The dice are down and the game’s begun. You, the lucky Game Master, clear your throat and deliver a well-practiced opening line to your group.
“You sit around the wooden table in a well-lit inn. A bartender serves mutton. Off in the corner, a shady man waves at your group. What do you do?”
And then it’s quiet for a while. The players shuffle and think, but no one immediately responds. A few seconds pass before your group bard waves back, starting your campaign introduction with the Master Thief and his mission for the adventurers. Over the course of the next few lines of dialogue, the tavern around the adventurers falls out of the picture, and party members take turns talking to the Thief. Your barbarian sits there, on her phone. Despite all your planning, you feel like your players have already fallen out of the pocket of your fantasy.
Have you ever felt that despite your clear narration, your players have stopped engaging with your world? It’s a common problem: the barbarian waits for the talking to stop happen, your wizard waits until he can cast spells, and your scene feels dry.
An issue that often arrises from narration is that we take it for granted. We want to be descriptive — “to paint a word picture”. We long for the perfect setting. Books nail it down! But books have a distinct advantage over spoken-words.
You can re-read.
If you forget what you just read, you can go back and check it out again. But with spoken narration, once it’s said, it’s gone. Sure, you can repeat yourself, but do you want to? Or would you rather have your players remember what you said?
And that’s where player-oriented narration steps in. Now, this isn’t the only type of narration, and you can weave it into your personal styles, but this style will pull your player’s attention, because you’ll be addressing them with prompts directly.
Let’s revisit our first example, and rewrite it a little.
“The party sits around the wooden table in a well-lit in. Sasha, a bartender sets a plate of meat down before you. Volthorp, you receive your fresh mug of mead. Taz, off in the corner, a shady man waves at your group. What does the party do?”
Let’s break down the steps of player-oriented narration.
- Characterize and Address
First, you’ll set the general scene: At the table, in an inn.
Then, we characterize the scene by bringing in specific elements. In our opening example, it was the bartender serving mutton. That alone leaves us high and dry on getting our players as the focus of our narration, so instead of “the bartender does X”, we make the player the focus of our words.
“Sasha, the bartender does X.”
“Volthorp, you smell X.”
And finally, we prompt. After finishing the scene, we can ask the question that the scene wants to ask: What is the party going to do about the Master Thief? Except now, everyone has their own ways to interact with the world. Sasha has her meat, Volthorp’s got a drink, and Taz has a goal.
Next time you paint an excellent scene, but find your players failing to engage with you, throw them a bone with player-oriented narration. You should find that they’ll be more responsive, and will flourish in role-play.
Best of luck, and happy hexing!