Before starting to play you need to do some general prep – which means you prepare a few cornerstones that will help you uphold the rest of the narrative, regardless of which method you prefer. If you as a Gamemaster already have a concept to build from, pin it down and share it with the group, so everyone knows what goes and what doesn’t. If not, keep it open and invite the players to discuss and collaborate on the outlines.
To get everyone on the same page, start to build the world around the characters, which in turn will help everyone to get the picture of what the game will be about, and their place in the world. If general prepping is the foundation of gamemastering, world-building is the foundation of the general prep! Take a gameplay sheet, and describe the following points with your own words;
- The known neighbors and their rulers and potential powers.
- The environmental and mystical aspects of the world.
- The names of a few nearby and important locations and individuals.
- The big issues every commoner struggles with.
- Some urgent or looming threats the player characters must respond to.
- Dire consequences and potential rewards for the aftermath.
A few of the world-building components listed above are essential to address, and if you have played story games Powered by the Apocalypse before, you may be familiar with them;
- BIG ISSUES
The big issues are troubles everyone in the world has to deal with, like war, famine, natural disasters, world-changing catastrophes everyone has been affected by.
- LOOMING THREATS
Looming threats are things on the horizon not yet perceptible, but will be felt unless characters or others intervene.
- DIRE CONSEQUENCES
Dire consequences are world-changing effects on various levels, depending on the scale of play. Regardless, they should be felt profoundly by the characters.
When you have described the outlines of the setting, each player presents their character, how their facets and levers relate to the big issues and other aspects of the world-building. They explain what their ambitions, obligations, and troubles are, and how they could be integrated into the game. No more than a couple of minutes are required for this. If you want to, set aside some time for questions and answers to provide an opportunity to deepen the players’ understanding and views of each other.
From the world-building you’ve just collaborated on, you then define a set of story hooks. In a previous post, I have described more in detail what hooks are and how they are used. The benefit is that everyone around the table gets a clear, shared idea of what the game will be about, and what everyone should strive towards. Worth mentioning is that not all hooks must be known to the players, as the Gamemaster can hide and hold on to a few for discovery later during play. Hidden or concealed hooks are meant to be used as surprise elements, or rewards after discoveries or accomplishments. They could also generate new hooks once they are dealt with.
Coming up with new story hooks during play is also encouraged, as an emerging narrative tends to set off in directions not previously planned for, and collaboration can spark new, exciting opportunities. A few story hook examples;
- Help a merchant home through dangerous mountains.
- Avoid bands of brigands and mountain beasts.
- Fortify merchant’s waystation and help defend it.
- Locate the mountain tribe and return the merchant’s captured family (hidden).
- Discover the tribe’s ancient altar and face the ancient mountain demon (hidden).
What’s important, and at the same time, a challenge for the Gamemaster is to keep the story hooks relevant over time. Here follow a few tips on how to use them more efficiently;
- Somewhere around three to five hooks will do at any given time.
- The fewer story hooks you use, the clearer the view of the story you get.
- One or two story hooks are perfect for a one-shot!
- Give room to discuss and reframe hooks if they become too hard to understand or aim for.
- Paint with broad strokes from the start, and add more details as the fiction evolves.
- If necessary, polish their descriptions when characters close in on them.
- Don’t be afraid to cross out a story hook that has lost its appeal.
- Create a new story hook as needed.
Once you know what the worlds look like, who the characters are, what story hooks they are meant to interact with, you may add some details to the prep. Story details can be seen as the glue for the hooks and can be used as a way to easily flesh out the fiction. During play, they can be thrown at the characters to push them in a certain direction. The story details are divided into:
Rumors are used for interaction with NPCs in the game. Rumors are truthful or precise, more evocative, and used to flesh out the fiction.
Leads are actual clues to pursue. They are not always obvious or clear, but they are truthful and less common than rumors.
Secrets are important pieces of information that help the characters to resolve their tasks in the story.
As a rule of thumb, when you add story details to a hook, use a 3-2-1 approach to get a good balance between them. This means that for every three rumors, you should have two leads and one secret. However, not all hooks need all of the three types mentioned. Your specific story and prep might require any or none at all, so don’t get stuck in this model if it becomes too obstructive.
A Side Note
Remember that a grand narrative in no small part is unexplored ground, so don’t try to come up with all answers beforehand. With your general prep done before the gameplay starts, you will have plenty of material to work with. Moreover, if the players have had a chance to answer questions about the world, built on earlier answers, they will feel invested and everyone will have an idea where to take it. Make room to fill out details later in play, and dare yourself to leave space for it.
If you want to read more about Forged Facets, I have previously written about character facets and arcs and hooks, that dig deeper into how characters are modeled and how they inform play. As you can see, when you gamemaster Forged Facets, facets and levers play a vital role as well.