Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Story Structure

How to pace and structure a story keeps coming up as a theme. Ran keeps looking for games that end, rather than go on forever with continual growth (like World of Warcraft, or really most MMORPG's). They want to see games with victory conditions and endpoints. In story games, you hear more about older gamers who don't have the time for sprawling campaigns anymore (I can certainly relate to that), something that people can play in a single evening and put away. And the beautifully anarchist notion of overthrowing the GM, while something I react to with a visceral negativity, poses a challenge I nonetheless find impossible to refute. Top that off with my general distaste for the conservative nature of most heroes (heroes always react to villains' schemes, never doing anything proactively on their own), and you get this...

Characters have stated goals. Goals associate with specific gains: moving a trait or skill around the medicine wheel, for instance, or gaining more relationship points in a particular relationship, or maybe earning a particular blessing, etc. You might have nested goals, too. Say I put down the goal, "Marry Kateri." Which would come out to getting the blessing, "Marriage" from my relationship with Kateri. But I'll need to accomplish several things to do that. I'll need to earn Kateri's love (perhaps, store up 30 relationship points with Kateri?), and then I'll need to convince her parents that I can make a good husband (20 relationship points with both prospective mother- and father-in-law?). Perhaps the father belongs to a particular secret society, and won't allow his daughter to marry anyone who doesn't belong to it. Now I have to earn initiation into the same secret society. Finally I get all the permissions I need; now, I need to get through the long, complex marriage rites successfully. So the marriage presents a nested goal, with many sub-goals built into it.

Other goals might seem more straight-forward, like "Learn Eagle's Alarm spell." That just means I need to increase my relationship points with Eagle by observing Eagle, following Eagle, interacting with Eagle, perhaps even shape-shifting into Eagle's form, so that Eagle will teach me his Alarm spell. Then, whenever an eagle sounds an alarm, I will understand it, and I will also have the ability to alarm eagles, or others with eagle magic. That goal I can fulfill simply by trekking out into the wild and observing Eagle.

Characters can challenge each other with goals. Those goals always have relationship point rewards: fulfill this goal, and you will earn relationship points with the person who challenged you with it. So a player might offer the goal, "Accompany me on this trip to go visit the woman I love who lives in the next village over." Fulfill that goal, and you'll gain relationship points with the person you accompany.

The Genius Loci plays a character, too, remember, and the land has goals, as well. The land might have goals like, "Let the deer herd replenish," or, "Get rid of the new wolf pack that's starting to move in from the west." The land fulfills those goals through the people that live on it--usually, the player characters, specifically. The Genius Loci can challenge other characters, too; most often, that comes in the form of dreams. Feral people respect their dreams deeply, and if they dream of something, they go and spare no effort to do it, because they see their dreams as one way the land communicates with them. But such challenges usually involve a bit of subtlety and indirectness. If the land wants to get rid of an encroaching wolf pack from the west, it might give a dream of a strangely-shaped rock to a member of the Coyote clan. He recognizes the rock, and knows that he can find it on a mountainface to the west. When he goes to find it, he discovers a wounded coyote, thick with pups. True to his totem, he helps the coyote, who then survives and has her pups. Wolves and coyotes do not get along, so by strengthening the coyotes, the land has quite effectively turned up the pressure against the wolf pack--and the human from the Coyote clan may never even know what he did.

These goals can make story structure. A single session might have all the characters pursue one, simple goal. The Genius loci could not even prepare anything in advance, simply come to the table and set up the other characters in the land and fill in their reactions as the players pursue their own goals, with the story thus supplied by the players. And if you do have the time for something more, maybe pursue a second goal next. So you can always leave off, with the story feeling fulfilled; and you can always pick up the story and play it out a little further by adding more goals.

2 comments:

Andrew Jensen said...

My wife and I were talking about this system, and I was describing how you can burn relationship points. Her immediate question was "well, how do you get them back?"

I imagined that you did so by doing things FOR your relationship. In this way many story goals would revolve around having demands placed on you by your relationships, which, is left unfufilled, would weaken the relationship. If you tried your best and failed, the relationship would remain the same, and if you succeed, the relationship strenghtens.

I like the idea of receiving rewards based on previously stated goals. Say every character has 3 things they want, and you list them. A character who achieves one of their listed goals receives a reward based on how difficult it was for them to do it. An easy goal should have less reward than a hard one. Then you come up with a new goal. You should also be able to give up on a goal in order to replace it with a new one.

I especially love the part about the land itself having goals. That's beautiful, and the idea of receiving visions telling you what the land wants is pure story goodness.

Jason Godesky said...

My wife and I were talking about this system, and I was describing how you can burn relationship points. Her immediate question was "well, how do you get them back?"

Heh heh, yes, you see the dynamic then, eh? Your character ends up spending a great deal of her time doing favors, helping others, making offerings, and generally trying to build up relationship points. The key to the game becomes the tricky balance of how to give back more than you take. And now you have a bit of emergent play there, where the rules force you to act out the basic secret of sustainability, and have you acting like a real animist. I have some pride about how nicely that works out.

I especially love the part about the land itself having goals. That's beautiful, and the idea of receiving visions telling you what the land wants is pure story goodness.

Thanks! I thought so, too.