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Mechanics that promote good storytelling


I’m interested in learning about mechanics in RPGs that promote good storytelling. A couple examples of the sort of things I mean:

Primetime Adventures has each player define an issue that is central to their character. When their character is involved in a scene, they have to have something at stake, often something related to their issue they stand to gain or lose. This makes scenes and their outcomes meaningful to the character.

Also, at the start of the season, players collectively decide how prominent each character will be in each episode, allowing certain characters to take the spotlight at certain times. This encourages players to think about their (potential) character arc for the season, how that interacts with other characters’ arcs, and the overall storyline of the season.

During character creation in Fiasco, characters are tied together with a web of connections, including things to fight over or past grudges to fuel tension. Gameplay boils down to characters can either control the setup or the resolution of the scene, but not both. So players can’t get what they want without cost and fear losing what they have.

Both examples above are mainly concerned with character-driven stories: what choices do characters make and how do events change them. But I’m open to exploring other narrative theories and methodologies.


Specific to mechanics, I’m a fan of Edge of the Empire and its cousins for the advantage/threat system for storytelling. It changes skill tests from “you shoot, you hit, you do x damage” and forces the players (and the GM, but best to put it in the hands of the players) to come up with more of a scene to describe the advantages rather than just sort of checking off a box. You successfully sliced the door controls, but whoops, that turned the lights off too. Your grappling hook toss didn’t land, but it did accidentally yank down the antenna so they can’t call for backup.

The other, universally applicable, mechanic that I picked up as a GM from some of my favorite actual play podcasts was a simple phrase to be thrown around often: “Cool! And what does that look like?” The players are the heroes, force them to tell you all about how damn heroic they’re being.

On top of those, having been reading more about writing theory lately, I think next time I run a game I’ll instruct the players as a part of the character creation to define “what does your character want” and “what does your character need”. Hopefully the players would learn more about their characters by answering that, and as a side effect I get a more nuanced adventure hook for each of them.


To elaborate on this, some systems have instead of a straight “Yes” or “No” on checks, there is a wider variety of results: “Yes, and…” (for critical successes), “Yes, but…”, “No, but…” and the dreaded “No, and…” (for critical failures). I believe Powered by the Apocalypse systems have a result where players succeed but at a cost, and I think some give flexibility for the GM or players to decide or negotiate what that outcome looks like.

Ryuutama has a mechanism where, when a battle starts, the people describe the terrain or objects in the battlefield, the idea being the players and DM will then work these details into the battle. Firefly has mechanisms where the GM and players create complications and assets that can be invoked where applicable. What I like about this and the mechanisms you give is that it fleshes out the world the players operate in, that there is more going on than whether their attack connects (this is a roleplaying game, not a tactical wargame).


A big thing that has been talked about this before: give them a “Yes!”

“Is there a window I can reach?” (Now there is!) Roll for reaching it.
Or “Is there a chandelier?” Of course. Roll DEX (or whatever).

The question, “Can I survive this?”, or more accurately, “can I succeed in my attempt for what I want to do?” however should always be kept in doubt. Failure should always have a serious (or at least, important) consequence in roleplaying.

The thing that we often don’t talk about is the “No.”


The One Ring RPG has a couple of interesting mechanics that help drive storytelling. Each PC has a few traits that describe their characters, like tall, bold etc. that can be called on to claim a pass on relevant tests if you can roleplay them in appropriately.

Each member of the party has to choose another PC to be their Fellowship focus. This represents a bond between characters, and if your focus gets hurt you gain Shadow points that creep you towards madness, whilst if they survive an adventure unscratched you gain Hope, which is the fall back resource for when things turn for the worse.

At the start of combat there’s a roll to gain extra advantage dice for the combat to represent tactical edges from the terrain etc. When someone wants to grab one from the pool you’re encouraged to roleplay how you gain the advantage (I jump onto the fallen statue to get a better firing angle on the goblins).


Interesting. I liked how Powered by the Apocalypse games generally tie characters to each other during character creation. Sounds like One Ring took it to the next step and gave characters a mechanical reason to care about what happens to other characters.

(Incidentally, I had a similar idea while I was toying with designing a game where players were characters on a spaceship: players would pick or randomly draw connections, like you are protective and get story points if they are safe, or you are rivals and get story points if you outperform them.)


One thing, I’m sure I’ve said before, you can do when you finish a game is consider the board state as a real thing.

In pandemic winning means clearing four disease “hoorah hoorah”. Oh wait we’re literally one move away from the whole world getting four simulataneous pandemics. Five minutes after “winning” through fire fighting by getting cures is there really an infrastructure to administer the cure to the whole of Asia and Africa!!!

In Agricola 2player game I look at my farm and feel sad I’ve basically created a horse factory. Why to I have 20 horses in a pen that could five minutes ago only hold 2 :open_mouth:


I particularly like what Urban Shadows does: your experience literally comes from interacting with the factions in the game, either investigating them or by “being intimate” with a member of that faction. The game also have a start of the session move to create new characters and rumors tied in in a faction.

Swords Without Master is also great at mechanically helping players with the story. For example scenes might result in themes, mysteries or motifs that gets written down. These both trigger the end of the game and need to be re-implemented in the fiction in the final scene to end the game. Difficult to pull off sometimes, but I really like it.

Lovecraftesque is also great for that. It has really structured guidelines for what is allowed and what not in the fiction, but then gives players possibilities to break these conventions and to introduce new fictional elements in the game. This helps a lot with the pacing, but also with that sense of being left at the mercy of incomprehensible events, which is what I want in a cosmic horror story.


For a start, you quote two of the games in my top5 list. That’s great !
Like previously mentioned, I think “links” are one of the best things to have in a RPG, and some game (like Urban Shadows, with the Debts) include that in their rules, but it’s easy to add in any game. In a D&D game, ask each player to find a link, not necessarily mutual, to the player on its left at the creation of characters. It will help build a group.
But, one more thing to add is a link to the setting : family, friend, business … Something to root for, to defend, to fight for. Even for one-shots at Conventions, it’s something I always add.

The Threads of Swords Without Master are also a great tool. Basically, it helps rebound from a previous element in the endgame. In France, we call that “Un Fil Rouge”. When playing a one-shot, recalling previous elements and putting them in your epilogue helps achieve the conclusion feel of the story.