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Game Design

Game Design: Story VIII

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Now listening to: nothing

The character web is a great tool for strengthening your cast’s interrelations and connections. As we’ve established, the closer the better. And the better you can characterize your minions, the richer the story will be. That being said, I can’t really imagine the character web occupying more than a single byline, per character, in the generator’s output. Then again, I could be surprised. Most of the generator’s development is done on breakthrough realizations.

The “low status vs. high status” bit is quite good when roleplaying the NPCs. I tend to lean on the authoritative side of characterization. Mainly because I fucking hate my players and consider them reckless murderhobos. That being said, I’m open to trying new things. If a few unimportant NPCs get dusted, I can live with that. After all, there’s not much wish fulfillment going on if everyone you meet treats you only slightly better than the ends of a loaf of bread.

It’s the gestures, the eyes and the voice that’ll really sell a character as dominant or submissive.

Character development, however, is something that needs to happen entirely on the fly. Because that’s part of the actual story. It’d be cool if I could find a way to visualize ongoing character development but, if I can’t, it’s not actually the end of the world.

#89 Character Web

#90 Status

#91 Character Transformation

Game Design: Story VII.b

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An addendum.

A story doesn’t need 9,000 fully fleshed out characters. It doesn’t need 666 detailed settlements with 42 capitals spread across 7 kingdoms. It needs what it needs and not a single line more. Overdevelopment just gets in the way of good flow. That is not to say that rich background isn’t essential to a good story.

I’m a huge proponent of the “developed as needed” approach. Start with the essentials. A mapped city, a couple NPCs, and a few adventure opportunities. Go from there. Add sites when needed. Add culture as a few lines of commentary here and there. Create factions on the go. The machine can do the heavy lifting for you. You just be mindful of your players.

Game Design: Story VII

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Now listening to: the sound a dishwasher makes

No use talking about the subject of the avatar. It’s been done to death. Character goals and traits, on the other hand, are essential in fleshing out a world.

Crusader Kings has a very interesting character trait mechanic. Virtues and vices are used to establish both advantageous and detrimental effects on a character. Not only that, characters with opposing traits tend to dislike each other.

Virtues and vices are a great way to riff on a character’s goals and interests. Cross that information with sensory identifiers and you got a pretty solid character to play with. You have got what it is, what it might want, and how it might go about fulfilling its objective.

After a certain point, it’s unadvisable to allow the machine to flesh out the characters. A DMs imagination needs white space to play on. I feel that what we’ve talked about in this post is on the far side of the spectrum.

#85 Avatar

#86 Character Function

#87 Character Traits

#88 Interpersonal Circumspex

Game Design: Story VI

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Now listening to: “Clair de Lune”, by Claude Debussy

Beautiful. Change a few variables and watch potential unfurl. The myth of Santa is insane.

The world needs to be intuitive. With the potential for many stories. With discoverability. Wish fulfillment at its core. If it’s too weird, restricted, or evident you’re in a world of hurt. If your players do not get a fair chance at fulfilling their wishes, you’re fukken.jpg.

#83 Fantasy

#84 World

Game Design: Story V

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Now listening to: the shattering sound of realizing I’m not topping SEO on my own words

Welcome to Dixie’s! What would you like your toast with? Peanut butter, or jam? Do you like your coffee black? Great. Coming right up…

Freedom is overrated. If the waitress at Dixie’s were to ask you what do you want in the whole wide world, you’d probably collapse in a puddle of indecision. So they constrain your choices to something more manageable, like food. Breakfast, and not even all kinds of breakfast. Coffee and a couple options for toast. We’d rather have the illusion of freedom than real, actual freedom.

So the machine takes care of a map, the structures, the NPCs and their goals. With a little trimming from the DM, something worth playing can take shape really fast. What the DM needs is to manage the sessions into a story with a solid interest curve. Creating opposing factions is a surefire way to ramp up the drama easily. Connections also go a long way in creating tension, scaling involvement into the realm of the personal. Now the DM needs to make the stakes as high as the story needs them to be.

… remember to dole out rewards for helping people, lest players devolve into raiding marauders. NPCs can be complicit in your scheming. They can be your greatest allies in providing motivation, so use them to subtly drive players in the directions you may want.

#79 Freedom

#80 Help

#81 Indirect Control

#82 Collusion

Game Design: Story IV

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Now listening to: I’m over it

Worlds are fragile. Let me repeat that. Worlds are fragile.

Why are worlds fragile? Because much like a dial-up modem connects to the internet, a reader connects to your story through a coded handshake. There’s a lot of information in that handshake, like the underpinning assumptions about your world. Mess up the handshake during the story and the connection will drop. Everything in your story can change, except for the assumptions about it. Here are some examples of careless handling of a beloved world’s tapestry!

In The Last Jedi, with hyperspace kamikaze strikes possible, the entire body of work of “Star Wars” is completely pointless. The fact that Leia can pull a space “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with no prior Force powers made manifest negates most Jedi’s character building during training. To cap it all, Force ghosts can now strike from beyond anywhere with lightning, so we’re definitely getting into “Jedi can do what the plot needs them to do” territory.

 

I find that the most beloved worlds in media follow a rule: it’s just like the real world, with a twist.

Where is the twist in “Dragon Ball”? Well, it’s the wish-granting Dragon Balls. Goku could be human. The Red Ribbon Army could be plain old Nazis. The Kamehameha wave could just be an exceptionally powerful physical attack. But without the Dragon Balls, there’s no uniqueness to the setting, no outstanding detail to explore how characters shape themselves around it. That’s why “Dragon Ball” was at its best when the quest for the spheres was center stage.

We human beings are a spatial bunch, and a map goes a long way in building a world’s verisimilitude. There’s something about reading a map that helps us imagine a setting. So the foundation of what I’m trying to build starts with the generation of a map.

You need to explain the weirdest thing in your universe in simple terms. If it’s hacking in the 90s, Hollywood would use a computer screen to flash a bunch of different files in rapid succession while the hacker tippity-tapped like a maniac on a keyboard. It’s not that no one in Hollywood knows how hacking works, but that no one in the audience would’ve believed something as mind-boggling as hacking was mostly running simple commands and waiting a whole bunch while eating Cheetos.

 

#77 Weirdest Thing

#78 Story

Game Design: Story III

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Now listening to: a vibration in the window pane

The thing about a game world is that, if they push, it has to hold up. The building with the textured door is no good. The exact same line delivered by 30 different NPCs is no good. If they push and your world is found wanting, you have failed. This creates a ridiculous amount of pressure on a worldbuilder. Bordering on an infinite quantity of stress, delivered every single time you look at the calendar and see the next date approaching.

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”.

There’s an additional layer of the mechanical process that can really help a DM in riffing out a yarn. Connections. As the old adage: make it personal. A machine can very well create basic intimacy networks. Nothing too complex is required. Only enough to get the plot juices flowing.

Keep things simple. Your product doesn’t need to be convoluted. Scrap your Memento. In collaborative storytelling, it’s all about back and forth. You throw down a couple of lines, they throw down a couple of lines. If you lay it down too thick, the rest of the crew will get confused.

Avoid creating too much in advance. Shoehorning sessions into the hero’s journey is a surefire way to have everything backfire and blow out your ass. Every scene is an opportunity to advance the hero’s journey. Keep your eyes and ears open. Follow the gravitas. Be in the moment.

#75 Simplicity & Transcendence

#76 Hero’s Journey

Game Design: Story II

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Now listening to: the drip of a shower

So what is a good story if a good story is something entirely subjective to the audience? Well, I guess a good story resonates. It sticks to the people who hear it!

And although the appreciation for different types of stories varies from individual to individual, there are certain universalities to telling a resonant story. The need for a compelling inciting incident is constant, the need for genre conventions is constant, the need for a resolution is constant. Different individuals need to hear different kinds of stories; every story needs the same landmarks.

So how do you have a game, storywise, come up all aces?

The short answer is: you don’t. You give the players the tools to craft stories. Crusader Kings II. Minecraft. Planetside. Some tools are more specialized than others. Not all stories will stick with them. In fact, most won’t. But a few will and they’ll remember them for a long time.

How many stories are there in Disney’s Aladdin? You must’ve guessed that the answer already is “more than one”. Sure, the events are the same, but the points of view are many and create as many stories as there are characters. I’m pretty sure the retelling of Aladdin’s events would have a different flavor were you listen to them from Aladdin, Jafar or Raja’s points of view.

I need to shave time off D&D prep. It’s way too long. It generates one of three things: way too much delay in starting a campaign, inevitable DM burnout, or poor campaign quality. To do this I’m offloading as much irrelevant prep work onto a machine, something that can take care of minutia infinitely faster than I can. Because no one remembers how long the hallway was, or the materials with which it was built. They remember the insane spectator monster NPC with a funny voice that I came up with on the fly.

As a DM, I need to invest my time in a wiser way, if not for me then for my player’s sake. A machine can readily generate a map for me, fill it with cities, fill those cities with NPCs and give goals to said NPCs. I’m not so sure, however, that it’s the purview of the machine to create a story. The world exists. The NPCs have their purpose. Their simulation the responsibility of the DM.

Kill time travel.

It’s storytelling poison.

The tragedy of man is not defined by our existence in three dimensions but by our enslavement in the fourth.

#74 Obstacle

Game Design: Story

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Now listening to: Friends

Storytelling in games. FUCK YEAH! Zelda, Mass Effect, Minecraft.

A story is just a sequence of events. Nothing more. It’s pretty basic. The reason we get confused when trying to implement storytelling mechanisms is that we try to define stories in our own subjective terms of “good” or “bad”. The quality of a story is not for the storyteller to decide. That’s the purview of the audience and, whether you like it or not, they will come to their own conclusions.

That’s the problem with the “string of pearls” approach to storytelling in game design. It’s a half-baked approach, neither here nor there, as far as storytelling styles go. The ponds of “freedom” you are allowed to wade in every now and then feel ultimately inconsequential and dilute the experience as a whole.

It’s in human nature to find sense in a senseless world. Our mind needs these processes to survive. A story is just that. An emergent narrative from a series of events. A shield against pointlessness. Whether a story is good or bad is entirely up to the audience to decide.

Crusader Kings II: Duke of Mercia, first King of the Eire, Emperor of Britannia. After generations of careful eugenics by marrying my descendants to genetically favorable lowborn, the first Emperors-to-be turn out to be male twins; one the avatar of good, the other a rotten fucker. Bastard McShitfucker assassinates his brother, the rightful prince to the crown, and the whole realm descends into anarchy.

Minecraft: My friends kept fucking around with my Pyke project. I boobytrapped the islands with enough TNT to make Nagasaki and Hiroshima look like a warmup. Not only did the islands disappear, the explosion was large enough to punch a hole in the ocean floor, which caused some weird water physics effects.

Planetside: the story of the glorious 1%. One of many times in game development history where a bug caused a game to be better than it had originally been intended to be by design. Out of a bland experience an anecdote so memorable that veterans still talk about it.

#73 Story Machine

Game Design: Mechanics X

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Now listening to: rain

Now we’re getting somewhere. Interest curves are right up my alley as a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master. They’re one of the hardest challenges to manage. Especially if you like coming up with your own stories and content. Which I guarantee 99% of D&D DMs do. If you think crafting interest curves for a regular experience is hard, try crafting them for a game with multiple players, no clear end and 100% freedom to do anything at any given time.

Yeah.

It’s taken me 10 years as a D&D DM to figure one simple truth. You never craft a story. A DM needs to craft a setting and let the story emerge on its own during gameplay. That is not to say you shouldn’t create a world, civilizations, events or NPCs. Those are vital. What I mean is that you shouldn’t shoehorn your own story into the game. D&D is a fun game only fully realized when collaborative storytelling is made manifest. Your creativity needs to respond to a player’s input. If not, actions will be perceived as meaningless, and the toy will be fundamentally broken.

Of course, fractal interest curves are hard to do, especially on the fly. In D&D the smallest iteration of an interest curve is the session. It is there you model the interest curves that will be replicated at the adventure level (multiple sessions) and, ultimately, at the campaign level (multiple adventures).

Start strong, scale back, build up and go out with a bang.

A series of events create a story arc. As Schell says, risk is more interesting than safety. Fancy is more interesting than plain. The unusual is more interesting than the ordinary. But risk, fancy and the unusual mean nothing without their counterparts, so your interest curve needs all six to work. Otherwise, there will be no contrast and without it, there’s no flavor.

There’s a final piece of the puzzle to tease out, and that’s the power of empathy in storytelling. Empathy allows for projection and the ability to get lost. Baggins, Skywalker, Potter. Modern media is lousy with access points into worlds. So much so that I feel the worlds are being emptied, their essence leaking out of the pathways left open to inhabit them.

There are other worlds than these.

#69 Interest Curve

#70 Inherent Interest

#71 Beauty

#72 Projection