Recently one of my friends responsible for Sisters in Geek pointed me to an article by Charlie Jane Anders titled 10 Vital Storytelling Lessons I learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It is a great article and one I suggest you read now.
Have you done that? Good, then
So here’s the thing. Anders’ advice is some of the best advice you get get for running In Nomine, or really any RPG. After all, running an RPG is a form of storytelling.
Rather than re-hash the excellent Buffy examples, I’m going to run through Anders’ list and point out how these same lessons can apply to your game.
1. You can be scary, funny, and sad
The key is to always bring the story back to the player characters. It’s easy to make the forces of hell (or heaven) a terror to behold, or a laughingstock, or both simultaneously – but to make the same stories emotional, your players have to care.
That means listing to your players and incorporating the stories they are telling.
2. Stakes are relative
The apocalypse can be commonplace when playing In Nomine. Don’t count on the end of the world to make your players get invested in your game. Think about what interests them, and incorporate it (yes, this will be a running theme throughout the list).
3. The best hero wants something they can never have
Again I’m going to turn to Legend of the Five Rings here. One of the best parts of that system is the game of 20 Questions that is a required part of character generation.
While the main goal is push players to give their characters some real depth and motivation, the same list serves as a treasure trove of adventure hooks, rewards, and punishments for a player.
By taking one of their goals and keeping it ever out of reach, you give them a reason to strive – especially if it is clear that the character is getting closer, even if the player will never see their goal accomplished.
In Nomine isn’t as robust in this regard, but I would encourage you to never skip step 7: Develop their background: think about their appearance, the kind of food and music they like, the hobbies they picked up, how they get along with others, &c.
4. Places where we want to spend time can be great supporting characters
This is one of the fatal flaws of the module adventure. Space is always at a premium when prepping a module, and a location that requires more than a paragraph or two to summarize rarely gets included.
From my time running forum games, I can tell you that one of the best tricks is to let your players come up with the setting’s notable landmarks. Trust me, your players will come up with an amazing “club house,” and you have more than enough on your hands managing every other aspect of the tale(s) they will embroil themselves in.
5. Big mysteries should always have a hard hitting payoff
In Nomine is a wonderful game for “big mysteries.” Even if you never leave the source material, there are a good two or three variations per superior. and that’s before fans like me get their hands on the setting and start proposing more.
Picking a variation and not revealing it to your players creates an instant and central mystery. It also creates a trap for the GM.
It’s always tempting to show your players all the work that goes on behind the scenes. Don’t. If your players start picking at the secrets themselves, it will mean a lot to them when they find the answers. However, if they ignore your secret, that’s fine too. Let it stay a part of the background setting, but don’t force them to engage or you will be the one to reduce the core of your world to a trivial bit of unnecessary exposition.
6. Magic should come with dreams and visions
And this is why it is so wonderful that Songs within In Nomine are not “magic.” They can be mystical if you want them to, but to Angels and Demons, they’re just the way things work. Using a song is just a more powerful and fundamental version of applying a lever.
Trips to the Marches, on the other hand, are magic. Sure the Marches are technically still a part of the Symphony, but the rules are so different and unreliable. You can never be sure whether or not an action in the Marches will have larger consequences or not, and that’s as it should be.
7. Characters start out as archetypes and then go SO deep
This is really more a lesson for players. Even with the game of 20 Questions it can be all but impossible to create a fully formed person off the get go. It’s okay to start with an archetype. If you have trouble coming up with your own, feel free to raid the WoD nature and demeanor lists.
Just remember to tack on additional details when you get the chance. As long as your “new” hobby doesn’t require skills or abilities you haven’t bought, you should be fine.
Word of warning though. Don’t steal another player character’s shtick. That’s just rude.
8. Real life can be more terrifying than monsters
Monsters are easy. You can beat them up and the problem is solved. Real life is much, much messier. This is why I love the game of consequences.
If a player has a Role, force them to maintain it every once and awhile. Force someone to think of how they will save the world while also writing a regular column as a mild mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper.
Have allies start growing old or getting sick and see if your players will bend the rules for their friends.
9. A great villain has a scary goal
I cannot emphasize this enough.
Whether it’s a Demon Prince, an Archangel, or even that punk down on the corner, your heavies have to have an objective, and it needs to be something that the players and their characters would be unhappy with.
Evil for the sake of being evil is very much on the comedy side of the scale. If you’re interested in horror or pathos, something else needs to be the objective.
In the case of the Wordbound (which includes all Superiors), try to imagine a world dominated by their Word… because that’s what they want. That’s what they’re driven towards.
10. You can use a tired trope without following the usual boring storylines
Tropes become tropes for a reason. They are the mainstays of storytelling and there is nothing wrong with hanging a character, arc, or campaign on one – but play with the trope. Explore how it might deviate from the typical narrative.
Prepare for that.
Encourage your players to subvert the trope.
They’ll love you for it.