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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 17: Making Stories Move
17: Making Stories Move
Published by Dragavan on 2007/11/16 (6744 reads)
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Moving Stories

How The Adventure Gets from Here to There

Part of the hobby of Role-Playing Games is the telling of stories through the adventures our characters are put through. How these stories come about are a matter of work and development, but who does the work is what some people seem to have difficulty with. How much of the story is up to the GM and how much is up to the players? Where does the story come from and how does it develop? Nobody is going to get everyone to agree on this, but that's not going to stop me from putting in my two cents.

The first thing we need to look at is the kind of game you want to run, because it's going to have a lot of affect on how you work out the story. I am not talking about what system you are running or even what genre you are playing in, but the actually what kind of group dynamic you have and style of game you are going to run. Which way you are going to play is going to seriously affect how you are going to develop the story and who is going to be putting in the most footwork and when.

Is this going to be a highly scripted story with limited options for the players to step out of the line (similar to what you find in video games like Final Fantasy or even in most old-school D&D modules)? Is it going to be some totally freeform thing that grows out of what everyone brings to table and start to play (almost like improve acting based on the "suggestions", represented by the character sheets)? Most of the time it's going to be somewhere in between, but usually it's heavily leaning one direction or the other. No matter which side it ends up on the tools for creating the story and making it work can be same.

Let me start off by saying that I am talking about RPGs and not some of the more fringe Story Games out there. These are games that have a Game Master and aren't some preset story, heavy format, or module to run through. These are stories created by those at the table (even if much of the work is done away from there) and not from elsewhere.


In the more heavily scripted games you have the GM doing a lot of preparation and work before the story even starts. At the least they lay out the greater plot points, build the needed NPCs, and decide where the majority of the story is going to take place. Sometime they may even want to get in there and write far more details about some of the important areas, plot points, events, and necessary encounters for the story. The level of this detail all depends on how heavily scripted (and often restrictive) they want to make the story.

Then there is the matter of bringing the player in on it, which requires them to make characters (or bring them in from elsewhere, if allowed). It is common in these highly scripted situations that the GM will put major limitations on what the players will be allowed to play or bring into the story, as to make sure they aren't going to have things that would seriously damage or destroy the story they have in place. Imagine how allowing a flying race would destroy a game that relied on them to be stranded on an island in the bay surrounded by sharks.

No matter what limitations the GM imposed or not, the next thing they have to decide is how deeply they are going to try to work the characters created into the story. On one end there is the simple inclusion of the characters being the extent of it, but it works so much better when you can take things written in the character's back-story or skills and weave them into the plot more deeply. This tends to make players feel more involved in the story and the outcome more relevant to their characters.

This becomes more of a factor in the less scripted and more freeform games, as the characters themselves will actually drive the direction of the story. Sometimes the entire plot will develop out of the choices they made during character creation. This can make for stories that are deeply driven by the characters, but the GM still has to make sure it works by directing the events to story related points or encounters. When done right this can create an amazing amount of depth and background for the characters, but when done poorly it can leave a story languishing without direction.


No mater how scripted you make your games, it's important to make allowances for player choice in the plot. Have several options they can choose or even let their actions determine the order the scripted events happen in. This is best done by writing your stories out more as a flow chart of sorts rather than a straightforward script. Allow movements between parts in several directions and for changes to be made on the fly without them necessarily breaking the story. The more you can allow for this flexibility in the story, the more your players will feel they actually have power and a real stake in it (even if it all happens how you planned no matter what they do).

Some of the easiest ways to keep things on track for the story, even though the players are pushing things in a completely unplanned direction is to change the prepared coarse. A simple example might be that you might have three doors they could choose from and you have arranged to have each of them end up at a certain room for the first confrontation with Bob the Bad Guy, who currently blocks their way down to the lower levels. They group decides not to trust any of the doors and instead used some special skills they have to tunnel directly down to the lower level instead. This could cause big problems if you don't remain flexible.

You could use some quick thinking to work around it without the players even knowing. Don't keep the map the way you had it set up before. They still managed to avoid whatever you had set up for them behind the doors, but they aren't getting to lower level directly. They are ending up in the entry chamber at the bottom of the stairs, where Bob the Bad Guy is waiting for them. He could even be shocked to see them come from the ceiling, but they didn't get around that encounter. You still get the important plot point of the encounter, just not where it was meant to be.

This is a simplistic example, but it can easily be done on any scale. No matter where they are traveling in the world, the city they end up at happens to be the one with the contact they needed to find. While exploring what you know is the wrong woods for the hidden tomb, they find it nonetheless because it didn't matter where it was found. Make the plot point important to the story, but not necessarily how they get there.

All together this plot point style makes for a more flexible game that still has a strong feeling of cohesion and planning, but requires the GM to be able to react swiftly and think creatively to make it all fall into place seamlessly. It works for several levels of planning, but does require at least some scripting and planning on the part of the GM, at least of the plot points themselves.


So far all of this discussion has been one sided, more or less, and has put all the burden of creating the good story on the GM. The players are also an important factor in creating a good story. Right from the beginning (if the GM allows them to make their own characters) they should be thinking about story potential. Create characters with flaws, relations, back-stories, and interesting quirks that a GM can use to add connections and spice to the story. You'd be surprised how far a good GM can take even the simplest little character hook and how useful they will find these when designing a story.

Once the story is moving, the player will also have a good number of opportunities to add to and help the story move along, places where they can help others move their character's stories along, and places they might to pull back to let others shine. It's also entirely possible for a single player to ruin things for all. RPGs are a group experience and no single character is the focus of the story. When all are working together the story can become an amazing experience for all, with enough moments to let everyone shine. When one player tries to control the story and focus everything the way they want it, the whole group suffers and none of them have fun.

Players can easily interject new story elements in nearly any kind of game, play out scenes to create better drama and visualizations than just rolling alone, and help out the GM when they could use aid in getting the story moving. Players shouldn't be afraid to give the GM more information for them to hook into throughout the game, like possible connections to other characters that might be in the area. Feel free to act out, at least verbally, scenes to better illustrate how your character handles a situation.

Some GMs would even appreciate players taking on minor rolls of NPCs, like shop keeps or hired hands, under certain circumstances. This can add a certain nuance to scenes that otherwise could feel flat, or where the GM would be busy trying to act out too many NPCs at once. Players can ask to take them on, or even just do so be default if the GM is comfortable with that, and make scenes more entertaining for all. This is usually best used for scenes that the player is not already involved, like when their character happens to be elsewhere or unconscious or something.

No player should ever be afraid to try and make the story stronger or work better for everyone. Sometimes it is even important to forgo what might be best for your own character in exchange for what is best for others and the story. Acting true to your character doesn't always mean they are going to make what you personally know to be the best choice, which is one of those places where this can often happen. Like when you happen to know the details of a creature that your character knows nothing of. Using that information to make decisions your character might not have made isn't always what would be bests for the story.


Don't be afraid to work together and get the most out of your games, with stories that your players (and perhaps even others) will be talking about for years. It doesn't matter what kind of game you play, because in the end the story is what people remember. Basically a good story is something that both belongs to and rewards players and GMs alike.
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