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Tips and Tools of the Trade

by: Benedira A Legacy Article from Sanguinus Curae

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The following is a list of storytelling devices and tools to help keep the game exciting, and to help transport your players into a whole different mindset when it comes time to sit down and roleplay. Some of these are of my own invention, and others are the skills of storytellers I have had the pleasure of gaming with in the past. All of them are good advice when endeavoring to create a good story and gaming environment.

Make use of light and sound.
This one may seem fairly simple, but proper use of both of these elements can have an enormous impact. It may not be a hindrance to play a game of personal horror in a well lit room with elevator music in the background, but it is far easier to play in a room lit mostly by candles with more appropriate music playing. If the scene is taking place in a club, change the music to suit the scene. If it's taking place in a classic art gallery, change the music again. One of my favorite past storytellers always had a boom box next to his seat at the table, as well as a stack of CD's that would be the soundtrack for the evening.

Dispel the myth of perfect trust.
It seems it is quite popular for all the player's characters to trust one another - not unnatural, since the players are likely friends and DO trust one another. The characters, however, should be a whole different story. It's up to the storyteller to sew the seeds of distrust among the players' characters. Begin the game by giving each of them different information as well as reasons to share or not share that information. Begin each of them with secrets they may not wish to be exposed among their present peers. Give them reasons to think the other players' characters may not be the tried and true friend they took them to be. Discourage them from revealing things about their character in an out of character fashion. All the players ever learn about the other characters should be learned during the game. An expansion of this don't ask - don't tell style of gaming is handling character preludes individually. Maybe this Ventrue neonate is along on this adventure by order of the Prince, instructed to monitor the other characters and keep his mission a secret. The only player that ever needs to hear that prelude is the one playing the Ventrue - the rest should never know unless it is revealed in the course of the game. Maybe one of the characters is just in the wrong place at the wrong time - mistaken for someone who is supposed to be meeting the other characters and sucked in to the story. The other players need not know this either. Let them wonder why each of the others is there and what they are truly trying to accomplish.

Pass notes in class.
This is was implemented by a storyteller I played with, and was far more effective than I could have imagined. We were going along, playing the game and trying to solve a mystery... and everyone would pause when we saw our ST slide a little piece of paper to another one of the players. We knew something had just happened - something important - and we didn't know what it was. This simple tactic kept more anticipation in players than I can describe. The information passed was given to the player to do whatever their character wanted with it. Perhaps they would share it, perhaps they wouldn't. Once, I received a note that said only this: "Read this note, then please look at [another player] as if it has something to do with them. Then abruptly put the note away and try to act like nothing happened." I did as instructed, and I knew it was nothing. The other player, however, found the already tense scene become that much more tense. Not all the notes passed were red herrings, either. A character who was a medium would occasionally be spoken to by nearby spirits. A Tremere would occasionally receive information from a childe by way of 'Communicate with Kindred Sire'. A Ventrue was called by way of Presence to attend the Prince immediately. Of course, we never knew that as other players - all we knew is that one of the characters suddenly looked a bit more worried, or was distracted for a moment and then abruptly left. Sometimes out storyteller would ask us to make our Perception + Alertness rolls in advance, and when the right time came we would be passed notes about what we noticed. While passing notes was a simple gesture, it padded the feeling of suspense for the players considerably.

Use props.
I'm not suggesting fake vampire teeth or strobe lights, just the introduction of a few simple objects to help add importance and immediacy to the story elements they are connected to. A rose and a note penned on stationary serves as an excellent physical reminder that the character has a stalker. A small scrap of material found at the scene of a crime suddenly becomes much more real when you hand it to the player. A vial of mysterious purple liquid is much more intriguing when it sits on the table, in front of the player who's character has discovered it. A scroll that the character cannot translate is far less easily forgotten when it remains under the players right hand. These props are inexpensive and easy to come by, but make the players' suspension of disbelief far easier.

Go live.
Most of a table top game will take place around the table, as both you and the players will need sheets, books, charts, and dice. This doesn't have to be true all the time, however, and a session or two spent in the first person can do wonders to enhance a game. Arrange for a brainstorm session, when the characters will be in one place perhaps discussing what they have learned so far. Invite them to arrive in character, dressed the part and prepared to speak and act in the first person. Those who take their gaming a bit more seriously may even take this a few steps farther, arranging to carry out their plot in public under the guise of the masquerade. I recommend that if you decide to venture beyond the walls of someone's home to play live, you read what White Wolf says about it first.

Dangle the carrot.
The World of Darkness is rife with temptation, and there's no crime in custom tailoring some of those temptations to suit the characters. Ask for a list from each player that details their characters long and short term goals, obsessions, and personal weaknesses, then work these elements into the story. The result will be a story and setting that becomes much more personal to the characters - and the players - involved.

Never let them see you sweat.
The game is about fun for all involved, but in the end you're where the buck stops. You are the last word and authority. If your players begin to run amuck, don't be afraid to introduce random and deadly elements to put them back on track. If they begin to run over you with their interpretation of the rules, don't be afraid to put your foot down.
In the event that the players wander too far off the beaten path, don't hesitate to feed them fluff for as long as it takes for them to realize they're not getting anywhere. If they go farther out of bounds than either you or the story had accounted for, don't feel bad about calling a time out to think about it.

All the world is a stage.
Hence, all the players are stars. This should be true in your game, also. Every character should be given the opportunity to be the one to shine; to find the hidden panel that will allow the party to escape, to use an exclusive contact to get them what they need; to take down that threatening opponent. Every character will have different strengths, and it isn't difficult to include portions of the story that will allow everyone to be the party's hero at some point. If only one character does all the glory work, the others players will begin to feel like they are nothing more than accessories.

An equal an opposite reaction.
Don't rely on one, main plot to keep your story interesting. The world has plots aplenty, and yours should too. Perhaps in their grand pursuit of the mystery, the characters aided a damsel in distress - and gained a vengeful enemy whose predations on the young lady were thwarted. Perhaps this Primogen or that Elder has plans of their own for the characters that have nothing to do with the driving force of the tale. Allowing the players to become entangled in subplots can make the game much more interesting for everyone if handled correctly.

Thanks for all the fish.
A red herring can be a beautiful thing, and is often the first tool of a devious political machine. Feed your players misinformation, and sometimes outright lies. Part of the fun will be trying to figure out what's true and what isn't. Beware how many false leads you let them follow, however - repetitive failure is as much a disappointment as repetitive success.

Don't fear the reaper.
Make sure your players do, though. Don't decide beforehand that the characters won't die on this little adventure, and never let them think that their characters will live no matter what they do. Final death is one of the largest motivations and concerns for many Kindred, and the characters shouldn't be allowed to discard that concern out of hand. A past storyteller informed us after one game that he had allowed each of us one saving grace - one 'get out of death free' card - and beyond that if we died... we died. Losing a character in the middle of a chronicle can be terribly disappointing to a player, but this too can be avoided by immediately assisting them in making a new character to join in or handing over an existing NPC.

Never forget your roots.
No matter how hard you work on a story, how much research you do, or how much time you put into it, never forget that your story isn't more important than your players. Many a game master has made the mistake of writing a story that would have made a better novella, then becoming upset with the players when they 'destroyed his creation'. The players don't enjoy it much either, and they are often left feeling like there was never really a game for them to play. Remember that you are running this chronicle for your players, and that they should come first when it comes to altering the story.

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