Recently, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the MRS Impact 2020 conference. In a new venue and new format, this year’s annual gathering of insight industry professional included two stages – one of which was entirely dedicated to practical, interactive sessions. It was on this stage that I spoke about how table top RPGs can teach us tell more impactful, more engaging stories.
Anyone who attended will know that one of my key pieces of storytelling advice is to recap events across multiple mediums. And, in the spirit of that advice, here’s my written summary of the presentation.
What is a TTRPG?
Before we get into the detail, it’s worth first understanding exactly what a table top RPG (TTRPG) is. So, here’s a primer. The form of gaming, was created in 1974 by merging traditional role playing with rule-based character representation. By role playing, I mean acting and making decisions as a fictional character. And by rule-based representation, I mean using a system of numbers and dice rolls to determine the success and failure of various actions.
Today, table top RPGs are played by an estimated 25 million people worldwide, and cover a number of settings. Popular variants include Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu – in addition to sci-fi, wild west and other genres.
The basic setup of a game involves a single Dungeon Master (DM), who controls the story of the game and the obstacles placed in the players’ way, in addition to 2+ players. Each player controls a single character, which has: a race, a class, an alignment, ability scores and equipment. With this in place, the game can start. Though game structure is largely controlled by the DM, rounds usually consist of four steps.
The DM describes the scene to players
Players decide how to interact with the scene or each other
Any skill checks and dice rolls to determine success & failure of actions take place
The DM describes how the actions affect the scene
And that’s it. While the nuances and detail of each setting can become much more complex, these are all the basic rules required to start playing.
Why Look to TTRPGs for Storytelling Advice?
Now, it might seem odd to look to this type of game for real-world inspiration. But, if we look at TTRPGs from the perspective of the Dungeon Master, the challenges they face on a regular basis mirror those faced by researchers when presenting to stakeholders and attempting to engage decision makers with data.
Often, we draw inspiration from journalism, TV and books. But their length pales in comparison to the stories told in TTRPGs, which take a staggering 48 hours (across multiple months) to complete. And it’s this setup – one where people need to remain engaged across long timespans and multiple sessions – where I believe the comparison is most apt.
This is summed up well by Edward Miller, Founder of Edward Elementary, who says, “Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world.” It is the last half of this quote that captures the essence of the shared challenges researchers and Dungeon Masters face. Both groups operate in large, confusing and complex worlds; but stories help us condense those complexities down and communicate them effectively.
10 Steps to Telling Impactful, Engaging Stories
Here’s where things start to get exciting. The following are 10 observations that I’ve made over my time as a Dungeon Master that engage players, and translate to the world of insights activation.
Create the right storytelling environment. This is less about what you say, and more about where you say it. Making a story memorable starts by making the environment it’s told in out of the ordinary. In Dungeons & Dragons this is often achieved by using background music, visual cues, props and even candlelight. In research, the same effect can be achieved by making use of off-site locations, refreshments and removing outside distractions.
Start from humble beginnings. This is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. Starting with even the most grand description of the evil plaguing the land is not an effective way to engage an audience. Instead, it’s better to start small and relatable. Perhaps local crops start to die. Perhaps a lone beast attacks careless wanderers. It’s these smaller moments that help build empathy and ultimately capture audience attention.
Treat audiences as active participants. It’s easy to get carried away in the moment and forget that interactivity within a story is one of the most powerful ways to connect with the audience. Whether it’s small activities that begin the process of internalising learnings or decisions that impact which elements you focus on - there are always opportunities to engage through interaction.
Adapt stories to fit participant motivations. Building off that last point, another great way to stimulate an audience is to consider what is important to them. I remember vividly a campaign where my players were to look for a town’s missing lord, who may have had a morally grey personality. But this didn’t seem to fit with their motivations. Instead, their interest lay in replacing the lord. So… that’s the direction the story took. What does this mean? It means that understanding and adapting to what participants want to get out of the story is important. It may not change what the data says – but it does change how you present it.
Use recurring characters to tell of changes in the world. This is one of my favourite pieces of advice. Whether real or fictional, people develop attachments to people. So rather than explain changes in the world through abstract descriptions – tell of them by explaining how it affects a recurring character. This may be a real participant or a persona. The difference is immaterial, so long as the audience develops an attachment to them.
Give important moments additional flavour. There’s a subtle art to signposting in stories when something important is happening, and when something warrants greater attention. An easy way to communicate this is to slow down and give more in-depth descriptions of these moments. The change in tone and pacing signifies that the moment in question has a higher priority in the hierarchy of narrative elements.
Embrace the messiness of complexity. The real world is messy. Not everything marries up neatly. When crafting narratives, it’s tempting to give everything a place – to fit everything together and tell an inter-linking story. Unfortunately, that’s often not representative of the truth. In campaigns I’ve run, tying every plot point together breaks the suspension of disbelief. Messiness, complexity and loose ends provide an important grounding that help audiences believe.
Remember to use goals, loss and intimacy as hooks of engagement. I remember vividly the end of a campaign in which my players had defeated an opposing empire hellbent on destroying society… and yet they still reserved their most vicious anger for the husband of a local shopkeeper who had cheated on his marriage with her. And on that day, I learnt just how powerful goals, loss and familiarity are as drivers of emotion. Use them wisely in the stories you tell.
Leave threads of mystery for future exploration. Mysteries are the cliff-hangers that will bring audiences back for more. As Dungeon Masters and researchers alike will testify, holding attention for a few hours is one challenge, but convincing audiences to come back for more is quite another. So always leave threads unexplored, and highlight that these mysteries will be discussed next time. A clear reason to return that plays off our need to know the unknown is a strong motivator for continued engagement.
Recap everything, in multiple formats. Hopefully the benefit of this is self-evident. But a realisation I came to quickly as a new Dungeon Master was that a lot of information can be delivered verbally in the space of a few hours. And it’s difficult to remember it all. Written, audio or other summaries are a great way to enhance engagement and help audience members remember key points long after the information was initially presented.
That brings me to the end. While there are many more small tips and hints that Dungeon Mastering has helped me pick up – these are the most prominent. And it goes to show that sometimes, storytelling inspiration can be found in the strangest of places. If you know of an unusual medium that’s helped improve your skills in this domain, I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below.
Chris is experienced in marketing strategy and brand development, which he uses to skilfully guide the FlexMR brand to its full potential. Chris works hard maximising opportunities and ensuring the brand’s offering is relevant and appealing to insights professionals. You can follow Chris on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.