Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #27:

Interlude: Story Now!

by Travis S. Casey
February 15, 2002

We're taking a break from the Exploring Genres series of columns this time, to focus on something a bit different.

I recently bought copies of Ron Edwards' paper RPG Sorcerer and its first supplement, Sorcerer and Sword. Both are excellent, and I highly recommend them, but this isn't really the proper venue for a review. What I want to talk about is a concept that Mr. Edwards brings up in Sorcerer and Sword: Story Now.

It's a simple idea; if a roleplaying game is a shared story, as many will argue it is, then you need a story. Now. Not, "there's a story behind all this", not "we're getting ready for a story", not "someday your characters will be powerful enough to participate in a story", but an honest-to-god story right now.

So what's a story, and how do we know we're in one? A very loose definition of "story" is "a sequence of connected events". By that definition, it's almost impossible not to have a story in an online game, especially one with a continuous world. That's not the definition that Mr. Edwards is talking about, though.

The definition he's using goes something like this: there's a conflict. The decisions of the players are going to make a pivotal difference in this conflict. The resolution of the conflict will depend on the decisions the players make.

Story Now means that at any given time, you have those first two things: a conflict and an important decision that the players have to make. Mr. Edwards refers to this as a "story unit", consisting of "[scenario + decision]".

All right — so far, so good. But since this is Skotos, I'm supposed to be talking about multiplayer online RPGs, or whatever the current fashionable term is. As I've said before, paper RPGs can be good for inspiration, but copying concepts from them without thinking about how they're going to work in this different medium is begging for trouble. So let's hit it with a few problems:

Problem 1: How do you do this with hundreds or thousands of players, instead of a handful?

One key thing to remember here is that nothing says that every player has to be "the protagonist" of a story. Indeed, not all players even want to be the protagonist of a story — or at least, not everyone wants to do that all of the time. Other possible roles include the protagonist's mentor, the antagonist, the sidekick, or even the comic relief. Now, most players won't be happy with a setup where they never get to be a protagonist, but that's a far cry from always having to be the protagonist.

The second key is to plan for lots of stories. I've talked about this before in this column when discussing plots. In addition to having large-scale scenarios that allow for lots of smaller scenarios, though, you can (and I'd even daresay should) have more than one large-scale scenario going on at once, plus a good number of unrelated small-scale scenarios. Other things don't stop happening just because there's a war on or because an evil wizard is plotting something.

Thirdly, you can allow the players to set up their own stories. When decisions are what's being focused on instead of achievements, it's easier for players to create their own stories — they can make decisions in interacting with each other, without having to have the power to alter the game's setting. And if you give them limited power over the setting, that allows them to do even more.

This is especially important in that players will get to know each other. A player may well choose to set up a scenario specifically for another player's character, molding it around that character's personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Game builders in online games generally can't afford to mold a scenario around a particular character unless the game has very few characters, but players can — and hopefully will.

Problem 2: Isn't this just railroading?

Handled poorly, it can be. The key to preventing railroading is to remember this: there is no right decision for the players to make. The moment you start thinking, "the players have to do this", you're on the road to railroading. Let's take a simple example: a rescue-the-princess scenario. We'll set it up in traditional fashion:

Princess Jasmine has been kidnapped by the Evil Wizard Barl. Barl is holding Jasmine in his Tower of Evil™ (patent pending). In order to rescue Jasmine, players must enter the tower, get past the Hideous Thing that's guarding Jasmine, get past Barl to get out of the tower, and then return Jasmine to the palace.

There's an easy "the players have to do this" trap to fall into here, and it's so obvious that most people miss it — namely, the idea that "the players have to rescue Jasmine". The choice of whether or not to attempt the rescue is actually the first choice the players have in this scenario, and could easily be considered the most important one. The scenario designer, especially in a multiplayer online RPG, needs to consider what's going to happen if no one decides to rescue Jasmine.

There's also a second, more subtle problem with this scenario: the main decision ("Do we try to rescue the princess?") is too easy. If you're going to center a story around the decisions the characters make, then they need to be interesting decisions. In order for that to happen, we need an approach-avoidance conflict... whoops, sorry, went psych-guy there for a moment. We need the decision to have pros and cons on both sides, and we need them to be ones that will actually worry the characters.

The pro to rescuing the princess, in the traditional setup, is that you get a big reward. The con is that your character might die. Dying, though, isn't that big a deal in most online games — you lose a bit of experience and maybe the equipment you had on you, and that's it. The con doesn't come anywhere near being as big as the pro. And besides, rescuing the princess is a stereotypical heroic thing to do, which gives it an internal reward — you get to feel all heroic for doing it.

So let's make this harder. What if the princess isn't a stereotypical goody-two-shoes, but is a nasty sort? What if the princess isn't kidnapped by an evil wizard, but instead is due to be put to death by a just king, for lawful reasons (the Guinevere scenario)? What if we don't have a princess, but instead an outcast (Rebecca in Ivanhoe)? These are the kinds of decisions that heroes agonize over, and that make for good stories. And they're the kind of decisions that define a character — whichever decision the character makes, it says something about that character.

Problem 3: What do we do with starting characters?

One objection that comes up is that starting characters can't have interesting stories told about them, because they can't do anything interesting. If you've come this far, you're probably going to immediately see that this is an illusion. When a story is about a decision, rather than about an achievement, power level becomes much less of an issue. Indeed, you could argue that when a character becomes powerful, it becomes harder to find significant decisions for him/her, because the character's power level can prevent a decision from having negative consequences.

Consider Superman, for example. For Superman to decide to stop a bank robbery isn't a significant decision — not just because of Superman's established personality, but also because we know that a group of bank robbers can't hurt Superman. For Jane Average, though, deciding to stop a bank robbery is a much more interesting decision, because she could easily be hurt or killed in the attempt.

A second problem here is that starting characters don't have established histories or personalities, so their decisions don't seem as important. To some extent that's true — it's hard to see internal conflict in a character when you don't know anything about that character's insides. On the other hand, though, there's also a novelty factor to new characters — people want to watch them to find out what they're like, and also to see what impact they'll have on existing characters.


It's not always going to be easy, but the idea of Story Now can be made use of in an online game — and I'd go so far as to say it should be used. It's easy to give a game a "story" that's purely background, or that doesn't require the players to actually decide anything significant, but I personally feel that it's ultimately hollow — it's a story being told to the players, rather than the players participating in a story.

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