You could also call this article “Game Mastering” or “Game Running” or “How To Build A Better Novel” or “How To Take An Idea Out Of Your Head And Put It Into A Form People Will Enjoy”
On Monday, I talked about what I learned from running a tournament game over the weekend at DexCon. The experience left such a clear impression in my mind, and really affected me that I’m going to continue talking about it today.
But whereas on Monday I was praising the people I worked with and the specific stories told, I didn’t really
talk at all about HOW those things came into being. I don’t mean “We exchanged emails” I mean “how did I take the notes I got (which were little paragraphs of or 3 sentences) and turn them into 7 ten-page relatively complete and interlocking experiences?
To do this, we have to start at the top.
Note – There’s going to be a lot “I” here. This isn’t because I’m being conceited or a prick, it’s just because I can’t speak for how you (whoever you are) develops a story. I’m not saying your method is crap, I’m saying that it’s possible our two methods aren’t the same. So here’s my whole thought process, laid out.
I. What’s the Point?
Whether it’s a book or a game or set of scenarios for a game, I need to figure out what the end-goal is supposed to be. For the tournament, this was pretty clear – take 30 characters, weed them down to a smaller group, and ideally get a victor, who would “win” by not only surviving but also solving the Conspiracy (the game has a strong investigatory element) that the villains had in place.
I had notes on what the Conspiracy was, and by notes I mean “Ken wrote a sentence”. And I stared at it, until I figured out that it was a formula:
[Badguys] want [Ideal Situation] to happen. They’re going to do/use [Event(s)] to bring it about.
Once I saw what the antagonists were going to do, it was easy to figure out what the protagonists do, which is also a formula:
[Goodguys] want to stop [Badguys] by preventing/fixing [Events] from going according to plan.
Armed now with a point, I could move to the next step, finding who the badguys were.
II. The Badguys
I knew what they were going to do, so I had to figure out what sort of person/creature/entity/being would do
those things. I put myself in the baddie’s place –
Okay, I want X to happen. What does that say about me?
This differential diagnosis brought me a few tropes (I was evil, I put myself before others, I had no
compunctions about killing the innocent to forward my goal) but also a few deeper thoughts (I need to do this to survive, I must sate my needs, I’m at best a beast and a junkie masquerading as something else).
Once I had the psychology in place (not finalized, but I was at least in the ballpark), I went to the Events.
III. The Events
These are the scenarios that the players had to navigate and survive. I knew I needed 7 total (6 preliminary and 1 final), and I knew there was an over-arching plot that tied them together, so I divided them into groups.
In that way, these weren’t unlike chapters in a novel, something else I’m really used to creating.
I knew that each individual Event had to have a setup, a development, a climax and a resolution. And I knew that for 6 of the Events, the resolution would be “survivors advance to the next round”. I worked backwards to say that the climax had to be a fight, because you need something to happen in order to say you survived, which left me the setup and development.
I had notes about what the initial setups should be. The plot was divided into chunks so that each Event would in theory give you puzzle pieces, and you’d in theory reach the end of the final event with enough pieces to make a rough sketch of the overall picture.
Each event started with getting the protagonists (the players) involved in a single story — they had to go somewhere and do something, that by itself could have just been a whole book/event unto itself. I didn’t want
them to yet realize what they did in the events was part of a larger puzzle until they were already too far in to back out. And the best way to get people to invest in a hurry is to push emotional buttons, which means
create situations where they respond maybe a little fast or hasty, learn the hard way that they can’t do that a
second time, then make them cautious about each subsequent time.
It’s like touching a hot stove – you only have to do it once to learn to be careful while cooking.
Each setup was a self-contained adventure that just happened to fit a larger picture because elements of that
adventure that may seem out of place locally, fit globally.
So on paper, I had 6 elements that if summarized, laid out the overall plot. Like this:
THE BIG PLOT IS XYZ
* Event 1 introduces a character involved in XYZ
* Event 2 tells how big XYZ can be
* Event 3 introduces just how far the badguys are willing to go to make XYZ happen
* Event 4 introduces how XYZ is getting supported without realizing it
* Event 5 introduces what the future could turn out to be, if XYZ goes unchecked
* Event 6 explores how far XYZ is from completing Stage 1
Event 7 (the finale) will bring the players face to face with the badguys and start XYZ into motion unless the
players stop it by any means necessary.
Now, there’s an assumption made here: That XYZ will go off without a hitch if no one does anything about it. I’m not the biggest fan of that, because it makes the protagonists either a) too critical, pressuring them or b) too unimportant because the plot is greater than they are. I skipped that whole assumption by making the players’ actions (the protagonists) critical to the execution of XYZ – no matter what they did, they’d be helping XYZ happen, until they figured out what was wrong, and then worked to stop it.
I like stories that create character change. I like watching players see that their previously-thought-of-as-harmless action was actually one of a series of things that put this whole ball into motion. Not because I want them to be afraid to do anything in the future, but because I want them to understand that actions have consequences, and they don’t always know what the results will be.
The downside with the above list of six is that they’re dependent on each other. Sure you can omit Event 5 and XYZ is still a threat, but you can’t really dismiss Event 1 or 4. I wrote it like that on the assumption that
people would be fighting tooth and nail for the chance to win the prize, and they’d not have other conflicts,
second thoughts or obligations.
The reality was that we had around 2 dozen players, which means we didn’t have enough protagonists to run all 6 events. So, which events do we omit? Which Events can go so that the plot still makes sense and allows the players a chance to win the prize?
We ended up running Event 1, Event 2 and Event 3, patching holes in plots and taking elements from 4, 5 and 6 to make them fatter and juicier with details. My great regret is that 4 5 and 6 weren’t run, because they were, in my opinion, my better writing (I hit my stride and my confidence). Hopefully, I’ll have a chance in the near future to put together the whole story arc for players.
But how did each Event get built?
IV. Event/Scenario Building
I talked above about how these scenarios are chapters of a bigger book, but maybe a better description is that they’re short stories within an anthology.
Each Scenario has its own components:
* The players get a mission
* The mission starts off okay, but takes a turn for the worse
* The players discover this mission is part of a bigger picture (they get clues to XYZ!)
* The players have to stop the immediate threat
Key here are the clues, obviously. And to create clues, you have to look at the XYZ plot and figure out what
components make it happen. Paperwork, notes, maps, phone numbers, all the cogs of the machine. And then you scatter those cogs throughout the Scenarios. But you don’t do it blindly, there needs to be a
reasonable connection as to why badguy #6 has a particular clue in her jacket pocket.
I found it helpful to make a huge table of clues and who had them and why. Most often the why was “because they can drive the truck” or “Because they handle the money”, but assigning clues to characters with a reason made the clues more important, both for the sake of XYZ and for me writing the scenes and beats where the clues could be found — no one wants to just walk into a room and see the smoking gun on the table, it’s unfair to everyone.
With the clues in place, I had to go back to my initial assignment. Ideally there would be 30 people competing in this tournament, and we couldn’t have 30 people around 1 table for a finale. I had to thin the herd.
V. Characters & Villains (and balancing them)
Here’s where I raise my hand and say I screwed this up. It was fixable, and we took care of it when the problem arose, BUT I should have done a better job. I didn’t want there to be any problems, and with that attitude and pressure, of course there were some. Even though numerous people have told me to get over it, I’m still kicking myself.
With the plot divided over 6 slices, it was time to figure out who was going to participate. I made some assumptions that a lot of people hadn’t played this game to the extent I have, so they likely are going to need
a nice access route to the mechanics and the game. I also needed to divide 30 people into teams so that one team could handle an event.
I could have made generic teams. I even had notes saying that in each scenario the players were one team or
another. But that…didn’t feel very big and exciting and “Signature Event” the way this tournament was getting
promoted. So the characters had to be special. And players needed to feel a connection to the story and their roles in it.
So I made versions of famous movie and tv characters. The MI6 team were all James Bond actors. The IMF team was a combination of the movies and TV show. The Mossad team were all famous Jewish feminists. The point was, players would get (hopefully) a character they knew something about, and that would help bridge the gap between “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I hope I’m doing this right”.
They even got little backstories. A paragraph or three describing how the felt or who on their team they felt
the meshed with. My hope was that for some people, this gave some ideas on the character, if they were
And then I went to give them stats, and blew it.
When I build characters, they’re at a certain level, usually a low one, because these characters are going to
exist and persist for a long time and they’ll get better over the course of many adventures. Also, they’re not
facing super-terrible horrors right from the jump, so low-powering them isn’t a bad thing.
It’s a great strategy when you’ve got time on your side. It’s a terrible strategy for a tournament where you
have only so many sessions and hours to accomplish a lot in. But it’s fixable. One of the nice things about having the game’s creator on hand is that he can knock out some mechanics in his head and we can on-the-fly make changes that will repair things.
Reparations, though, are only needed when you have really big villains. And I did. I spent time building
villains, I delighted in figuring out which creature was where….all with the goal of “What will kill players
the coolest (and if necessary, fastest)”.
And pre-tournament, everything was great. And then the players showed up.
VI. The Players
Introducing the human element (be they players or readers) into any story is a risk. They might not like the
plot, they might not follow the story through to its conclusion. They might tell their friends the story blows. In a game, they may see the plot, and then make a hard left turn into some strange and foreign story where
quick-thinking and iron nerves make it all seamless (when really all you want to do is put your head against the table and cry).
What do I mean, you ask?
Well let’s suppose your characters are on a mission to rescue hostages on a boat. And in the course of that
rescue operation, they engage in a pretty nasty fight in the bowels of the ship. And their resolution to the
fight is to blow a hole in the side of the ship…just below the waterline, so that the hostages they’re meant
to save and the clues they’re supposed to find all go to Davy Jones’ Locker.
Or let’s suppose the character is tasked with protecting a vital non-player-character. Let’s further say that
the player elects to protect that non-player-character by wooing her, and then, in order to protect her, finds
it necessary to knock her out, tie her up and eventually throw her off a balcony into a swimming pool. You know, for her protection.
Or let’s say the whole plot is moving along, and the players reach what are likely the last ten minutes of play
and they…well, they collectively decide to leave. I don’t mean the players walk out of the room, I mean the
characters elect to steal an NPC’s car and drive away from the story but not before sealing hundreds of
innocents into a building with monsters.
When I’m writing fiction, or whenever there’s a one-way conversation going on (I write it, time passes, someone reads it), the worst case scenario is that people dislike what I’ve written, and they move on to other things.
When that same conversation is two-way or interactive, the worst case scenario is an ever escalating mess of
responses made hastily, rather than logically. Like this:
GM: The creature appears out of the shadows. It’s bad.
Player: I run away.
GM: (who didn’t plan for this) Um…uhh…there’s a second monster by the door.
Player: Then I jump out the window.
GM: (in whose mind the story is falling out the window too): You’re on the sixth floor.
Player: I have a hang glider.
The end result? The player is frustrated, the GM is frustrated and the story dies on the vine.
I’m not upset that people won the tournament, they were supposed to win. People had a great time and I loved running the session I did. Am I hurt that the whole storyline wasn’t told? Yes. Is that really a problem? No.
VII. What I Learned
The biggest takeway here is that while you must have an end-goal, the point of interactive storytelling is to
make the journey to that goal just as big (or bigger) then the end-result. Yes, the players were supposed to win the tournament, that was the point, but HOW they got there was not only a condition of winning but also the reason why they spent hours of a Saturday afternoon in a cold boardroom.
Follow that closely with the idea that the best element of story is emotion and the best element of interactive
storytelling is flexibility. To make players care about what they do, (and not make this just an exercise to win
a cash-prize) they have to care, even in some imaginative way that what they say these creations are doing has a consequence that affects them. And likewise, when those characters undertake plans that are way off-book, the GM has to be flexible in either going with the flow (vamping and pulling the story slowly back to plot or absolutely chucking the story and working extemporaneously) or running the risk of admitting defeat and terminating whatever good experience the collective group is having.
Last, I learned a valuable lesson in confidence. I was prepared, I may have made some mistakes, but rather than leap off building to my doom, or spend hours convinced that everyone hated me, I rolled with it. Okay yes, I got a couple glares, eye rolls and sighs. Yes, we had to figure something out on the fly. Was it the end of the world? Nope. Was I not repeatedly lauded and praised for all the hard work? Yes. And that makes me feel so much better about so many of the things I’m doing, both in and out of gaming.
A good time was had by all, and I am so thankful and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it. In the
event that this tournament becomes a regular thing (which it can be, if you make your voices heard), I’m all
Have a great day. Later this week, I’ll talk about more stuff gaming taught me.