Editor, Audience and the Cutting Room Floor
From cradle to grave, stories are a strong presence in everyone’s life. Its dawn fills us with curiosity and when twilight comes, life stories are all that we were. We listen to stories as children to learn about the world around us and we tell stories as elders to teach what we have learned. All the intense events in life when perception and sensation become most acute, they impact on our ideas of reality urging us to re-verify the world around us. When the dust settles and the day’s chase is over, reflection and learning are the essential tools that help us take on tomorrow’s challenge. The substance of that process is a story.
Stories have been part of the human psyche ever since there ever was a human psyche. Every jumbled bunch of ideas from a child’s “little white lie” to a master poet’s ageless epic qualifies as a story and every time we hear a new tale, the potential for emotional content is limitless. Each new story is a fresh bundle of information that must withstand the process of internalization - - one person’s long chain of synaptic impressions becoming another’s tangled ball of individual comprehension and imaginative reconstruction. Lying in wait is a story memory that will unwind into an internalized understanding as the listener deconstructs the story information in a way that they can personally understand. A communicative bridge built by the mind and imagination, motivated by the need to constantly understand our environment. By using one person’s perspective (telling the story) to form the basic understanding of the event that inspired the story, the listener can then re-form an improved individual opinion by comprehending, thus internalizing the story. This type of social communication is unique because stories are more than just raw data; they are a massive transfer of expressional conversation enveloping sensory information, mental absorption, personal perspective and waves of emotional variance. Through it all, each story has a different, but meaningful, impact based in the individuals personal experience, unique interpretation, expressive need and mental capacity. Trapped in our little worlds of personal comprehension, stories give us new ways of understanding and new ways to deconstruct and reconstruct new bundles of information and perspective as each new story is told.
In life’s quite moments, when time is filled with friends and family, stories can be the fondest moments shared in the purest form of good cheer as we reach out, trying to be understood. Role playing games, while acting as entertainment, can help us hone our innate expressive abilities and expand our potential threshold of social interaction.
With this said, there needs to be an understanding that the cooperative experience relies on the quality of the creative content. Creative content that can light the fires of inspiration and act as an impetus for motivated involvement. Whether it is an engrossed reader, a captivated audience or an active troupe, they make an internal choice based on interest. People will only read what they want to read, see movies that pique their interest and so on. From the perspective of a produced story, decisions are levied against the content value of the creator’s work on their ability to entertain and/or convey ideas. Just as seasoned editors are trained by toiling countless hours through perspective manuscripts into knowing which authors should have their creative licenses revoked and which should be published, a game master must develop adventure stories that are relevant to the troupe. It is the difference between entertaining one’s self and being an entertainer at a social event.
Story composition begins with 5% inspiration. Good stories have elements of truth and exaggeration, fact and fiction. Stories are happenings: events to be told. Tellings of incidents or experiences that evoke emotion, convey facts, share ideas or otherwise entertain. All the limitless dreams and aspirations mixed in with the infinite possibilities of the human condition.
We wander around in a sharp and pointy world using our senses and faculties to navigate. At the end of the day, we are left with a collection of memories and interpretations that are so interesting that we want to share them. Some days, our daydreams fill the nine to five and other days, inspired by them. From the dull day to the adrenaline rush, one thing remains the same: the need to tell stories. Coming in many forms, we talk, to discuss, or otherwise babble in familiar company. Inspirational sources are your own and we all possess the ability. "Defining" story inspiration is to limit the limitless. Story inspiration is an intangible exercise of Zen ponderings and muse wings. In lieu of packing such wonderful things into a plastic container and processed for your enjoyment, ponder the glow bug in the jar and let it go. In your memories and exaggerations, those bugs can become the muse instead of just being a dead bug in a jar.
After a GM has made the formative decisions of Design Criteria, adventure needs story elements. It can be a story idea as simple as two armies fighting over a patch of ground or an epic drama meant to stir the emotions and imaginations of the troupe. It can be anything you wish, that will interest the troupe, but remember that design elements are dynamically related. When you consider story design, remember that it must be a story that you are capable of telling and one that can carry the weight of interactive game elements.
Story Design Elements
Story Consideration Ponderings
Story complexity has a direct effect on game time: more details effect more discussion and more discussion takes more time.
The direction elements of preparation and content are a good reference for basic game planning.
Personal mood effects story quality; if you conceive a story in a bad mood, consider it to be therapeutic daydreaming to be rewritten and reviewed before turning it into an adventure.
This is a cooperative game story: it needs interactive elements and character association. The story is what is happening to the characters.
Three Bags Full
Once you have an idea, you need to turn it into a story. Story conception has three basic needs: story elements, story accents, and story composition. Story Elements are the functioning parts of white hats, black hats, conflict and resolution; they are the basic parts that we all understand and can relate to as an audience. Story Accents are the "special effects" and mood lighting of the story. Story Composition is how you put it all together; it is the 95% perspiration that comes from the 5% inspiration.
Story Elements are the parts of a story that make it a story and not a rambling. They are the moving parts of the literary machine that make a story relatable; everybody understands conflict and resolution even if they cannot specifically define it (and why most folks prefer "happy endings"). It also means that if a story lacks any of the elements, its relate ability is correspondingly reduced. For instance, a story with out an organized plot will have the disadvantage of focus. Anyone that cannot follow an unfocused story is unlikely to be entertained. In other words: almost everybody. Story Elements is the fictional ground your audience will stand on.
Protagonist: A Protagonist is the lead role(s); the main characters. They are the subjects of the story and the player characters. Their status-quo will be the condition to which story conflict will be introduced and a resolution begged.
Antagonist: On the opposite side of the conflict is the Antagonist. Traditionally filled by the role of a "villain", an antagonist can be anything else in a story that acts as an opponent or competes with protagonist forces. In an RPG setting, antagonists play the lead role NPC's opposing the player characters.
Premise: A Premise states the argument, i.e. it is why the protagonist and antagonist are in conflict. A premise is the reason behind plot.
Plot: Plot is how the story happens. It is the nature of condition, conflict and resolution. Plot also defines what's at stake and the subject of game play. In a cooperative story environment, plot happens. As a troupe plays out the roles of protagonist and antagonist, conflict and resolution is the game struggle - - it is the story, happening.
Subplot: Subplots are all the little plots that enable a plot happen. The plot might be a protagonist saving the world from a megalomaniacal antagonist. A subplot could be that the hero must first rescue her boyfriend because he is the one with the secret plans for the super-fuel that will run the antagonists doomsday device. Subplots complicate plots by giving main characters more conflicts to deal with than just the main challenge.
Goal: As a premise is the conflict argument, goal is the protagonist's successful resolution. Goal is taken on by players with the roles of their characters as their tools to overcome challenge. Goal is what characters want to accomplish as a result of their actions in the story.
Anti-Goal: An argument needs at least two opposing sides and an anti-goal is exactly that. It is what antagonists want to accomplish as a result of their actions within the story. Run by a GM or GM-friendly, it is the motivation of NPC's that oppose the protagonist and consequently cause conflict.
Plot Thread: A Plot Thread is a cognitive target used to help keep the game discussions from straying too far off the topic. A published story has the benefit of being creator-controlled and all an audience gets is the finished product. All the parts are produced for the benefit of the story. RPG's are a happening, they are a group effort. A thread is the focus of suggestive motivation to direct the premise argument. An example thread, or focus, would be the idea "mission impossible". This idea association helps define a cooperative how a cooperative plot unfolds. In this case, it would suggest that the main characters have quite the task ahead of them. Use of a thread as a topic can be done two ways, directly and passively. Directly, tell players the topic and bluntly tell them when they stray off target. Passively, it is done with good GM direction and style as a form of the story without ever directly revealing the topic. An advantage to passive control is it is a good baseline reaction for NPC's; however there isn't usually enough time in a single, short adventure. During a simple adventure, direct thread control keeps the production flowing without spending 15 minutes to explain something you could have said directly in about 20 seconds.
Story Accents enable stories to be told with life like texture by emphasizing the elements. Apply the craft of storytelling with conversation borrowed and story told to deliver a role playing experience rather than force feed a clinical analysis. Narratives, descriptions, background nuances and all the "invisible" information an audience absorbs almost subconsciously because attentive focus is on the interesting details is what contributes to the ethereal enjoyment of the entertainment. Story Accents are a cognitive background to the foreground of Story Elements. They are the plot conditions. When a story is told, it isn't a protagonist waiting at his place of employment; it's a crusty private eye in a dirty trench coat impatiently waiting for a paying job to pay his rent.
Context: A story's context is a unifying topic; a trend or pattern of thought that helps a story presentation work as a whole idea. It is the subject surroundings that identify the subject. What goes in between book ends? Books. When counting, two is always in between one and three and never after four. Strengthening a plot with structural integrity, this is the literary packaging that tells you what's inside. It is the subject of story thought that gives emphasis to a plot idea by establishing a perceptual and/or conceptual basis for the progressive thought of the discussion thread.
Author’s Note - Genre, theme and context all have very similar definitions. Each is defined a specific type, a topic or a whole situation. Used here, context denotes the storyteller’s goal in creating a particular subject while genre describes the story environment - - a differentiation needed when considering a story’s subject matter and a story’s environment.
Typical examples of context are action-adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction, or tragedy. It forms the basis of how events unfold and how characters are defined and sets a basis of interpretation for the audience. Use the idea of context as environmental subject matter that influences story expectations, increase story impact and engage player attention to deliver solid story experiences. When the job comes in for our private eye, the troupe knows its a mystery and will be satisfied when its a femme fatal wrapped in a trench coat and fedora trying to stop her father from getting involved with the man in the black hat...
Genre: Genre is distinguished from context by subject; it is the motif of the character environment, not the plot. Context is background for the story; Genre is background for the story environment. Examples of easily recognizable gaming genres are CyberPunk, Gothic Horror, Sword & Sorcery, Steampunk or Super Heroes. It is contextual in nature but separate in that players can expect a Blade Runner setting in CyberPunk, but a CyberPunk story could be a mystery, action adventure, or (dare I say it?) comedy.
The details of a genre define it and set it apart from other stories by their conventions, for instance when player's agree to run in a CyberPunk adventure, they expect a Blade Runner setting, gritty stories and cyber-ware gadgets because when the author created such rich and unique story flavor, it effected context and defined its own branch of science fiction (and subsequently turned it in to an RPG). For instance, most science fiction stories have some sort of computer as part of the story or at least as part of the story environment - - it is a defining detail. When those computer-like ideas are miniaturized and surgically implanted into character's heads as "cyber-ware", the details further define the context with genre. I.e. The science fiction story becomes a CyberPunk science fiction story.
There are also crossover genres. Crossover genres are story environments where different thematic influences exist within the story. For example, when Sword and Sorcery exists side-by-side with cyberware, a new genre, made up of two existing genres, emerges as a new environment of mingled conventions.
Mood: Mood is a story's state of mind. Mood surfaces during a story's telling as description and narratives but it should be considered at the onset of story conception, as with all story accents, because it will color the story emotional texture. Adding atmosphere to the mental disposition of the general plot premise, mood helps establish the spirit of the story and outline storyteller delivery. As plot is a story’s structure, mood is its expression, and descriptive language is the medium. Mood conveys feeling and story impressions, giving the presentation emotional depth. Descriptively, mood should manifest as a prevailing trend of fictionally based emotional responses to PC involvement, delivered to the players by a chorus of non-player characters along with GM narratives. Insinuate mood into a game story by sketching out an NPC strategy of PC involvement. As player characters interact with story characters, use mood to simulate NPC attitudes to the environmental conditions of thread and theme. Let it act as the reactionary baseline for NPC responses as players navigate their way through the story environment from conflict to resolution. This strategy of NPC usage will help keep player involvement focused by a maintained perspective over the course of information interchange.Use mood to direct a story by controlling the type of perception and description by reflecting the setting’s atmosphere in the emoting of NPC’s. For instance, the stage is set for a fantasy hero setting under a metaphoric theme. The heroes are questing for objects and the current mood is rainy day angst. The heroes are on an open plain just outside of a walled city. A party representative has been chosen to go inside while the others wait outside. Let the mood to help establish atmosphere: make it rainy. Make the characters wallow in cold mud with few provisions and let a subplot be based on them passing the time away in a miserable downpour. Before the adventure is over, a simple boasting of party archers could turn into a raucous mud-fight and even put a few smiles on the characters...and their players.Mood should either make sense or have a reason for not making sense to the audience. Mysteries must have a sense of intrigue; a mood of secrets, lies and subterfuge. If it does not, the reason why must eventually be explained or the material alienates itself from the audience. A contradictory mood without an avant-garde explanation makes a story un-relatable and a troupe will reject the idea.
Back Story: Back Story is the integration of story source material into current story context with a use of casual discussion. Offhand remarks of memory and experience that help create an illusion to draw audience into a sensation of familiarity and also explain the main subject matter. It is plot support that isn't part of the plot. If a main plot is a love story between a man who is a werewolf and his girlfriend trying to save him from his affliction, the back story might be a use of familiar werewolf legend conventions to help tell the story. For instance, by revealing information, mythical or not, about the main character, his position has been supported but not as a main story event.
Subtext: Subtext is a character's context. It is the underlying motivations of a character. In an RPG situation, subtext has two aspects: PC subtext and NPC subtext. PC Subtext is an individual character's subtext, representing the character role as defined by the system, accented by player creativity. The second aspect is NPC subtext. Cooperative stories have inherent difficulties not present in authored stories. For one, each player character, which represents a story's main character, acts and reacts independently to the story, making plot cohesion a daunting task for the GM. For another, the shifting and manipulation of story information done to keep plot movements on track can necessitate perceptual and conceptual limitations over the course of a game session. Lost in the perceptual grays of abstract description and game direction are the chances to enhance a game story
with a quality of literary richness. This is not always a bad thing but if game sessions begin to lack a seemingly unexplainable "something", try using subtext to deepen the context of a story.
Subtext in an authored story is used by the writer and/or actors to establish the underlying motivations of their character(s) so they may be presented with some semblance of sincerity, thus improving the production. While the complexity of giving every NPC sub textual depth can be time consuming and even unnecessary, a GM can use a sub textual theme to enhance an NPC strategy and the story. By choice or fate loaded dice, establish a subtext theme. Then, over the course of the adventure, choose key NPC's or take advantage of an opportune moment to interject an underlying theme to the story. By giving some, or all, NPC's more than just the ulterior motive of moving along the story plot, the game will take on an interactive depth. This requires players pay a bit more attention and become more involved with their characters, but the results will be well worth the effort.
Story accents are passive ideas; they are story specific design criteria used throughout the cooperative RPG experience from conception to close. Personal and group choices that help form a fledgling inspiration into a manageable idea and game experiences with richer content. Don't leave players to run their characters in bland, nonspecific environments and vaguely recognizable stories. Help the success of the game with a practiced skill: if characters are in Spain, and stay mainly on a plain, give them what they expect...mainly rain.
Use story accents as a field of interesting dreams to create the perception of story depth and influence story expectations during the game. Increase the story impact by using context and genre to generate expectations and subtext and mood to deliver the goods. Strive to engage player attention with good storytelling and use that attentive investment to deliver a tall-tale, complete with interactive bad guys. Create a cooperative experience with enough cognitive framework and substantive thought to inspire enthralling supposition in the players to empower their use of characters with enthusiasm.
Labeling everybody's familiar library stacks and videotape racks with a contextual cue, people can find their particular choice of entertainment because it is separated by familiar content. For a GM, those same labels become a choice of design criteria for putting an adventure together. Use the following context guidelines to create single scenes, whole sessions and even campaign settings with a familiar frame of reference.
Adventure: Bold and hazardous, adventures are action-packed and full of rescues and missions and all sorts of adventurous things (go figure). This type of content promises to entertain with the illusion of risk and the promise of reward - - a true hero's lot in life.
Comedy: Full of mirth and humor, comedy is an ancient form of staged entertainment that by definition is "non-tragic" and has a happy ending. There are many types of comedy including: situational, cultural, farcical, high and low brow, slapstick and anything generally funny, no matter how it is labeled.
Drama: Dramatic scenes and stories are driven by dialogue and description that focuses subject matter onto the human condition. Lifelike troubles and difficulties that draw characters into personally emotional confrontations through a series of vivid and interesting events. The soap operas that often strike a familiar chord in us all.
Fantasy: Fantasy is an eclectic term that can define both context and genre. As a genre, people expect dragons and magic swords and castles but as a context, it is the use of fictional elements that have no counterparts in the real world. Such elements could be never-never land, a house made of candy or characters such as oompa-loompa's. They are still fantasy, but not specifically of the fantasy genre.
Horror: Bristling with fear and disgust, this shocking content is full of startling surprise. Everything from steel-hooked antagonist harassing prom-night petters and flocks of angry birds will make characters shudder in horror.
Mystery: Focusing on intrigue, curiosity and secrets, mystery drive plot interaction with subterfuge and an investigation to uncover that which someone has hidden. Antagonists are sneaky and always up to no good. They like to do bad things and walk around town whistling a happy tune like nothing has happened, but the main characters are too clever for that! They believe something is going on and they are going to get to the bottom of it.
Science-Fiction: Fiction with science as its heart, this contextual idea has a dualistic nature similar to Fantasy. Science-Fiction is both a context and a genre. Created with heavy fantasy in that it has elements that do not have real-world counterparts, sci-fi distinguishes itself by its scientific premise. Story elements that could be real, but aren't. These types of stories usually address humankind's dependency on machines and sciences, ethically challenging things that also give us wonder.
Tragedy: Serious and dramatic, tragedies typically focus on the main character(s) and have disastrous endings brought on by a "tragic" character flaw or sad series of situations. These flaws could be an illustration of moral weakness, the difficulty of daily life, psychological complications or social miscarriages. In RPG's, tragedies and dramas are very different kinds of game and demand more effort out of the troupe. More often than not, these types of contexts are better used as subplots and story enhancing scenes because RPG's are about playing not spending your free-time sitting around being serious.
Genre is a designation or particular style of story environment and each genre expects stories with certain stylistic content. A context, such as mystery, could be told in either the super-hero or espionage genres, but they could be very different stories. Context supports the story with plot subject and genre is the game environment. Some typically recognizable RPG genres are:
Espionage: From 007 to Mata Hari, espionage is about amazing gadgets and the cloak and daggers plots of governments, their militaries and spies. Player interaction is often about precision planning and a harder crunching of numbers as characters attempt impossible missions. These types of RPG’s also have good role playing potential as politics of etiquette and protocol play into stories with government officials, diplomats and the aristocratic powers.
Fantasy: Fantasy as a genre, or high fantasy, are the familiar home of wood elves, magic swords and dragons and has evolved into a recognizable fiction of protagonists engaged in mythic kingdoms founded knights who embody justice, rag tag bands of heroes and goodness prevailing over abyssal threats. This is the glory of traditional role playing, to vanquish the evil wizard and get a trunk full of sparkly loot.
Gothic Horror: Typically filled with vampires, werewolves and moonlit nights and all of the most loved things that go bump in the night, Gothic Horror focuses on horror combined with the dramatic and tragic aspects of the human existence. Gothic Horror story environments help accentuate the darker side of the human condition because the images of the protagonists are scary and frightful but are the subject of very identifiable, very human dramas and tragedies.
Pulp-Fiction: Borne from the periodical magazines and books from decades when a writer’s job was to accommodate tight schedules and small paychecks, these nickel-fiction luminaries turned investigators into gumshoes and military rockets became atomic rockets. Pulp-Fiction is the curious exaggeration of fictional contexts for the purpose of garnering reactive attention from the audience. The wide fins of Flash Gordon’s rocket, the private eyes five o'clock shadow and the gangsters with the glowing briefcase are the hallmarks of this genre.
Science Fiction: As a genre, the conventions of spaceships, energy weapons, aliens and their worlds fill this genre. They are the identifiable aspects of fantastic science that categorize it as fiction. It is both context and genre because of its scientific focus, but when the plot context is horror, it means the horror is most likely to take place on a space ship, with energy weapons, aliens or their worlds.
Super-Heroes: Since the 1930’s, costumed crime fighters have been saving the world from their equally flamboyant antagonists and since 1982, Champions has been making it a role playing game experience.
Wild West: So vivid a genre, stories from the Wild West bring corral shoot-outs, railroads and the expansionist frontier. Polish your spurs and dust off your boots partner and oil your gun ‘cause it’s time to prove your still the fastest gun in the west.