by Mike Shea on 20 December 2010
Rumors on the internets say that the Valve team responsible for the game Portal spent significant time testing their game during development. One of the things they continually tested was the story of the game itself. Every time they would go through a bit of testing, they'd stop and ask the test player what was going on in the story. Whenever the test player couldn't really answer, they'd to back and cut down the story a little further.
How much of your huge campaign world do your players actually remember or care about? Maybe you have a group that is all about story, all about the history of the game world, the mythos of past legends, and the genealogy of royal horses, but maybe they aren't getting it.
Test your story
If you haven't read it, Yax's article on reading the body language of your players is a must read. While you're reading your seven pages of flavor text, give your group a look and see who's paying attention, who's making dice towers, and who just went off to text someone (anyone!). Instead of pointing out their clear case of attention-deficit disorder, think about why they left and what you can do to bring them back.
Another test, periodically test your players to see who they remember and what is going on. If they aren't really picking it up, start cutting back the elements of your story until they do. As Kurt Vonnegut said, start as close as you can to the end of your story. Keep the goal of your campaign as simple as possible. Give them all the information they need to know where things are headed and make sure that direction is crystal clear.
Know your players
You might very well run into a situation, as most of us have, where some players want more story than others. Give them as much as they can take and ensure it doesn't oversaturate the rest of the group. Try doing some one-on-one storytelling through email outside of the game to give that player a good feeling for the direction of their own story without necessarily making it critical information for the rest of the group. This way you can give each player as much story as they want, not too much and not too little.
The divine art of simplicity
Like most things, keeping it simple is almost always better. Keep your story clear, the number of NPCs you have small, and fill in only the details required to move things forward. Talk to your players, quiz them on what is going on, and cut back what they're clearly not remembering. The story that remains will be stronger than you could have imagined.
If you liked this article, check out Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips. Looking for more books to help you with storytelling in D&D? Check out the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 and the Players Strategy Guide. You can also support this site by bookmarking this link to Amazon. Stories will only get you so far, so pick up some great miniatures at Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.