Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Runaway Train

I have friends who compare running RPGs to hanging onto the front of a freight train and trying to quickly lay down track before they derail completely. I find that this comparison is only true for people who are just starting out writing this type of game. After a few sessions, the GM will get better at writing stories that aren’t so rigid and strict. In fact, people smarter than I have written very informative articles on how to structure an adventure for maximum playability.

When I first started writing, I very much over-thought the whole process. I had a complicated array of if/then “switches.” Completing quest A would yield different results if the players had previously completed quest B, and still different results if they'd completed quest C and B together. In time I learned that I was exerting myself for no meaningful gain. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Anyway, wasn't this supposed to be fun? Programming a game in a word processor is laborious and draining. Many times, content was skipped completely, meaning that I'd wasted effort. Something had to change!

This is another big departure for regular writing vs. RPG writing; the fact that stuff can get skipped. Only in an author's wildest nightmares might a whole chapter get overlooked. So much character development and plot, gone. Just like that. How could a story retain its shape? How could you have a finale? What if somehow the finale was skipped? This is why RPG writers have to employ something called nonlinear writing.

It's not as strange as it sounds. If you've ever thought about the process of writing a script for a movie, it merits comparison.

A few years ago I was completely in love with the idea of becoming a big-shot Hollywood film director. Because my obsessions are a little more “advanced” than some people, I like to learn everything about something before I move forward. During my research (a fancy way of saying watching every “making-of” on every DVD ever made), I learned that most movies and television shows are shot completely out of sequence. That is, the script is carved up into discrete, filmable chunks and then shot out of order. Lord of the Rings is famously known (by me anyway) to have filmed the very last shot in the whole movie during the first few weeks of principle photography. The actors hardly knew each other at that point, and now they had to act as if they had just finished throwing the ring into the Crack of Doom.

"Was your name Shane or Sean?"
Like movies, it helps if the author can think of the story as a series of discreet scenes. Unlike movies, RPG scripts are not written as a whole and then carved up later. It's much easier to have a strong overarching narrative that connects separate “scenes” together into a whole. This way the players can visit the scenes in almost any order and still get a grip on the overall story. So what if they skip the fight with the cave troll that was supposed to happen early on? The GM can just make it come in later and use it for the last fight of the game. Problem solved.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, I wondered how that process actually went. I'd like to write a campaign someday (for my childrens), I just have no idea how one goes about it.