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Thinking Virtually

#8: StoryTelling in RPGs, Part One

Shannon & Kimberly Appelcline
April 16, 2001  

Welcome back one and all. For the past five weeks, as you've no doubt noted, Thinking Virtually has featured a series of articles describing "Virtual Groundwork"--those elements of StoryTelling which underlie any type of creative fiction, be it movies, mythology, short stories, novels ... or RPGs.

These elements--setting, character, plot, and backstory--are the first thing that you should consider when you lay out any roleplaying campaign or any computer game. However The Elements of Good StoryTelling articles really describe an abstract ideal. When writing within any specific medium you'll find that the four StoryTelling elements have to be adapted to the medium's strengths and weaknesses.

This is particularly true in both table-top RPGS (henceforth TRPGs) and in their multiplayer computer brethren (MCRPGs). In planning this article Kimberly & I discussed a number of ways in which StoryTelling is unique in RPG backgrounds; this week and next I plan to outline those, expanding the abstract groundwork that we've laid out into a true foundation for roleplaying games.

If you haven't already you should read the five articles describing The Elements of Good StoryTelling:

This week: setting and character in roleplaying games.

Setting the Stage in RPGs

As we move through the four elements of StoryTelling, we'll see that in every case you have to adapt the basic rules in order to effectively use the elements in RPGs. In many cases TRPGs and MCRPGs will require many of the same adaptations. This isn't the case with setting, which has totally different uses in the two mediums.

If anything setting is played down in TRPGs. Setting seems to be pretty well thought-out in the big picture: from warring kingdoms to machinating guilds of magicians and the dark, seamy quarters of your favorite city. But, in the smaller, more personal details setting tends to disappear. Can you really describe the last tavern your players caroused in or the last forest clearing that they camped at? Probably not, or probably only very tersely.

Not only is setting less used in RPGs, but it's also only used in certain ways. Consider those old AD&D supplements where setting was only revealed to players through little boxes to be read aloud. The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, a fairly typical supplement from the 1980s, includes boxed sections such as this: "Moored at the river edge is a stout craft that appears big enough to handle your entire party ... The current is moving slowly northwards and northeastwards, where the watercourse divides. It is likely that you will be able to move upstream."

The setting is minimal. There's very little use of the five senses. And, as we look at this and other setting blurbs, we realize that setting is only there to move along plot. It's very rare that setting is used to provide characterization in a TRPG, or to serve any other purpose. Plot is king.

In general, this is an ok thing. Plot does tend to be the core of most tabletop RPGs, and so it's not that surprising that setting should primarily serve it. In addition it's not that surprising that individual encounter settings are terse. Players need to know how the big setting works, so they're willing to learn about it (which I'll talk more about next week when I cover backstory). Putting a lot of description into room-by-room, encounter-by-encounter settings is likely to bore players, however. It's a deficit of our hobby's oral tradition--players can't learn about the setting only when it interests them.

When we move into MCRPGs we find that the entire importance of setting flip-flops. In TRPGs setting is minimal; there's a strong case to be made that setting is the single most important element of StoryTelling in a MCRPG.

When a player enters a MCRPG he needs to figure out what to do. In a tabletop game that player would be guided by the gamemaster; in a multiplayer computer game, however, there's no guarantee that the player will have any interaction with a gamemaster/wizard/storyteller. There are some games, typically classified as MUSHes or MUXes, which do provide lots of interaction with StoryTellers, but they're in the minority. In most games a player needs to figure out appropriate things to do on his own.

It's the setting of a game that ultimately acts as the player's portal into an online game world. If a player sees chairs in a room with a fireplace, he knows that he should sit down and look for others to socialize with; if he sees seven weapon dealers on every street, he knows that he should probably consider learning some self defense; and if he sees temples to the gods, he knows that he should consider worshipping. It's the setting in a MCRPG which teaches players what can and should be done in a world.

And this works--a player actually can learn about a world from a setting--because of the unique strengths of multiplayer computer games. In a TRPG if the gamemaster had written two paragraphs on every single room the players would get bored pretty quickly. However in a multiplayer computer game the players can choose whether to read those two paragraphs (or whether to examine the carefully rendered graphical screen). When you're seeking information, it's there; when you just want to move on to the next room or the next encounter, you can.

Because of the ability to provide more setting without boring your players, a StoryTeller can offer much more detail in a computer game. The only limit is his patience. An MCRPG StoryTeller can, and should, use encounter settings to offer characterizations: what does the Chamberlain's office say about him? What does the Queen's throne room say about her? If a StoryTeller wants to he can expand his setting ad infinitum, using all the tools Kimberly describes in her setting article. Some of these details may be immediately available to anyone who enters a setting. Others might only be available if players look for them (or smell for them or listen for them ... as the StoryTeller desires).

There are two other notable oddities regarding setting in MCRPGs:

Setting must be constrained. For a tabletop gamemaster it only takes a few minutes to describe a totally different area. "You're in the throne room," you say, or "You enter a small cavern." A computer StoryTeller, on the other hand, has to expend considerable energy handcrafting locales beforehand. He has to write an entire description from scratch, including as much detail as the most curious player might desire. For this reason the computer StoryTeller has to figure out ways to constrain his world, so that he doesn't have to describe entire kingdoms or continents.

Setting is less dynamic. In a novel or an RPG the setting influences the main characters and in turn the main characters can influence and change the setting. Though this might be true in MCRPGs, it takes considerably more work. If players change an MCRPG setting, then the StoryTeller must build that setting twice: once before the change and once after. Dynamism is a huge topic of discussion in the online game community without any good solutions. At heart the computer StoryTeller needs to be quite aware that his setting will rarely change.

Characterizing Players in RPGs

When talking about characterization in RPGs you have to break it into two main topics: player characters, which aren't entirely under the control of the gamemaster, but are the core of the game; and non-player characters, which are entirely under the control of the gamemaster, but aren't the core of the game. That quick description should make it clear that characterization can be a tricky problem in RPGs of all types.

Both TRPGs and MCRPGs face the same problems with regard to player characters. Players may choose to characterize their alter-egos via all of the methods that Kimberly described in her character article--descriptions, background, actions, dialogue, the whole ten yards. But there's one thing that tends to be missing from characters in RPGs: change.

Sure, you can ascend to the tenth level of experience or become a Knight of the Round Table or gain possession of a soul-sucking ebony runed blade. But does a player ever actually change? My experiences in RPGs has offered the answer: occasionally, but mostly only when the player gets bored.

Thus when you, as a StoryTeller, are thinking about characterization, one of your primary goals has to be figuring out how you can encourage players to let their characters evolve and change as they should when they are faced with stunning revelations and life-threatening encounters on a daily basis. You don't ever want to make players change their characters, but you do want to plant those seeds in their minds which encourage them to do so themselves. A few ideas for how to do so include:

  • Ask their characters hard questions that they won't know the answer to. (Under what conditions would you break an oath?)
  • Encourage their characters to undertake different activities. (Make fighters socialize and socializers fight.)
  • Immerse their characters in new situations. (How will the characters deal with a noble court? A seedy slum?)

In MCRPGs you have an additional possibility:

  • Have the player characters interact with other player groups--typically ones that are far from their normal social circles.

The whole idea here is to encourage change by making players learn new things about their characters.

Characterizing NPCs in RPGs

The issue of change doesn't really strike NPCs like it does PCs. As a gamemaster, you're less likely to grow personally attached to your NPCs, and so you can look at them from afar every once in a while and see how they should be developing. There are, however, a few other things that you should consider.

In TRPGs you should be aware that NPCs are often really setting. If you have a bunch of folks lounging around a tavern or a gaggle of knights at court you're never going to need to describe them all. They're window trimming; treat them as such

MCRPG NPCs tend to be much more important and thus much more carefully characterized. As a result, they're a lot rarer. (In fact a lot rarer: not only does a MCRPG StoryTeller have to characterize an NPC but he has to expend considerable time and energy running him in-game too). These fully-fleshed out NPCs do show up in TRPGs too: your arch enemy, the Zinc Lord; the leader of the patrol who's been chasing you for months; or your occasional ally, the Death Lord ZugNuk. They're just not the entire palette of NPC types, as they tend to be in computer games.

You can characterize these developed NPCs exactly as Kimberly described in her character article--exactly as players are hopefully characterizing their PCs. But you should be aware of one additional rule: NPCs in roleplaying games must have the desire to interact with PCs.

If you create a very shy NPC or an extremely abrasive one, the players will have no reason to interact with that person and you'll have just wasted a load of effort. Sure, you might have these types of folks working in the background, but you won't need to go to extremes of characterization. Save that for NPCs with good reasons to interact with your players.

A Summary

When adapting the basic Elements of StoryTelling to RPG mediums you need to think about them in different ways. Here's my top advice for our setting, broken up by medium:

When constructing settings for RPGs:

  • Build out the overall setting, but consider that mainly a use of backstory.
  • Don't bore your players by offering extensive information on settings for individual encounters.
  • When you do expend effort on encounter settings, primarily consider how your setting can move along plot.
  • Don't entirely throw out the idea of offering characterization through setting, but consider it a minor issue.

When constructing settings for MCRPGs: