Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Schlock Doctor

One extremely difficult hurdle that comes up in the craft of adventure writing is that you can't tell a story. Not a real one, anyways. In a role-playing game, a story is the byproduct of the fun had from players and GM alike playing the game. Almost like a souvenir of the good time we all had during the session. When it comes to prepping an adventure for an RPG, I can't create a story. A story is what happens.

At the same time, though, an adventure does need to have direction. "Sandbox gaming" has become a big buzzword in today's roleplaying games; this idea that the players can just do whatever the hell they want, and the GM can roll with it, and everyone has a great time. Maybe there are role-playing games out there that can do that (my own RPG, World Gone Mad, was actually built with it in mind), but the vast majority of them are not. And so those games need a direction, a clear path from beginning to middle to end. When it comes to those sandbox-style, direction-less games, a rigid structure is in place to faciliate direction where there wasn't any. Games like Fiasco have no direction, but do have certain rules in place to make sure the end product...a story...happens by the end.

Here's an example of how NOT to do any of that. The World of Darkness game that I wrote about yesterday? I did it on Sunday. The idea from the start was to have a central mystery (a shooting at a high school where something is not right), and several threads to follow (the principal is acting suspiciously and wasn't present during the shooting; a hiker has disappeared into the woods; the players who were present at the shooting witnessed that the shooters were not human).

All these disparate threads were supposed to lead into the central mystery and unravel into a final conspiracy (I won't reveal what it is yet, in case I ever go back to this). What I wanted to happen was for the players to pursue leads however they wanted, then I would gradually steer them into the conspiracy. The overall effect, I conceived in my head, would be an adventure that plays out like an episode of Game of Thrones, where each character is the center of their own plotline, and these plotlines weave together into a greater story.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, it was a mess where some players did a lot of stuff, other players did almost nothing, and after about three hours of play, no one really was any closer to figuring out what was going on. What happened?

Well, to be fair, there were some logistical problems. I had six players...a massive number for a World of Darkness mystery game. Thinking I could juggle all of them, was, on my part, pure hubris. Also, I had dental surgery two days before, and was high on Vicodin during the game. I knew I would be going in, but I had GREATLY underestimated the effect it would have on my brain as we played. Particularly, that whole "steering them into the conspiracy" bit proved particularly difficult, as I could barely focus on what I had prepared, let alone the improv skill necessary to bring it all together.

But even if I had four players, and even if I had been stone-cold sober, I think the game would have gone poorly. The reason ties back to the beginning of this post...adventure writing is all about structure and direction. This adventure had neither. Look at the main plotline...a school shooting. What is mysterious about that? They know who the shooters were (even if they didn't know what they were), the dead had already been identified; what was left to understand? I gave the players no compelling hook to look into this. I did drop some hints, but there was no central problem to be solved, no driving force to move the story along. And all the minor plotlines...none of them had their own resolution, their own beginning and middle and end. All of them were to funnel into the main story. This sounds great on paper...but when one of my players spent nearly the entire session discovering what was essentially a minor facet of the mystery, it led to frustration, on his part and mine.

Now I get it. Now I see the strong connection between "B-List" shows like Buffy or Star Trek or Babylon 5 or all those police procedurals, versus The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or even Game of Thrones. All of those former shows? They're heavily structured. They need to be, because the characters aren't the only focus; the world they inhabit is, too. Whether it's exploring space or a courtroom, there is a structure in place to facilitate that exploration, and the story becomes the byproduct of the structure being followed. The latter shows have structure, too, but not as rigid, because they're not sharing screen time with the universe. They can afford to be character-driven. A roleplaying game is character-driven, but it also has its own unique universe, and the exploration and discovery of it is very much a part of the game. And so, to facilitate that discovery, there needs to be structure and direction.

I get that now. So I shall return to the drawing board with my Shannondale High shooting mystery, and develop from it not a great story, but a great adventure.

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