Telling the Stories of the Dead
One of the things that I often hear people complain about when they run a tabletop roleplaying game is that players act in unpredictable ways.
The truth of things is that most of running a game comes down to reacting and moving on, but that you can still come up with lots of things to move a story forward regardless of what your players do. There are also subtle ways to guide players based on the hooks and setting you present to them without forcing them to act in a way that violates their agency.
And it is for this reason that I suggest considering what I call "stories of the dead" when one is running a game. You don't necessarily need to have a death for this to work, but rather any fundamentally world altering concept. It's also not something you do for every story; it fits certain styles and genres better than others.
The story that I always point to as the genre-defining story of the dead is William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which is a novel in which a family heads into a town to bury their dead matriarch.
The reason why I point to it as an example here is that the inciting incident and the fundamental character motivations generally lie in the past, but the action takes place in the present.
There are other stories that do this as well, either as part of a framing device or in more modern experimental formats, but the real appeal of As I Lay Dying is that its stream of consciousness format gives us a lot of insight about what each character finds important.
You occasionally see films focus on this as well, with a common plot of slower-burning dramas being discoveries that come to light after a character's death or some major incident.
The video game What Remains of Edith Finch is another example of this; the protagonist is exploring a family home full of individual stories of people who can no longer tell them.
Video courtesy of GameTrailers
Why Stories of the Dead?
Well, for one thing they hold a particular mystique and appeal in the sense that the players get to explore instead of having things presented to them. It also means that a lot of your events are going to be second-order, that is rooted in the past, as opposed to being emergent as the game goes on. Having that background really helps to keep things cohesive and unified as you tell a story.
It also means that a lot of your creative effort as a storyteller goes into things that you can fix in stone. If you plan on the dragon showing up and threatening to destroy the town to inspire the players to go on a quest, you're dependent on the players finding the town, caring about the town, and fighting or bargaining with the dragon.
A lot of things can go wrong there. They may fight the dragon when it first appears before they're really ready to do so, forcing you to figure out a way to resolve that situation in a satisfying way that doesn't just end with everyone dead or you turning the dragon into a mediocre threat. They might simply decide it's not their problem and move on. They might realize that they need to prepare, but be uninterested in the storyline you thought would naturally flow from the scenes you provided.
On the other hand, a story of the dead exists in the universe already. It's not your central plot–though your central plot may be rooted in it–but it has far-reaching influences.
If you look at a novel or other major story, there are probably multiple plot threads at once; at the very least you have what each major character wants, and a central crisis. You might be able to combine these, but you run the risk of a very two-dimensional story this way.
When you're running a roleplaying game, you need to be thinking about what players want, and those seeds are difficult to really work into hooks. Players will give you this if you are open with them and let them have agency in your game, but one of the problems is that if you're really pushing your own plot threads you'll run the risk of denying them the opportunity to use theirs.
Plot threads that are dangling following unresolved business in the past are very flexible this way. Players can choose to engage with them or not, but they already have an impact on the world around them that can serve as a reminder or an encouragement.
Doing It Right
One of the secrets to pulling this off right is to make sure that you're not burying players under mountains of details.
A good plot has three C's: Connection, Clarity, and Closure.
If your setting has a lot of major thousand year old events that are still causing lasting effects, they're going to lack any significant connection. One major event in a timeline may be able to be addressed, but the more tiny pieces you throw at players, the more you wind up going down rabbit holes and falling into exposition.
Dry exposition kills connection. Characters connect to a plot through action and relationships. If there is a major NPC in a game that has been impacted by an event, that's a way to use exposition through a relationship to avoid it being too vague. Consider the relationships between people; if an event isn't tied to people, what's the significance? A lot of great stories are built on seemingly minor incidents and the human interest in the people who live through them. I think of O. Henry's short stories "The Gift of the Magi" and "Hearts and Hands" (both are in the public domain) as cases where very small points of concern–finding the right gift, saving face in front of an acquaintance–permit relatively deep emotional investment.
The reason why these stories work so well is because the characters are connected, and when you're telling a story centered on events and characters that are not present and not able to exert their own direct influence you need to draw these connections carefully.
Clarity is also important. You need players to be able to grasp what is going on, even if there's secretive elements and some parts will never be revealed. For instance, it may be that a murder can never be solved because two of the culprits are dead and the surviving physical evidence doesn't link to either of them, but the players can still discover all the clues and pieces surrounding the case and come to a conclusion.
One of the issues with a story of the dead plot is that you can "outwit" players by setting up clever twists of plot that the players will never be able to figure out without you just telling them.
This is generally a temptation of both novice and experienced storytellers who have an ego (which is to say almost all storytellers), but the mark of a great storyteller is keeping things simple and clear. Great detective stories often make all the clues obvious to the reader, but it takes the mind of the detective who is in the scene to piece everything together. The truly astute reader figures it out, the rest still get to know the ending once the detective explains it and the third act draws to a close.
Simple stories with connection and closure go a lot further than overly complex narratives, and fewer moving parts means that you're going to have less chance of things going off the rails.
Last but not least is the notion of closure.
This resides primarily in the players' hands, but as a storyteller and game master you still play a role in it.
The stories of the dead have lessons for the living.
This is where storytellers like Poe get a lot of things right. We see protagonists who explain what happened to them during times of tragedy and misfortune, or who tell secrets of an ancient time. While Poe's focus is typically on the macabre, keep in mind that every single one of your NPCs could play the role of his narrators in the world that your game takes place in.
My players in one game I ran killed a major villain with a very rich backstory in the second session. Fortunately for me, the villain also happened to have a fairly large extended family and cult of personality around himself, not all of whom were unwaveringly loyal to him. A couple of these characters followed the PCs to avoid the ensuing violence and power vacuum, and have been able to maintain the plot hooks that the villain was supposed to be pulling into the game even though they don't play an antagonistic role.
You also need to consider whether a story of the dead is going to play a part in the players' experience. A burned down town doesn't necessarily have any significance. Just because the players can find out what happened and satisfy curiosity doesn't mean that it's serving a dramatic role in the story, and it can become mere padding and exposition rather than a productive and beneficial part of the narrative.
Closure means finding something significant in the aftermath of events. It's about giving players a reason why the things that you have told in your story is important, both to the story as a whole and as a point about the world. You don't need to preach or moralize; often the "morals" of my stories are as simple as a tragic fall of a once-heroic figure due to a particular character flaw, often greed or ambition.
Doing something cool just because it's cool is a very quick way to limit the ability to find closure. Stories of the dead need to have a purpose, even if you don't define the outcome from the beginning.
Work the past into your narratives both to create stronger backgrounds for characters and to give a central focal point for other story threads to wrap around.
Remember that you need to provide connections, clarity, and closure with your plot developments.