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DannoE Dec 15 '11 12:20am

DM Storytelling 101
For once, Iíve got a little time today, so I want to break down the last scene a little bit. Iím doing this primarily for Riku because at 14, heís already a pretty good writer, and I think that with time he could become very good if thatís something that heís interested in. In fact, I hope to turn the reins of this game over to him at some point in the indeterminate future, but before all that, I want to assure myself that the game will be in good, capable hands.

Complicating matters is the simple fact that schools donít teach story structure. So you learn to write a 5-paragraph essay, and then you get thrown into your first Creative Writing class in college, and although they make you read The Illiad and Frankenstein, still you wonder why your fiction comes apart mid-way through every story your write. Meanwhile, if you want to really learn how to create useful fiction, youíre left to do your own research on the Internet.

So. Story structure.

Or, to be more precise, Scene Structure.

In fiction, there are two basic kinds of scenes: Scenes and Sequels. To put it briefly, a Scene is where the action happens. In fact, in many ways a Scene is like a little story all by itself, save that it has to have an at least partly negative ending. Which is to say that Scenes start when characters want something and take actions to get it. They encounter obstacles, move to overcome or avoid those obstacles, and basically work the story narrative forward until they come up to a disaster. That disaster then provides fresh impetus to the story.

Consider the recent action in our game:
- Story Problem: Having come through the battle for the gate, our heroes want something to show for their efforts.
- Obstacle: they are slaves, so anything they take for themselves is liable to be confiscated.
- Heroic Action: The heroes head downstairs to find the Tree of Knowledge because knowledge canít be confiscated.
- Obstacle: The tree is a malevolent asshole who only talks in riddles.
- Heroic Action: The heroes threaten the Treeóa tricky proposition considering that the tree is likely more powerful than they are. But they do this well, and it succeeds.
- Disaster: The Tree answers our heroesí questions, but the answers have little immediate value. In fact, they could be viewed as straight-up bad news. This creates a fresh series of story problems.

My point here is that running a successful long-term game is about keeping the action moving and fresh. Just as readers bond with fictional characters when those characters overcome obstacles and/or show perseverance in the face of difficulty, Players bond with their Characters when their Characters are forced to overcome adversity and succeed. This is the basic dynamic behind D&D. Characters learn and grow by overcoming obstaclesóusually via combat encounters. That growth and development is what gives the game its addictive quality; that same quality is at work in any well-written page-turning novel.

So then, in fiction a writer must be careful about doling out resolution. If conflict and strife are what keep a story living, then simple character contentment is what will kill it. The same is true in D&D. However, with D&D you have the added pressure of the game itself. You have to honor your Playersí choices. Whether they do something well or poorly, you have to let that change the storyósometimes in fundamental ways. You have to make it a fair game.

In this way, I find DMing to be similar to writing comics. Itís a fundamentally collaborative process. In both media, I can start with a basic vision of what I want to happen, but ultimately the shape of the final product is dependent on the shared vision of others. I find that I can manage it as long as I roll with the punches and remember to write episodically. I also try to hold off on real story resolution until Iím ready to wind up a given episode within the larger framework of the story. But itís flexible. It has to be a fair game. To that end, itís helpful to have more than one story-hook in progress at any given time.

So. Does that make sense? Anybody got any questions or comments?

Riku8745 Dec 15 '11 1:07am

:O :O :O

Wow! I always had a negative opinion of my posts; I thought I wasn't quite specific/emotive/detailed/etc enough. This is really cool! I'm currently working on making my own campaign and running it with some irl friends, but they don't think I'm good enough, and this really gives me the confidence to keep going.

DannoE Dec 15 '11 1:08am

Well, we're gonna work on it. In a year or so, you won't just be good. You'll actually be the BEST.

HFLep Dec 15 '11 9:17am

One thing that I find good as a player is to keep the internal motives of the character a secret from the other players, but not a secret to the DM. This can be achieved either by secret text for internal monologues, or by writing in your own private thread for the DM.

The story is meant to entertain the players, and the DM doesn't necessarily have to be the only source of plot. A player with an ambitious enough an objective, or simply a hidden agenda, can help create quite a bit of dramatic tension that does not necessarily run against the main plot the DM is preparing. So, at least in the pbp environment, such shenanigens are quite fun and useful.

I suspect there will be a lot of alternative agendas in this game.

Shadeus Dec 15 '11 3:18pm

I respectfully disagree. Unless the game is set up where it is known that your character has a secret, secret agendas can be a huge distraction. By definition, they exclude the other players which goes against the general social aspect of the game. It also can lead to mistrust amongst the characters. Lastly, in my experience, players and DMs have a finite amount of available time to post. Having to have the DM respond to 5 different hidden agendas really takes away from the overall time available to move the story forward.

I do agree that the DM does not need to be the only source of drama. And that players should play their character and help contribute to a scene. But a character's motivations need not be hidden, they just need to exist. And they should be unique to that character. You don't want your barbarian to play the same as your paladin in another campaign or warlock.

DannoE Dec 15 '11 6:03pm

Managing the side plots can be tough, but In think it's fun when it works. I agree that the fun is in figuring out how to reveal what's supposed to be secret. Getting hooks from Players is one of my favorite pieces of the game. But managing all of that can indeed be very challenging.

Shadeus Dec 15 '11 6:34pm

Oh, player hooks I consider mandatory....I try to build them into most of my characters. Gruunk was tough because he was a slave for some long and it removes a lot of the possibility of previous personal relationships (allies or loved ones) or a grandfather's ancient axe of badass-ery or a hidden organization that he pissed off. Instead, he has the drow that he's pissed off and they are likely enough of an enemy.

I also greatly appreciate when the DM can interweave that into the makes you feel like your character is part of something bigger than a collection of stats. It's tough to balance those side quests without boring your fellow players because they have no context on your character's super secret hidden mcguffin.

Ayeba Dec 16 '11 3:12pm

Awesome that you took your time to write this. I haven't analyzed roleplaying games much. I can see what you mean by building sequels (my words).

I have GMed quite a bit, including one on Google Wave. My problem was that I lost motivation myself, and ended up closing the game for that reason. I have learned a lot both from being a player and a GM, both regarding what works and what doesn't. A lot of that knowledge was utilized when making Fortune and roleplaying in this game.

Not saying I'm now a perfect roleplayer or anything, quite the opposite. I'm still learning. Meanwhile, I try my best not to trip on the same mistakes I've done earlier.

Regarding inner mono/dialogue: I prefer writing it open, as I've done with Fortune. Even if this is a potential back-stabbing game -- not saying it will happen, just that it's a potential -- I think it's better for the storytelling. I tried hiding the inner dialogue in another game, and it resulted in my posts being significantly shorter and less interesting.

The inherent problem of any asynchronous RPG is that getting answer takes time. A simple dialogue between two characters -- one that would take 1 min between players around a table -- can easily take a week. Thus, dialogue is often cut down compared to a table-top RPG. Dialogue is a way of building/advancing a character, and if you take that away, you got to find other ways. Inner dialogue is one of the ways that actually work better in a forum-based game than a table-top game. Body language, too. It adds more tools to the storytelling, and locking them away limits yourself. Thus, I prefer using them to make more interesting posts, both to write and read. Since I'm not that good at describing body language, I opt more for inner dialogue.

Believe me, a game in which people only post their actions and nothing else at all turn boring extremely quickly. Well, combat still works (obviously, since it is only actions), but everything else ... meh.

DannoE Dec 16 '11 9:29pm

As I said, I think of PbP gaming as another storytelling medium. That's part of why I like to vignettes and that sort of thing. It can be tough otherwise to let you really spread your wings.

Riku8745 Mar 24 '12 12:51am

Hey. At school today, I was suddenly struck with a mass of inspiration, and I managed to finish the story for the game I'm working on. Now I need to start setting up monster encounters. Do you have any advice for that? Because at the moment, I've got no clue how to set up monster encounters, loot drops, and the like.

Also: Just a fun little thing, as a mark of my gratitude, I decided to include Gruunk in my campaign. In it, "Gruunk" is the Orcish word for "Power", and their entire tribal system is based off of it. There's the Gruunk-shar, who is the tribe master (Literally translated, it means "Much Power"), the Gruunk-to, who are the warriors ("Average Power"), the Gruunk-o-lea, who are the tribe mothers ("Raiser of power"), and the Gruunk-mell, who are the children ("Little power").

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