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Game Design: Step by Step

What's the Story, Morning Glory?

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

April 26, 2000


The other day, I was attempting to explain UnderWorld to the artists that we were assigning for the rulebook.  The floor had been turned over to yours truly, and, in my role as the mad fool behind all of this stuff, I proceeded to fill the artists in on the setting, the people, and what I hoped would be the general "look" of the game.  After ranting and frothing like an out-of-control fanboy for about 15 minutes, Nicole raised her hand.

"But what is it about?  What's the story?"

I admit that I stared blankly at her for what must have seemed like minutes.

Then I realized what I was dealing with here.  This girl was obviously the victim of....(low ominous strings, building....)

THE STORY ARC!!  (Big swelling brass and strings hit!)

A whole lot of games engage in them.  The merits (and flaws) have been debated on other forums, and so I'll not go into that here.  For those of you who haven't read anything produced in the industry since 1988, or are otherwise unaware, Story Arcs are an effort by games publisher to have some form of big meta-plot occurring in their game worlds, so that the world evolves and changes, thereby (supposedly) seeming more vital and real to the players.  If you really want to have some fun, go onto one of the general forums, or a usenet group, and ask for people's opinions on the subject.  Then stand back and watch the knees start jerkin'!

Anyway...how does this relate to UnderWorld?

Simple: UnderWorld will not have a Story Arc, meta-plot, or any other such hooey.

You can go back and read that again, if you wish.  Now, anyone familiar with my stand on a lot of issues might be asking themselves: "Self? Why would Skarka, who is one o' them nasty old 'story-centered gaming' advocates, decide to NOT have a big meta-plot? Why?  Why, in the name of all that's good and holy...WHY?" (well, OK, maybe not quite like that, but still--you get the point).

The answer is pretty easy, actually.  The characters in your own campaign should be the most important characters to the story.

Now, I don't mean that they should wield phenomenal power over the world ("OK, guys---everyone gets to be the Lord of his own domain"--although if you wanted to run a campaign like that, it could be pretty cool, come to think of it....).  I mean that your characters should always be the "leads" in whatever tale your campaign tells.  They should be the ones who are wrapped up in the events that are moving and shaking the setting, not merely observers on the sidelines as some author's favorite NPC saves the world and gets the girl...and I've seen too many story arcs that are just like that: with the PCs merely "taking part" in the events, rather than shaping them.

Well, not in this game, boyo.  The PCs are the focus of any campaign run in UnderWorld, and the rulebook will contain a section for the Conductor talking about how to make that happen.

The section will contain discussions of various types of campaigns that can be run (the Discovery campaign, the Intrigue campaign, the Survival campaign, etc.), and what elements go into making a campaign of that type.  The idea behind this is to give prospective Conductors and their Players almost TOO MANY options for things to do in the campaign world.  Better too many than not enough, right?  A Discovery campaign tells the story of a Normal or group of Normals who stumble upon the UnderWorld and are drawn into what's happening there.  The Intrigue campaign is a complex weave of political maneuvering between power blocs within the UnderWorld, whether they are domains, or merely gangs.  A Survival campaign places the characters in opposition to the setting, making the challenge of day to day existence in such a harsh environment the focus of the campaign.

There are many more such options for types of campaigns.

The Conductor section will also talk about Intuitive Continuity...the development of your own Story Arcs with little or no prior planning.  The planting of plot elements throughout the campaign that, in retrospect, will appear to make a unified whole...and yet began as mere improvisation on the part of the Conductor. There will be rules mechanics to assist this process.

For example:  When your player characters meet an NPC in the game, you will perform a Head Count with 4 coins, to determine the NPC's COPP rating (Cooperation, Opposition, Personality, and Plot importance).  Each heads result in the Count means that category will be "active".  Active Cooperation means that the NPC is basically helpful to the PCs.  Active Opposition means the NPC will oppose the PCs in some way (note that it is possible for a person to be helpful in the short term, yet still an obstruction to the PC's overall efforts...the result of two heads in these categories).  Personality is a general gauge of whether the NPC is "positive" (heads) or "negative"(tails) in outlook. Lastly, Plot Importance gauges whether or not the NPC is at all important to the overall plot of your current tale...and it is possible that at this point, you might not even know what that plot is.  However, after a few such meetings have passed, the Conductor can look back and say, for example, "Well...the Librarian they met in the Lesser Boulevards. the Bravo on the E Train, and the Tagger were all important to the plot....how might they be connected?"  This (combined with some other nifties in the Conductor's section) will start to spark ideas for your own arc, which has already begun.

My first experiment in Intuitive Continuity was a campaign that I ran using Precedence Publishing's Immortal RPG back in the mid 90s.  The entire campaign was based upon notes that I had written in a hotel room on a business trip--a single sheet of legal paper.  Over the next few months, I dropped in plot elements as they occurred to me...Immortal is a BIG game, with little to "tie it down", and so I just decided to wing it, rather than spend time detailing things that the PCs might ignore or never encounter.  As I did this game-mastering improvisation, I noticed that the players, who weren't aware of the fact that I was improvising, reacted to everything I dropped out of the air as if it was of critical importance to the plot.  Rather than telling them that I had no plot in mind, I started to react to their reactions, if you will...and after a couple of months of this, a plot began to develop naturally.  When it ended, it was the most "literary" campaign I have ever run (and general consensus is that it was the best GMing job I've ever done...and I've yet to top it)...a complete epic story arc, with a beginning, a rising action, a mid-point, a climax and a denouement, with thematic elements, and foreshadowing, and reflections of Campbell's "hero's journey"...and all of it was unplanned.  It just fell together, from bits of improv and spinning new events based on the players actions and reactions.

Ever since then, I've tried to manage a system by which this style of campaign design could be quantified and taught, rather than just occurring by happy accident.  With UnderWorld, I think I've finally gotten there.

*                                    *                                    *

One last thing:  As I'm sure some of you may have heard, John Wick, designer of the forthcoming Orkworld (in process in a column much like this one, over at Gaming Outpost) was the victim of a virus that attacked his files for the game.  John posted to several forums that he believed this was a specific attack against him, as the virus went after files with the word "ork" in the title.  Now, I don't know whether or not this was a specific attack (I find it much more likely that it was a common macro virus that screws with your "recent documents" folder), but, having had to deal with disaster during my own project (losing my apartment to flood), I can sympathize with what John is feeling.  I in no way agree with how he has handled his reaction to it--threatening illegal actions and harassment isn't a professional solution, or even an advisable one--but even though I don't agree with it, I can understand it.

See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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