Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thank You Mur!

Ok, ok, ok. I was listening to Mur Lafferty's I Should Be Writing podcast from May 20th. Yes, I'm that far behind. What can I say, I've been listening to a 30-hour audibook on the 14th century. Arrested templars, black plague, 100-years war: good, good stuff. God, I'm such a geek.

Anyway, Mur was kind enough to mention this blog on her program. Thank you, thank you Mur. I really appreciate it.

If you are interested in writing and you haven't listened to I Should Be Writing, shame on you. Shame, shame, shame.

I'll try to get a real essay up over the next couple days.


Friday, May 26, 2006

The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast

Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, the

"The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists." Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other. See Narrativism: Story Now.

From "The Provisional Glossary" by Ron Edwards

This entry in the glossary (among others) has always bothered me. It seems to come from the mistaken belief that an author can do whatever they want in the story.

"Wait!" you say. "The author writes the story--by definition, they CAN do whatever they want." Well, yes. But not if they expect other people to actually read it.

For a story to be successful, it must make sense. It must be believable. The character's actions must feel like a logical reaction to their current situation based on their established personality. Everything must follow the rules of cause and effect. Fiction is actually held to a higher level of coherence and continuity than reality. In the real world, things are often arbitrary or random. In fiction, this is simply not allowed.

When writing the story, the author is actually confined to a very tight space. Of course, the author can always go back and edit the story--to produce the necessary justification for whatever they want to occur. GMs don't have this luxury. But the constraints placed on an author are similar (if not in fact, then in spirit) to those placed on a GM.

Still, I often find myself struggling to explain a GM's role. They don't create the story in isolation--though they do play a vital role in building the story. They don't plan the plot--since the PCs will inevitably do something the GM did not anticipate. They do plan much of the background. They breathe life into the NPCs. They craft the deep currents--secrets and mysteries whose effects will eventually rise up and in many ways shape the plot. They also continually increase the level of conflict facing the PCs, generating new situations that cause trouble for the characters.

For the players, the role seems more straightforward. The player has absolute authority over their character. Except, what about fear checks and the like? These often seem acceptable--especially if they're an integral part of building the proper feel for the game. But they do stomp on player authority. Truth is, different games grant or remove different amounts of authority from the players. Can the player determine when and if his character dies? Can a player determine when or if his player fails? Who describes the failures? The successes? All games force the player to give up some authority. Do you give up authority to enhance the game mechanics (such as traditional saving throws, hit points, skill rolls and similar mechanics), or do you give up authority to enhance the story?

But players also help create the world, either implicitly through their character backgrounds and by asking the GM for specific details ("Do I know of any good bars in this town?"), or explicitly by stating facts in character ("I know a good bar around the corner. Lets talk there.").

I strongly feel that players should have a large role in shaping the world around them. They should have the freedom to flesh out those details that the GM has not yet penciled in. More importantly, their actions and decisions should have a visible effect on the world around them. They may not shake the foundations of society, topple civilization or raise up kings, but their actions should have consequences--both good and bad.

For his part, the GM needs to remain responsive to the players. He must work to create a story the players are interested in. He must incorporate the player's ideas and contributions into his story outline. In short, he must give up some authority over the game world and over the direction the plot will take.

Let's briefly revisit the idea of writers and outlines. As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing notes about the world and the back story. I flesh out all the antagonists and support characters. And, I spend the least amount of time on the protagonists. I know from experience, the main characters will change considerably as the story is written. They will develop quirks and habits as I go along. The needs of the story will force them to deviate from my original impressions. Similarly, I block out the main turning points of the story--but I rarely write a scene-by-scene outline. I let the individual scenes unfold as they will, and if the story deviates from my original plan--so be it. To me, this seems to be a good pattern for the GM as well.

But, if we're not going to call the GM an author, what is he? Editor is clearly not correct. The GM's roll in creating the world is much more authorial than editorial.

Previously I used the image of the GM as a gardner. I like this idea. He takes the story seed and plants it in rich top soil. He makes sure it has enough water, sunshine and fertilizer. He picks weeds and prunes the story. He ties it to supports when necessary. But he's not just any gardner. In my mind, the GM is a bonsai master, teasing the story into a dramatic shape. Like the bonsai, he cannot control where new leaves will bud. He might anticipate a branch's growth--he might restrict it or modify it. But, he must work with the plant to create art.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Story Is Structure

"Story is structure." -- William Goldman

For a story to succeed, it needs structure. This structure either comes from the GM, or gets distributed among the players. Some gamers enjoy loose structures, others want more rigid structures--but if you want a story, you need some type of structure.

There are many parallels between how people structure their games and how authors plot their books. If you read several writing books, you'll quickly find that different authors have different theories. Some claim you should make detailed outlines and pin down all the information about your world before you begin. Others insist on a looser style. They want to start with a blank page, and just start writing. Let the story emerge organically. Often, the proponents of both sides argue that their way is the only way. In truth, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Each writer needs to find their own balance, and most writers fall somewhere in the middle.

Outlining typically results in a better plot in the first draft. The story emerges in a well-organized, thought out manner. You can also uncover many problems with the story during the outlining--allowing you to fix them early, or preventing you from wasting time on an ultimately flawed idea. The downside is, if the outline becomes too strict, it can make the story feel lifeless and sterile. To be successful, the writer must use the outline as a guide but allow the story to drift where it will.

Freeform stories often have a more organic, more lifelike feel. They also typically need extensive editing. The first draft is really a discovery draft, letting the author explore the ideas. One of the real dangers of freeform stories is that the author will reach the end and find that there is no real story. This is a particular problem in the RPG context, since your ability to edit is very limited.

Traditional games tend to fall in the outline-everything camp (what I'll call highly structured games). The GM has absolute control over the world. The players act within the GMs world--and often the structure severely limits their choices. In the worst cases, the GM imposes the plot upon the players. The structure becomes so stifling that any spark of story suffocates and dies.

Many newer, Forge inspired, narrativist games fall at the organic end (loosely structured games). This includes several Gmless games. The games tend to be more democratic--players have a greater role in creating the world around them, and the story emerges from the player's interactions. In the worst cases, the story has no center and just falls apart. And, with several different people contribute to the story, it can be hard to fit all the pieces into a coherent whole.

Similar to the writing examples, neither gaming style is inherently better than the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. And, I suspect, the best stories come from the middle.

For me, GMless games make me uncomfortable. I like knowing that there is one person at the table who will ensure all the loose ends get tied up. One person who knows all the mysteries. Who can dole out important clues.

I don't trust that a well-plotted story will just emerge. Too many things can go wrong. In my experience, GMless stories are often lack coherence and focus brought by a GM. Worse yet, as a player, I either find myself competing with other players for control over the game's direction--or I just shut up and become too afraid to contribute anything. Neither approach is healthy or fun.

Now, in full disclosure, I must say that I have never played a published, GMless game. My opinions come from ad-hoc experiments. Many people enjoy GMless games. But I need more structure.

On the other hand, I also don't do well with stifling games. My character's actions should have a visible impact on the world. My decisions should matter. I should be able to contribute NPCs and locations, as long as they don't contradict those things the GM has already established.

I also feel that the GM has obligations to the players. As I mentioned in a previous essay, you can't bring a pistol on stage, unless you're going to shoot someone later on. If my character's background introduces a younger sister, then I expect the GM to bring her into the game. She should be captured, turn evil, whatever. The GM must weave these character-introduced elements seamlessly into the overall story.

OK, I will take off my writer's hat and put on my Computer Science hat for a minute. I've worked a lot on AI and Alife. Chaos is a commonly recurring theme. Too much randomness and the system falls apart. Too little and it smothers and dies. Somewhere in the middle is the Goldielocks mixture--that's where interesting things happen.

Tracy Hickman compares this to gripping a handful of marbles. Squeeze too tight, and the marbles pop out between your fingers. Too loosely, and they roll everywhere. I suspect he cups his marbles a bit tighter than I do mine--but it's still a good metaphor.

Interesting things often happen at boundary conditions: water at the freezing point melts and re-crystalizes in interesting patterns. Similarly, I feel that there's a fuzzy boundary condition between highly structured and loosely structured games. Here, the players have enough freedom to become full participants in the story, but the GM has enough authority to impose structure.

For me, this is where stories happen.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Gaming as Writing Workshop

Holly Lisle, in her podcast Holly Lisle On Writing, Episode 3 briefly discussed the intersection of gaming and fiction writing. She said that she sometimes created game versions of her worlds, then ran a group of players through them--using it as an interactive workshop in world building.

Said Holly, "They're not so hot for putting together stories, but they're fine, fine, fine if you're wanting to figure out how to build your own world."

Here's the thing. Back in my misspent youth, I think my gaming actually hurt my writing. I developed bad habits regarding conflict (mostly killing things) and plot (fairly superficial, linear, action-adventures). Maybe it was just the folly of youth--but I really think gaming encouraged me to stay within that comfort zone much longer than I would have otherwise. I wrote an epic fantasy novel in college. I swear, you can almost hear the dice rolling. Much of the action had no point in the larger story--just another random encounter thrown in the character's way. It was bad, bad, bad.

Sometime in my mid-twenties, things began to turn. My fiction broke out from behind my gaming and the stories began to explore issues that truly matter. My hopes and fears made it onto the page. My protagonists fell from grace--no longer the golden heros of adventure fantasy, they had their own hopes, daydreams and moments of weakness. Combat, when it occurred, was now a symptom of a larger conflict--not THE CONFLICT.

Then a funny thing happened. My writing bled back into my gaming and improved the stories that we told at the table.

Still, that's not enough for me. I want to play games that actually improve my writing. I want those dinner-table stories to be so engaging, so moving, that they challenge me to reach even deeper within myself when I write. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but that's where I want to be.

When you play a game, the audience is right there, just arms length away. The other players provide near-instantaneous feedback. You can see when they get excited or confused or bored. So, why can't roleplaying function as a workshop for things other than world building? Why can't we use the game to hone our sense of plots, pacing, themes, characters, or any other writing technique?

Game stories and written stories are different--in some ways very different. Not all techniques can cross from one to the other. So is this just a hopeless dream? Or will we actually get there some day?

I don't have an answer to this. I'm just throwing it out.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Scenes are the basic building blocks of stories. Like LEGOs, we snap them together to build bigger, more interesting structures. A scene is a focused event that usually takes place in a single location. Designing effective scenes is key to good stories, both in fiction and in RPGs.

In his book "Scene & Structure" Jack Bickham describes a scene as having three elements.

1) Statement of Goal
2) Introduction and development of conflict
3) Tactical disaster

The characters should have a clear goal. They should be moving towards something. This is specifically a short-term goal for the scene--the characters should also have long term goals. Every scene should be a stepping stone to reaching those long-term goals, but we're strictly interested in the short-term here. The character's want to convince the Duke to fund their expedition, or they want to find a way to sneak into the military base undetected. The goal is what gives the scene meaning. No goal, no point.

Obviously, the characters cannot just get whatever the want; where's the drama in that. We need conflict. Some obstacle gets in the characters way, preventing them from fulfilling their goal. The Duke's Minister of Finance argues strongly against loaning the characters money, or a guard comes across the characters as they are cutting through the barb-wire perimeter.

After introducing the conflict, both the players and GM need to develop it. Don't let yourself get stuck in "Yes, I am!" "No, you're not!" circular arguments--or repetitive, dice-based resolutions. The conflict needs to move forward. Both players and their opponents should bring up different points, try different tactics. If they are losing on one front, they should shift to another. This also applies to inanimate obstacles. So, the characters are nimble enough to cross the raging river on an old log, what else could go wrong?

You should spend most of the scene (75 to 90% of the time) developing and expanding the conflict.

Finally, the scene should end in disaster. Not only do the characters fail to reach their goal, they end up worse off than before. The Minister of Finance convinces the Duke that the characters are actually spies. Or the characters set off an alarm and can hear the telltale rumble of attack helicopters rapidly approaching.

I've heard similar advice from other writers. It basically boils down to "Never give the characters what they want." Of course, even a cursory glance at most stories will show you that characters do occasionally get what they want (though usually only after surviving considerable difficulty). Not all scenes end in disaster. Sometimes the characters do come out ahead. They find an important clue or a magical sword. Whatever. But, the basic advice is still sound. The characters should fail more often than they succeed. Their position should deteriorate over the length of the story. Things should get harder for them--tensions increase--until you reach the climax.

Traditional RPGs often run in the opposite direction. Characters become more powerful over time--either by gaining experience, or by stealing magical treasures off the dead. Sure, the conflict (and by this I mean combat) may have had a small toll on the party. Spells were spent; potions quaffed. But given a good night's rest, 90% of that cost has disappeared, and the characters have a few shiny new toys to try on the next band of orcs the run across.

Now, character advancement is a powerful motivator for the player. It is one of the more-significant sources of enjoyment for many. But, the way most games focus on character advancement makes creating good story arcs difficult. Worse yet, this idea of character advancement is so pervasive, it even infects many (if not most) of the independent story-focused games on the market.

Here are two more pieces of advice on scenes. A mentor of mine once said, "A scene should always have at least two things happening." If there is only one thing happening, it's not worth the effort. Better to cut the scene entirely.

Finally, never bring anything on stage unless you plan on using it later in the story.

Now, role-playing scenes seem to fail in several ways. For me, the worst is the "random encounter." This violates almost all the advice listed above. The characters have no goal, except to survive the scene. There is conflict (again, usually limited to mechanically-resolved combat), but it usually ends positively for the characters. Only one thing happens--someone attacks the characters. And, most importantly, these are random opponents--once slain, they disappear from the story. The resulting scene has no point beyond the immediate tactical challenge. It cannot create a story.

If you want to have bandits attack the party, fine. But make sure there is more meat to the scene. Perhaps all the bandits have a strange brand on the back of their left hand. They are part of a larger conspiracy, one that will crop up frequently throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the characters may win a temporary victory--but they have just uncovered a previously secret organization that wants them dead. That can't be good news.

Another common failure is the pointless-excuse-for-acting scene. Here, the characters interact with quirky locals--perhaps an unusual shopkeeper, tavern owner, or police officer. These scenes are often humorous--but there is no conflict, and the NPCs almost never play any further role in the story.

Let me back off a bit and say that there is a place for quieter, character-building scenes in both fiction and RPGs. These scenes often follow a major conflict. The momentum of the conflict carries us through the quieter scene, but we can catch our breath. Still, these scenes should be rare and they must be short. Nothing kills a story faster than bloated, sluggish scenes like these. If you want the characters to chat with a quirky shop keep, fine. Toss a bit of conflict into the mix; an old nemesis happens to enter the shop halfway through the discussion. Alternatively, make the character a more-important part of the story. Maybe the shopkeeper turns up missing the next day.

Another big failure is trying to build conflict through game mechanics. Let's take a character trying to scale a castle wall. The character has a goal (getting to the top in one piece) and a conflict (climbing is dangerous). In the most-degenerate case, the whole conflict boils down to a die roll. The character succeeds and reaches the top (and the conflict fades completely). Or he fails and falls to his death (again, conflict disappears, but not in a good way). Even if the fall would just injure the character, it is hard to build any real sense of tension this way. Either the injuries from a fall are minor, and the character ignores them. Or they will prevent him from climbing the wall entirely--which often brings the story to a screeching halt.

Ideally, conflict should not be something the characters roll their way out of. Instead, look for conflicts that make the characters to think. Force them to make hard decisions. Take our wall-climbing character. Imagine an experienced climber. The wall does not present a serious challenge. Instead, just after he reaches the halfway point, a teenage love-struck scullery maid appears at the top of the wall. She doesn't notice the climber, rather she stares dreamily off at the horizon, humming under her breath.

Now this presents a real problem for our character. She will probably notice if he tries to sneak past her. Even climbing back down would be risky. If he makes too much noise, she'll surely spot him. He could kill her to keep her from sounding the alarm--if he's the type to murder innocent young girls in cold blood.

This scenario also has room to grow. We can easily increase the tension by having her lover--a young knight--show up at a dramatically suitable moment. We can also have a disaster (the girl screams and alerts the guards) without it being instantly fatal.

From a scene-crafting point of view, the GM seems to have two important roles. First, they have to filter out the incidents that make good scenes from those that don't. The GM should focus game time on the first group, while de-emphasizing the second (keeping the scenes short, or handling the events offscreen). Keep the game focused on the exciting bits.

More important, the GM needs to constantly throw conflicts and complications at the characters. He needs to be mean. Chase them up trees, then throw rocks at them. This is hard, it means acting cruelly to your friends (or, at least, to your friend's imaginary constructs). In my experience, most GMs flinch and fail to provide an adequate level of real conflict in their games. Instead, they focus on mechanical conflict. It's not me, it's the dice.

When building conflicts, think about all the things that could go wrong. If you're planning things out between gaming sessions, actually list at least ten things. Then pick the most interesting. You usually have a good idea of what the players might do during the next game session--write down a few good complications. Often, you can refactor those complications and still use them when the players inevitably go off script.

If you are in the middle of a game, resist the temptation to grab the fist conflict that pops into your head. Those are often the most stereotypical. Most importantly, try to find something that opens possibilities, instead of shutting them. And don't be afraid of being mean.