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Day 22: Novel Advice for RPGs

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As any reader of my blog knows, I’m an aspiring writer. And like most aspiring writers, I’ve often substituted the act of writing with reading about writing. While this hasn’t done much for improving my craft in a practical sense, it does mean that I’ve absorbed a lot of narrative structure and literary element theorycraft. (It does help a lot with developmental editing, however.)

For this reason, I’ve always approached RPGs from an author’s perspective, which isn’t always useful considering that one medium is interactive and the other isn’t. But there’s still a lot of advice you can mine from the writer’s craft–you just have to be judicious about applying it.

One concept that translates really well from novel-writing to role-playing games is the idea of scene mechanics and pacing. Employ poor scene mechanics or pacing, and the reader loses interest. The narrative drags, and they might put down the book for good. Good scene mechanics and pacing leaves a reader wanting more, unable to keep from turning the page. They need to know what happens next, and the plot is hurtling forward, ever-changing.

In role-playing games, you could replace the concept of “scenes” with encounters and apply similar advice.

In con games especially, when you’re crunched for time, every minute counts. To paraphrase a writing maxim, “arrive after the scene has already started, and leave before it ends.” For fast-paced sessions, open immediately with action; cut to more action (complete with screen wipes); break on a cliffhanger.

Of course, sometimes “filler scenes” or “downtime scenes” can help lend balance to an otherwise frenetic session, allow for organic character development, throw the high-tension scenes into starker relief.

But home campaigns, with no set time limit on how long it takes to tell the story, are at risk for slow pacing. Encounters (or parts of encounters) that could be replaced with summary are role-played out, or there just isn’t enough tension to keep the players’ interest. The party is only going through the motions, waiting for something exciting to happen.

These scenes are missing some fundamental element, be it obstacles or characterization or twists. Ian Irving uses the following criteria to determine how to revise the scenes in his novels, but they can also be used to guide encounter creation in RPGs:

1. What is the protagonist’s goal for that scene? What are the player characters likely to want from this encounter? Keep in mind that different characters might want different things, and try to imagine at least three different objectives.

2. What are the obstacles in the way of achieving his scene goal? Now that you’ve got the objectives, what’s in the way? Another way to think of it is “what does the other party want?” Here’s where you can think about the combat, social, or environmental challenges–perhaps two or more at once.

3. What he does to try to achieve his goal, and how his opponent tries to block him? With the obstacles identified, it’s time to think of one or two methods of overcoming them. Here’s where you’ll figure out what skills might come into play, and the difficulty of those checks. I like to come up with a “hard” path, an “easy” path, and one in between.

4. How is the scene resolved? In many cases, this means landing the protagonist in deeper trouble. This will be decided at the table by role-playing and rolling the dice. For some hints, consider what victory looks like for the PCs (refer back to question #1). What does victory look like for the antagonist? (Refer back to question #2.) What would the middle ground look like if both were able to succeed–or if both failed?

5. What are one or two striking images that can be used to bring the story alive? Here are your set pieces, your environment (weather, terrain), or particularly distinctive characters and adversaries. If your inspiration for description is flagging, this is where a trip to Google Image Search, Pinterest, or deviantART can spark your imagination.

6. What twists can be employed to break the expected? Keep things exciting by making some of the objectives, obstacles, or ways of overcoming them unusual. What would the opposite of the expected be? What other circumstances would have to shift to make that plausible? Now things begin to feel truly different.

7. What are the expected emotional high points? You’ve got your PCs’ goals, motivations, ideals, etc., written down, right? This is where you can mine their backstory and figure out ways to make them care. If you’re willing to really punch your players in the gut, read John Wick’s Play Dirty.

8. How can we reveal the protagonist’s true character more clearly? What are the PCs’ alignments? How might they be challenged, or what moral wrinkles can you add to their options for overcoming the obstacle? Refer again to their backstory to determine what sorts of flaws or weaknesses can you exploit to make them face their inner demons.

8. How can we make the setting more original, and to wring more out of it? Here’s where you get to display your worldbuilding prowess, or perhaps dig for a particularly interesting chunk of flavor from an established setting. What theme or detail can you reinforce to evoke this setting over another?

10. How can we heighten tension and suspense even further? Finally, consider what other dominoes might fall as a result of the resolution from question #4, good and bad. Especially the bad. Actions have reactions. Decisions have consequences. They may not even be readily apparent, but instead come back to bite them much later down the road.

Even if you don’t answer all of these questions for every scene, they can be a valuable tool for making sure every encounter is pulling its weight in the adventure or campaign. Going by novel logic, it isn’t enough for an encounter to be addressing either the plot or the characters’ development or the setting/themes. It should be doing double or even triple duty to make the greatest impact on your audience–your players.

What’s the best advice you’ve borrowed from a totally different field? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on the effects of system mechanics on the setting or story. Thanks again for reading!

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  1. RPG Blog Carnival: How and Where I Write and/or Game Prep | - […] as the PCs progress through the story, which was roughly outlined before the campaign began. I use this scene…

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