Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rounding Story Corners

When GMing a traditional style RPG it can be difficult at times to keep the story aspect of the game story-like (ie - containing traditional story attributes such as a beginning, middle, and end, ongoing Character development, etc). The main problem is of course that we wind up having to cat-herd the main characters, which quite frequently turns out to be rather difficult. The reason being that we do not have control over what the Players decide to do with their Characters. Given three obvious options by the Gamesmaster, the Players will frequently invent a 4th, 5th and 6th option never thought of. From a game perspective that looks at things in terms of combats, points lost and gained, treasures acquired, this is not a problem at all. Who cares if there is a story, if the interest is more or less focused on the Game Aspect? However, some GMs and some Players (I think a reasonably high percentage) are just as interested in the Story, if not moreso. So the Gamesmaster also wants to ensure that the story does not become something along the lines of a Monty Hall Game Show where all that is really featured is a Dungeon with Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3. Not that this style is no fun for those who like it, it is. But for those who want more of a Story, the Gamesmaster needs to provide a way for that Story Aspect to manifest and shine through.

So how to do that?

One technique I would like to talk about for a moment is something I am going to call "Rounding Story Corners". What I mean by that is that the GM looks for opportunities to avoid game elements that would divert attention from the intended plot line. This could be something as simple as "skipping ahead" to the next important story-juncture.

An example of this was recently played out in my Hobbington Campaign. The Players had determined their objective a few months ago to be to rescue Hermel's sister, and the other kidnapped villagers from the Bandit 'Black Patch' and his gang of thugs. To do so they decided to illicit the aid of the village's old Kung Fu teacher who had moved to Bear Claw Village. Along the way they met with two side adventures, one centered on the Salt Mines of the Prancing Unicorn Vale, and the other centered on The Grey Serpent Cave, both of which involved the finding of ancient artifacts which would become a tie in to the larger story arc of the world.

However, at this point they had arrived in Hobbington and Hermel wished to use his resources to purchase sundry useful items in order to conduct the rescue. He wanted to trade a precious Jade Dragon Stone for money so he could make the purchases. Instead of walking through all of the details pertaining to finding the man he wanted to conduct business with, with the potential introduction of yet more sub-plots, I "rounded the story corner", avoiding complications, and made one simple roll of the dice to see if anything untoward happened (with a suitably low percent chance). Seeing as nothing happened along the way, the Player found himself at the door of the man he wanted to see. No fuss, no muss.

This technique is helpful if you want to advance the story along it's plot trajectory without introducing more complications than necessary (especially if they have already wandered far and wide). To get a story to have a beginning and a middle is relatively easy in game-land. To get it to tie up loose threads and have an end... that requires more focus. Rounding Story Corners is one technique that can help. It's simple, clean, and moves things along in the intended direction by avoiding the slippery slope of chance encounters along the way. I would say it is a good tool to keep in one's belt, but to not over use it. If you use it constantly then your world will feel too much like everyone is on a railroad train going from station to station. But used at the right time it can help a lot to keep the story focused and allow the Player Characters to tidy up those loose ends.



thesethingsthatiwrite said...

I've been in games that have jumped from plot point to plot point with nothing interesting happening along the way, so I would like to reiterate your point about not over using this one. It's a grand idea though.

Philo Pharynx said...

I definitely see this as being needed to keep up the pace of a game. I look on it like a movie. You often have cuts in a movie between scenes. Or transitions like the Indiana Jones "map with line". Obviously if it's overused, then it leads to the players feeling like they are dumped into scenes.

But when every little bit is played out it can make a game drag. I've been in games where several sessions have been absorbed by minutae. By the time you get back into the game you've lost the momentum of the original mission.

This doesn't mean that these interactions aren't good material. But sometimes a good scene can ruin the pacing. Many DVD's have deleted scenes and often the scenes themselves are very good. But when they are placed in context, the movie as a whole isn't as good.