Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Elements of a Good Story

I volunteer in the library at my daughter’s school, shelving books mostly. One of the benefits is getting to hear the librarian read stories to the kids. They’re usually pretty simple stories, but the combination of the librarian’s voice (which transports me back to my own elementary school days) and the kids’ excitement as they listen makes it fun. This past week, the librarian pointed out to her class of first-graders that they were “sophisticated listeners, and ready to learn about the structure of a story.” She told them about main characters, and how they often have expectations about the events of their lives, and how authors present the characters with challenges that disrupt the characters’ expectations. “What makes a good story,” she said, “is how the characters overcome the challenge.”

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. And, it was a good food-for-thought for me to consider while designing encounters for my players. My task is to present them with a challenge. Something that disrupts their expectations and forces them to change their plans. The story comes from the choices the players make, and the relative success of their characters as they attempt to meet the challenge. In an RPG, the dice play a role as well, occasionally disrupting the player’s plans and presenting new challenges or opportunities.

The Two-Tiered Encounter
I was playing in Dave’s Dark Sun game last week where, due to time restrictions, the encounter we were involved in had to be cut short. To be continued next week.

A sandworm, from the cover of Heretics of Dune. © Ace Books
I was inspired by the design of the encounter though. There was a threat that the initial opponents might be joined by a significant lurking presence. I likened it to one of the sandworms from Dune, but that is mostly player conjecture. I’ll have to wait to find out next week what the creature is really about.

The design of the encounter echoed what the librarian had said. As players, we throw our characters into encounters with expectations about how they will resolve. As GMs, we can design encounters that create a set of expectations. What makes for a good story is a complication. A second tier to the encounter. Something that disrupts the players’ expectations and forces them to change their plans. In Dave’s encounter, there was the lurking threat of the creature to consider, but we had our hands full with the NPCs escorting the thing. The scope of that threat is, as yet, unknown.

In my Sunday game my players are fleeing through the sewers and subterranean ruins of a mighty metropolis, escorting a scholarly expert to the site of a rift, where beings from the Far Realm are imposing their aberrant, tentacled presences on the well-meaning folk of a local shrine. This scholar may have insights that are critical to thwarting the menace. Of course the path to the shrine is a hazardous one. In Sunday’s session they encountered a tribe of goblins and their mad chief, Ximenes. The tribe worshipped a creature, the blackworm, that laired in the sewer depths.

The Blackworm tribe demanded a toll for passing through their territory. When the coin offered by the party was insufficient, the goblins kidnapped the vulnerable and valuable scholar and bound him within a metal statue of their god in a huge vaulted chamber. The party, attempted a parley, and then launched an attack, felling swaths of goblin minions as they swarmed forward. The mad Ximenes chanted out a ritual of unknown significance and then joined the fray, wielding magic and a great mace with equally deadly effect. Just as it looked like the party was claiming victory, and with many resources used to reach that point, one of the pools in the chamber seethed and spat ichor, and a black dragon rose out of it, spewing an acidic cloud at party and goblins alike. The ritual of Ximenes had apparently succeeded.

This two-tiered encounter was a surprise to the party, and they had to think quickly about how to deal with the complication. They had liberated the scholar, and their mission could continue only if they survived the current challenge. After a bit of consideration, they chose to flee, engineering covering fire and spellcraft to help ensure their escape.

All in all, it was a successful session for everyone. I have the librarian and my fellow player and GM Dave to thank for the inspiration and reminder about what makes a good story. Stuff I’ll keep foremost in mind as I’m designing encounters in the future. As always I’d love to hear about story complications and challenges you’ve faced, and what made them work, or caused them to fail.


  1. I have an encounter story that I can’t really say was successful or unsuccessful. Just….weird. Please note it is a LARP, not a tabletop, although I honestly think that the basics of encounters in each are fundamentally the same.

    We played once in a steampunk LARP whose name shall not be spoken. We played NPCs. Patrick played two. One was for the pre-encounter setup, the second was for the encounter itself. The world was a post-apocalyptic America that was now part of the British empire and we were at a bar. The writer of the RPG, also a player (oh, oh), once worked in the theater and he was very big into sets and costumes (DOUBLE oh oh).

    Patrick and I were part of a ship’s crew. One of our mates was always making passes at women and getting drunk and yelling at people (IC). This was good because no one else really did anything. I think there were too many SCA people. One group spent the whole 3 hours playing cards. One woman sat at a typewriter the whole time (she was a reporter, I think.) One guy literally sat on a bench until time came for the encounter. I don’t know if he moved during the whole game except to go to the bathroom.

    Four of the guys there (including Patrick) were to play antagonist roles for a big combat at the end and one was to play an escaped convict. One of the challenges in LARP, as with tabletop, is how to do a mass combat quickly and efficiently. We have initiatives as well which can be time-consuming. The writer/director of this game had innovated something in which a whole bunch of people attacked each other at once with some sort of system of holding fingers.

    From manual:)

    UNEQUAL randomization occurs when the actors involved in a contest have different skill levels. The player with the higher skill level wins on any ODD result, or, when the actors hold up the same number of fingers (a TIE)

    If they are the same Skill Level:

    EQUAL randomization occurs when both actors involved in a contest are of the same skill level. When the mode is EQUAL, the total number of fingers presented by both actors is counted. If the result is ODD, the INITIATING player wins.

    Anyway, nothing happened for 3.0 hours and then suddenly 5 people take off with no explanation to get ready for the encounter. It took about 45 minutes for the antagonists to get their costumes on and to figure out the combat system (it was just being introduced for the first time.) They were getting ready in the hallway and, considering the amount of time they spent out of the game, the other players knew something was going to happen.

    Suddenly one of the players, the escaped convict, enters the bar and gives some speech about freedom. The antagonists follow him to arrest him, the leader wearing a fake beard (!) The amazing emotional drama of “will they or won’t they support the convict” lasted two seconds because everyone just turned and aimed at the antagonists. Everyone was confused with the combat system. It took as long as if they’d rolled initiative. Someone switched off the lights to shock people, but it only lasted a second. Someone threw “dynamite” into the game and then said “did everyone notice that I threw something out there?” To which everyone proceeded to run out of the room. Then someone got left behind and they ran back for him. So there were 2.5 hours of pre-game set up, 3 hours of walking around talking about the economics of Kraken hunting and watching card-playing, 45 minutes of combat dressup and 15 minutes of the encounter in which everyone knew what was up and there was no surprise element and most of the time was spent pointing weapons at each other as people figured out their finger counts. And there was no real danger because there was plenty of time to rescue the one guy that got left behind, they were warned about the dynamite and all the antagonists were easily killed.

    I think it was a combination of too much theater with too much SCA if that makes any sense.

  2. Managing the pace of a story and introducing conflict are big issues for a game master. Sometimes there's very little you can do to get players headed in what you've established as the "right" direction. Also, in some games, it becomes painfully obvious where and when the combat encounter is intended to occur.

    Sounds like a painful experience, Anna. Experience in theater and combat sports can be helpful in roleplaying, but I think they need to supplement the story rather than be the story, if that makes sense?