It’s hard for me to narrow down my “favorite” Storyteller when it comes to Vampire. I had a few when I was younger who were, I feel, quite bad. But then again, most of us weren't terribly gifted at running games back then. In general though, I feel I've been blessed with having most of my Storytellers being pretty good. Sure, they all had their quirks and specialties, things they were particularly strong at--one was very adept at coming up with sweeping epic narratives, while another was gifted at bringing NPC’s to life. Naturally, though, they all had some weaknesses to go with their strengths, but that’s true of any of us.
What the best had in common, I think, was a shared interest in the player characters. A good Storyteller, I feel, understands that the main focus of the game should always be on the PC’s, and is as vested in them as the players. It took me awhile to really get this. It’s easy sometimes as a Storyteller to get wrapped up in your own head, thinking about themes and moods and narrative tricks, and in the process losing sight of the game happening right in front of you. As such, I created my own personal mantra when it comes to running games, a little phrase to help get me back to what matters.
The players hate your game, and want to destroy it.
Some people think this is a tad offensive, or harsh. And it is, to an extent. It’s to help cut through the crap that clutters up a Storytellers attention, and remind them of the simple truth: it’s not “your” game, it’s “ours.”
See, the players don’t care about your elaborate and lovingly detailed history. They don’t care about your subtle and nuanced NPC’s, no matter how fascinating they are or how tragically beautiful they are. They don’t give a damn about what elaborate schemes and plots that are unfolding around them. And they certainly don’t care about the gripping, thrilling, and emotionally charged story you’ve prepared for them.
Players care about their characters. They care about the world of the game only through their characters eyes. It doesn't matter how much detail you put into your perfect NPC, the players will only ever care about them through the lens of their character. One PC might find themselves involved in a torrid affair with an NPC, but when that character dies and the player creates a new one, do not be surprised when the new character has no interest in that NPC. Because, the player never really gave a damn about the NPC, they only cared about them in terms of their old character.
And this is how it should be. Role-playing is a collaborative medium, after all. The players are not the audience, they are the co-creators. They are not passive, they are active. They are there to be involved and be engaged, and your goal as Storyteller is to be as engaged with them as you possibly can. Time spent focusing on cool NPC’s doing cool things, or trying to force the players to follow the Story you have written is time when you are taking them away from “our” game and forcing them to deal with “your” game.
Many others have written much more intelligently than I ever could about choice and design in games. But it’s why I focus on the elements that I do, many of which have come up as part of this Challenge. By spending a significant amount of time prepping a game in advance, I have the information I need to allow the players to do as they will in the game; because it is a “sandbox,” not a series of well crafted stories that they must follow. It’s why I care more about an NPC’s feeding habits than I do about their doomed romance as a mortal--who that character is eating tonight is something that will impact that players, in one way or another.
At the same time, the idea of “The players hate your game and want to destroy it” isn't meant to all be “One True Wayism” or doom and gloom and “BAD GM, no cookie!” It also reflects the fact that I know I will never be able to predict what the heck my players are going to do. I can guess, I can plan potential scenarios, but it’s inevitable that they are going to try something more bad ass, more impressive, more creative than I could ever have thought of. Hell, if I don’t at least once per session do a double take and go “excuse me, you do what?!?” then I know the players aren't really into this particular session.
Because as much as I love talking about games, and analyzing games, and spending an inordinate amount of time coming up with NPC’s and histories, and plots and schemes and all that, ultimately this is not about telling a story. If I wanted to do that, I could write a novel or a screenplay. It’s not really about playing a game, despite how much I love dice and trying to “beat” things. This is about sitting around with a group of friends and acquaintances and playing “Let’s Pretend” and all the rules and mechanics and supplement after supplement are really just there to determine if my Laser Gun can pierce your Force Field. The moment I strive for, both as a player and a Storyteller, is for the times when everyone is involved in a scene, the world around you drops away, and everyone in the group is alive and present and engaged in this bizarre fantasy that we are Vampires (or Space Pirates, or Dragon Slayers, or Noir Detectives) and we respond and react as if that were real. When we all share in a living dream. These moments don’t happen in every session, and they don’t even happen in every game, but when they do happen, something magical and rare takes place that makes all the grunt work and the scheduling wars and the dumb self-referential jokes worth it. Because for a brief time you see and experience the world through an entirely different set of eyes, and when you come back from it, there’s a part of you that’s changed, even if just a little bit.