Oh hai, I’m moving my posts to Fridays. Ann will occasionally post on Thursdays, so from now on we’ll be posting two to three times a week: Tuesday, sometimes Thursday, and Friday.
Telling Stories in Games Series: Part I
There’s a chance you didn’t know this, but most (but by no means all) of my writing and editing experience comes from tabletop roleplaying games (TRPGs). When Ann and I mapped out what we wanted to do with this blog, I knew that I wanted to do a series of posts about telling stories in games (I’m going to aim for one or two per month). The recent announcement of D&D Next (aka 5e) makes this series seem somewhat more timely than it would have been otherwise.
Overlap exists between telling stories with games and telling stories in other media–after all, a story is a story is a story–but some differences persist. Everything Ann and I cover in Story Papers is applicable to game-based storytelling, but I’m not sure the reverse will always be true. Still, even if you don’t play games with a narrative, you might find something helpful in these posts.
Last week, I talked about the Three Foci of Stories as a sort of baseline for all future theory-based articles I write. It seems reasonable, then, to start off this series of telling stories with games in the same way.
Last week I advised you to avoid setting-focused narratives, unless you’re Tolkien (and even then…). Well, for game-based stories, you can just throw that right out. Setting-focused narratives have been the default for at least fantasy roleplaying games since the invention of the genre in 1974 and they remain popular today in most genres I’ve experienced.
If you’ve played a fantasy roleplaying game on the tabletop or as an MMO you are already familiar with the concept:
- The characters are in a settlement with a problem.
- The characters go to a nearby bad place and “clear it.”
- The characters uncover some clue that leads them to the next bad place.
- The characters travel to the settlement closest to the new bad place.
- Repeat 1-4 as much as desired, making the problems and bad places larger and more challenging as you go.
That’s a pretty bare-bones macroscopic example of how such stories run.
A small-scale setting-focused story–say, a single adventure–instead details a single location (or if it’s really elaborate and ambitious, several). In fantasy RPGs this is probably a “dungeon;” in science-fiction RPGs a spaceship, spaceport, or a point of interest on a planet; and in modern-day RPGs it might be an office building, some old ruins, or a military base. Whatever the location is, it and its history are at the center of the story.
The first RPG adventures dispensed with any kind of external plot at all and simply began the adventure at the door to the dungeon. Questions about why and how the characters arrived there were irrelevant; the point of the adventures were to explore a new location and uncover its mysteries. Modern sensibilities require a little more plot than that, but a “dungeon crawl” remains a story about a place and what goes on there.
And remember that being setting-focused doesn’t mean your story is limited to one small part of the setting. A story of exploration is setting-focused (maybe with some character focus on the side), whether that exploration covers a single underground complex or an entire world.
RPGs today are often more interested in plot, especially if they aren’t of the fantasy genre (and even then, plot-based adventures seem pretty popular). Many plots involve saving someone or something from someone or something else–giving the otherwise non-heroic characters a chance at being something more than mercenaries or self-absorbed jerks. The monomyth provides a basic example of an outline for these kinds of stories in any medium, although in games (at least in tabletop roleplaying games) you have to alter it somewhat to account for multiple primary protagonists.
The scope of what the characters save tends to increase as the overarching story progresses. First it’s just a village, hijacked airplane, or doomed freighter adrift in space. Eventually, it’s the entire country, world, or galaxy! (Not always, of course; sometimes the scope only increases to the next-largest nearby town.)
As I talked about last week, plot-driven stories are everywhere. Examples abound! Some of the more common plots that work well in games:
- Save this place
- Free the people
- Stop the bad guy from regaining power
- Throw down the bad guys
- Rescue the princess!*
- Slay the dragon**
- Destroy a MacGuffin
- Recover a MacGuffin
- Escort the important person
- Take this there
Many of those plots work in multiple genres, even if they appear on first blush to be specific to just fantasy or science fiction.
In many ways, a purely character-focused game lacks story. Or, rather, it lacks a story told by the gamemaster, narrator, storyteller, or host (whatever your title is). A pure character-focused game is pretty much a free-form roleplaying session, where the players take on their characters’ personas and simply interact. You might have a plot you want to introduce, but if the players are having fun in their free-form roleplaying there’s a good chance they will completely ignore it (don’t let it bother you; sit back, watch, and enjoy!).
That’s a pretty extreme example, though, and only barely constitutes an actual story. It’s most likely to happen as a break from your plot- or setting-based story, when the characters have a chance to just interact and the players are in the mood to really get into their characters. These kinds of “filler episode” sessions can be important to the pacing of your game and the enjoyment of your players.
If you want to try to run a game that is largely character focused, you’re definitely going to need the cooperation and interest of all your players. Some might take to the idea and provide long and detailed backstories as well as goals, desires, wishes, and fears of their characters. Others might just show you a character sheet. You’re better off, in that case, with running a plot-focused or setting-focused game instead and integrate player-created stories as best you can. This idea deserves its own post, really, so I’ll come back to it in the future.
Here’s a challenge for you: Start with a story seed of your liking. Now, produce a one-page outline for it focusing on setting, a one-page outline for the same story focusing on plot, and finally a one-page outline focusing on characters. If you try it, let me see what you came up with!
*Actually, for all that it is considered a cliche in fantasy, I’m not aware of any professionally produced RPG scenarios that blatantly use the “rescue the princess” trope.
**Also an under-utilized trope.