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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