It’s Personal




Twice a year, like clock­work, I pon­der the cor­re­la­tions between writ­ing fic­tion and run­ning role-play­ing games.  The first is in the spring when I start think­ing about what games I want to bring to Amber­Con North­west (an excel­lent role­play­ing con­ven­tion in Port­land that cen­ters around the Amber Dice­less RP Game).  The sec­ond time is in Novem­ber imme­di­ate­ly after the con wraps and I have to decide whether my games were a suc­cess.

Some writ­ers I know gam­ing and writ­ing are two very dif­fer­ent things.  I beg to dis­agree.  On the gamemas­ter side of things, you’re cre­at­ing plot, his­to­ry, world-build­ing, sec­ondary char­ac­ters, and con­flict.  The only thing that is dif­fer­ent is that the main char­ac­ters are out of your con­trol … though a good GM will find ways of giv­ing play­er char­ac­ters growth through an emo­tion­al arc–exactly what a good writer will give their own main char­ac­ters.

My met­rics for gaug­ing suc­cess of both nov­el-style fic­tion and gam­ing are the same: Did you enjoy it?  Were you engaged?  Or, bet­ter yet, did you have a stake in how it turned out?  Did the end­ing sat­is­fy?  Do you want more?

The mechan­ics for build­ing a sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry dif­fer for each form–or at least I find them to dif­fer sub­stan­tial­ly in most respects.  The thing I have been com­ing back to though, the sim­i­lar­i­ty between them, is find­ing ways to make the plot per­son­al to the main char­ac­ters, whether they’re yours or a player’s in your game.

Okay, I say that like I know what I’m talk­ing about, but this is all a work in progress–a hypoth­e­sis under­go­ing rig­or­ous test­ing.

By “make it per­son­al” I don’t mean that the play­er char­ac­ters are the cen­ter of the plot–though if it’s a small enough group and they’re tied togeth­er in some way, maybe they are!–but that the choic­es they make can change the out­come or move the plot for­ward in sig­nif­i­cant ways.  Their choic­es have con­se­quences, for good or ill.  The plot moves for­ward because the PCs made choic­es.  Even choos­ing not to choose is some­thing which should bring con­se­quences.

And that’s not any dif­fer­ent from mak­ing the plot of a writ­ten sto­ry tie inti­mate­ly to the main char­ac­ter, even when the events pro­pelling the MC into the plot didn’t have any­thing to do with them pre­vi­ous­ly.  With writ­ten fic­tion, we have the lux­u­ry of know­ing our character’s back­grounds, and know­ing which part of their his­to­ry is dri­ving them with each scene.  With gam­ing, not so much, even if your play­ers send you a ten page his­to­ry to work with.  The best–if not only–thing we can do to make a plot per­son­al to them, is give them the chance to make deci­sions which mat­ter.  Each time they move on a deci­sion, there’s buy-in.  Once there’s buy-in, stakes can be raised.  Once stakes are raised, con­se­quences become greater and rewards that much sweet­er.

So that’s my goal for my upcom­ing games (and the sto­ry Simone and I are in the mid­dle of) … to make it per­son­al.  I’m sure I’ll let you know how suc­cess­ful I am come mid-Novem­ber.

How do you make your RP sce­nar­ios and/or sto­ries per­son­al to the main char­ac­ters, assum­ing the plot isn’t all about them?  This inquir­ing mind wants to know.


The Worst We Can Do

I don’t know why it took me so long, but I’ve dis­cov­ered a kind of dark sto­ry­telling mag­ic that occurs in con­flict.  Bad things hap­pen­ing to (some­times) good peo­ple?  Yeah, that’s where the juici­ness of sto­ry is cre­at­ed.  That’s where char­ac­ter arcs are born and raised.  That’s where it all hap­pens.

Nes­tled into the folds, pinned to its edges, lay­ered three stra­ta deep, con­flict is the sto­ry.  It’s what push­es every­thing along. It’s the under­pin­ning of fic­tion­al uni­vers­es.  Inter­nal con­flict, exter­nal con­flict, both/and.  My favorite recipe is a lot of both, with nice­ly com­pli­ment­ing fla­vors and a side of suc­cess.

The trick is to make it mat­ter, to make it rel­e­vant.  I find this is hard­er to do in game plot­ting than it is in nov­el plot­ting, because play­ers are an unruly lot.  It took me far longer than it should have to fig­ure out that if my players/readers don’t have buy-in to the stakes, my intri­cate plot won’t mat­ter.  And if the indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters don’t have buy-in, the players/readers won’t have buy-in.  The cen­tral con­flict has to be rel­e­vant for each and every per­son par­tic­i­pat­ing.  Read­er or gamer, it’s exact­ly the same.  They have to care.

And yet we want our char­ac­ters, play­ers, and read­ers to be hap­py, and most peo­ple aren’t hap­py when faced with oppo­si­tion.  So we don’t go there.  As writers/plotters/schemers we soft ped­al, we make nice, we let our char­ac­ters be com­fort­able, we don’t kick up the sand­box … and it ends up being bor­ing.  There are no stakes in “nice” except the one of los­ing what you have, of mess­ing up the sta­tus quo.

That’s our job as sto­ry­tellers though, to embrace the Destroy­er arche­type, and make the sit­u­a­tions dire, to give them every­thing and to take it away, and to let them reach for some­thing new in turn.  It’s our job to push char­ac­ters beyond their skills, beyond their means, beyond their com­fort zones, and to not be afraid if they hate us.

Because when they succeed–in small ways in the mid­dle or huge­ly at the end–that’s the pay­off.  That’s where the accom­plish­ment comes in.  That’s where char­ac­ter and play­er and read­er say, “I made it, and I’ve grown, I built some­thing new, and this real­ly mat­tered.”  That’s where the sat­is­fy­ing rich­ness is born.  And they can’t get there with­out hav­ing first been to hell-and-gone.

I was think­ing of my very first “favorite” book, Jane Eyre.  From the out­set, Bronte placed Jane in a sit­u­a­tion where she had noth­ing going for her but her indomitable spir­it, and her truth to her­self.  She’s giv­en friend­ship and sup­port, edu­ca­tion, true love (now I think it’s high-hand­ed manip­u­la­tion, but that’s a whole dif­fer­ent issue), sta­bil­i­ty, mon­ey and pas­sion.  Time after time, it’s all ripped away.  In the end, she’s giv­en every­thing she orig­i­nal­ly thought she want­ed … and has to make a choice between it (the social sta­tus quo), or who she is and what makes her hap­py.

It’s her strug­gle to get to that point which is the sto­ry.  If she had every­thing she want­ed to begin with, she’d have stayed with Mrs. Reed, John, Eliza and Geor­giana.  No sto­ry there!

What is it your char­ac­ters have that you can take away?  What makes them strug­gle?  What makes them unhap­py?  What push­es them past the edge of who they think they are?  And the impor­tant flip side … where can they suc­ceed?

Do it!  What’s the worst you can do?  What holds you back from cre­at­ing deep and mean­ing­ful con­flict?  I’d love to know.

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