Category Archives: Storytelling Advice

Creating Meaningful Choices as a GM

Advice level: Beginner to Moderate Writers, Moderate to Expert Gamers

One of the most interesting parts about GMing is that, unlike when writing a story, your characters are truly independent agents.  The unpredictability of the players makes writing a tabletop campaign require a certain flexibility that writing most novels does not.

This is why, while important for any writer, it’s doubly vital for a GM to decide on the proper consequences for the character’s decisions.  If a character’s choices are to have any meaning at all, there must be real and lasting effects on them or the people and world around them, or else the players get a somewhat shallow story that runs on rails, where no one’s choices seem important in retrospect, and characters don’t get a chance to grow from past mistakes or triumphs.

But the consequences don’t just have to be tangible.  I don’t mean someone makes a mistake and loses an arm due to a failed dice roll.  To be truly meaningful, the consequences have to be at least somewhat predictable.

In this article, we’ll be examining two  books series that take a very different approach to the issue of consequences for character’s actions: The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind, and The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, and relating them to how to craft a more meaningful tabletop campaign.

One Problem, One Solution

The Sword of Truth is a High Fantasy series (though don’t tell Goodkind that) which, while the later books suffer from anvilicious prose and heavy handed Marty Stu-ism, overall has an enjoyable story and a rich cast of characters set in a unique world.  The main character is Richard Cypher, who lives in a magic-free country divided by a powerful barrier from the rest of the world.

The story of the first book starts when a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, crosses that barrier and Richard assists her in finding an old wizard that possesses a magic weapon needed to save her country from the evil sorcerer Darken Rahl.  It has a very genre-comfortable beginning, but from there it expands from book to book to a tale of literally creation-altering stakes.

Each novel’s plot is fairly self-contained for the most part: the dilemma that is introduced at the beginning of the novel is largely solved by the end.  But each book chains directly into the next for the larger overarching epic, because the actions the main characters make unwittingly bring about the following book’s conflict.  A magic spell has unintended consequences, a war won leaves a power vacuum in the delicate balance of nations, etc.

I call this type of storytelling “One Problem, One Solution” because the way the story is framed the “right choice” is always firmly established by the narrative itself, even if it has unintended consequences that later make it seem like the “wrong” choice.  This can be found in all kinds of storytelling mediums, and tabletop games are no exception.  Since one of our greatest influences are the fiction we read or watch, how often you’ll encounter this depends largely on the content you or your GM are exposed to.

Example: The GM has explained to the players that a recent mysterious increase in the manticore population has led to the creatures spreading out beyond their usual territory, attacking caravans and ravaging farms.  The players are tasked by King Jarvan to solve this problem however they can.

Over the course of their adventure, during which many a manticore meet an untimely end, the players begin to realize that the creatures are somehow multiplying far faster than even an army could hope to quell.  Deciding to take a different route, they investigate the source of the troubles.  A common thread in the gossip and speculation from travelers and taverns are tales of a powerful druid who turned bitter and reclusive, and eventually left for the manticore’s breeding grounds swearing that judgment would fall on civilization for its irreverent destruction of nature.

They seek out the druid, going deeper and deeper into manticore territory.  The deeper they go, the more wild and pristine the nature around them is, until they find a cave flourishing with an abundance of life and a strange power emanating from within it.  They enter and confront the druid, who is beyond reason: he attacks them, and they kill him.  The power in the air fades, and now they’re sure things will return to normal.  They head home (after looting the cave of course) for their reward.

It soon becomes clear that they were successful in their mission: manticore sightings plummet, and then dwindle to pre-crisis levels.  However, another problem quickly emerges: the wildlife in the area around the manticore territory has begun to whither and die, and soon acres of farmland are barren as the druid’s death seems to have removed some delicate balance the ecosystem relied on.  Soon food shortages grip the kingdom, and the commonwealth is poised to revolt, tipping the nation into a civil war… which leads to the plot of the next campaign.

This is a perfectly serviceable skeleton for the plot for a game or novel.  It leaves plenty of room for imaginative variations, and as a bonus leads to a new conflict for a longer story to emerge from, where the players can see the characters’ choices and actions having a lasting and meaningful impact on the world.

However, unless the GM goes to extraordinary lengths, upon retrospection it seems evident that any “choice” in the story was mostly artificial, or so constrained as to be ultimately meaningless.  What “real” choices did they make?  What deliberation was required?  All the major decisions were simply reactions to orders from the king, or life and death struggles.

The source of the problem was information.  The characters (and by extension the players) had no way of knowing that the druid was also integral to the wilderness’ survival, or that his death would mean famine.  Without that information, a “real” choice, or an “informed” choice, couldn’t be made.  They were simply coloring in the numbers outlined by the storyteller.

The Sword of Truth largely feels the same way: exciting and interesting on the first read through, but in retrospect the characters never really face much decision making in what they do: the problems are all set up as world-ending (or thousands of years of  darkness through the triumph of evil), so not following through with the quest is unthinkable.  Furthermore the problems always have one specific, often magical, solution… the long term effects of which are not revealed until after it’s done.

In this model of storytelling, there is little introspection or growth for the characters and players.  Not through any particular fault of theirs: they simply see nothing but the carved out road ahead, with one unalterable chain of major events leading from beginning to end.  To create much more dynamic and character building storyline, let’s examine The Dresden Files, which takes a very different approach.

Many Solutions, Many Problems

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hor4nxsYOQk/TgNiVVTsIKI/AAAAAAAAAtI/uhmv_97bs4o/s1600/Strom%252BFront.jpgJim Butcher is a master of the “Many Solutions, Many Problems” method of storytelling.  In The Dresden Files, his major Modern Fantasy series, the protagonist is Harry Dresden, a wizard that works as a private investigator in a Chicago where vampires, fae, angels and demons walk unseen among mortal-kind.  While every book is action packed and incredibly fast paced, the overarching story of the series starts fairly slow; introducing the supporting cast and easing the readers into the kind of world they live in.  In the first book, Harry works mostly alone to investigate dark magic used in a double murder, but in each progressive book we see him grow in ability, allies, and challenges.

Like in The Sword of Truth, the plots in The Dresden Files are fairly self contained.  The central conflict of the novel is introduced in the beginning and is resolved by the end, and any additional or secondary storylines that are touched on merely add context and flavor to the events.  Also like Goodkind’s epic, Jim Butcher often makes the conflict of some books the direct result of the solutions the protagonists utilized in previous ones.

What sets them apart, however, is that Harry Dresden, unlike Richard Cypher, is very rarely ignorant of the consequences of his actions.  He makes mistakes, but when he does they are acknowledged as his mistakes, not just the result of simple ignorance.  In the later books, he is often presented with a number of different possible solutions to choose from, each with their own challenges and benefits, and ultimately each with their own consequences.  And when he finally makes his choice, for any number of reasons, he then has to live through those consequences… as do the people around him, both for his choices and the ones they make themselves.

Example: When the players learn about the vengeful druid, they also learn that before he went to the breeding grounds, he was responsible for keeping balance in the nearby ecosystem.  Deforestation and excessive hunting would have left the place a barren desert if he hadn’t used his magic to stretch the life from a wider area to cover the spots that were being strained.

From this, the players can extrapolate that if something happens to the druid, there will be dire consequences.  Instead of going straight for the renegade, they decide to seek council from other druids.  They find an enclave in a nearby forest and ask if they will take over the duties of the other druid if they stop him.  “Why should we?” their leader replied.  “He did his best to mend your civilization’s mistakes, and yet your people abused his efforts and simply continue on as you have been, without a thought for the land or its flora and fauna.”

The party’s Bard, most persuasive of the group, attempts to reason with them: innocent people are being killed by the wild beasts, and surely what he’s doing isn’t good for the ecosystem either.  “Well, no,” the head druid admits.  “But what assurance do we have that things would change if you do stop him?  Such magic doesn’t come without a price; to keep the soil near your cities healthy, we must take the vitality from forests farther away.  It cannot be sustained.  Tell your king that we will help keep his land fertile if he meets with us, and agrees to terms limiting the harvest of lumber, excessive hunting, and the redirection of water. Convince him to sign a proclamation, and we will assist you.”

The party leaves the forest knowing the king would not be happy having demands made of him by a bunch of hermits. The warlock’s infernal companion chatters at her in a demonic tongue, and she nods thoughtfully.  “Xanatus has a point… there are ways of assuring the land’s fertility without the druid’s help.  The proper sacrificial rituals is all it would take… surely a few dozen prisoners per moon won’t be missed?”

Human sacrifice is an ugly deed, abhorred by the common folk and most of their gods.  If King Jarvan decides on that path, it could turn the people against him.  Of course, if logging and hunting rights were restricted, the rich and powerful among the king’s court would likely turn against him. The players debate which approach they should pitch, or if they should simply present both and just let the king decide.

Here we have a setup that is much different from the original.  Not only are the players informed of the consequences of their quest, but information is available for alternatives to just charging in and confronting the druid.  Of course the players may just do that anyway: that’s out of the GM’s control.  But what’s important to note is that even if the king’s decision is entirely out of their hands, they still must make the decision on what to tell him, thus making their choice the cause that can end up having long lasting effects on the kingdom.  Maybe they can help negotiate a peaceful deal between the king and druids.  Maybe one of the party members is so disgusted with the king accepting human sacrifice that he goes about town spreading the news, causing unrest.  There are many solutions, and each can result in many more problems.

In The Dresden Files, Harry’s biggest challenges come not just from overcoming the obstacle, defeating the Big Bad, and saving the innocent, but also the hard decisions he must make in those struggles.  Will he team up with an enemy against a mutual threat, knowing victory will make that enemy harder to defeat in the future?  Will he accept assistance from the fae, knowing the Fair Folk offer nothing without a price?  And if he shuns all such seductive offers of power, will he still have the strength to succeed alone?  Will the friends and allies who go with him suffer for it?  Are his morals worth their lives?

Character development comes from such decisions, and how players respond to the consequences of them.  In addition, the effects can always be determined by the storyteller.  If at the end of the day the GM is committed to a food shortage and revolt, there are always ways to bring it about regardless of which choice the players make: but with enough effort and ingenuity, it can still take their decision into account and be a real test of more than simply combat-smarts and dice rolls.

Novelizing Your Tabletop RPG

Advice Level: Beginner to Moderate Writers, Beginner to Expert Gamers

Writing stories is hard. Everyone who has ever taken the running leap off the cliff of imagination to try and fly quickly learns that. When the thermals are good, you’ve got smooth sailing; the words pour out, and everything seems to flow. You can coast for pages on a good burst of inspiration, struggling here and there, but overall making good time. When that lifting force fades though, as it eventually does, it’s just you and your arms, flapping harder and harder to try and stay up.

One of the biggest causes of that dead air is a breakdown in plot. When your plot starts to drift or show its holes, then everything starts to fall apart. You can stall for days, weeks, months, until a burst of insight and motivation hits you to fix things or get them back on track. Having a solid plot is like having a map of thermals to ensure that you can always avoid the biggest pockets of dead air.

And that’s the greatest advantage that using a tabletop campaign as inspiration for a novel provides. The plot has already been completed, by the hard work of the GM and the capricious whims of the players. There’s an established beginning, a satisfying (or depressing) end, and all the major events that lead from one to the other is sitting there waiting like checkpoints in a side-scroller.

The second great advantage provided by writing a story based off a game is the characters. Their relationships are fleshed out, their motivation and personalities more or less made clear. All the tagonists are lined up, pro and an, waiting for you to breathe life into them.

So if those are the main advantages of writing a story based on a game, what are the unique challenges? Here are a few of the main things to look out for while worldcrafting:

Loose plot threads:

Your average game more than likely will have had a number of directions it could have gone in.  To ensure player autonomy and choice has an impact in directing the story, the GM often adds in a dozen characters and story threads that end up not doing a whole lot, or having any purpose, because the players go in a different direction or never choose to fully explore all the little paths and back alleys he or she littered the landscape with.

When writing a novel, however, you can’t have superfluous characters and subplots.  It’s your job as the writer to tighten the strands together into one cohesive tapestry.  Use your judgment to cut the extraneous bits so that a reader who has no backstory or knowledge of the game it’s based on won’t get confused.

Example: In the game, the party reached an inn in a strange town and decided to spend the night.  While there, the GM presented the players with three potential objectives by way of NPCs.  An attractive bartender bemoaned the theft of her family heirlooms, a wealthy businessman requested aid guarding his caravan, and a suspicious fellow tucked a note in one of the characters’ pockets detailing a time, place, and potential reward.

Roughly half the party was interested in helping the bartender, while the other half saw more benefit in helping the businessman.  One player, perhaps the one who was given the note, was curious about it, and asked for backup in case it was a trap of some kind.  No one was particularly keen to walk into a mysterious meeting however, especially when there were so many other (potentially) safer options.  They convinced him not to go, and he ended up helping one of the two groups, or perhaps they all end up helping the bartender or the businessman.

You as the writer have a choice to make now:  do you take everything, and write it out as it happened? Do you prune out the note, and leave it as a debate between the other two options?  Or, if the party ultimately decided to all work together toward one goal, do you eliminate the other options altogether and focus on the one that was followed through?

There are reasons to keep them in, of course.  Perhaps the conversation everyone had in order to decide together who to assist was made more interesting by the alternate choices.  If you want to, you can certainly keep them in just to keep the character development and relationship tensions in.  Or if the mysterious notegiver ends up being an important part of the later story, obviously it’s important to set the groundwork by leaving it in.

However, note that removing the options doesn’t necessarily remove complexity from the story.  If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could try developing other reasons for the debate to take place that still develops the characters and scene without the superfluous NPCs and dialogue.  Ultimately, this is often the best choice: in the framework of a game, it’s perfectly acceptable for strangers to ask a group of adventurers for help in their everyday worries.  In an ostensibly realistic story, it doesn’t quite make as much sense.  Additionally it distracts from the pacing, leaving incomplete and rough cobbles on the road for your reader to trip and worry over fruitlessly.

Character consistency: 

In most games, players take a few sessions to get into the swing of things.  Maybe they’re trying a new personality out, or are in a setting they’ve never encountered before, or perhaps it’s their first tabletop game in a while, if ever.  Over time, character concepts crystallize and behavior becomes more meaningful.  But if you transcribe events and dialogue exactly as it occurred in the game, you might find yourself writing erratic and inconsistent characters, or flat, two dimensional caricatures that turn the readers off before they get a chance to evolve into the well rounded and engaging people you know and love (or love to hate).

The solution is simple: artistic license.  Assuming none of the players get terribly offended by your manipulation of their character’s moods and backstory, feel free to change anything you need in order to present a more stable and smooth character arc.  This applies to interactions as well: if two characters are meant to be friends from the beginning, but at first acted stiff and formal around each other due to their player’s unfamiliarity, liven their starting scenes up to set the right tone off the bat.  As a general rule, whatever helps make your character more relatable and engaging is worth trying.  You can always edit and fine tune it later, but sometimes it’s worth starting with the spirit of  how things turn out rather than sticking mechanically to chronicling how things were.

Example:  John and Sally had never met before the game started, yet their characters, Justin and Kate, were the first to meet in it.  Their backstories had them both growing up in the same neighborhood of the same city, and while not necessarily friends, they were familiar acquaintances.  When the GM informed them that a storm of unprecedented size and strength was heading toward the city, both go to the same shopping mart to get supplies, and meet there.

The players, familiar with the setting and expecting trouble of some sort beyond the storm, focused their characters’ interactions on efficiency.  They stocked up on food and medical equipment, bought certain things that could be used as makeshift weapons, and coordinated pooling their resources in the event of emergency.  Before they could leave the shopping mart, the power went out, and in the imposed darkness of the coming storm, they emerged ready to battle whatever evil was befalling their city.

There are a number of changes to be made to turn this bit of roleplaying into a fully fledged, novel-quality scene.  You want the first impression the reader has of these characters to be a good one: not too overloaded with information, but giving a strong sense of who they are and what quality a relationship, if any, they have together.

Maybe it turned out as the game progressed that Justin was attracted to Kate and had always had a crush on her.  To that end, some attempts at overt friendliness, if not outright flirting, would be beneficial in setting up his character and the mood of his interactions with Kate.  Perhaps Sally realizes later that her character Kate is so perceptive because she has borderline OCD, which helps her pay particularly good attention to details that the other players miss.  To help set the ground for that, it would be good to briefly show Kate exhibiting minor symptoms of an obsessive compulsive personality, such as straightening things on the shelves as she shops, or buying things in even numbers.

Additionally, the players may have focused on pragmatic details, but the characters almost certainly would not have.  There are certain norms in social settings, familiar patterns in greetings and conversation that could be expanded on not just for realism, but also to establish characters.  Have Kate ask Justin how his father is doing; perhaps she went to his store just the other day to buy some art.  Inject familiar events or locations from their past into their dialogue, to “show” that they’ve lived in the same neighborhood together all their lives, went to the same school, and so on, without “telling” it in the narration normally provided by a GM.

Character fidelity is important to you as someone who played in the game and as a friend to the player of the characters, but your independent reader is the one you have to entertain and inform above all others.  Don’t be afraid to liven character interactions up or shift focus from one aspect of their personality to another to make them more interesting and stable.

Perspective:

Last but certainly not least, choosing a perspective to tell the story through is perhaps the biggest challenge of the writer in adapting a story from a game to a novel. Roleplaying is largely about action and dialogue: the unique perspective, thoughts, and emotions of the characters in any given scene is much harder to capture, especially for characters other than your own (or any of them if you were the GM).

Assuming you were a player and not the GM, if the entire party stayed together the whole time, you could of course stick to your own character’s perspective, in first or third person, and work the extra information into the narrative in new ways.  In the far more likely circumstance that the party does not stay together for the entirety of the story, this could, however, exclude large portions of the plot and relevant scenes, forcing you to have characters explain what occurred “off-screen” in narrative.  Done well it might not be an issue, but too much of it handled without sufficient care will surely break the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.”  If you were the GM, the easiest by far is the third-person-omniscient approach, but this is largely unpopular in literature for a reason: it doesn’t usually give the same feelings of immersion or engagement with the characters.

The best method for including the most information while keeping the writing engaging and immersive is to switch perspectives between characters at different points in the story.  This however poses its own challenges.  Namely, you’ll have to decide whose perspective to use when, how often to switch without being too disorienting, and how to handle chronology.

Example: Alice is writing about an important battle that takes place about midway through the story of the last game she played in.  In the battle, her character Amber had taken command of a spaceship after killing its captain, and was directing its crew to assist in the defense of her planet.  Unknown to her character, a mutiny is taking place below decks, and her friend’s character Jayce has gone down to quell it.

In addition, while Amber and Jayce were struggling aboard the rogue vessel, the other players in their playgroup were involved in the larger battle. Mardec and Chloe were in single fighter ships dogfighting the invaders, while Taric acted as commanding general of the planet’s forces and oversaw the battle. directing ships to newly appearing threats.

Alice needs to capture all the events taking place, but is having trouble switching perspectives cleanly in such a fast paced, action packed scene.  She wants to go over what happens in each perspective as well, but keeps running into problems of chronology.  Should she have each perspective shift denote a continuous timeline, or is it okay to have some overlap in events?  There’s no right answer or proper way to do this, but there are ways to mitigate the difficulty:

1) Use perspective shifts for lulls in the action.  Alice doesn’t need to detail every single event from every single perspective.  It’s much more efficient and easier on the reader to switch perspectives between major events, and leave the less exciting bridges to imagination or quick exposition at the beginning or end of a section.

Example:  “Jayce saw the men in the engineering bay slumped over their consoles and cursed.  He knew he had to stop the saboteurs from reaching the engine room, but he couldn’t take the time to tell Amber what’s going on: she had enough on her hands.  He said a quick prayer and pulled out his blaster, stepping quietly as he followed the trail of bodies.”

Now Alice is free to switch to another perspective, and come back to Jayce when he reaches them.  We can imagine what occurred in the meantime fairly easily, so the author is free to focus on more complex events.

2) Avoid repetition.  Sort of the inverse of the first, Alice doesn’t need to detail every major event from every perspective.  Let’s say Taric has to go through a grueling emotional decision under pressure on whether or not to risk killing his own men, including Mardec, by destroying a deadly enemy carrier that’s nearby them.  She doesn’t have to immediately switch to Mardec’s perspective to detail how he narrowly escaped the explosion.  A quick paragraph in past tense once she does switch to a new character is enough to give a sense of what they went through.

Example: “Mardec blasts the fleeing fighter into a bright flash of soundless light, visor automatically dimming to shield his eyes.  That’s the last of them around here… he takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself down.  His heart is still racing from the unexpected explosion of the enemy carrier: he’d been just pulling out of a dive on it when his sensors showed the incoming missiles, and had barely managed to accelerate free of the blast radius, whole ship vibrating enough to rattle his teeth.”

Or let’s say Alice wants to keep that part a scene because she believes it’s more entertaining and wants it to be a surprise.  She could detail the unexpected explosion from Mardec’s perspective, and later on in a Taric section describe how hard the decision had been to make knowing that some of his own people might have been caught in the blast.

3) Organize and plan large events out in brief outline ahead of time to ensure each character has sufficient “screen time.”   Maybe Alice can free up a later important scene for Chloe’s perspective if she keeps it in Taric’s perspective, since she has already established Taric’s general mood and the flavor of his struggles in the battle.   Or let’s say Taric has an important scene coming up later that he absolutely must have priority on: this makes it easy to decide that the unexpected explosion happens from Mardec’s perspective.

Perspective can be one of the simplest or most frustrating parts of novelizing your game’s story.  Whether you choose third person omniscient, focusing on a single character’s perspective, or shifting perspectives throughout, the choice you make in how to frame the story is one that will present its own unique problems throughout the entire process, and your best bet is to stick with what you feel the most comfortable with.  With enough determination and skill you can tell an amazing story in any format.

With these things in mind, immortalizing your favorite roleplaying sessions in a novel for all to enjoy can be a fun and rewarding process.  It’s a great practice for any writers who have trouble starting from scratch with their own plots and characters, and can be especially fun in collaboration with other players in the game who enjoy writing as well.