A tabletop role-playing game story is not a straight line between points A and B. There are many twists and turns, some planned for, some completely unforeseen. Some come from you, the worldbuilder and GM, and other directions dictated by the players.
Each change in direction has the opportunity to be a significant tangent in the overall story itself. And, as anyone who has played stories will tell you, sometimes those tangents are the table’s favorite times. But on the other side of the coin, sometimes those tangents aren’t worth the time spent on them.
So today’s Worldbuilding Monday advice is how, during your worldbuilding, you can develop and emphasize the super fun and hilarious tangents while reducing the number of tangents which aren’t worth the time. These steps, when properly implemented, can significantly improve the flow of the stories at your table!
Where are the Laughs?
When the story goes off track, it’s going to be obvious fairly early on where the players are going with it. Usually one or more of them have something in mind that the others – if they’re there – can go along with. When one of these tangents work, it’s almost always hilarious. As in, really really hilarious. Unexpected maybe, but if the table is in stitches you know you’ve found a winner.
Lean into the source of the comedy and try your best to invest in it – become a part of the action. Feed the spirit of what’s taking place earnestly and positively, even if it’s not what you may have originally envisioned for this arc or scene. Players always appreciate a worldbuilder/GM who isn’t a stickler for exactly what they had planned and knows how to roll with the punches.
And as the worldbuilder, always have areas & NPCs waiting on the back-burner to ready to go for these moments. Stash them for just the right time and set them loose to take the awesome and unexpected tangent to the next level. Net-net: finding the laughs and feeding them is one of the best ways to make these tangents work!
Put Focus on Results
When tangents do occur, continually keep the spotlight and emphasis on its result(s) as they unfold. That way, you’re reinforcing the risk & reward of the players’ choices and action(s). Most reasonable players tend to proceed with more caution, or at least more thoughtfulness, when there is something to lose and perhaps more importantly, something to gain.
So if you feel if the players are going off track a disproportionate amount of the time, ensure that you’re keeping the results of their actions top of mind as an incentive to do things well. Develop a track record of their decisions and ensure their outcomes have a material affect on the world you’ve built. When the players understand just how they’re changing the story world, oftentimes it changes their perspective on how their own decision-making.
Finding ways to anchor the players’ actions to the overall story as a whole is a critical skill for worldbuilders & GMs. You need to find ways to put these tangents in the context of the story they’ve played – and the world as a whole – to paint the picture of the impact they’re having, no matter how small. Over time, those ripple effects will add up. And the players’ affect on the story world will be visceral and undeniable.
The most invested players you’ll come across in the TTRPG community are the ones who feel strongest about their character’s connection to the story world. And when you care, you proceed with a lens of thoughtfulness you may have lacked previously. So it’s crucial you continually lay the groundwork to establish these threads of connection between the story, the characters, and even the players themselves.
And by continually zooming out to the big picture, and allowing the players to see just how they’re molding and shaping the world, you’re able to reduce the amount of tangents that aren’t worth the table’s time – while cultivating ones that absolutely are. So if you aren’t already, start implementing these practices today – I promise they’ll pay off for you and the table!