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Storytelling Game Design Musings

January 30, 2007

Wrote this on a game forum earlier today. I apologize for the lingering code, but the hours, they are against me:

Flexibility and adaptability, without sacrificing quality color text and mechanical systems worthy of quoting and reappropriating in your own home stories, is what our scene-based structure is all about. The regular, but versatile, format of the scenes is meant to make it as easy as possible for you to jettison one part of a story without a bunch of other stuff unraveling. Even better, you can add in other scenes from other stories to easily dial-up the amount of investigation or action (or whatever else) in your stories.

It’s what we’re essentially all doing when we adapt published adventures for our own games anyway, right? We’re trying to scratch out the stuff we don’t want and squeeze in our own stuff, whether we do it before play or in the thick of the game. I’m just trying to create some common language for how we do it. We want to systematize it so the process is easier to talk about and easier to share.

This ties into the community building idea. Community building is another one of the big goals of these new adventures, and one of my particular missions. This common language makes it that much easier to talk about how you ran an adventure, or how you’re thinking about running it.

To use an example from “Chicago Workings,” you might move the foot-chase scene elsewhere, or basically run it twice if the characters have multiple encounters with the, uh, perpetrators in that scene. (I say, trying to avoid spoilers.) I might cut that scene out entirely.

We could compare notes, share advice and appreciate each other’s “this is how my story turned out” anecdotes by comparing the flow of scenes (and substituting scene names for the shorthands here):

“When I ran Parlor Games, it ended up being going A > B > E > F > C, then I tossed in scene G from this other adventure, and ended with a climactic scene of my own design.”

“What scene is that?” I ask.

And then you show me the scene already sketched out in a format I can understand and plug right into my own games if I want. Scenes become a shareable commodity. Constructing stories and telling stories not only get recognized as being different skills, but as being skills at all, rather than raw talent.

In the writer’s bible for the SAS, this idea gets mentioned more than once. It’s my mantra: Storytelling is a skill, which means you can get better at it. I hope that these adventures will help new Storytellers get better at it, but I am [i]sure[/i] that the peer review of multiple Storytellers comparing notes on stories that they can all reference [i]will[/i] help us all become better Storytellers, whether newbies or veterans.

[QUOTE=WhiteRat;6875361]What kind of “assumptions” and “preconceptions” are you anticipating? Could you give some examples? What does the guide do to discourage such assumptions?[/QUOTE]

The preconception that holds up most published adventures, and that I think interferes with the dynamic between a lot of Storytellers and players, is that of the “proper” story. The idea that a gaming group is supposed to achieve the proper telling of whatever tale the ST devised before play is, if you’ll pardon the expression, bullshit.

The story doesn’t exist until you tell it. The villain dies if he dies, and escapes if he is allowed to escape. Players are not cast to fulfill the destinies laid out for them in a script.

The flowcharts and scene breakdowns we use are meant to not only make plotting easy to handle for Storytellers, but easy to revise on the fly in reaction to player choices. I’m a big believer that plots are dull, utilitarian tools. What people mean, so often, when they talk about “plot” is “story.” They’re not the same thing.

Thus, the adventures we’re creating don’t hinge on a series of escalating encounters leading, necessarily, to a boss battle. (That’s certainly possible, as it is a reliable scheme for rising tension and a violent climax.) Rather, we try to make these stories hinge on tough choices — the vital mechanism in all good gameplay, in my opinion.

For example, I don’t know how my adventure, [b]The Resurrectionists[/b], ends. The final scene gives the players a climactic choice to make, but there’s no success/fail element there. Instead, it’s about choice and consequence. Keeping adventures about choice and consequence facilitates player freedom.

What the story is about thematically — what moral, if any, it has — depends on what your players choose. The adventure format strives to create an environment and scenic structure that create a consistent atmosphere and raise thematic questions which will intuitively provoke more high-falutin’ dramaturgial stuff like subtext. That is, many of the scenes presented in [b]The Resurrectionists[/b] are, on some level, about assumptions of hostility and containing ugly situations, but whether it’s a story about how assumptions and containment ruin us or make us lords depends on what happens when you play.

So, I guess it’s mostly about flexibility and creating a kind of storytelling structure that’s easy to talk about, reorganize, share and expand.

My hope is that people will share new variations on our published stories by combining scenes from multiple adventures into compelling new adventures that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. (And, of course, I hope they’ll do this without illegally sharing our files.) To help make that happen, you’ll see more developments in the future about how the SAS leads into other community-building plans we’ve got on the drawing board.

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