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Telling Stories in Games Series: Part II

I enjoy telling and experiencing stories in a variety of media. I’m also a big fan of storytelling experimentation and innovation, both in what stories are told and in how. My love of experimentation with stories in games pretty frequently runs afoul of what my players want. Ultimately, those games end prematurely, either through player unhappiness or my own apathy (or both). I’d say more of the games I run end in failure (I mean, opportunity!) than conclude naturally, although my success rate has increased over the past few years.

I attribute that increasing success to properly setting expectations. If you are planning on telling a story with a game (from acting as the GM of an RPG to creating a new story-based Facebook game) you will increase your chance of success by setting a reasonable expectation for your players.

Start With the Basics

The most basic pieces of information you need to share to start setting expectations for your game and story are those common to every story in every medium:

  • The name of the story (or “campaign,” if you prefer)
  • The system you’re going to use
  • How long you expect it to last (weeks, months, years?)

How you share this information is up to you. (I recommend email.)

More Details

That information is all well and good, but it doesn’t really say much about your story. Even a fairly evocative name (like, say, Warmakers) gives only a single hint to what your story is about (unless you’re into ironic or clever names, of course). So you need to give your players more to go on. Your primary goal is to make sure your players know the kind of story you want to tell. To do that, start with this kind of information:

Focus
In the first part of my Telling Stories in Games series I talked about focus. Your players need to know the kind of focus you intend on running up front. I won’t rehash that post; just go ahead and read it. :)

Freedom of Choice
Setting-focused and plot-focused RPG stories rely heavily on the illusion of free will. Players like to think they can do anything, but in reality they usually want to help you tell your story. Let them! But you need to let them know up front how much they can expect to alter the plot.

If you have a full story outline for your game, let the players know ahead of time that you’ve got a story you want to tell with them. You obviously still need to give them actual freedom of choice now and then (oh yeah, that’s definitely a future article), but if they come into the game knowing you have an agenda, they will forgive most of your heavy-handed attempts to steer them back on course.

This is the kind of gaming that some people decry as “railroading,” but I argue that (1) railroading is a myth and (2) the complaints about it come from a lack of setting proper expectations. (In fact, I feel this so strongly I have “The Myth of Railroading” listed for a future entry in this series.)

Of course, you can overdo your storytelling and not give your players any meaningful choices. That isn’t a roleplaying game. It’s not even a shared narrative. It’s oral storytelling with goofy props, and while there are times when such a thing is appropriate and appreciated, the gaming table is never one of them. (See DM of the Rings if you need a humorous example.)

The Warmakers game I ran some years ago had a destination in mind. No matter what the players did, the finale (but not its outcome) was set. How they got there and what they could bring to the party were completely up to them, so they had lots of freedom (oh no, I mean lots of freedom), but everyone knew from the beginning where the story was heading.

Tone
If your style of storytelling in games is not unknown to your players, you might not even need this part. And even if you do list it, you don’t need to use a lot of details. For example, my default story tone is “light-hearted but with a dark undertone.” How much that undertone moves into the primacy of the story depends on the players and the story.

Scope
How grand a vision to you want your story to be? This is going to be limited somewhat by how long you expect it to last, but those two factors aren’t necessarily connected. Let your players know if they can expect their characters to possess godlike powers or if they’re going to struggle to buy a box of instant noodles to split.

Consistency and Change

If you plan from the beginning on changing some aspect of the story, hint at that by saying “The story will start as…” or “The tone will initially be…” Telling the players that your story is going to be one way and then presenting it in another is a pretty good way to lose players. Nobody likes the ol’ bait-and-switch. On the other hand, if you warn them up front that some aspects of the game might change over time, they at least are forewarned.

Of course, people change over time, and so do their interests in their stories. If you want to change some aspect of your story, let your players know as soon as you can. In my experience, at least, players are open to change as long as they are warned ahead of time and allowed to give some feedback. Announcing a change right as you make it is not a good way to treat your players. Advanced warning is the key.

Final Challenge

You have some categories of information you should share with prospective players in your game, now let’s see what you have to say! Write out the expectations for a game you’re running or considering to run and share with the rest of us in comments. I’m interested to see!