Story Development – webcomics to RPGs

October 8, 2014

One of my friends I regularly game with, Sushu, has been making a webcomic on Tisquantum and also just recently posted a great piece on her scripting process.  We’ve played a ton of Primetime Adventures together, so it’s no surprise how much it’s influenced the way we look at stories and how we look at rpgs as well.

Her scripting process has a couple of really great points I think cross over well to roleplaying that are worth keeping in mind:

As you can see, I write a few sentences describing the overall thing that’s supposed to happen, and then figure out internal and external stakes.  Internal stakes are the issues that the character needs to work through, and external stakes are what would force the character to make choices re: internal stakes.  (Since usually we try to avoid issues that are hard, but it’s the hard choices that make stories compelling.)

For roleplaying, you flip that process – you figure out internal and external stakes, then play to find out what happens.  The key point to narrativist play is that there are internal stakes at hand, and play revolves around resolving them (for better or worse).  These stakes can be introduced/kept in play in many ways, ranging from the system/setting enforcing it as an expectation of play, to explicit Flags or even character concepts as long as play is kept aimed at those internal stakes as the focus of the game.

Although Sushu lays out a lot of questions and detailed thoughts in her scripting process – a lot of games run very well simply with a general understanding of the stakes which can be just a sentence or two on a character sheet – the rest flows from play and improvisation rather than deep analysis.

Non-narrativist play can focus solely on external stakes – can you complete the mission, can you solve the mystery, can you escape alive? – all without ever having to address or look at the internal stakes.  What often happens when you have incoherent goals or creative agendas is that players may write up internal stakes for their characters (often in the backstory, not communicated to the group) and you never see it show up in play, or when it directs a player’s choices, no one else gets the motivational connection because the internal stakes and thoughts were never really communicated or brought up during the game itself.

The second relevant point in her post, though, much more modified, is this:

a) the plot is subservient to the character development.  If it’s not something they would do, make something else happen.

In this case, we have to read it specifically: “Plot” means external stakes, character development is the process of dealing with the internal stakes.  The external stakes matter only in how they add pressure and drive internal stakes for the characters.

Whoever is responsible for setting scenes and developing conflict in play (a GM, any given player at the moment, etc.) needs to be mindful about when the scene or situation would create scenarios where the internal stakes are subsumed or lost completely and instead deliberately choose to set up situations that bring it to the focus of play instead of away from it.

The pitfall to avoid in this tidbit is having the players mixing up “something they wouldn’t do” with the all too common RPG “My Guy Syndrome” where a player stonewalls play or chooses actions which break the expected genre tropes or play conventions because “my guy wouldn’t do that”.  The main thing is that in roleplaying games, players should be more flexible and willing to find ways for their characters to engage meaningfully and only stopping play to help the group coordinate and redirect things when the conflicts and situations do not fit the game or your character concept at all.

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