~Beyond the Border~ > Rumia's Party Games
On storytelling, gamemastering, and the approaches thereto
<< < (3/6) > >>
Hey hey, that's what we're here for.  I can't speak for any of the other forumites but you can always drop me a line if you've got something that needs improving.  There's a lot of overlap but writing and storytelling are two different skillsets.  A good writer does not a good storyteller make, and I've seen a fair few people find that out to their detriment after their RPGs crash and burn.  You can have the greatest ideas in the world but if you don't sell it, they won't come, contrary to what Field of Dreams might tell you.
Stickied for Good Topic-ness

--- Quote from: Sacchi on February 22, 2011, 03:27:07 AM ---But, I'm gonna have to make some serious rewriting. Because my RPG pretty much had a situation that sets path to what's probably the most epic scenes I've ever made in life. And yet it completely takes out the freedom of the players.

Someone help me I need serious help in story writing.

--- End quote ---

This brings me to another topic!

Bottleneck Design

A careful balance needs to be struck between player freedom and a driven plot/storyline. Unless run entirely by player agency, a given RPG must be pulled along by the GM every once in a while to ensure momentum and pacing do not falter. So how does a GM remember to maintain this balance on top of everything else that he must do?

A device to consider when designing or preparing a game is the bottleneck: despite all player freedom and activity, at some point they will have to all be pulled in through a narrow story channel, developed by the GM. How they reach this stage is mostly up to them, but, once they reach the bottleneck, the story takes over for a while and the players have to respond, instead of the other way around. Going back to the concept of the illusion of choice, the experienced GM will be able to channel the players towards this bottleneck without them being the wiser.

Good bottlenecking only pulls in the players to present them with a story-related problem, introduce relevant factions, NPCs etc. Once this is done, the bottleneck opens again, leaving the players to figure out their own solutions to the problem. A masterful GM is able to extend or contract the length of the bottleneck as necessary, and, as the quoted poster has talked about, will be able to channel their players into exceptionally-crafted scenes without the players' feeling the GM's influence. It is important to remember that, without this mastery, the players will notice themselves being driven along without their input, which can lead to catastrophic damage to a player's sense of immersion.

A simple case example: in the GM's plot, two kingdoms are nearing war. The players are agents of one of the kingdoms, tasked with preventing the war from occurring by any means necessary. The GM lets the players decide how they will do this, but he has in mind a confrontation scene between the PCs and the opposing kingdom's regent, who discloses to them the reasons of his going to war, advancing the plot, and activating many new storyline options.

This confrontation is the bottleneck - no matter what the players do, it will happen, but it is up to the GM to weave it into the narrative as organically as possible, to ensure that there are no jarring transitions, and no loss of freedom of the players right up to the confrontation scene.

Good bottlenecking: the PCs hear of a masquerade ball where the elite of the opposing kingdom will gather. Surely they will not pass up such a juicy opportunity to gather information and sow some dissent? Little do they know that the king himself will be attending!

Bad bottlenecking: the PCs are ambushed by ninjas, tied up and gagged without a fight and taken to the king, who monologues at them at length.

--- Quote from: Inaba Tewi on February 22, 2011, 07:44:35 AM ---Stickied for Good Topic-ness

--- End quote ---

Oh, thanks, that's really useful!

--- Quote from: Fightest on February 21, 2011, 02:12:56 PM ---There is a subtle, but extremely dangerous pitfall that a GM must avoid at all times, here: C/J-RPGs are not to be taken as a baseline for a pnp-style RPG as the former are 100% railroad, with a few highly notable exceptions. A player has no choice but follow the game-designer's story, which is anathema to a good pnp RPG, where choice must always be present, even as an illusion.

--- End quote ---

Ah, this reminds me: never underestimate the effect of C/JRPGs on the human psyche.  For many first-timers it will be their only experience with roleplaying.  This presents a challenge for the aspiring GM in that these people are used to having the rails and the structure in place, their conversation choices all thought out for them, the big giant glowing exclamation points to tell them who they need to talk to when they first arrive in town, you know.  All those devices we've come to know and love in our video games.  The common JRPG maxim of "explore everywhere, talk to everyone" doesn't apply here and in extreme cases, players can find that they're fish out of water, flopping about with nothing to say or do, completely outside their comfort zone now that they have to do the actual talking.  This isn't a criticism of JRPG players (JRPG veteran, right here!), it's a rare person who's not nervous about getting up in front of a stage and performing a play which is exactly what you are expecting your players to do - perform for an audience of five (or more).  The thing about JRPGs and CRPGs is that they inculcate bad habits.

Being the hands-on type of guy, I like to go with the personal approach.  Talk to your players (you'll hear me say this a lot).  Coax them little by little, have the NPCs come up and talk to them rather than expecting the players to seek out the NPCs (can't see the name tags on the tabletop).  Under no circumstances should players feel like they're under time pressure in their first couple of sessions to say something as this will invariably cause them to say nothing at all or flub their lines.  While this is funny to talk about later on, that's not what we're aiming for here.  Take a little bit of time in each session to slowly get the shyest players to talk a bit, to practice speaking in front of an audience and acting in-character.  That way, when they have something they really want to say they will be able to do so without hesitation, or at least a little less hesitation than normal.

Here's a little story of what happens when a player's nerves get the better of them because of perceived time pressure:

Prohibition-era New York.  The Museum of Natural History.  We are supposed to be infiltrating, but are spotted by a night guard.

Guard: What are you doing here at this hour?
Player: We were, uh, looking for a [forgets pre-prepared line here]...uh, establishment.
Guard's eyes narrow.
Guard: What sort of establishment?
Player: The kind that serves...uh...drinks.  We're very thirsty.
Guard: You're under arrest.
Player: (OOC) Flichtenstein.  (Well okay, not actually what was said but you get the idea.)

I swear on whatever power you choose to believe in (or not) that this actually happened.  Being under fire can make people do patently stupid things that they struggle to forget later on in life.

So, to conclude, video games are bad mmkay?  :V

EDIT: You know, Fightest, you've had that sig for over a year (I think) and I never realised where it came from until just a couple of weeks ago.  Mind = Blown.  Why yes I only just played Persona 4, why do you ask?


--- Quote from: Fightest on February 21, 2011, 02:12:56 PM ---It is when PCs take multiple paths simultaneously that the GM's mettle is truly tested. The GM must be able to handle multiple stories all at once, filling them in as he goes along - it is thus good practice to ensure that branching storylines are at least partially fleshed-out so that the GM is not caught fully unawares - whilst ensuring that nobody is left out, and ensuring that the pace is not hopelessly lost between scene changes.

--- End quote ---

Quoted for emphasis, if only because these have been a traumatic experience for me.  I've been in RPGs where I could spend half an hour actually doing stuff and then the rest of the session playing WoW, comfortable in the knowledge that nothing I did would be acknowledged and that the plot being covered by the GM at the time had nothing to do with the main storyline or with me whatsoever.  Oh, and that's just on IRC.  More torturous in real life, let me tell you, but it also forces you to come up with ideas to pitch to the GM about how you can affect the story with your skills.  If one person is hogging all the limelight it may be because he's the one actually putting in effort.
Not really related to anything, but I thought I'd throw some more ideas around, and one of these will be a Tools of the Trade section, where I talk about the immediate in-game things a GM knows or does to make their life easier or the game more interesting and enjoyable. Thus the first installment!

Tools of the Trade: the NPC

Short for Non-Player Character, the NPC is, in my opinion, the most important tool used to connect the player characters to a setting, barring unusual exceptions. By definition, an NPC is any meaningful actor within an RPG that is not under control of the players, whether it be the barman in the local pub or the Admiral of the United Space Force or even an emerging AI trying to find its way in the world. It is natural that human beings interact best with other human beings (or things that are at least similar to them, or think like them), so a PC will feel much more comfortable interacting with an NPC than looking at a lifeless piece of architecture or some expansive landscape. Players can develop emotional connections with NPCs, whether it be antagonistic hate for a recurring nemesis or grudging respect for a cutthroat information broker. Most importantly, an NPC would most likely be the driving force behind a plot, due to the NPC being able to think and act independently - it is much easier to make a villain out of a corporate magnate than out of a haunted forest (not impossible, though).

Additionally, the NPC can be very sparingly used as the GM's voice, where the NPC is used specifically to direct the players where the GM wants them to be. The GM must be extremely careful that he does not fall back on this device as it is, ultimately, a storytelling crutch, a shortcut that hinders creativity and mastery. Under no circumstance must this NPC follow the PCs around, dispensing wisdom as the GM sees fit, as that brings the NPC dangerously close to being a GMPC.

It is important for the GM to understand the difference between an NPC and what I call window dressing. An NPC, for all intents and purposes, should have a purpose for their existence, and must be used in some way or other. It is possible for player characters to be in the middle of a crowded square, but they are the only Characters there - everything else, whether it be living or non-living, is simply there for decoration. In that sense, the humans, elves, turians, what-have-you that are going about their business are not NPCs, as they serve no function in the plot/story. Conversely, the PCs can equally be in the middle of a crowded ball, and every living thing there is an NPC, with their own opinions, connections and agendas that the PCs can use or, at least, relate to in some way or other to advance their story. Of course, it is up to the GM to decide where to use NPCs and where to use window dressing. The masterful GM can make his window dressing indistinguishable from NPCs through colourful and creative description, and, should it be needed, transform window dressing into a true NPC.

As such a powerful tool, the NPC must never be truly throwaway. A street urchin pickpocketing a PC can be just a one-time annoyance to demonstrate the poverty of the lower classes in an industrial-era city, but can equally be used to unlock myriad story options if the GM gives a little thought to what makes a particular NPC tick - in this case the street urchin can lead the PCs to an underground society, or a mysterious haunted vault where more like him hide out, or many other options. With good writing and acting, the GM might perhaps inspire sympathy in the PCs for the urchin's plight, leading them into side-quests to help the poor thing out.

It then rests entirely on the GM's shoulders to make an NPC interesting and convincing. A rule of thumb is that quirkiness is good - of course it might seem unrealistic if every NPC the PCs encounter has an unusual quirk or habit, but it is far better than the opposite, where the NPC has nothing to interest others: they're not monumentally boring - as that can also be used for comedy value - they're just uninteresting. The experienced GM should be able to develop an NPC on the fly to fit a situation, with a barebones set of opinions and motivations that can be then fleshed out as time goes on, with an interesting quirk that makes them really come to life. For me, this experience comes from reading a lot of fiction, as well as watching a lot of TV. The novice GM should not be afraid of using a fictional character as a baseline, for example House's House or Full Metal Alchemist's Alex Louis Armstrong - they're colourful characters with lots of presence, just what an NPC needs. Just make sure that they do not take over the scene, and, if you want to make a reference joke - which is also fine - do not push it.
Message Index
Next page
Previous page

Go to full version