Friday, June 29, 2007

On Not Rushing The Story


So ... here we are ... we few ... we Gamesmasters who envision the possibilities of more Literary Quality Worlds ...

We stand at the dawn of a new era of Games with the RPG. It is very exciting. Our Players clamoring for action and adventure before us, our World Woven back-story behind us, our books, charts, papers, pencils, dice on the table ... and what do we do?

In our excitement we rush the story.

We ... must ... gain ... control ... of ... ourselves.

Rushing the story is the equivalent of an author who rushes the book straight into the plot, without any setup or background. As we read the details of the Character actions, we don't get much sense of their lives, nor of the community, nor terrain, nor weather, nor much of what all else is going on in the world, with the exception of those things which directly impact the immediate Plot. In a book I think we'd all agree that this is not what we expect. Nor, usually, does it amount to high quality literary work.

In our RPGs, my question to the group is this: Do we find ourselves rushing the story? How much time do you spend with the Players giving them information about the World itself, before plunging into the Adventure?

Stories like to have a beginning, middle and end. And the Hero's Journey usually begins with the Hero in quite the ordinary world. There is setup. There is back-story. The Hero lives in the little village of Hamfest. His life, before the adventure, consists primarily of ordinary things. Feeding the hogs, cleaning the barn, repairing the leather on his old worn out shoes. At the time of year where the adventure is to begin there is a freezing wind coming down off of the eastern mountains, and the pond is still frozen from the long brutal winter. A hog died this winter, frozen after falling through a crack in the ice of Foxwood stream that bounds
North Stye. Mrs. Hogsworth, the old matron of the household, scolds her children while cooking eggs and bacon for breakfast. Old Jeremiah is whittling a stick at the head of the long wooden table in the kitchen reflecting on the hardships they've all endured, and hoping that this year they can save enough money to mend the door of the barn and if they're lucky purchase a new wagon in the small village of Hamfest, several miles off. He remembers last year's Spring Fare with some small pleasure - the joy the children all got from seeing the sites, the foods, the actors, and the magicians and clowns. He then remembers darkly, his brow furrowing, the strange adventures that began just after the fair, and how in the end the McFearson's house burned down and the little McFearson girl, Mary, was killed, and how the McFearson's moved away after that. The children are all figiting and two of them start an argument over whose turn it is to clean the stalls in the barn. Jeremiah looks up sternly and says, "Gorn, I reckon its your turn today. And make sure you get the corners. Afterwards we'll all head out this afternoon to go look at the McFearson House on the hill - there's been strange sounds coming from up the Hill and I'm thinkin we best go see what it is." Outside the wind begins to howl, and in the distance thunder can be heard. The children all shiver.

That's the setup. Notice the background information about the local area, the region, the homey setting, the ordinariness. This is how adventures begin. It's a story. It has a beginning and the beginning has a texture, a context, atmosphere, history, and gives us an idea of who is who, and what is what. THEN the Adventure
begins.

That's the thought for today, Gamesmasters. I hope this helps. Try stopping for a moment before your Game begins. Breath in. Breath out. Reflect on the back-story of your game World. Think about who your Characters are, and what they do, and what they are doing, and what the mood and setting are. Then when you begin, instead of just starting into the action with "Ok, what are you people doing?", try deliberately setting the mood. Begin the story ... "And so... on this Fourth Day of the Month of Googlak... we find our Heroes trudging through the misty swamps of Hoggoroth, under a cloud of stinging insects, boots drenched with mud, slogging
under heavy loads and pouring sweat as they mumble and mutter curses for the foul luck they've had of late..." ... and so on.

Then, amid the Action, try at logical breaking points (after they've slain the monster, as they are leaving the dungeon, as they enter the town, as they enter the bar - ie - where Scenes break) adding the same kind of flavor and detail.

Some GMs I know are pressured to "Get things going!" by their Players who want ACTION. That's understandable. We all want Action. However, there is a certain enjoyment that comes from a pleasure delayed. And there is a certain story-element that goes missing when the context of the story is limited because we've leap
straight into the action (plot).

Players, I find, really do appreciate it when the GM gives them the context, back-story and setup before the Adventure begins. It draws them into the Story. Into the World.

The Middle of the story is all of the Plot and Adventure where the Heroes engage the World. That we know how to do.

The End of the story is where the Heroes return home. If all went well and they did not perish, they return home to find the Ordinary World is still going along as it always does. Jeremiah at his whittling, Mrs. Hogsworth sweeping the kitchen and scolding her children. The wind is still cold, and the barn still needs to be
mended.

So my advice is to not rush the story. Remember Beginning, Middle and End.

- Mark
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