The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Joe Pettine
Game Master and writer
Joe Pettine is the owner and founder of Dark Hills Gaming. He’s a professional Game Master with 10+ years experience specializing in tabletop storytelling and immersive live events. He holds a MFA in Writing and Producing for film and television from Long Island University and tells stories across written and oral genres. He lives in Philadelphia with his daughter and wife.
For the uninitiated, what does a professional Game Master (GM) do?
Well, there’s a bigger question you have to ask first. What is a tabletop Role Playing Game (RPG)? See, way back in the 60s or 70s some super nerds decided to combine math and storytelling. You sit around a table with a bunch of friends, roll dice and tell stories. What you do in the game is determined by how well you roll your dice. The GM is a storyteller, a teacher, and a referee all in one. The GM writes the story for the session, and tells the story and guides the players through the story as they make choices and take actions that impact the overall storyline. What I love about RPGs is that its collaborative storytelling. I’m not just telling a story at people, I’m telling it with them.
What are the unique challenges of interactive storytelling?
Sometimes the biggest challenge is just getting people onboard. When you say to someone we’re going to sit around a table and tell a story together, they don’t always get it. They don’t really understand what it means. But once you can get people into that space, it’s more rewarding than what you can get from video games or even the more complicated board games. With a tabletop game, you can do anything. I’ve had games start in the medieval era and end up in outer space.
It’s a writer’s dream – it’s pure creativity. Before writing there was storytelling. And that’s my favorite type of creation – on the fly, just talking with people. You get energized – you feed off of one another. Around a campfire, everyone is quiet and listening. But when you get a good game going, people start to combine their stories together, and their energy fuels each other. It’s just a pure positive experience.
How do you make a story better?
In a word, adaptability. One of the first games I ever wrote was based on the tale of the missing settlement in Roanoke Virginia, and how those people went missing. In the game, all the players were trying to work together to survive. But at one point a player pulled me aside and said ‘I want to be evil.’ I said, OK and just started to roll with it. It turned out to be a blast. At the end of the game, the player said to me ‘Joe, if you’re willing to be adaptable like that, you’re going to be really successful as a GM.’ That always stuck with me. I hate playing games where you feel railroaded. If the GM doesn’t let you do anything you want to do, it takes you out of the story.
That’s true with every story. You need to be adaptable and change things up as they need to be changed. The ability to read a room and connect with your audience is important. Whether it’s telling a story around a campfire or at a party, you can tell if people aren’t interested. But you can also tell when they are interested. When people are so enraptured with what you’re saying, that in itself is a high.
What’s your favorite storytelling device?
I kind of enjoy fucking with the audience to build tension. There’s two ways I do it in a game. There’s what I call The Interruption – which is where you interrupt a task or something seemingly mundane with a surprise. For example, I might tell a group of players ‘You find yourselves locked in a room. What do you do?’ Well then they start to think about it and make a plan to check out the room or whatever. But then I jump in and say ‘Suddenly the room is filling with water!’ And you can see it instantly on their faces. They’re mad, but the energy is right, the tension is high.
I also like to do the opposite. In high tension settings, where the stakes are high and something could go wrong at any moment, sometimes just asking a question is enough to set players on edge. For example, if a player walks into a room and a cup is sitting on a table, if I don’t say anything they might go over and check out the cup. But if I ask the question really slowly: “A cup sits on the table…do you drink it?’ Well now they don’t know, they’re instantly suspicious. Letting people create their own tension, especially where there is none planned, is really fun.
How much do you think about your audience, versus just making something for yourself?
We live in a world where storytelling is commodified big time – from movies to books, you name it. But when you create a tabletop game, you’re always creating it for yourself. I ask myself what do I want? I want to explore things that I enjoy and interest me. With gaming you should always start by telling the story for yourself. But the magic is that once you bring other people in, it’s no longer your story. It’s everyone’s story. A good game is kind of like a play. There’s the story that’s been written by the GM, who is the playwright and director, but then the actors bring their own energy and commitment to bring it to life.
How do you measure the impact of a story?
If people aren’t having fun you’re doing it wrong. That means everyone from the veteran gamers to the newcomers. I try to keep an eye on newcomers – give them the chance to get into it and talk to each other. I know I’ve got them when someone goes and buys their own dice.
What’s a story that has always stuck with you or changed your perspective?
My Father once told me a story about going hunting in a pickup truck that had no engine. He’d push it up the hill and then coast down, firing his gun out the back. And then a few years later, my Grandfather told me a very similar story. It wasn’t word for word the same, but all the beats were there – the truck, the gun, the missing engine. And that really left me thinking about the nature of stories and storytelling. My Father stole that story. He heard it from my Grandfather and decided he liked it enough to start telling it about himself. I think that happens more often than we like to admit. People in general, if they’re brave enough and smart enough, will steal stories. In my mind, it’s the only real way you have a legacy. If 40 years from now some great great grandchild tells a story about hunting in a truck with no engine, what greater legacy could my Grandfather have?