What elements are required for a good RPG story? (improv especially)

edited March 2011 in Story Games
Im trying to classify things again. :)

I was thinking about how 'exploration/adventure' scenarios are hard to improvise. They tend to be a bit like road movies where the party wanders from place to place looking for, and hopefully having, episodic , but kinda random adventures -- basically a gang of trouble makers looking for something to do. I guess they can be fun, like Harold & Kumar, but trying to retrospectively stitch together a bunch of random episodes into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts - a coherent story - is hard.

I think these types of games are hard to improvise because they PCs lack an overriding concrete goal to their efforts? I guess thats why a lot of fighting-based RPGs have explicit quests -- dont ask questions, just pursue this goal! Maybe they need a major antagonist to defeat, and they are advancing towards that defeat, step by step?

another element I can think of is that there is no overriding goal or overall antagonist behind the episodic adventures, but the nature of the episodic adventures provides a kind of theme that has implications for character-based story advancement. Like the character(s) start off all one-way, but after a seemingly random series of episodic events, they emerge out the other side changed. what would you call that? character-based story cohesion as opposed to plot based story cohesion ?

Which leads me to think that classic 'explore/adventure' based RPGs just underline the need for certain unifying elements to make 'story', because they often lack them so it stands out more. All RPGs with ambition to 'story' should have one or more of these elements

[mostly specified up front, so easier]
- plot-based long term goals:(defeat the antagonist, save the city, find the magic sword)
- character-driven long term goals (gain respect, seek redemption, etc...)

[mostly discovered through ongoing play, so harder]
- episodic short term goals with plot-arc reveal (x-files, supernatural, etc... where the characters have no significant long term goals but slowly the episodic adventures reveal situation cohesion)
- episodic short term goals with characterisation reveal (good road movies, etc... where the characters have no significant long term goals, but slowly the episodic adventures reveal characterisation cohesion).

what do you think? Can you think of other elements that are helpful in (improvising) coherent stories for RPGs?

Comments

  • A system that supports the story the group is trying to tell.
  • I *think* I know what you're asking for, Steve, but let me take a few steps back just to be sure.

    You say that "exploration/adventure" games are hard to do because they are incoherent, but later you say that's probably because the characters lack a concrete goal. Something that immediately pops into my mind when you say "exploration" is "what is the party exploring and why?". I have a hard time imagining a game where the party just explores without any sense of direction. So, could you say more about what do you understand under the "exploration/adventure" moniker (an "oldschool sandbox?") and why do you find it hard to improvise?

    I'm of the conviction that all RPGs are about exploration in one sense or another, on a meta level. We can be exploring a setting, a relationship or whatever. We're playing to find out something: what are we trying to find out. The kind of big target goal you're describing for "fighting-based RPGs" is important to Step on Up gaming. It needn't be so big to begin with, but it has to be in the open. Imagine trying to play chess without knowing what the endgame conditions are. You have nothing to move towards to, no link between what you're doing right now (when you move a figure) and why are you doing it overall.

    Character driven story is definitely a thing. Burning Wheel's BITs, TSoY's Keys, or just "passionate characters" in general. You throw those passionate characters in volatile, untenable, difficult situations that question, challenge or oppose their beliefs and drives and see what happens. It's how writing drama works, it's how playing these games works. So what you identify as the "specified up front" elements, yeah, yep, done and done.

    Your other "in play" elements are achieved through systemic support, as well as various techniques like reincorporation and callbacks. I mean, no improvisation is done "out of nothing". After you play a while there's all sorts of material to draw back upon and a group often reincorporates elements of past adventures (however "random") to make sense of the big whole. It's really how the human brain works anyway. I'd call that your "situation cohesion". Did you know the writers of the X-Files were making it up as they went along? All writers do. The cigarette-smoking man was an accidental character. We do the same at the table, only at a somewhat smaller time scale.

    As for "characterization cohesion", that's traditionally often left to "good roleplay" but we've had overt systemic tools for a long time now. Vampire, Pendragon, Sorcerer, Burning Wheel and Shadow of Yesterday are all various different approaches with different results. Characters are positioned in the world, oriented and often rewarded for following specific modes of behavior, goals, or making specific decisions. Because you have that in place, there's a mechanically-supported thematic consistency. The question for the individual group is then if it's looking for that in the first place, how it uses it and how the game supports that.

    So yeah, I think I'm following you there.
  • I second the BW BIT's for giving characters direction! In our BW games we started having one belief that was our character's personal goal/connected with a short-term arc, one interconnected with another player, and one connected with our overlying arc. This worked well to keep the characters condensed (not all off on their own with separate adventures) and kept focus from drifting too far.

    If in a game which mechanically does not support the "improv adventure", having players lay out clear, concise goals can really help in getting everyone involved in ramping up towards something. As simple as "I want XYZ" on a 3x5 index card works for me. Let everyone see these, so they can play off of each other.

    For the less-known-to-the-player route, take a look at fronts in AW.
  • This is particularly overly multiple sessions, right? Because most one-shots I've played are fairly coherent.
    Is it really that important? Like, most TV series aren't terribly coherent - a given night's entertainment will introduce some new characters which only last that session and be gone. Then there'll be some overarching storyline, but a given episode will spend 35-40 minutes on the new stuff and only 5-10 minutes on the overarching thing.
    And, like you said, road movies.

    For short-run campaigns ...
    Yeah, the Apocalypse World game I'm in is totally coherent.
    And Annalise has an interesting motif mechanism to keep the same feel lasting for an entire run.
  • One shot games have to hand you a structure right from the start. You pretty much know the game you are going to play before you sit down. As a GM you should be getting heaps of support by that structure, as Pooka has pointed out.
  • Posted By: TeataineI *think* I know what you're asking for, Steve, but let me take a few steps back just to be sure.

    You say that "exploration/adventure" games are hard to do because they are incoherent, but later you say that's probably because the characters lack a concrete goal. Something that immediately pops into my mind when you say "exploration" is "what is the party exploring and why?". I have a hard time imagining a game where the party just explores withoutanysense of direction. So, could you say more about what do you understand under the "exploration/adventure" moniker (an "oldschool sandbox?") and why do you find it hard to improvise?
    .
    Yeah, I guess sandbox is what Im referring to there - Im talking about the type of game where the party goes on quests. They finish a quest, achieve that short term goal, and then...? do another probably unrelated quest.

    If you leave it at that, then nothing changes. You dont have a story, you have a bunch of episodic adventures.
  • Posted By: stefoidOne shot games have to hand you a structure right from the start. You pretty much know the game you are going to play before you sit down. As a GM you should be getting heaps of support by that structure, as Pooka has pointed out.
    Hmmm, I'm not convinced. It's not uncommon to kick off an one-shot adventure with no idea where it's going to go. It's just that because of the inherent time limit "guys we have to get something out of this tonight" there's a greater pressure to get to the resolution or at least the "good stuff".
    Posted By: stefoidYeah, I guess sandbox is what Im referring to there - Im talking about the type of game where the party goes on quests. They finish a quest, achieve that short term goal, and then...? do another probably unrelated quest.

    If you leave it at that, then nothing changes. You dont have a story, you have a bunch of episodic adventures.
    1. Why would they do "another unrelated quest"? I mean, who is setting the quests here? Why did they go on the first quest anyway, what was the motivation behind that? If it's the players/characters are setting/choosing the quests, then the quests are related by virtue of the characters' motivations. If it's the GM offering them quests, then it falls to the GM to tie the quests into a coherent whole. A mix and match approach usually works best.

    2. Even if the first two or three quests seem unrelated, it's then not hard to introduce new elements that tie everything together, reincorporate, strengthen the emergent red thread. To use X-Files as an example again, the writers never planned for a "mythology" of the show, it was just a monster of the week affair. It was only afterwards that the big overarching plots got bolted on. You can have a string of "unrelated quests", but introduce a new element or reincorporate some offhand stuff and suddenly it all ties together. You saved a village from orcs two weeks ago and you fought some demon spiders in the caves last week? Unrelated right? Guess again, they both serve the same wizard!

    3. "If you leave it at that, then nothing changes". Well unless you're working hard to preserve the status quo, few gameworlds will survive an encounter with the PCs completely intact. Something has changed, whatever the PCs did changed them (level up, whatever), it shifted the power dynamics of the world (now that the demonspiders are gone, the kobolds move into the caves and start digging for some ancient gizmo), it changes the positioning (the villagers are grateful to the heroes)...there's definitely change. If there isn't any, yeah, I can see how that would be boring. But I don't think that's what's happening in your (hypothetical) game, right?
  • Im GMing a game where neither I, nor the PCs had a firm long term goal from the start. The initial situation was not something that put them on any particular path. So some stuff happened and they reacted to it. *something* was definitely going on -- something potentially cool, but nobody, including me, had an idea of what it was. But, you know, stuff seemed to be happening, so I went with it. Next session, I went in without any further thought, thinking that some more stuff would happen and things would become clear, but I drew a blank. Couldnt think of anything interesting or plausible on the spot to follow the first session which had seemed so promising.

    This time, I have stitched together/rationalized the previous episodes into something coherent. And put some NPCs with motives behind those events, so plot-wise we have NPCs with clear goals who will continue to cause coherent stuff to happen from now on. Whatever that turns out to be. So good.

    But it got me thinking about types of situation you can find yourself in, in terms of story structure, and ways in which you can get satisfying story to emerge from seemingly incoherent episodes. The x-files plot thing is one such. That appears to be what I am doing now. But another approach is the emergent character development where there is no coherent plot to the episodic adventures, but a coherent theme which advances the characters rather than the situation.

    Theres no reason why all 4 categories cant coexist in the same game.
  • Argh, cockdongles, I wrote a nice big post, but my internets ate it. I'll try to do it again, but briefer.
    Posted By: stefoidTheres no reason why all 4 categories cant coexist in the same game.
    Yes!
    Posted By: stefoidBut it got me thinking about types of situation you can find yourself in, in terms of story structure, and ways in which you can get satisfying story to emerge from seemingly incoherent episodes. The x-files plot thing is one such. That appears to be what I am doing now. But another approach is the emergent character development where there is no coherent plot to the episodic adventures, but a coherent theme which advances the characters rather than the situation.
    I believe it's one of the manifestations of what I called "systemic support" earlier. Possibly, if you play Pendragon, you could have a different quest each week, but they would be all tied together by a certain thematic and aesthetic unity, namely all your virtually unrelated tales would all be "arthurian". Your knight will change, perhaps becoming less Valorous and more Modest, he will gain titles, grow old and sire children. Meanwhile the setting and situation will remain relatively static.

    AW does something completely different but I'll skip that now.
    Posted By: stefoidIm GMing a game where neither I, nor the PCs had a firm long term goal from the start. The initial situation was not something that put them on any particular path.
    Do you feel that's bad? I mean, was it fun for you and your group to do it that way or whatever? I'm totally cool with emergent storylines, I think it's a nice way to do things. And we all draw blanks from time to time, it happens.

    But if between you and the players nothing comes up that would spark the game in a particular direction, set it in motion, then I believe (with all the usual caveats) that there might be a certain disconnect happening. Guessing game!

    There are several layers:
    "What are we doing right now?" -I'm rolling my attack dice and adding up damage bonuses.
    "What are we doing this session/some period of time." -We're driving the goblins out of the caves.
    "What are we doing here overall?" -???

    I made up the first two answers but do you have an answer to the third question for your game? There needs to be a certain amount of transparency between the layers, and certainly concrete links, namely: I'm rolling my attack dice to drive the goblins out, I'm driving the goblins out to...? If I know why we're doing what we're doing tonight (driving the goblins out), it's that much easier to figure out what we're doing next week. What are we doing over the course of the game? This is a social thing moreso than an "ingame" thing.

    The "big three" questions ("What is the game about?", "What do the characters do?", "What do the players do?") are aimed at design but they totally work for play, too.
  • Posted By: TeataineThe "big three" questions ("What is the game about?", "What do the characters do?", "What do the players do?") are aimed at design but they totally work for play, too.
    Is it worth pointing out that D&D was basically a "designed through play" game in its first couple incarnations?
  • Posted By: komradebobIs it worth pointing out that D&D was basically a "designed through play" game in its first couple incarnations?
    Sure, I guess. Personally I feel that the older editions are much more focused in this context than 3E (oD&D and B/E at least, I'm not very familiar with AD&D). 3E brought a much needed rationalization of the rules as they existed circa 2E, but it bit too big a bite off the "do anything" apple. IMHO. Collecting treasure and getting a castle is far more concrete than "gain experience".
  • I was thinking more about the way 1st ed D&D was a constantly evolving animal, from the 3 little books onward. Especially as "What are we doing overall ?" began to change because of playstyles that were constantly evolving.

    I mean, it's kind of an interesting example of wonderful, creative, sloppy, ad-hoc creation method for a game that's all about feedback between the players and the GM/Designer as play occurs.

    I realize that approach has been considered a Bad Thing in both indie and mainstream game-design circles for some time now, but it really be worth taking another look at.

    Your paragraph above the sentence I quoted just really reminded me of how that kind of question/response loop was a mechanical design driver as much as a overall fiction driver
  • Comic books tended to follow the pattern you are talking about for a long time. Their solution was to make the characters iconic. Keep throwing situations at the characters that spotlight who they are, what makes them special, let them show off how resilient/badass/fast/smart/etc, the characters are. The stories tended to be better if it was more about personality traits than it was about physical abilities/superpowers.
  • edited March 2011
    Posted By: komradebobI was thinking more about the way 1st ed D&D was a constantly evolving animal, from the 3 little books onward. Especially as "What are we doing overall ?" began to change because of playstyles that were constantly evolving.
    Oh, that. Yeah, I agree. As I said, I'm not really familiar with AD&D but what I know about it gives me the impression that it became such a big and wonderfully messy thing precisely because this struggle to keep it all one game while at the same time satisfying all these different impulses with which it came into contact as it grew. Gary's doing one thing and Dave is doing another but they're still kinda doing the same thing, and the game is enough of a loose toolkit to warrant it but then they sell thousands of copies to other people and suddenly all these kids who have no idea what Gary or Dave are doing start doing all kinds of weird stuff with it, many demand rules rules rules because they have no idea how this thing works and others start writing rules of their own and here we are.

    That's just my opinion/vague conjecture not scientific fact, of course.

    I don't think it's a Bad Thing as such. I think it still happens, even, just in different ways.
    Posted By: Vernon RComic books tended to follow the pattern you are talking about for a long time. Their solution was to make the characters iconic. Keep throwing situations at the characters that spotlight who they are, what makes them special, let them show off how resilient/badass/fast/smart/etc, the characters are. The stories tended to be better if it was more about personality traits than it was about physical abilities/superpowers.
    Cool!
  • Posted By: stefoidIm GMing a game where neither I, nor the PCs had a firm long term goal from the start. The initial situation was not something that put them on any particular path.
    Do you feel that's bad? I mean, was it fun for you and your group to do it that way or whatever? I'm totally cool with emergent storylines, I think it's a nice way to do things. And we all draw blanks from time to time, it happens.

    But if between you and the players nothing comes up that would spark the game in a particular direction, set it in motion, then I believe (with all the usual caveats) that there might be a certain disconnect happening. Guessing game!

    There are several layers:
    "What are we doing right now?" -I'm rolling my attack dice and adding up damage bonuses.
    "What are we doing this session/some period of time." -We're driving the goblins out of the caves.
    "What are we doing here overall?" -???

    I made up the first two answers but do you have an answer to the third question for your game? There needs to be a certain amount of transparency between the layers, and certainly concrete links, namely: I'm rolling my attack dice to drive the goblins out, I'm driving the goblins out to...? If I know why we're doing what we're doingtonight(driving the goblins out), it's that much easier to figure out what we're doing next week. What are we doing over the course of the game? This is a social thing moreso than an "ingame" thing.

    The "big three" questions ("What is the game about?", "What do the characters do?", "What do the players do?") are aimed at design but they totally work for play, too.

    Not necessarily bad, but definitely more difficult to pull off. The game is a work in progress and, so things are modified/emphasized as failure dictates.
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