Brainstorming Thread on APs as Serial Fiction

edited October 2014 in Story Games
A long-running game campaign is effectively a "serial". In recent years the connection to the format and pacing of television (serial-series) has become even more pronounced in many games (I often think in those terms myself when GMing), but as a literary artform we can trace the modern serial - with its deliberately crafted cliffhangers and non-terminating plotform - back to the penny books and ragpapers of the Victorian Era. It's an effective medium for a fast-paced society (or people with ADD). Back to games: When you write your APs - provided you write them relatively well - it seems pretty clear that you are in effect creating a collaboratively-sourced work of serial fiction.

So this: made me think "What if we did that purposefully, maybe even with an eye toward selling subscriptions to our campaigns? Could it work?"

Your thoughts? Are there any examples of this yet?


  • I would argue that the podcast Nerd Poker (and probably other AP podcasts with high production values and/or professional actors/comedians playing) are exactly this.
  • I've been reading some awfully good serials on the web recently.

    However, I'm skeptical about the intersection of gaming and fiction (different goals, and so forth). Still, I'd love to see someone prove me wrong!

    "I Hit It With My Axe" is the only real life example I can think of right now, but it's more of a reality/documentary kind of thing than something intended to be a good story. Still, it's someone very publicly following their campaign as a form of public entertainment.
  • Is D&D Encounters similar to what you are thinking?
  • edited October 2014
    Ish. But I'm talking about written works, not podcasts or videos.

  • D&D Encounters offers a longer adventure broken up into weekly "encounters" of 1-2 hours. You can enter the adventure at any time. It's an attempt to get new players into the game.

    Larger story arcs are separated as "seasons."

    The Pathfinder Society looks similar. It also has "seasons" of episodic adventures:

    FWIW I think it's a great idea. It would be fun to follow along through a playable series of narrative games. And would likely make good material for a Patron account.
  • edited October 2014
    I'm on a cross country trip right now and have been dipping into AP podcasts as a way to fill some driving hours. I recently listened to The Jank Cast's thirteen episode Apocalypse World game called Black Diamond.

    As I listened, I kinda felt like I was listening to writers doing a table read of episodes in a season of television, and a pretty great season it was (despite being the second season of a show I never saw the first season of). To wit: I actually cried listening to other people play an RPG. Granted, I cry super easy at movies and songs and things, but I definitely consider Black Diamond a pretty solid work of fiction. I laughed out loud, I worried about characters, I was surprised and moved by developments. Goldie and a Lennox had fantastic arcs, Foster was the heart of the show and Frost a likeable and sympathetic villain. There were definite cliffhanger endings that got me to immediately press play on the next ep.

    There are stumbling blocks to enjoying this kind of thing purely as fiction, of course. Dialogue is occasionally clumsy, and negotiation over the fiction slows things down and can actually be a little painful to me. The GM (Timo) and Frost's player (Tom) on a couple occasions fail to sync up in a way that is frustrating to listen to, and a later episode of the Jank Cast revealed an emotional disconnect Goldie's player (Megan) had in one ep that I didn't hear but in retrospect seems obvious (and probably contributed to Goldie's subsequent tragic arc). I also found myself yelling at my radio when they couldn't remember certain names or events. Of course, they presumably had weeks between sessions, where sometimes I listened to two or three episodes straight. And there are naturally production quality things, like audio quality issues, people whispering or chewing loudly next to the mic, etc.

    Notably, all those things could be fixed by writing the sessions down instead recording the AP, but I don't think I would have read that game, had it been written down, and I don't think I would have been moved in quite the same way if I had. There is a definite energy to the recordings and the interaction of the players that would have been hard to capture in a write up, and honestly the grammar of the piece was not prose but the language of cinema and television, as are most of the actual plays I've heard of modern story games. Goldie (spoilers) gliding thru the lake with Rolfball's dead body is a perfect moment of cinema, but wouldn't work the same in prose. Somehow it does work as a recording of people imagining a shot, tho. I'm not sure why.

    Which is to say, I totally would have watched Black Diamond as a weekly TV show. I was actually editing it in as a show in my head. Frex, when (more spoilers) Mill first discovers Jax in the lake, they keep playing right through into their conversation. But it was an obvious internal cliffhanger in my head, and in my head canon show we cross-cut back to Foster's subsequent scenes before playing out that convo.

    Anyway, I've been typing this on my phone long enough to have forgotten what my point is. Black Diamond is a good listen?
  • Black Diamond is an awesome listen. Total agreement on that. But I don't think that proves anything one way or the other about the possibility of a literary derivation.

    It's different audiences, natch. I love listening to a good AP and hearing the way the system works, roleplayers doing their thing in realtime, just like you do. The Jank Cast rules. But I'm not talking about you and me as the target audience.

    I'm talking about "readers". As in, people who love to read, reading something in a serial format that (maybe they don't even know!) originated as a roleplaying session, and continues in an unpredictable and exciting way for exactly that reason.

    Or, to put it much more bluntly, I'm thinking about the purposeful use of roleplaying campaigns as source material for derived works of written fiction, marketed as original serials on a subscription basis.

  • Noob here. I think I'm missing something. Can someone define "AP" for me?

    Is it this?
    the purposeful use of roleplaying campaigns as source material for derived works of written fiction
    If so what do the "A" and the "P" stand for?

    I thought you were referring to adventure manuals. Sorry.
  • Actual Play--recordings or written accounts of games
  • edited October 2014
    APs are "actual plays." It's a term that dates back (at least) to a sub-forum on the Forge, where people would recount (and often analyze) their role-playing sessions. Since the rise of podcasting and the like, it's been common to refer to audio or video recordings of role playing sessions as AP recordings.

    AsIf, I think I probably agree with you, but I think there are some special challenges to doing this. But beyond vague intuitions, I'm not exactly sure what they are or how they might be overcome. My guess is that adapting play to good prose fiction is going to require not just solid writing skills but some structural changes and regular expansion/elision. This could create problems with inconsistencies between the fictional world and the game world if it's being written in concert with the actual campaign, but maybe not, and such a setup doesn't seem to be a requirement for what you're talking about anyway.

    I do also think that the tendencies of most games to be "written" in the language and rhythm of a different medium (cinema and/or drama, for the most part) pose obstacles to this kind of translation, which is what I was trying to get at in my previous post, I reckon. Making Black Diamond into a television show seems trivial (if you have an unlimited budget to adapt your game into a TV show) and unlikely to require substantial changes (tho a few might make it even stronger). Making it into a satisfactory novel seems like it would require more "fictional" changes and expansions. Possibly I am wrong about this.

    I also wonder if it is possible to design a game that is more prose-y in nature, and results in play that translates easier. PbP (er, play by post) often feels more like a novel, simply because more time is usually spent in each character's head. Could you design a game with that introspective feel but the pace, excitement and unpredictability of a live game? Working with smaller groups, one or two players, might actually help, to some extent.

    On the other hand, I guess a lot of serials aren't really that introspective. I've occasionally read books that were little more than movies or TV shows written down, and I'm not just talking about novelizations. (Tho the fact that most novelizations kind of suck bolsters my original skepticism. Unless they break significantly with their source material, like William Kotzwinkle's crazy-neat novelization of ET.) Maybe it's all easier than I think, and all you need is a good writer adapting a good game.

    So, yeah, it def seems to me that this idea has potential. I will consider more.

    (Edit: cross-posted)
  • Thanks for the definitions. :)

    So, a more on-topic reply:

    Some of the comments of the director in "From Fiasco to Film" (posted on this thread) might be instructive. He filmed 30+ sessions and said that most of them would not work as films. And in adapting the session he did use, he restructured the narrative and rewrote dialog.

    When playing an RPG, players are concerned with their characters and the game. The primary audience of the players is the players themselves. They are not concerned with how a transcript of the session would read.

    When a session is recorded and posted online, or performed in front of a big audience, the audience of the players is *other players,* people who are familiar with the genre of the game. So your AP series would target those player/readers who would be willing to pay to read a report of actual play, rather than (or in addition to) listening to podcasts and watching videos that perform essentially the same function.

    In part, those videos are fun to watch because we get a sense of who the players are as people. They become characters in a meta-drama that interacts with and organizes the in-game drama. We care about the fate of a player's character in part because we care about the player. Or maybe we don't even give a shit about the characters because we just like watching the players interact.

    I haven't read any APs. My guess is that they include the in-game drama, but fail to give us the meta-game drama to the same degree as videos and podcasts do.

    So I guess that would be my suggestion: Write an AP that makes me care about the players and shows me what each character means to their players.

    (Maybe good APs already do this? I dunno.)
  • edited October 2014
    Yeah, good APs do, but I don't think AsIf is concerned with making APs better (as that is all made for a very niche audience and likely to remain so), but with using AP as a foundation for straight-up serialized fiction, which has a potentially much broader audience, and which is probably harder but not impossible to my mind, and for many of the same reasons Adkinson talks about in that video.
  • Hrm. I think I can weigh in a bit on this, having made my bones here based on an AP :-)

    I've written one very long AP around my reimagined Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, and I've currently got another one going set during the Jack the Ripper murders. Also I once long ago wrote a couple of serialized fictions; one I wrote as it was going along, the other I wrote in advance and released serially.

    So an AP generally has to serve a bunch of masters. It should be a faithful reproduction of the fictional events of a gaming session. It should, ideally, explicate the mechanics of the system. (Seriously. Hide them, put spoiler tags, whatever, but please help me learn how the game runs.) BUT (and this is the crux of this discussion) it also needs to shape the fiction into something that makes more sense as a narrative.

    Here's where a lot of trad games are going to have an issue, because dramatically they tend to be a bit flat; how do you make repeated Knowledge checks interesting, for example? More narrative systems get away from that problem...but even then you're going to have issues.

    This is mostly because actual narratives--the better ones, at least--will go through a process where they will have their structure tightened and the focus sharpened on the structurally important aspects. (Even serials do this, via the process of story arcs.) Screenwriters talk about this a lot. (As an aside, if you want to learn story structure, read about screenwriting--no writer is as obsessed with structure as a screenwriter.) Most movie/TV show story ideas go through a process called "breaking", where not only is the story examine the idea to see if they can have scenes that make sense (and can make sense primarily through dialogue and visual representation), but also to see if the story flows: if the connection between scenes has a "and so this happened..." rather than "and then this happened...".

    That is, a story will be weak structurally (and its readers/viewers will instinctively know this) if it breaks down into a series of events that happen, rather than a series of events that happen because of actions the characters take (or choose not to take.) And so this is why you so often hear things like "character is plot": because the characters need to have motivations that make sense and are consistent (but not static) for the "and so this happened..." connections to make sense.

    Now, RPGs have a certain advantage. The players have total identification! That's not always easy to get. They often have a fairly consistent set of motivations. The main problem comes when we get to the non-static part of a character, because that's key. All the structural advice you find around basically boils down to the idea that a character needs to change emotionally in some non-trivial way.

    Some games do this better than others. Lady Blackbird really does, if you pay attention; you should buy off your Keys. That's what they're there for! I had a game once where as the Lady I ended up buying off all my Keys and was struck by how well that made a nice narrative arc--Natasha gave up on the idea that she was better than the common man, gave up on the mission, and gave up on hiding herself; she could join the crew of the Owl as an equal now.

    I'm not surprised that Fiasco wouldn't film well without some massaging, because for all its strengths it tends towards a lot of "and then this happened..." kind of plotting. (To be fair, that's a weakness of a lot of Coen Brothers films as well.) However, Fiasco is one of the better games I've ever played at forcing people into a dramatic arc, if you can get everybody on the same page and acting brutal towards their characters :-) (I generally feel that if I'm not dead or haven't killed somebody by the end of Act II I've been too cautious.)

    One of the reasons I started the Ripper game is because I think Smallville/Cortex Plus Drama has some of the best mechanics to create good dramatic structure out there. It's a really subversive game. C+ Drama forces you to have scenes where you won't get what you want (and take a mechanical hit), have to go and get advice and comfort from other characters (stress relief), and then that experience powers the change/improvement in your character. And you can't just change some numbers on your sheet, generally; you have to change what the character believes in.

    It's really a subversive game.


    A few notes about writing APs:

    I started recording my Masks sessions starting with Session 3. My early writeups reproduced dialogue and action minutely. Later writeups saw me compressing long dialogues, eliding action that wasn't interesting, and basically paying attention to what I was doing as a narrative. Throughout the campaign, I was conscious of my intent to push the characters dramatically, with varying degrees of success. (Pretty good for Jimmy and Francis, in the end it worked out with Freddie, and Charleston was another thing entirely.) Personally I think the payoff was good, although it's not literature yet. It could be, with some massaging. (Episode IX especially could be filmed without a lot more work, it had a nice narrative arc built in.)

    For the Ripper game, I've experimented with doing the writeup as a screenplay. This is...pretty interesting. I'm representing the dialogue almost verbatim, the scene heading slugs are about the same level of description I normally give, so all-in-all the experience is pretty close to a real session.

    But I don't have a filmable script, not yet.

    Maybe when my system mastery increases, and I get more mechanical buy-in from the players, I will; right now it's not super awesome structurally, although it's getting there and this may be a bit like the Dresden books, where the main character arc is extended over a long series of novels. We'll find out.
  • I wonder: if we were going to create an ideal system for producing screenplays, say, or literary fiction, what would that system have to do differently from most RPGS?

    And: at what point would such a system stop being an RPG and simply be a system for orchestrating a collaborative writing project? Could the "game" get lost if the emphasis is placed on producing a product that appeals to readers who do not play RPGs?
  • Thinking about this right now it occurs to me that the process described in Microscope (caveat: never played it) is remarkably like Breaking a Story. (And in fact, would probably benefit from that kind of attitude.)
  • edited October 2014
    Excellent points. I do happen to be obsessive about structure - when writing in a medium that requires it. I agree that there would be a considerable amount of compressing, eliding, etc. Also that there's no need in this sort of project to elucidate the rules.

    But one aspect of the Serial format in particular that makes it more applicable than the 3-act (or the 5-act) story structure is that it doesn't really need to follow that arc in the course of a single episode. The most important elements of a single serial episode are that (a) the tension either escalates or deflates and (b) a cliffhanger occurs. This makes it a much easier target to hit than a full Aristotelian structure, or any of the "complete plot arc" structures advocated by anyone in Hollywood with a formula for Screenplay Structure.

    I think a trickier problem is *sustaining* it.

  • I think you'd find hollywood folk saying that every episode needs a "complete plot arc" of its own, complete with character development and a 3-act structure AND that this minor arc should fit into and develop the larger arc of the season.

    I think the serial is more complex structurally, rather than less.
  • Interesting. Perhaps you're right. Although I am skeptical of those Hollywood structuralists who take the fractal thing too far. I am not convinced that every sequence must have its own 3 act structure, except in the very loosest of senses (i.e. yes it has a beginning, middle and end, but that's not the same as an Inciting Incident, Climax and Denoument).

Sign In or Register to comment.