This series is predicated on the belief that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 4 of a masterclass in the last of these.
More stylish narrative means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts that is nevertheless more easily assimilated because of the brevity. It is narrative that flows naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.
The process that I described in parts 2 and 3 of the series is not quick, and assumes unlimited time is available for revision and polishing, that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.
Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.
Before we get down to business:
In any work as comprehensive as this in scope, it’s almost inevitable that a few points get overlooked. In fact, I have a number of quick drop-ins sections that got left out because I didn’t remember them at the critical times. These will get inserted appropriately into the PDF compilation of the series.
Insert at the end of Part 1:
Hierarchical Nesting Of General Statements
General Impressions persist. A general description of the entire setting applies to all subsequent areas within that setting, and a general impression of a single area persists to all descriptions of specific elements of that area – regardless of how much other narrative blocks might interrupt the descriptive totality.
Consider the following structure:
- General Impression of area
- Description of immediately-visible areas
- Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (Reception)
- Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist
This is a structural analysis of a typical block of narrative text, such as the one offered as an example of stylish narrative at the start of the article:
“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Nineteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”
If I extend the structure, bearing in mind the basic plot outline (PCs are here to meet one of the lawyers), what I mean should become clear:
- General Impression of Law Offices
- SCENE 1 – RECEPTION:
- Description of immediately-visible areas
- Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (reception)
- Inserted Narrative Block: General Impression of Receptionist
- Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist
- Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist
- Inserted Narrative Block: Description of Receptionist
- Inserted Action/Dialogue Sequence: Receptionist summons Secretary of Lawyer
- SCENE 2 – SECRETARIAL STATION:
- Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary Arrives at Reception
- Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary
- Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist introduces Secretary to PCs, Debates where meeting can be accommodated, settles on Meeting Room number 2, tells secretary to make sure Lawyer has vacated it by 4:00 PM as another partner has booked it.
- Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary leads PCs past partner’s offices with secretarial stations.
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Secretarial Stations
- General Impression of Secretarial Stations/office layout
- Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary pauses by desk of Secretary #2
- Specific impression of Secretarial Station #2
- Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary #2
- Inserted Dialogue Block: Secretary asks Secretary#2 to find Lawyer & tell him the PCs are here
- SCENE 3 – TRANSIT TO MEETING ROOM
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): Secretary leads PCs past water features…
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room
Everything that derives from our location bullet-points is shown above in plain text, everything that derives from somewhere else is in italics. The General Impression of the law-firm persists throughout, though it may be refined or extended by subsequent descriptive blocks. The General Impression of the receptionist and the reception area persists throughout the scenes that take place there but does not continue into the next narrative block of law office descriptions. Each piece of the law office that the PCs pass by or through presents an opportunity for additional dialogue or action sequences, which combine to give the impression of the office as an active location where people are constantly doing law-office-type things, bringing the location to life. If you don’t have some sort of interaction at a location, for example the fish-tank, all you need is the general impression of it with no need to go into details.
In theory, there is no need to repeat or reinforce the general impression once it’s given, because it persists throughout. Every subsequent detail does that for you. In practice, if there is an extended action sequence (especially one that modifies the general impression in some way, eg a disgruntled client shooting up the place) or dialogue sequence (eg the meeting with the lawyer), it may be necessary to reestablish it if there is any further significant action to take place at the law firm on this visit.
Deciding when a general impression needs to be reestablished and how to do it is part of the artistry of writing. It depends on too many factors to be subject to hard and fast rules, or even to consistent guidelines: the intensity of the original impression, the amount of material in between, any “built-in” reinforcement from subsequent descriptive passages, to name but a few. Ideally, you want it all to be consistent and accumulate towards an overall perception of the place and people, and – as I said – that’s more of an art than a matter of technique, and certainly beyond the scope of this article.
Insert into Part 2, Step 23:
When two narrative blocks should be one:
When you find that your general impressions of the areas are the same, and the content is similar or fits a continuous motion, it is usually more effective to combine two narrative blocks into the one. The only common exception is when there are inserted sections – dialogue or action – that are sufficiently different in style or content that they need to be separated from each other. This employs the descriptive narrative as punctuation to separate those other elements.
If you consider the narrative structure described earlier for the law-office example, you will find a section towards the end of the structure that looks like this:
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past water features…
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
- Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room
At the time I made the comment that each of these represents an opportunity for a new dialogue or action passage. If this was lending too much importance and activity to the sequence at the law firm, however, you might instead choose:
- Inserted Action Sequence (cont): ….to the Meeting room.
- Additional Narrative Block: General Impression of water features, fish-tank, meeting room.
- Additional Narrative Block (cont): Details of meeting room.
Until you reach an endpoint, specified as a trigger for a significant dialogue or action sequence, it is all part of the one narrative block, and should be treated as such.
Sidebar: “Significant” dialogue?
The observant will have noted that I slipped a new qualifying term into the preceding statement: “Significant” dialogue or action. Significance requires that the text in question have a specific purpose beyond color and embellishment. That purpose may be to require a decision on the part of the PCs or an activity in response to events, or it may be to establish the personality of an NPC because that is going to be important to subsequent scenes or to the PCs interpretation of this scene.
If your dialogue doesn’t meet this criterion, it can be considered just another way of expressing the narrative, and should not form a break-point within the narrative block – which means that your two narrative blocks should, in fact, be one.
Insert into Part 2, Step 23, immediately after the above:
When one narrative block should be two or more:
It’s at least as common to encounter a narrative block that tries to incorporate too much. This leads to situations in which the GM has to interrupt the narration to deal with a PC response to the content, then resume, even though resuming at that point has broken the flow of the game.
It’s up to the PCs when they react. It follows that there must be no cause for them to react until the entire scene is described to them or there will be subsequent complaints of “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known [y]“.
The most usual cause of this problem is the choice of flow within the sequence. Because a trigger for interaction of some sort is always the signal to end the narration, such should always be the last item in the narration, and everything that the PCs need to know must therefore precede it.
While there are too many permutations of the possibilities to list them all, one or two examples should serve: Never, ever, describe an NPC before you have finished describing the environment around them. Never describe a piece of the environment that a PC might choose to interact with before describing any other elements with which they might interact, even if that means that the two have to be contained within the one sentence, i.e. the one action trigger. For an example of that, don’t mention a chest in the room as part of the description if you are describing a dungeon scene if there is some creature guarding it – instead, fuse both calls to action into the one statement: “Guarding a chest in the middle of the room is…”
Insert into Part 2, Step 29:
Narrative Flow and Reciprocating Perspective:
Unless you have good reason to vary it, you can often achieve more “punch” and greater seamlessness in your narrative passages if each employs the opposite perspective flow as the narrative block that precedes it. For example, if the preceding narrative block flows left-to-right, try to use a right-to-left flow in the one you are currently working on.
The only time this doesn’t work is when a motion or change of perspective is incorporated in the call to interaction at the end of the preceding narrative block, which supersedes the established flow.
However, this seamlessness and punch comes at a price: mental fatigue on the part of the reader/player. You are making them subconsciously work harder because they can’t compartmentalize each piece of the scene, just add to it. “L-to-R, R-to-L, L-to-R, R-to-L” has an obvious problem. The pattern itself becomes somewhat hypnotic, eyes will begin to glaze over, and important details can be missed. The solution is to ensure that there is some superseding motion incorporated after every one or two such narrative blocks.
I have seen this problem occur quite frequently when too much diversity is incorporated into an area, for example making all four walls of a room significantly different. Consider the description of a room with five alcoves, one directly ahead and two each on the left and right walls respectively, each with different content. Rather than describing each as part of the one narrative block, give a general impression and mention the arrangement of alcoves, but only describe the content of the one directly in front; then have the PCs move into the room before they can see the contents of the other alcoves, and then only the two closest to the entrance. Build up the description of the room rather than overloading the one narrative block. This is especially true if the content of each alcove requires detailed description with its own internal narrative flow.
Employed within limits, reciprocating perspective can be a powerful tool. Over-used, it overloads the description, and indicates that the narrative needs to be broken up and punctuated with a small action of some kind.
Okay, with those out of the way…
Having spent most of this series focusing on how to produce better narrative, it’s time to look at the implications and consequences of employing such narrative in an RPG setting.
The effect on player thinking
There are a number of effects that can be anticipated as a result of better crafted narrative when employed in an RPG context. I’ve divided these into three broad categories: The Effects on Players, Other positive effects, and the downsides.
Blurring the focus on spoilers
Poorly-crafted narrative either focuses on the significant before it is recognized by the readers/players as significant, telegraphing where they should place their attention, or it overwhelms with massive blocks of prose that swims with unnecessary detail in an attempt to conceal what’s significant amongst what is not. Neither is all that desirable. Far better for the players and characters to interact with their environment, assessing the significance of each element in turn, and leaving it up to them to decide what’s significant.
By providing a simple snapshot that cues areas or subjects for further investigation, well-crafted narrative eliminates the telegraphing without the problems of drowning it in detail. That in turn has two consequent effects: the adventures that the GM runs will be better and more interactive and richer, and he no longer needs to spend time either planning for the telegraphing of his plot cues or coming up with that swarm of details.
Make no mistake: the process of creating better narrative described may be lengthy and involved, but it is still a lot faster (especially with a little practice) than spending hours detailing the woodgraining here and the leather there. If a room contains 20 objects (and the room I’m in at as I write has far more than that), consider spending 20 minutes or so on each – 400 minutes – compared to touching generally on the four or five most significant and then spending an hour each crafting exceptional narrative for those four for a total of perhaps 250 minutes – less if you cut corners. That’s more than 2 hours prep time saved, at least.
It actually can take more time to craft bad narrative than good. That’s because with good narrative, you have a reason for everything that is included being there, and can use that logic as a guide to what to spend time on.
The result is that the players can be both more aware of and engaged in their immediate environment, while still getting the full benefit of rich detail when it matters or is useful.
The capacity to forget a detail
The alternative to being too obvious is to drown the players in details, as mentioned. Burying the important details makes them less obvious, to be sure, but it also encourages players to forget one or more items of significance. This can slow a plot or even bring it to a shuddering halt, or create ill-will between players and GM – “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known about [y]” rears its head once again.
The GM’s job, in terms of narrative, is to communicate effectively to the players what is around them, and then get out of the way of the plot. Doing so not only uses less game-time than the alternative – a point I’ll come to in a moment in more detail – but it reinvests some that time in additional play.
Although it won’t happen right away, as players get used to a higher quality of narrative, and grow accustomed to being certain that everything of significance has been brought to their attention sufficiently for further investigation, so they will grow in confidence in their interactions with the environment, and will place greater confidence in the GM’s neutrality. That’s a lot of benefit, but it doesn’t stop there.
The integration of situational awareness
Greater situational awareness can’t help but result from making the salient details more accessible to the players. That, in turn, makes the players more aware of the plot and more capable of interacting with it. This tends to derail any plot trains, forcing the GM to further improve his plot structures. Ultimately, the results are that plots become richer and deeper, while remaining accessible to the players. In other words, better storytelling by the combined whole, the collaboration between players and GM.
Greater awareness of their surroundings, richer plots, and more substantial interaction with their environment can be summed up as greater immersion in the game. That, in turn, brings other benefits – the game itself becomes more vibrant, alive, and responsive to the style of play that the players want. The game becomes more vibrant and at the same time more fun for the players. If the GM is able to cope with the demands that this places upon his skills and abilities, it becomes more fun for him too – not a bad return for less work on his part.
I’m closing the discussion of the impact on player mentality with an entry that is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other – consistency. Better narrative structures presents the players with greater capacity for consistency of characterization, as expressed through their roleplay and choices of actions. That’s the plus-side of the ledger.
However, it requires greater effort on the players’ side of the table for this to be achieved, so this capacity – if misused – can actually be detrimental to the game, as I’ll discuss in The Downsides in a little bit.
Beyond the impacts on the players, there are a number of other effects that can be expected from improving the narrative employed in the game.
Maximizing play time
There is a direct correlation between the amount of prep time beyond the necessary and the amount of wasted play time at the table. For example, drowning the players in detail not only consumes more prep time but it takes up more time at the game table. Both can be considered wasted time. Some of these savings are reinvested, as noted earlier, in greater interaction between the PCs and the game world, but even without counting that, less time wasted at the table still increases the amount of play that is achieved in any game session.
Better mental mapping of situations
Better narrative not only helps the players grasp what is going on, it helps the GM keep track of what is going on. This is of obvious benefit to both sides, which only amplifies all the other benefits mentioned so far.
In general, any prep time invested in doing better instead of doing more yields secondary benefits that more than justify the effort, provided that enough material is prepared to cover the anticipated game needs. This is a key consideration in prioritization of prep as outlined in Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization, which focuses on first, achieving the minimum work needed, and then secondly, prioritization based on the expected yield in improvement of the game as played, taking into account the individual abilities of the GM doing the prep.
Better situational awareness on the part of the GM results in better game calls when he needs to adjudicate the results of PC actions, with fewer disputed calls (nothing will eliminate them altogether). And that yields a further return in reduction of wasted time at the game table, happier players, and a happier GM.
More appropriate interactions with environment
Better awareness of the circumstances on both sides also means that there will be less likelihood of stupid choices on the part of the players; these usually result from player frustration, and by minimizing the causes of that frustration, you improve the quality of player choices. That, in turn, means that the GM is able to use the combination of better awareness and better choices of action to adjudicate to produce better responses, which yields further improvements in player interaction with their environment. It’s a feedback loop of improvement in the game, and in the player’s appreciation of the quality of GMing.
More appropriate interactions with NPCs
Better descriptions of an environment leave the players with greater capacity for relating to NPCs and makes it easier for the GM to make the NPCs appropriate to the environment. This is another win-win for both sides, and – as shown previously – leads to further benefits. A better environment and better descriptions of NPCs leads to better NPCs and better interactions between PCs and NPCs.
These benefits come about in four ways:
- It becomes easier for the GM to keep the environment and other game/plot requirements in mind when crafting the NPCs because better narrative descriptions make the overall situation more accessible to him or her. This results in better NPC characterization choices;
- Better characterization leads to character descriptions reflecting more closely the character of the NPC;
- Better character descriptions that reflect the personality of the NPC make the characterization more accessible to the players;
- Better characterization leads to better dialogue, which is the primary means of exposing NPC characterization to the players.
All of these in combination can only produce better, more individual NPCs and more individualized interactions between players and NPCs – better role-play, in other words.
Better roleplay through immersion
Finally, with the immersion of both sides of the table being improved through the mechanisms described above, better roleplay can only result from the reduction of distraction by both sides. It’s as though everyone at the table decided to make a greater effort to roleplay well at the same time.
That’s a powerful truckload of benefit to the game. Most people tend to under-rate the benefits from better narrative, from working “smarter” not “harder”. But it does come at a price, and that side of the ledger needs to be examined as well.
At least at first, while the GM is learning how to craft better narrative, he can expect to be less productive. How quickly the benefits begin to materialize away from the game table will vary from individual to individual, but it is unlikely to be immediate. For a while, then, an increase in the demands on a GM’s time can be expected. If you are already stretched to the limit, that can be a real problem.
It’s a hurdle that can be managed, however. Choosing a simpler plot with fewer time requirements – the sort of thing you might do if you were anticipating a temporary reduction in the amount of prep time that you have – can free up enough prep time to enable the transition to happen, and is probably the simplest solution.
Until you get the hang of the process and it comes naturally to you – which may take 3 weeks, 3 months, or a year, depending on how ingrained old habits are – you can expect to go down a few blind alleys, make a few mistakes, and – in general – have more wasted prep. This can be frustrating to the GM and even cause him to give up on the process before the benefits start to flow. Being forewarned – and allowing a little extra GM prep time – mitigates this problem.
In particular, it will take time for the players to get used to the new approach, especially if they are used to being spoon-fed the next plot hook. They may also grow frustrated, and this can add to the pressure on the GM to give up on the process of improving their narratives, or set it aside for use in a less-immediate context – something to use when prepping an adventure for publication somewhere, for example, but not during their day-to-day, week-to-week game prep.
Again, being aware of the problem and being prepared to lead your players through the process by hand can mitigate these negative impacts. Provided that the GM remains convinced that the end result will justify the short-term problems, he can usually convince the players; it is for that reason that I have spent quite a lot of time “selling” the benefits earlier. Above all, he should resist any urges to give the players what they want if they are resisting the changes. This sacrifices all the gains that can be achieved in return for some short-term relief.
GMs who aren’t used to the flexibility that this approach yields to the players are likely to struggle with it, at least at first, opening up a third front on which problems can manifest. Some GMs respond by becoming more inflexible in an effort to restrict player choices to a more manageable range. It’s very easy to fall into this trap because you can often get away with it for quite a long time without the players recognizing what is happening because the options presented include the one that they would opt for anyway, and it makes life for the GM much easier. Inevitably, eventually one of the PCs will attempt to go off-script, and that’s when things fall apart spectacularly. Even seasoned GMs have to relearn this lesson periodically.
GM inflexibility attempts to mitigate the problems already noted by reducing the prep and in-game workload of the GM, but this is the wrong approach to take. Virtually all the benefits mentioned earlier are predicated on giving the players greater flexibility to interact with the game world and NPCs; this approach eases the pain of implementation of the process by sacrificing the bulk of the benefit, making it much easier to decide that the effort is not producing any real benefit and should be abandoned.
And that assessment completely ignores the potential fallout when the wheels come off, and the players insist on doing something other than the options allowed by the GM.
The other aspect of the inflexibility response is that it tends to lead to plot railroading, or to be seen as tantamount to plot railroading. Players hate this far more than GMs do; they want to be in command of their characters at all times, and to have free choice of what their PCs do, even if it makes no sense.
Even the structural outline of the law-office example I prepared earlier shows some tendencies in this direction, simply by presuming how the PCs will respond to the receptionist and that they will be cooperative within the scene. Just because there is no reason to expect the PCs to deviate from this “script” does not mean that they won’t.
In this case, the tendency is actually an illusion, resulting from deliberately linking one scene (encounter with the receptionist) to another (encounter with the secretary) to another (encounter between the two secretaries) en route to the meeting room in order to show the way in which past narrative remains in effect even though the action itself has moved on. In reality, these should be separated into separate encounters so that if the PCs choose a response other than that expected, the GM can accommodate it.
One of the ongoing prices that has to be paid for better narrative is an increased susceptibility to writer’s block. By separating out the brainstorming of ideas (part of the bullet-listing stage) and the organization of ideas and conversion into functional narrative, the process tries to mitigate against the problem, but it can’t fully eliminate it. If you find yourself in trouble with writer’s block, I advise you to refer to my series on the subject, Breaking Through Writer’s Block.
Many writers come to anticipate losing X percent of their time to writer’s block and build in sufficient cushion to ensure they still meet deadlines. After all, if you finish early, there’s always something else you can spend time doing! This is the approach that I recommend.
Other writers tend to assume that writer’s block won’t hinder them because it usually doesn’t, and that the adventure will only proceed as far as they have prepared when play begins, anyway. I can’t argue too loudly against this approach, because I’m guilty of it myself most of the time – I rarely write articles for Campaign Mastery until the day they are to be published, for example. That means that I’m fairly confident of my ability to overcome any writer’s block; occasionally, I have a close shave with the deadline, but that’s as bad as it gets. If this is your preferred approach, I can only wish you luck.
It’s too much like work
When you’re used to writing as fast as the ideas can flow, the process described can seem profoundly hard work that`sucks all the fun out of game prep, replacing it with metaphoric sweat and toil. This is actually the result of being undisciplined in your approach to game prep; the “lack of fun” or “stifling of creativity” are actually a reaction to being forced to adjust to the more disciplined approach that this process requires.
In other words, this is another short-term problem that may be faced. Once you are used to the technique, you will become adept at dropping in additional bullet points and reminders to self regarding future parts of the prep as you write, and will find that you can be just as creative while still delivering the better results.
Game prep is always work, but often-times the pleasure of being creative and imaginative masks this fact. Changing your technique can strip that mask away for a while. As long as you have been forewarned, you can put up with the phenomenon for as long as it lasts.
I noted earlier that consistency was one benefit that could result from better narrative because it gives the players greater opportunity for self-expression through the choices they make for both themselves and the PCs that they play. It is, however, equally possible for characters to be expressed more inconsistently as a result of the greater freedom afforded to players. It can become much harder to predict how characters will respond to a given situation, which makes the job of adventure creation harder for the GM, and can lead to GM inflexibility in response.
There’s not a lot that the GM can do about this. The best answer involves a deeper understanding and definition of the personality profiles of the PCs generated by the player and subsequently communicated to the GM, but even that is only a partial solution. No matter how tempting it may be, resist any urge to force a player to justify his character’s choices in terms of his personality or mindset; it can only end badly. The farthest that a GM should go is telling the player (after the game) that he doesn’t understand why his character made those choices.
It’s actually relatively common for this to turn out to be a result of incorrect dramatic emphasis within the GM’s narrative, making something seem more important than it actually is, frequently on an earlier occasion to the actual manifestation of the problem. More often than not, inconsistency of play is the result of inconsistency of narrative when viewed as a whole, progressing from start to finish of the adventure.
Relative Importance To The Scene
One of the advantages of the process provided here (as opposed to other approaches to “better writing” that I’ve seen) is that it defines more clearly a relative importance to the contents of the scene, by stripping out the details of those elements that do and don’t matter equally, then putting the significance back only in response to PC interaction with the narrative elements.
I’m afraid that I’m not explaining this very clearly, so let me try an alternative phrasing by quoting something Hungry at Ravenous Role Playing had to say about one of the earlier posts in this article. He wrote, Players love to think (I think it’s an ingrained human condition), “Oh! The blue book was mentioned on the shelf, but none of the others were detailed, so that blue book must be the important thing in the room, so I’m going to grab the blue book and see what’s in it as soon as I can!”. This is a perfect example of what I had in mind when I talked about bad narrative telegraphing the next step in the plot.
This process removes that problem by not detailing any of the contents of the room until they are closely examined by the PCs – just listing them in a very general way: “The books on the bookshelves suggest that the resident is well-educated,” for example. However, the strength of language employed can still lead to a relative indication of significance, and this can cause inconsistency when the wrong thing receives unwarranted emphasis. This can result simply from seeing something more clearly in your mind when writing it, or because a particular turn of phrase came to mind.
Two Ways this can manifest
It’s bitten me in the past, when I have presented two problems to the PCs – one that is intended to restrict the possible solutions to the second by imposing additional consequences to most of those solutions – and they have decided that this means that the restricting problem is the more important one, the one that needs their immediate attention. Which is a perfect example of GM inflexibility leading to inconsistency of characterization. Instead of the problem that was supposed to matter taking front and center, the language employed caused a misdirection of player focus, and a wasted hour of discussion/investigation on the part of the players.
The other way that this manifests is when players are playing to the plot and not playing to the personality of their characters. “My character is more inclined to focus on problem X, but if I do that, problem Y will get out of hand. I should deal with the immediate plot problem first because it makes sense to do so in terms of the plot and not indulge my character’s personal preferences.” This becomes a problem when problem X is only part of the plot because of the character’s expected reaction to it, and that the solution is supposed to give key information needed in order to solve the other problem.
This can be restated as a problem in character prioritization of the problems being presented to them by the GM, resulting in an inconsistency of characterization; but players prioritize based on the information the GM gives them, and especially the dramatic strength of the narrative used to describe the circumstances. In other words, this is the GM’s fault. If you want a PC to take one problem as more serious than the other, load your words accordingly when describing it to the players.
The Reality of Sandboxing & Other GMing philosophies
Sandboxing and other such approaches to the art of GMing all aim to restrict or better-target the subjects of GM prep, enabling the benefits of limited prep time to be maximized, while minimizing downsides and excess. The key word there is target.
At first, it can appear that these philosophies are incompatible with the process detailed herein because they emphasize detailed preparation and then extracting the relevant details for further development. Further reflection will show that this is not the case, however; the process I have outlined is based on the approach of defining a general context and then only developing the resulting elements that are relevant to the expected adventure and its constituents.
Sandboxing is effectively built into the process. The only compromise is in defining that overall context before you start, thereby avoiding one of the great pitfalls of the pure sand-boxing approach – trying to create that context after the fact when the action moves beyond the area immediately detailed.
This compromise represents an overhead on the pure sand-boxing approach, but one that is an investment in the future of the campaign. Subsequent development will flow all the more easily for having that general context defined in advance.
Modifying the process for RPG needs
RPGs are a little different from other forms of text that require narrative. To some extent, these differences are already accommodated within the process, simply adding a new type of Passage (player decision points) to the list provided at the beginning, while modifying the content and structure of some of the others (context passages, location passages, and action passages). The requirement is still to prepare the narrative passage in such a way that it leads to one of the others. The only thing that really changes is the sequence with which different passages take place, which is dictated by a force external to the writer, i.e. the players.
In general, the basic structure of a narrative block remains the same: a general impression, content, and the trigger for a form of interaction between players and plot.
It is not all that difficult to modify the process accordingly. In fact, because it reduces the need for a seamless flow from one passage to the next by creating discontinuities and independent passages, writing better narrative for an RPG is actually easier in a lot of ways. Furthermore, less polish is typically required, because the GM can incorporate additional details as required, if necessary, inventing them on the spot.
It starts with the planning of the adventure.
Planning the adventure
A synopsis of what the adventure is about is the perfect starting point. This synopsis should not rely on any player decisions that have not already been made; it is far better to frame it in terms of what one or more NPCs are doing to create the situation that the PCs have to resolve.
The next step is to identify all the key locations and all the key NPCs.
Next step: map out a flow between inevitable sections of the plot, in the most general terms. This breaks the adventure down into sections that have to happen, regardless of the outcome of any individual events or encounters within; they are the logical building blocks of the overall plot. The goal is to synopsize the circumstances with which the PCs will be presented in the course of each of the major section.
Finally, identify from the above any inevitable set scenes that will occur. These typically include introductions to the key NPCs.
Define the locations
If these have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For those which have not, produce an overview of each, which will form the general impression of the location. You don’t want specific details, just a general concept.
Define the NPCs
Once again, if any have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For the rest, a general idea of their appearance and personality is all that’s needed at this point.
Breakdown The Acts
Bullet-point brainstorm the overall structure of the plot in each of the major sections, where it will take place, and who will be involved (from an NPC point of view). This is your list of scenes within each act.
Breakdown each location
Bullet-point brainstorm the descriptions of each of the locations you’ve identified, based on the guideline that you have already created.
Create the NPCs
Develop the personalities, histories, etc, of the NPCs, using your preferred approach, then synopsize that into a set of bullet points.
Narrative sections: Locations
List the narrative sections that apply to each location. In the case of the law firm example, this would be 1. reception; 2. secretarial/offices; 3. other locations en route to meeting room; and 4. meeting room.
Organize your bullet-points into each of these narrative sections. Duplicate as necessary.
Write the overall narrative passage for each section, and immediately after writing each, perform the first and second review phases in one step. In other words, edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next section. Delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative. Append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet list.
Narrative sections: NPC Set-scenes
Use the combination of where they are occurring and the NPC bullet points to craft an introduction to each using the same steps outlined above: edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next. Once again, delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative and append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet-list.
After each, make sure to note the NPCs objectives within the scene and how they intend to achieve them.
Narrative: Other Set Scenes
Bullet-point and then write narrative for any scenes in which the players will witness action but not be able to intervene.
Connect the dots
You now know where events are to occur, who is going to be involved, and what the basic events are. This step involves filling in the blanks, writing any canned dialogue, and so on. In particular, you need to note how each scene is supposed to lead to the next.
Once it’s all written, read the whole thing from start to finish, performing stages 7 & 8 and correcting/clarifying as you go.
You can then move on to any other prep you think necessary or desirable, indexing them into the main text as you go. If you produce a map, for example, make a note of the map at the appropriate location description.
As quickly as that, the adventure is done. You have only general indications of how each scene will work out, based on the personalities and objectives of the NPCs involved, but you have everything you need in order to referee the adventure.
The typical adventure will have about half-a-dozen broad locations, with up to four areas detailed for each. A larger one may have more, a smaller one may have less. Similarly, most adventures will involve half-a-dozen or so major NPCs and potentially many more minor ones who have not been fully developed. (Use The Ubercharacter Wimp and The Flunkie Equation as tools). Instead of one large writing job, this turns the adventure into thirty or so smaller, more discrete, ones. It leaves all the details that you didn’t think you’d need available for use if the occasion merits it, but only turns into narrative the parts that you will definitely want to read to the players.
Each part should take 5 minutes at most to write – so that’s 150 minutes, or about 2 1/2 hours of prep. Figure maybe ten minutes brainstorming for each of the major locations, and about 10 minutes each for nine or so other narrative blocks, and that’s roughly another 2 1/2 hours. Throw in an hour for the initial planning, and that’s a complete ready-to-play adventure in 6 hours – or in one late night before play. Or an hour a night each night before the weekly game. That time frame is comparable to the time it takes to outline a more traditional adventure, if not less – I speak from experience.
Sure, there’s lots more that you could do, but that’s enough for play. The adventure is complete.
And so is this part of the series, because there is no way that I’m going to be able to do the final part and the checklist and the PDF of the combined article before the publishing deadline. This is mostly down to time lost in preparing the inserts that I started this part with, and which took fully as long to write as the rest of the article! So this series will wrap up with Part 5, later this week.