t go outside, and I had to stay at our neighbor’s. The guy was Roberto, a super nerd when the word wasn’t even popular yet. I didn’t like him. I asked: “So what do we do? Shall we play a board game, like Monopoly or something?”. He answered: “No, I have something else in mind”. And he produced… the D&D red box!

(Wow, these origin stories are all so dramatic! But then again, these people are master storytellers, so you see? it works)
I remember my first character, a warrior. A natural choice, back then I felt like a street punk. I couldn’t draw (now Fausto creates superb illustrations, some are included in this post), so I just made a skull as my character’s symbol. Since that afternoon, I played with Roberto 3-4 times a week. Thanks to role-playing games I learned drawing, English, developed a true love for reading.

Fausto’s original artwork.

(Q) What is your favorite game?
D&D 5th edition, for the sheer quantity of material out there, which goes well with my DM style. I don’t like writing a single adventure, I like writing a campaign, and I integrate many existing scenarios into a larger, coherent storyline. Besides, D&D is the most famous and pop game of all times, the video streams and cultural references make its visibility enormous, everybody wants to play it now. I keep track online of all my games here and my streaming platform is here. I also played other games, like “Vampire: The Dark Ages“, and “The Lord of the Rings“.
(Q) People thought videogames would bring traditional RPGs to an end, but it didn’t happen. Why?
Because what everybody wants is authentic human contact, to share emotions with other people. And RPGs do it. Some players say: “I have no other real friends outside of the gaming group”. I don’t judge that. True and strong relationships can be created through RPGs. Society is complicated and not everybody can find happiness easily. Some people have to look far and wide before they can find others with whom to form real bonds. If this happens through an RPG, that’s great. Role-playing is the best hobby in the world. It teaches essential skills. In an RPG people can only “win” if they work all together. And creativity is the highest form of intelligence.


(Q) What is for you a good story?
We are also playing a “West Marches” campaign (since I can remember, Fausto has always been playing 3-4 campaigns at the same time), based on a fluid game concept and a wider group of players forming an online community – in the timeframe of two years we have had weddings, several funerals, very strong relationships created outside the specific game sessions. I like stories centered on characters, who have personal and unique stakes.
Books I love: the “Malazan book of the fallen” series, by Steven Erikson and “The Prince of Nothing” series by Scott R. Bakker, probably my favorite novel of all times.


Movies: stories about heroes. My two favorite movies are “The Matrix” and “The Gladiator“, both centered on a hero who suffers and eventually prevails. When Neo in “The Matrix” gets ready for the final battle Trinity tells him: “No one has ever done anything like this” and he says: “I know, that’s why it’s going to work”. For the 19 years-old me that was a super powerful message, ignore everybody else’s judgment and do what you have to do. That’s when I decided to move to Belgium and start a new life.

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Yeah! Powerful stuff, no? I told you. You are welcome!
And now, let’s see the collective MEGA LIST OF 12 TRICKS AND TIPS TO KEEP YOUR AUDIENCE ENGAGED – offered by Massimo, Braian, Robert and Fausto!
1. Improvise. Move fast, think fast.
I stole most of my tricks from my friends, much better than I am (Braian Ietto and Andrea Marengo). Their improvisation ability, which keeps people anchored to the story (Massimo).
I improvise 99% of my sessions. I have an idea of what I want, I create specific characters, but I want my stories to be permeable. If I plan everything, players are left with zero choices. A player must be able to take decisions that radically affect the plot. I see that many narrators want to tell an impressive story, and end up with these “mega pipelines” (forced narrative routes) where players are basically watching. I don’t want this, I want to leave them the freedom to press the red self-destruction button – or not; to jump from the ship into shark-infested waters – or not (Braian).
There is not enough time in life to plan everything. Sometimes I have something prepared (a location, a character) and it doesn’t get used when I wanted. Not a problem. It can still come in handy at a later moment. The players will not know the difference (Robert).


2. Be organized and do your background research.
I love world-building and background coherence, I have everything organized – not pre-planned, players can move as they want in the story, but the frame of the sandbox is solid, characters are there and I know how each of them would react to situations (Massimo).
3. Use surprise. Keep things moving.
In a key climax moment, I can use a scenic trick like slamming a fist on the table – the “bang!” sound creates surprise and attracts attention (Massimo).
Change your pace: to keep players on the edge of their seats, alternate fast and slow build-ups. I don’t plan it, when I am telling a story, I am fully in the flow with the players (Braian).
4. Details are key.
Descriptions. They are essential to creating the world, to make people “see” small details. You are creating a world using only your words, so you have to make it visual. No matter how small, details create some lasting impressions. Do your research. In a game of Lex Arcana (set in an alternate version of Ancient Rome, where magic exists) our soldiers had their lunch based on bread and anchovy sauce. That small but historically accurate detail made a huge difference for our players! (Massimo).


5. Characters are the heart of the story.
A good story has to revolve around its characters, they must be the center of the plot (Massimo).
If players have the capacity to choose, it means they own the story, it matters to them, they identify in it. You can plan a plot so that these defining moments happen at the right time and place (Braian) (these are called narrative bottlenecks).
I try to bring life and a wealth of details to secondary characters, even marginal ones. Their emotions, motivations, their specific accents. That creates the feeling of a real, breathing world (Robert).
6. Give them freedom!
I take note of what the players say, their decisions, even if they have an idea that is against my initial plan but can somehow work. For me, players are not passengers on a tram, but drivers of a car. This is a key difference with videogames: in shooters, you control the action, and then you get a 5 minutes-long cinematic that is completely staged, in which you are just a spectator. That completely breaks the immersion for me. Of course, it depends on your players, some will be more reactive and need more input; others, more proactive, will take the initiative. Let them. (Massimo)
The open-ended aspect doesn’t exist in videogames (or in some indie RPGs). That’s also why I like rolling dice: the small random element that determines a particular outcome, together with the player’s choices and their abilities, means you never know what to expect (Braian).
I try to “almost never” say no to players. If something is especially difficult, I place conditions. “Yes, but”. Or I borrow Adam Koebel‘s concept of “failing forward”: the action happens, but with unforeseen consequences, and so the game always goes on. For example, you manage to climb the wall, but you discover an enemy hidden behind it! (Fausto)


7. Build a bigger world.
I sometimes use “cameos” of famous characters or references to key elements of history or lore: these add flavor to the game experience and make players feel part of a world that is alive and matches their expectations. (Massimo)
8. Listen to your players – and react.
The narrator must “package” and embellish what players do, describe in the best possible way actions and setting, but the players are making the story. Some game masters are narcissists and their stories are all about themselves: what a bore! (Massimo)
The first thing is to listen to your players: we shouldn’t fall in love with our story ideas so much that there is no space for anything else. Sometimes fresh ideas from the players allow for some unexpected and exciting developments (Braian).
Everyone is there for a different reason, and it’s important to align what you are doing with what they want. Some players just want to sit at the table and watch the story unfold; some are “munchkins”, love overpowered characters that are the stars of the game; some want to reenact experiences from a movie or a story they love. Some are trolls, there to ruin everybody else’s fun. In that case, maybe you need to challenge them, because the key is that everybody is there to have fun (Robert).
It’s not only a science. There is also an art of hosting, the ability to listen to the people with whom you are sharing the experience. You have to give the players what they want, but you have your own motivations too. If players just want to fight all the time, for example, I will tell them that I am looking for something else from role playing. The narrator also is there to have fun. When fun stops, the game is over. As Gary Gigax used to say “the main purpose of the game is to have fun and socialize” (Fausto).

In “The Call of Cthulhu” – inspired by the novels of H. P. Lovecraft and others – alien gods and horrific monsters are always ready to kill the characters, drive them insane – or both. With the “cosmic horror” genre, the stakes are always insanely high. Ah-ah, got the pun?

9. Set high stakes.
I love moral dilemmas: personal choices, decisions between good vs evil; things that challenge the moral compass of characters and players alike. For example, I like “evil” characters who make personal choices, like general Rommel in WW2. He was a general for the German Army, but he fought with honor and respected the rules. He didn’t bow to the Nazi regime. When you are able to bring this kind of personal choice in your game, you can create some memorable moments (Massimo).
Make the game personal and unique for each specific character. A mercenary gets paid to kills some orcs, that’s the old-style approach. So what. But if the scenario becomes “your sister has been kidnapped by the orcs, what are you going to do?” everything changes drastically. In the best stories from literature the pressure is incredible, maybe the story starts slow but then there is an unexpected development and it becomes personal. That’s when the action really takes off (Fausto).
10. Rules are not written in stone.
My advice would be: it’s good to go over the rules, but keep them as a guideline, not as a Holy Book. The rules are there to help you, not to handicap you (Robert).
Especially in the beginning, don’t stress everybody with the rules of the game. It’s only really necessary that the Master knows the rules. And inexperienced players bring some fresh air: when “experts” face a challenge, they look for the solution in the rulebook. They ask “can I do it?”. New players, instead, just ask “I want to do this thing. How can I do it?” (Fausto)

A Dungeon Master introducing new players to the game. Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860)

11. Set ground rules:
Set expectations and come to an agreement with the other players about what they want from the game. And if possible, do it at session zero (Robert).
One of my table rules (Fausto emails a .doc to new players before their first game together) is “if you disagree with a specific decision or rule, let me know. I will tell you what I think. If you still disagree, we will discuss it after the game session”. During a session there is no time to discuss rules, it’s more important to play and not to interrupt the story, spoiling everybody’s fun. And when we stream our games, the focus is even higher. Players become aware that there is an audience, even if it’s only three people watching, and the entire game experience improves thanks to the performative element. I recommend it to everybody. (Fausto)
12. Show love to your audience, and be welcoming.
You are going to spend a lot of time with the players at the table, try to make sure it’s people you like (Robert).
People “fall in love” with other people, the human element is always at the center of the storytelling experience. It’s important to put other players at ease, let them feel welcomed, offer them a tidy place, something to eat and drink (Fausto).
Some game masters are aggressive, or make “gatekeeping” judging who is role-playing material and who isn’t. I like to play with my friends, or with people who can potentially become friends. There is no other condition. So I tend to be very inclusive and tolerant towards newcomers. Everybody will express different sides of their personality when playing, and that’s fine, it’s all part of the fun (Fausto).

If you made it all the way down here – great job! – here is a special picture of the baby Stella rolling her first d20, at 2 weeks of age <3

Thank you for reading this month’s article! I have been quite busy with training and real-life stuff, so this will be the only update for August. I hope you liked it.

And – as usual – You can follow the fanpage on Facebook, join the community to discuss our favorite topics, and if you want to directly support my work now you can do it, with a small donation on my Patreon page. Thanks a lot to my 11 Patrons (you LEGENDS!). Your support means the world to me, and every little bit helps in keeping me motivated, hydrated and inspired. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “How to tell a great story? 4 veteran Dungeon Masters share their secrets to keep audiences engaged

  1. Excellent read! Lots of in-depth discussions and I find that I have much in common with them, at least in how I got started. Sadly, my friends all had short attention spans and I’ve never played more than a handful of games.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! Well… Longer “gaming discipline” can also be acquired over time and training. However there is nothing wrong as each group will eventually find its style of play. Some like it more casual, some are more committed. The important is, game on!

      Can I ask you how did you end up on my blog?

      Like

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