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Gaming for Grown-Ups

Dirty secrets of story revealed!

by Tim Kirk
Mar 18,2004


Dirty secrets of story revealed!

I want to deviate a bit. I fully intended this article to address "how to write adventures" but as I began, I realized that an adult who's done this for a while might fully be able to create an "adventure" with ease. It's not as dirty a word I'm about to speak: Story.

First things first--a story, in gaming, does not equal railroading. That is an independent nuance that can exist in your most basic game, story or not. Whenever I hear "If you want a story, go write a novel" my first instinct is "If all you want to do is roll dice, go to Vegas" or "If all you want to do is hack and slash, go buy a FPS" but my first instinct, the snarky one, doesn't win. You see, I know better than that about story, and I know the rules of story telling. The ones to some degree I wish to impart to you.

Rule 1: Know thy Audience

Just as you wouldn't sing a dirty ditty in a traditional church choir, one hopes that as an adult, most of you realize that the audience of a work, be it novel, game, or even something simple such as a joke, matters in the telling.

So, who is your audience? Gaming is not done traditionally before a crowd of fans cheering you on, instead it's done in a more intimate, personal setting. The audience of an RPG being actively played is you and your playgroup. You may never have played with these people before or you may have played with them for decades but the first line of any given game planning session should be "What would you like to play?" This opens a dialog between you and the others, a gamer come-on at its finest.

The "What" question is often however loaded with a weight of a dozen potential pieces from genre, style, theme, premise, plot, character types and so on. Therefore, while it is a good start, you need to continue to create more questions and answers.

As a GM, I find myself with my own ideas of what I'd like to run. I write up the quick synopses of those things which interest me and have them ready when I ask the "what" question. I offer these tidbits to see if my players are interested and get feedback on what thing they'd like.

What kind of questions to ask to narrow the field? Getting to know your audience is simple: know and find out their names, and make sure they are willing to participate. This is a trick for certain kinds of story telling, but it is required for game oriented play. It is presumed that one has already done this, except for convention games, your unlikely to hit a room "cold."

Now I suspect this will not surprise a few of you but not every game player who shows up is interested in participating. Weeding them out or accepting their lack of input is going to reduce your potential grief when play does begin.

Once that is out of the way, you need to narrow the "What" question down.

Here is a quick list of things to ask:

What game are you interested in?

What setting are you interested in?

What kind of play outcomes do you want?

The question: "What game are you interested in?" may seem simple enough, but you have to dig deeper in order to know your players. Even a commonly played widely-spread game may have many variations of optional rules, house rules, or other elements of concession to how a game was played before. It may be a new game to your playgroup. Learning a bit more and knowing a little about the particular game may help you focus on what about the game interests that playgroup member.

"What setting?" is another question which can help narrow down the story your group wishes to tell. Someone may, for example, name the game rules you're interested in, then go on and on about blasters and laser-garrottes when you've only used the rules for fantasy.

This is a genre question as well, but sometimes it's a bit more specific; someone may hate superheroes in general, but have an interest in a very particular narrow super heroic setting. Asking why they are interested in the setting can help you choose other games they might like to play.

Play outcomes is a bit trickier. Long ago, I learned this is where the meatiest, most important part of asking questions is to facilitate play. This is where few genres and few rules go--into the realm of "why" someone wants to play.

A player may want to play because of standard breakdowns of thinker, socializer, hack and slasher and so on. Nevertheless, they might have a surprise or two waiting in the wings. This is where I've found the most problems with some games is: I know the genre, I know the rules, and the setting is one I like, but a single word means something very different to me than it does to others.

It is all about degrees--someone may want to play a roguish ex-cop on the run from the law, for example, and that may mean he wants to play a heroic guy with a dark past. The same words without further details may also define a bloodthirsty murderer whose goals are not at all in line with the kind of play you're after. So dig deep, ask more questions, find out the direction they want a potential game to go.

These questions help you get to know what interests exist in your fellow players, your GM, and so on. You may by now be wondering what this has to do with audience.

In RPGs, the audience is the playgroup.

So now you know your audience, who you're targeting, and you know a little more about what interests them--at least now that you've asked your questions.

Rule 2: Adjust your story

Once you know your audience, it becomes vital to make use of that information in the story. In this case, the focus of play should fit the playgroup's decisions, choices, and the directions they want to go. The elements of play can run counter to their desires as long as you keep in mind the outcomes they are after. Unbelievably, some people don't like a random die-roll killing off their cherished PC. Some don't like games with no risk (that random chance), so once you know their interests in play, you can adjust the play elements to fit them.

The first thing to do is make sure audience desires, in this case, mesh. This does not mean they need to be the same, just that none are completely contradictory to others. It is quite difficult to satisfy a truly diverse audience as many will tell you, but audiences often have some things in common. These elements are the ones you want to include in play.

In some stories, the local color is changed, the names shifted to be similar to your audience's, details like where something takes place is altered so it feels more familiar. In this, gaming too has a huge similarity in adjusting the genre.

Rule 3: Let the audience shape the story.

Just as the story is adjusted to the audience to add flavor and familiarity, let the audience provide details that invigorate the story. If you're a GM, this means letting your players have some input into the shape of the setting; it doesn't have to be world-shaking elements. Some GM's and players may desire world-shaking, but they may also only want a little coffee shop on the corner that they named themselves.

Don't think you're all alone in this either if you're a player. Sometimes, you will, as player, want to give the GM more leeway with where he leads. I'm not advocating railroading, just pointing out that sometimes following a cool thread leads you to more interesting places than if you wander abroad with no direction.

As an audience, you must willingly forgive minor discrepancies for the overall direction of the story.

Rule 4: Story is not about the outcome.

This may surprise many, but the purpose of a given work, be it novel, movie, or game, is not always about the words "The End." Usually the best stuff of the story, of play, comes as the journey, following the difficulties, the triumphs and setbacks along the way. A good story makes you think at the end.

However, a story isn't just about that one point. This is why railroading in no way should be connected to story telling. The end is not the point-it is where you go along the way that matters to a story.

Even the simplest games with the most basic concepts can have a story--if you don't make it up with your play group together, they may very well be making it up on their own. Even a dungeon-crawl has a story in it--reasons why one goes to the crumbling ruins--heck, the fact that there are crumbling ruins makes up part of the story. They had to come from somewhere, for some reason!

That is the story, the reasons that exist to be told, and the journey from beginning to end. Story is not a one-way trip along a straight track. Story is every bit a part of a crazy off-ramp with off track turns and where that leads.

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