Monday, July 18, 2016

Plotting 101: Why You Want Individual Character Stories, And How To Use Them

A couple of months back one of the groups I'm in was preparing to start a new game. As people made characters I got really excited about the huge potential everyone was bringing for personal stories. The GM, at the time, said that he liked that but the game was going to be a more event based story so he didn't know how much room there'd be for individual stories. I didn't say anything at the time because this person is a great GM and their stories are wonderful.

However, last night we were discussing various games and plotting and I brought the point back up. In my opinion you are better served as a GM by incorporating individual character stories into your game, and wrapping those narratives around the central thread of your metaplot. Today, I want to talk about that.

Strong Characters Make Better Story
If you go through various pools of writer help sites and people doing analysis of narrative works you'll find a common thread. When it comes to a good story character trumps all. You can have a lackluster setting and plot, but if the characters are really bringing it the whole work feels a lot better. Apply this to gaming and the advice becomes clear. The stronger the characters in your game, the better the feel of the game's story overall. How do you strengthen the characters in your game? You give them plot, and not just generic plot elements, but stuff that is custom rigged to poke and prod them in all the right places.

The best part about this is that focusing on the characters in your game will help improve your game in two ways. First, it strengthens the characters and strong characters help make a better game. Second, personaly tailored plots and events draw in the players as well, and invested players put more into the game which also makes the game better.

Long story short, investing in the characters in your game is the most efficient way to give the game a stronger narrative.

The Meta Plot Is Important Too
By telling you to focus on your characters I don't mean you ignore metaplot. Your central story for the game/world is still important and needs to happen. Instea what I'm recommending is that you use the character stories as a means by which to view the metaplot.

For example, one of the games I'm in is a Star Wars game set during the Galactic Civil War. The meta story is a Military Sci-Fi story about the Rebellion vs. the Empire. There are big events that need to happen for that story. This is good and should happen. However, we can look at this story two ways: straight on, event focused; or through the personal viewpoints of the PCs and what is going on with them.

If we do the first way we can still have a fun game. However, if we go through the lens of the PCs we get a really close look at certain parts of what is going on, and that enables us to layer on nuance and levels of detail that otherwise just aren't possible. Those nuances and details build up to make the game a lot more fun.

How Do I Use This 'Lens'
Telling you to do it is easy, but how do you do it? This is where the work comes in. Before you can do this you need to identify X+1 things where X is equal to the number of players that sit at your table. In short you need to know:

  • What your meta story is about
  • What story your players want to tell with their character
For your meta story think on a large scale. The story I mentioned above is about the Rebellion vs. the Empire and that war. My own Star Wars game (set in the same time era) is about 3 brothers (and their friends now) growing into their power during a time of change and upheaval. My L5R game is the story of the Kumo Clan and their home city/land over several generations.

Player stories are going to change based on their characters. Most D&D groups have at least one guy or girl who is looking for riches and to make it big. My character in the Rebellion vs. Empire game is looking to become a Hero of Justice (capital H, capital J.) A character in my L5R game was about surpassing her mother, who was one of the greatest heroes the Empire never even knew about.

You then need to figure out how to develop those personal stories while keeping the metaplot in mind. That character becoming rich through their exploits against the Dark Army of Kazaldoom. The Jedi becoming a true Hero of Justice by defending the weak during the war between the Empire and Rebellion. A samuraiko becoming one of the greatest sword masters to ever live, while living in the home of the Kumo. You weave them all together. You tell the personal stories, but have the metastory present so that we see the metastory develop through the actions of the character in their own story.

If you do this, you end up with your meta story serving as sort of a central pillar with all the character plots wrapped around it, keeping it strong and making it more enticing. In the end you get a stronger narrative thread, and that's just wonderful.

Arranging The Pieces
Once you have all this done, and you know what stories your characters are looking to tell, and what stories your game wants to tell, you just need to combine it. To do this, break up your meta story into its various pieces. Then take each piece and figure out which character story is the best lens to view it through.

For example, let's lay you're looking to show how the guards in a city have become corrupt and are as much a threat as any invader. You can show the out and out harassmentof civilians through your Hero of Justice character by giving them opportunities to stand up to the injustice and end up in a position where they're openly in opposition to the authority for better or worse. You can show the low level of corruption with your street smart character by showing them interacting with the guards, giving bribes and trading stolen goods instead of being arrested. You can show how high it goes with the intrigue/spy character by having them interact with higher level members and come across plots for assassinations, extortion, and other higher level crimes. You can show there are still good people on the force with the ex-guard who has friends needing help either getting over what they just saw, or because they were framed for something they didn't do.

With all of these you are telling the story of corruption in the town guard, but you're showing it through the lens of the stories the PCs want to tell. And look at what we have here? A nuanced approach that examines the plot from numerous different angles.

Don't get me wrong, execution on this can be hard - and it goes up with player count - but we can talk about that later.

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