Roleschooling: The Library – A Pre-Scription for Adventure
One of the most intimidating barriers to roleplaying for both new and experienced gamemasters or narrators is coming up with the initial adventure plot and details, and then once you get going, keeping the players on track and progressing through the story. In good old-fashioned dungeon crawls or hack-n-slash fantasy adventures, it isn’t a major problem as there is a physical map to be explored, with combats and adventures along the way.
However, when you are playing through something a lot less exploration-based, it can easily get out of hand, especially with inexperienced or young players; it can start to feel like you are herding cats who’ve had a bit too much ‘nip. They may simply not understand what they are supposed to do, and unfortunately, the more the narrator has to guide them, the less fun and spontaneous the whole experience is.
Disrupting the Plot
One of the best solutions I’ve found to both problems, is elegant in its simplicity and totally free: don’t create your own plot. Instead, use an established storyline known to the players, and insert your players into the plot – their job will be to either create or repair a disruption to the original story in order to achieve a goal – usually getting the story back on track, but not always! This is not exactly a new idea; it’s a time honored trope of many forms of fiction from alternate histories and time travel science fiction to children’s books like the Magic Treehouse series.
Using a well known plot from a canon story in an existing body of work as the baseline works very well in several different ways. You don’t have to create the plot, you just have to come up with creative ways to break it! In my experience, that’s much easier as well as more fun. You don’t even have to buy modules, unless and until you want to – instead, you make your players into troubleshooters sent in to repair disrupted stories or alternately, to create a distraction to change the story in a different way – it’s all up to you from there.
To disrupt a plot, one sure method is to create a mysterious (or not-so-mysterious) “Dark Force” that intervenes to distort or change the flow of the way the story is “supposed to be,” and your players are charged with resolving the conflict and bringing the narrative back into line with history or the original story.
Once the players are used to the basic idea, it becomes easy to do historical mis-adventures especially with older kids, where the players have to research what actually happened in history, and then figure out ways to nudge the plot back onto the right path. The Connections series narrated by James Burke are a terrific resource for finding intersections among seemingly unrelated events in history which could enrich any number of historical narratives.
A favorite character of many fans, young and old, Dr. Who is a great example of a time-traveling “mentor” who can be available to provide a handy bit of guidance and assistance when needed. We use a stuffed TARDIS toy that makes the (de)materializing sounds whenever he shows up – it adds an element of fun and theatre to the play session.
This method of co-opting the plot of a story rather than coming up with a wholly original script, 1. drastically reduces cat-herding because the players already know exactly what’s supposed to happen and 2. simultaneously reduces the creative load on the game master (GM) which 3. allows for more fun and creativity for everyone.
The narrator doesn’t get off too lightly though, you still have to come up with at least a couple of ways the players can fix things, and be ready with a few ways that rolls can point the players in the right direction – rolls to “notice things,” rolls against a relevant skill or a roll to receive a “vision,” or a snide remark from a non-player-character (NPC), or a hint from a familiar. Failing those, a roll against intelligence is always a great fall-back. And if all ELSE fails I find it exceedingly helpful to have a deus ex machina, a miracle, a hail-mary or two up my sleeve. For example, a visitation from a friendly deity or a local wiseman, cough Dr. Who cough can work very well.
One of the first lessons of improv is “Yes, and…” and this is an excellent rule to keep in mind as the narrator. Always go with the flow that your players present and discourage discouragement at all costs. Encourage improv. If the players come up with a creative solution that isn’t realistic, help them figure out how it could work. If they can’t figure out a solution, offer advice on a winning roll. It may take persistence and creativity, but it’s worth it to work with them to make their solutions work instead of the one you might have in the back of your head. Remember: it’s not about doing it “right,” it’s about the players having fun (and shhhh! learning) along the way.
Please, when you come up with great ideas and experiences in your roleshooling, share them with the community in the group on Facebook! By sharing tips and ideas, we can all help each other help our kids develop a real love of learning that lasts a lifetime. What better goal could there be? Join our Facebook Group for Roleschooling: Roleschooling.