"Story-first" gaming.

edited March 2010 in Game Design Help
I'm writing a little game over the Easter break that involves the players developing a plot and the characters that will populate it before play begins proper; the action of the game is in the fleshing out of pre-agreed scenes.

Now, I'm sure this isn't an original idea, so I'm requesting games that have used a similar feature so I might probe its weaknesses and benefits more thoroughly.

Opinions on the matter are, of course, welcome! How highly to you prize your character's ability to shape the narrative "in-fiction" through his or her apparent volition, as opposed to being moved by an unseen, external authorship?

Comments

  • The game I'm working on, Final Hour of a Storied Age, sort of works like this. I'm trying to evoke the feel of an epic fantasy novel with my game, so the analogy I use is that the players generate an outline first and then flesh out the individual chapters (one difference between my game and what you propose is that the plot is not completely pre-determined since you don't know until play whether the protagonist or antagonist will "win"). In addition to problems with the game itself (too much complexity, certain mechanics not being fun in play, etc.) I think that players who are used to "character advocacy" style play are having trouble adapting to the "it's not what happens, but how it happens" kind of thing I was shooting for. For the playtests I've done there are some AP posts on my blog and some AP recordings on my podcast.
  • Mike,

    My own game-in-progress Mage Blade does something similar to this.

    The structure of beginning play starts with creating an Endgame Goal. This is the question or issue that will be answered/addressed in the final stage of the game, and which all play ultimately moves toward. After that, you create characters that will fit into the type of story that ends this way. Then you create goals for your characters that specifically do NOT aim them at the Endgame, but are intended to finish fleshing out the initial character, and get them into motion. Once they are in motion, more goals will be created that will push toward Endgame, or which will distract, to explore side plots. The interaction of these two different types of goals is intended to work as an organic pacing mechanic.

    Tricky things about this sort of setup include creating an Endgame that doesn't prescript too much. It should be just strong enough to unify the direction of the campaign without limiting ways or means of addressing the Endgame. Another tricky thing is the creation of individual goals, both in determining what is interesting, and deciding whether or not a goal pushes toward Endgame. It's been brought up that you might decide that it does, then as it unfolds it becomes obvious that it doesn't, or vice versa.

    See a couple abstracted run-throughs of this setup here and here.

    In the former, there's some whispered talk between myself and Mike Holmes where he expresses some grave doubts about how much fun and how functional this could be.
  • I think anyone that likes really super-structured genres is probably okay with this to a degree that would surprise them. I mean, look at superhero comics. Who wins the first half of the comic? The bad guys. Who wins the second half? The good guys. I would suggest a look at various plot arc and plot currency mechanics to see where the groundwork's been laid, even if it hasn't gotten that specific.
  • Posted By: Dan MaruschakFinal Hour of a Storied Age, sort of works like this.
    I believe already I've expressed excitement over Storied Age previously, but let me do so again! I think my vision of pre-generated narrative meshes with Storied Age at about the "Detail the Antagonist's and Protagonist's Plot Segments" part but then breaks away again as you adopt the more traditional mode of character-advocacy .
    Posted By: WolfeTricky things about this sort of setup include creating an Endgame that doesn't prescript too much.
    I think prescripted action should be embraced! Plots can become more complex, characters can be deeper, literary (and cinematic) techniques can be manipulated easily and to great effect, and the pacing can be swifter and more energetic. The cost for these apparent goods is, of course, a limit to where the game can go and what characters can do.
  • Mm. Well, I agree with Mike's concerns to the extent that I feel that too much prescripting brings about the "why bother?" effect. We just had different ideas about how much prescripting did this.

    In a movie, book or video game where everything is prescripted, it's okay, because the reader doesn't know where it's going. You've still got that sense of discovery. The same is generally true of the type of roleplaying game where the GM has prescripted out much of the story, and the players are interested in discovering the GM's story through play. Where this breaks down is where the players are part of the prescripting; They lose the sense of discovery. Where I think I dodge that bullet is that my Endgames are specifically not supposed to prescript much of anything, so much as simply give a general shape to the story.

    So tell me... Why should a player bother to play your game? What else does it offer if so much of the discovery is gone beforehand?
  • Posted By: WolfeWell, I agree with Mike's concerns to the extent that I feel that too much prescripting brings about the "why bother?" effect. We just had different ideas about how much prescripting did this.
    I think this is the biggest question with this style of gaming. With my game, I'm trying to bring in some of the ideas I'm using in my fiction writing. I listen to a lot of writing podcasts for inspiration, motivation, etc., and one of the most common topics is whether or not particular writers outline their work ahead of time or use a "discovery writing" process of just seeing where the story goes as they write. It seemed to me that the "character advocacy" style of play used by a lot of posters here (i.e. knowing a character really well, and pushing for their agenda as hard as you can in order to see what happens when they run into other characters doing the same thing for their own agendas) mapped to the "discovery writing" process but that there weren't a lot of games that mapped to the outlining process. A lot of discovery writers report that they lose interest in a project when they outline it because they already know what will happen. I don't get that feeling until I get to the editing and revision phase, unless I stick too much detail in the outline and then the writing feels more like editing and is laborious rather than exciting. So I think the key for "defined plot" gaming is to find the right level of detail in the plot so that it still gives you a reliable skeleton to do things like explore character without creating a suffocating environment for further creativity. I think that different people will draw that line in different places so you'll never be able to satisfy 100% of people with this style of game (and I think the same applies to pure "character advocacy" games, too), but there are probably some good sweet spots that we'll be able to find through experimentation.
  • Posted By: WolfeIn a movie, book or video game where everything is prescripted, it's okay, because the reader doesn't know where it's going. You've still got that sense of discovery.
    I think 'discovery' plays only a small part of our enjoyment of a narrative. We actively choose to watch, read or play things knowing how they are to conclude and with a good understanding of how the narrative will reach that conclusion. Luke will defeat Vader, Marty will get back to 1985, Holmes will solve the case and Oliver will escape Fagin; the resolution of conflict, while in nearly always an inevitability in a satisfying narrative, is pleasantly expected by the audience. Post-modernism offers exceptions, of course, but for the most part this manner of consumption is unchallenged.

    In reality, I think we, as consumers, are far more interested in 'discovering' how these events will occur. We know Holmes will solve the case, what keeps us reading (or watching) is the revelation of how. This is the key to the pre-scripted game.
    For example: Our characters (or rather, the roles we happen to be playing at this time) will fight and mine will die while yours is forced to flee. That's what the narrative says, but what happens in the fight, how I am to die and for what reason you must escape the scene are still open to being discovered in play. Even if the 'script' adds more prexistant detail ("You shoot me in the chest"), how that interaction goes down is central to our enjoyment of the scene. Just because we can't be surprised by events doesn't mean we can't derive pleasure from them.
  • edited March 2010
    In a prescripted game, you could keep open some of the what-discovery by allowing or requiring it to be in the how-discovery of a different protagonist. For example, in the Pulp Fiction storylines in which Vincent is a main character, we kinda sorta know he won't die because then his inclusion would have been meaningless. But then, Vincent actually does die in Butch's storyline, and that's an awesome, unexpected moment of discovery both of how Butch gets his Kicker and of what becomes of Vincent.
  • There is this little game about spy action by John Wick called Wilderness of Mirrors. It is designed to recreate the kind of spy story (arguably rather a spec-ops story) in which the agents spend a long time preparing an operation or a covert action, using satellite images, intelligence reports, and so on, before they execute the action in a fast and precise strike. The player control of the story is taken to such a radical extreme that during the "planning" phase the players actually design almost all the adventure and the opposition and problems they will find during the execution phase.
  • edited March 2010
    The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries is a similar approach to wilderness of mirrors, but is also a GM-full/GM-less game. No central authority, player designed script/adversity, and the how is a lot of what we are figuring out. One of the coolest games I have never played. I have frequently reread it and have wished that I could get a group that would play it. Pulp action adventure and an interesting take on an RPG. Check it out. I beleive that they have it on 1km1kt.
  • edited March 2010
    [cite]Posted By: Potemkin[/cite]I think 'discovery' plays only a small part of our enjoyment of a narrative.
    Mike,

    When you say 'our enjoyment' are you talking in general, or in specific?

    Y'see, I've made, and still agree with, the same arguments you're making. You know that the good guys will win. You know that Sauron will be defeated by a small but plucky band of adventurers.
    In reality, I think we, as consumers, are far more interested in 'discovering' how these events will occur. We know Holmes<i>will</i>solve the case, what keeps us reading (or watching) is the revelation of how. This is the key to the pre-scripted game. (Emphasis mine)
    Again, I'm still agreeing with you here. It's not a matter of whether we're talking in the same direction so much as how far we're talking about going in that direction.
    For example: Our characters (or rather, the roles we happen to be playing at this time) will fight and mine will die while yours is forced to flee. That's what the narrative says, but what happens in the fight, how I am to die and for what reason you must escape the scene are still open to being discovered in play. Even if the 'script' adds more prexistant detail ("You shoot me in the chest"), how that interaction goes down is central to our enjoyment of the scene. Just because we can't be surprised by events doesn't mean we can't derive pleasure from them.
    NOW you're losing me. What? You actually think this is fun? You're going way, way deeper than I think can possibly be entertaining as a participative endeavor. Especially, if I'm understanding right, if these scenes are largely mapped out from the beginning. I can see it being mildly entertaining if we map the scenes out individually, based on what went before, but if you're going through and prescripting all of your major scenes from the beginning, I find myself asking the big question again: Why bother?
  • The difficult part of this concept, in my experience, is finding a way to make the "playing out" fun.

    Because when you all know where the story is supposed to go, the only thing left to do is to fight over whether your way of getting there is better than your friends' way. And that's no fun at all. So you need some way of making whatever IS still uncertain really interesting to explore.

    So, that's my advice: try to nail down what it is that is the fun "discovery" area of play, and make sure it is fun and not a social train wreck.
  • Posted By: Wolfe
    NOW you're losing me. What? You actually think this is fun? You're going way, way deeper than I think can possibly be entertaining as a participative endeavor. Especially, if I'm understanding right, if these scenes are largely mapped out from the beginning. I can see it being mildly entertaining if we map the scenes out individually, based on what went before, but if you're going through and prescripting all of your major scenes from the beginning, I find myself asking the big question again: Why bother?
    If you're only interest in a scene is whether the protagonist kills the antagonist or not then you must be bored a lot of the time. It's the unpacking of the scene, the 'how' of the prescripted event, in which the meat of the action is found and the majority of our interest. We know Luke will be victorious at the end of Return of the Jedi but it's the verbal sparring, action of the duel and final moving exchange that entertain us.

    If I was scripting with a group of players, RotJ would end thus:
    1.Luke confronts Vader for the final time in the presence of the Emperor.
    3.The Emperor is unsuccessful in tempting Luke towards the dark-side. Luke reveals the existence of Leia to Vader.
    2.As Luke is about to kill Vader the Emperor intercedes but, at the cost of his own life, Vader betrays his master to save his son.
    4.Luke bids farewell to his redeemed Father and flees.

    Of course, we can make this script more complex to represent those characters attempting to destroy the Death Star and easily interweave that action with the above. There's still so much potential entertainment; both in the discovery-of-how, the fun of roleplaying and seeing a plot constructed by the group bare fruit. It's a departure from traditional styles of gameplay but there's no reason to say it's pointless.
    Posted By: Paul T.Because when you all know where the story is supposed to go, the only thing left to do is to fight over whether your way of getting there is better than your friends' way. And that's no fun at all.
    Isn't that what happens even when you don't know where the story is going to go?
  • edited March 2010
    That's a good question!

    I think the danger is that it's the only thing you have left to wrangle over, if you know how things are going to end.

    If we're talking about revealing Leia's existence to Vader, and we know MUST happen in this scene, whenever it does happen, everyone with a better idea for when and how it could happen is getting their toes stepped on. Whereas normally, it'd come as surprise, because we don't know it's going to happen at all, so we can all enjoy the surprise.

    But it also depends on how authority is distributed. That's the worst-case scenario if everyone has authority. But if only one person has authority:

    In normal play, I can try doing different things to see if I can get someone to spill a secret, and the fun is seeing a) how much it takes, and b) whether I'll get someone to spill the secret or if something entirely different will happen instead, because I'm not ready to pay the price or do what I need to do for that person to spill the secret. But if you are the one responsible for the secret, and the only one who can spill it, then I'm just talking at you until I do something that satisfied you enough to spill the secret. And that's kind of like playing "Mother, may I", with an overly-railroading GM, with all the attendant risks.

    How does your group go about doing this? Maybe you have a clever trick that sidesteps this kind of problem.
  • I think you guys should look at what Jeepform games do. There's a list of scenes, but what's prescribed isn't exactly what happens, more the setting and the characters involved. Might work better for the kind of interpersonal drama games that Jeepform seems to be about, rather than fantasy adventure type games, but I still think it's a good place to look for inspiration.

    Matt
  • There's a little sub-rule in Roanoke that works like that. Could have used a bit more structure and fleshing out though.

    -Ash
  • edited March 2010
    Enjoyment in a RPG do not need to come only from discovering the plot or discovering how things will happen. Big part of the enjoyment can be playing your role, thinking and being like another person, feeling your character's emotions.

    Playing a role in a theater play is fun, despite the actors know the script by memory and know at all moments what will happen. When you listen to a song that you've listened before one thousand times, you are not looking to discover anything, you know every note in the song in your head, but you enjoy the emotions that the song still makes you feel. Even in literature, using "suspense" to engage the reader is considered a cheap trick. In summary, in art there's a thousand elements of enjoyment besides discovery and plot. There's a million reasons to "bother".

    Also when you are playing a character, maybe you know how the story will end, but your character doesn't, so you can suspend your disbelief when getting in character and still feel this sensations of surprise and discovery, if that's what you are after.
  • I can think of several designs that have explored fertile ground in this area:

    Ben Robbins' Microscope starts by defining broad epochs of a timeline, then naming specific events within those, then (jumping around as interest dictates) zooming all the way in and playing out how "the humiliation of the Emperor before the Senate" actually goes. It's cool because we don't actually know what ramifications the scene will have before we play it out. Did that actually signal the decline of the Empire? Or fuel his ambition all the more? Or did it spur his wife's infidelity which led to a young prince's exile and the founding of a new colony? Or what?

    Robert Bohl's Misspent Youth plots each episodic adventure along a rough three-act structure, telling the Authority Figure (GM) what each of seven scenes should be about and how to direct them. It doesn't quite dictate the outcome, but it heavily skews the odds toward "OK, in this scene the kids will suffer a crippling defeat, but when it all seems hopeless, the next scene will feature their improbable and exhilarating victory!" But it still leaves room for the long-shot result that overturns the structure.

    And then there's Shab-Al-Hiri Roach which defines a series of events throughout the school year that WILL be played out, but of course the REAL meat of play is the power struggle and roachifying which is overlaid on that and UTTERLY unpredictable.

    (COMPELTE Tangent--I just realized the Roach's structure could have some fruitful applications toward a Harry Potter application. Interesting!)

    Peace,
    -Joel
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