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Writing games, running stories

This blog post originally appeared on SarahCook.net. Sarah Cook is a member of the Hub community and has chosen to republish her content with the Hubble.

I’ve been running my WOD Changeling game for around two and a half years. It’s given me a lot of food for thought on how I – and how my players – create the game together.

I’m going to order my thoughts into two rough areas, one is around “game” which is the technical aspect of what happens when, the rules, systems and how you go from stuff in a book to a shared activity that is fun. I’m also going to talk about “story” so thinking about the plot, characters and narrative. There will probably be some overlap. Them’s the breaks.

Roleplay - Sarah Cook

Image courtesy of Sarah Cook

The game, as in the rules, comes from the WOD book. Mostly. I say mostly because I’ve always viewed game rules for tabletop as guidelines around which the story flows. Rules are only of use if they serve the story. If we have to stop every two minutes to look something up or have an argument about it then we are not roleplaying, we’re also not having fun. Agreeing on what is in, what is out and how the rules are going to be used in advance is important. There’s situations where I have been liberal with the rules, and with the mechanics, to allow cool and fun things to happen.

I took a long time mulling over the rulebook to make sure I knew how most of the systems worked (this will come as a surprise to my players as I never remember what the atual dice rolls are). This wasn’t about memorising them, it was about how they would impact on the game and the difference it made to the story setting. Here’s an example. When Changelings (the magically altered humans that are my players’ characters) get older they tend to get more powerful. This is reflected in higher dice pools derived from higher stats on their character sheet. Players buy these with experience points. My cast of background characters that I narrate to create the story (AKA Non Player Characters or NPCs) are of different power levels, they got these through their “natural” lives, things they they have done. What this actually means is they their skills and abilities are thematic and serve the feel of the story. Cold hearted characters have cruel abilities that cause heartbreak. Secretive characters have mysterious powers. Angry characters have fire powers and so on.

But more importantly, I needed their personalities, when taken together, to tell the story – each NPC is also a series of plotlines, the things that the players might get embroiled in. They have relationships with each other for the players to unpick, hopes and dreams for them to assist with and nefarious schemes to foil. My most important task was to create a rich and realistic set of people, which meant that if they were “evil”, they were evil for a reason, or they only seemed evil. My story was to be an Epic Quest of Mystery and Magic. Capitalisation is important. The themes for the game were of loss, beauty and grey moral areas. Completing the quest would involve, as the best fairy tales do, losing some things which were important to you, so my player characters need to be offered challenges and opportunities that mean something to them. This means making the NPCs mean something.

I wrote the game over a month or so. Creating the characters, the setting and the basic plot. It started life as a notebook, with biro scribbles, then quickly became a spreadsheet. The plot is as basic as it gets. “There is a bad thing happening. You must stop it.” The devil, as they say, is in the details. And for this game, the details is in all the NPCs. They hold the plot, between them, like a tapestry which needs unpicking. The unpicking is what creates the game. Threads to be pulled upon, which reveal more threads.

I spent Christmas 2009 writing short backgrounds (and some longer backgrounds), descriptions and motivations for around 40 characters. Some of whom my  players interact with heavily, some of whom have been used very little. Many of them have evolved in play as the needs of the story have changed, or as players have had an impact upon them. This can be as simple as killing them – by accident or design, or in some cases, by suggesting ideas during the course of play that I decided would fit well with the back story. Most of these characters do not have stats, they are “dramatically” statted, so when it is appropriate in the plot for them to fall over and die / have a revelation / run away they will do so. There are some exceptions. When NPCs come into direct conflict (such as a fight) with players, then I use numbers and dice, just like the players do. This also adds risk and chance which makes the game a game as opposed to a story we all agree on.

I incorporate a lot of feedback and ideas from my players into the game, when we play I view it as more of a collaborative story telling experience than a game in which they can win and lose. I want them to do the lion’s share of the narration, and add their personal colours and flavours to the world. Usually I will describe a scene and then take a metaphorical step back: I tend to lean back in my chair, drink my tea and eat a biscuit.

As important as the characters was the place. Brighton, which I know reasonably well, was the eventually setting for the story, although initially it was Edinburgh. Both are towns of a manageable, walkable size, with a wealth of history. I actually transplanted a few places from Edinburgh to Brighton, because they were convenient. Wikipedia is the plot writers friend, and full of little factoids that can be made more “real” by a few creative tweaks. The vast majority of my plot is based around genuine places and historical events. The fabricated, magical reasons behind these true things is the fiction of my story.

The other place to think about is where we play, and how. We play every fortnight for about two hours at a time, from 8.30pm-10.30pm on a Monday night. The time and place you play can become quite significant. We catch ourselves on the first day of the working week, so hopefully still refreshed, but given it is after work there is a certain amount of “decompression” and chatter that happens before everyone can settle to play. Little rituals evolve. Jake and Miranda always make the tea. Someone, usually Jake, will bring a cake. There is a special teapot. We play around my kitchen table – we experimented with sofas in the front room, but it spaces people out and having them sit nearer to each other creates less fuss over sheets going all over the place, as does having a hard surface upon which to take notes or roll dice. We are also able to close the door to the rest of the room thus annoying my flatmate a lot less. I like using background music, partly to drown out any “normal” noise such as pots and pans being rattled from next door, partly to add extra atmosphere. Candles are useful for this too although having enough light to read a character sheet by is important.

I tend to go “around the circle” when it comes to describing actions, prompting players if I think they haven’t had the chance for enough input. Every now and then I might take someone out of the room for secrets. I don’t like to do this often because it splits the group and removes people from valuable playing time. I often feel pressed for time during a session because we effectively get about 1.30hr of good quality playing time. This is about the length of a film and I try to stagger the plot events accordingly. Inevitably there will be things that suddenly occur, but having “quiet” events as well as more “action” events to throw into the mix allows me to keep the pacing of the plot.

I run the game from notes in an ever expanding spreadsheet, and tend to type as I go so I now have a file with the entire story thus far. It is split into the different chronological storylines, which are laid out similar to a TV series, another inspiration for how I run games – individual episodes or game sessions, linked by an overarching plot. I keep track of details where the players went, who they talked to, what happened as well as some more technical, rules based events such as deals made. It also has tabs for a table of all my NPCs, plus seperate tabs where I’ve needed to note things that certain player characters know but others don’t.

Crucially, it also contains all the times the story has changed from my original. When something more interesting happened, when I realised that “this makes no sense” or “this is too obvious”, or “this is not obvious enough”, when the players became interested in something that was just a throwaway comment and then I suddenly needed to write a lot of background, or when a detailed plot point has been totally ignored and overlooked and is left to whither on the vine. And that’s as it should be. The players lead the story, my job is to make sure that there is something interesting for them around the corner, whichever corner they turn down.

I’m very proud of what we have accomplished, together. I can look at the story, as I’m doing now, and see where it started, and where it is now. All the changes in between which we, as a group, have created. What I can’t see, or perhaps can only see in the faintest of outlines, is where it is going to end up.

I’m looking forward to it.


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