Monday, October 30, 2017

Storytelling Opportunities and Obligations

Destiny 2 came out for the PC recently, and despite my initial feelings on the matter I ended up buying a copy. I've recently finished the campaign story, and while it is decent it falls into a common pitfall that plagues MMO games in recent years. This has me thinking about videogame stories vs. table top stories and what freedoms the tabletop medium gives you, but also what obligations it puts on you. Today I want to talk about that a little.

What Almost Every MMO Has In Common
The problem I have with almost every MMO is that by design the game is for hundreds, if not thousands of players. And yet often the missions you get are quite unique in the scope of the universe. I first ran into this all the way back in Star Wars Galaxies when I was tasked with bringing prototype fighter designs to the rebel fleet, if I failed the Rebellion would never have B-Wings (or was it X-Wings) and success would make me an instrumental part of the rebellion...only hundreds of people did that mission.

Perhaps it is best shown with another Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic. (Spoilers for the Sith Warrior story if you read this paragraph further.) I love the Sith Warrior story in Old Republic. it is one of the best Star Wars stories I have ever consumed, and I got an experience that defined the Lawful Evil alignment for me. I've recommended it to every friend I know who likes Star Wars or just compelling stories. It is a story where you go from some young punk Sith student to being the Emperor's Wrath - his right hand, the one with the lightsaber in it, that strikes down his foes and is so strong even the council of Darths that run the Empire are scared to mess with you. It is awesome, and makes you feel powerful and like a unique part of Star Wars lore. Until, that is, you realize that every Sith Warrior out there who is level 50 or higher is also the Emperor's Wrath. There are literally hundreds and thousands of them out there.

Awesome story. Maybe not the right medium?

The Single Player/Movie/Book Experience
I know why it happens. Writing a story that is compelling, makes players feel powerful and meaningful, and like a part of the universe that also allows for hundreds of others to have done the same thing is hard - unless you're a comic book universe in which case, yeah, everyone could have saved the world from that villain at some point or another. So when writing a campaign and story for what is going on in the game to get the players situated, the writers just go for a solo experience and trust people to know what is going on. It puts the onus on the player to go "in this world, *I* am the one who did these things that everyone who played the game has done, everyone else is someone who did similar things, but not the actual thing." And that's fine, but it still kind of irks me.

It is an area that Table Top RPGs are thankfully free of. After all, every game is its own world, and very few people are out there running games for hundreds and thousands of players. Every GM puts their own spin on things. It doesn't matter if we are all playing Curse of Strahd at our own games, because my character who did it and your character who did it are never going to meet.

You could, in theory, run a carbon copy of the events of any famous campaign - or even run the same campaign over and over again - and it wouldn't matter because the PCs in that particular campaign would be the only ones who ever did those things, so you get no dissonance.

But it's not all sunshine and roses.

The Problem With An Ensemble Cast
Ever watch a big blockbuster movie with an ensemble cast? Say, the Avengers? Notice anything? Yeah, for all the work done to have all the big players on screen the story only revolves around a few people. There are the "main main" characters (Iron Man, Captain America) then there are the 2nd wave of them (Thor, the villain, Hulk) and then you have your more supporting characters (Hawkeye, Black Widow, other characters.)

This happens because there is only so much time in the movie, so many pages on the script, and so much story that can actually be conveyed. If every one on the front cover got equal time and plot you'd end up with either a 10 hour movie, or a movie that didn't really have any plot in it at all. And so movie studios and writers (for books and comics too if you pay attention) focus the story on a couple characters - usually the most popular ones or ones played by actors with the highest billing - and just go with that.

You can do this in your game as well, kind of.

See, no one is going to complain if this story arc focuses on Nancy's Thief and Steve's Warlock. That's fine. They can get top billing for the arc and others will be happy to tag along. However, if every arc is about Nancy and Steve you are going to have problems.

What's worse, is the way some people play you may not even notice everything is hanging around two characters until someone makes a joke about how it's the "Nancy and Steve Show" and they're just on to flash some pom poms and get invited to the after party. And that can suck.

Equal Protagonists
As the GM your job, your impossible job, is to have every player in your game feel like an equal protagonist - provided they want to be one. That means having story hooks for them that show up at times. That means giving them a chance to have the spotlight, to have growth, and to show it. It means, occasionally, the game hangs on them or them and another sub-section of the group as a whole.

Not everyone wants this. Some players are happy to just play along as the friend and don't want to be put in the spot light. That's fine. But those people still deserve the opportunity to change their mind, or at least show their character progression through other events.

This is hard. It is a lot harder than it sounds, and I flat out called it impossible. Some players won't notice plot hooks you're dangling even if you hit them with bricks. Other players will notice, but think it is a hook for someone else. Others will bring it to the group, then go back to being a wallflower. And that's just talking about hooks, let alone everything else.

Some people are more forthcoming. Some are more forthcoming but only with certain characters. Some people are shy or quiet. You should know this for your group.

Still, you have to try and your players will expect you to succeed. So make sure you have things for them, or make very sure they're ok with the fact you don't.

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