Series Info...#32: GameMaster or StoryBuilder?

by Shannon Appelcline

May 3, 2001 — As you may have already read in "Fading Signal", the last installment of the Arcana game column, Gareth-Michael Skarka has decided to step down as a member of the Skotos Several. There were a number of reasons, one of which was: "An online, text-based game, however, has an entire set of strictures and considerations that don't apply to tabletop games."

I absolutely agree with that statement and would like to take some time to explore it this week, to help and provide some guidelines which can help tabletop gamemasters out there understand what the heck they're getting into if they sign on to build a Skotos Tech game. I've tried to avoid role-playing games (RPGs) in general in this column because I know many of our players and StoryBuilders come from other backgrounds, but I figure it's worth it for this week only.

Before I go on, I should probably mention what happened to the column I was planning to run this week, the second part of my series, "Why Marrach isn't the Movies". I've delayed it a little bit — two weeks according to my outline for this column, but further if either of those two columns run over. I want to build up a little creative energy before I try to put together another screenplay, and I also want to address a few of the insightful issues that Gareth brought up before they got old.

So, tabletop roleplaying games versus online roleplaying games. I've actually addressed some of the differences of these two mediums in a pair of articles that I wrote for "Twenty-First Century Roleplaying" and "Coca-Cola or Pepsi?" However, those articles are fairly general discussions and here I'd like to go over something specific: how creating online games for Skotos (as a StoryBuilder) is very different from running tabletop RPGs (as a gamemaster).

There are a lot of clear similarities between creating for the two mediums. In each case you, as a world builder, are trying to create a fun environment for players to adventure in and interact with. But, the ways in which you do this can be quite different, and I want to point out some of those differences today.

A little bit of this also repeats what I said in "Why Yes I am God" and some of it repeats topics from my "This Blessed Plot" articles, but those topics I repeat I'll be looking at from a different perspective: that of a tabletop gamemaster.

"Be Prepared"

The bottom line, really, is that StoryBuilders have to be good boy scouts while gamemasters don't. It all comes down to two words: "Be Prepared."

Sure, gamemasters prepare. They might spent months, years, or decades carefully laying out a world — creating a history, then describing kingdoms or states, then eventually figuring out what the alley running behind the Stunned Albatross alehouse is like.

But for a StoryBuilder, the burden is much, much higher. A tabletop gamemaster, you see, can be very dynamic. As he learns what his players are doing, he can do new preparation in between sessions or even improv on the spot. A StoryBuilder, on the other hand, needs to make sure everything is done beforehand so that a game can actually run on its own.

That's the major difference that I'm going to keep coming back to in this article.

The Problem of Setting

In settings, the problem of preparation translates into a problem of scale. As a StoryBuilder you don't have the luxury of allowing players to rampage across the entire world, popping into those places that interest them — because you couldn't possibly detail that entire world. So, you need to think small, figuring out how to limit the size of your setting and at the same time provide superb detail for it.

Constrain You Setting. I've harped on this one before. You have to figure out how to limit the initial area of adventure in your game rather than allowing players to go wherever they want. Constraint is usually limited to a single locale like a castle (Castle Marrach), a city (Qigung: The Ring of Fire) or a space station (Horizon Station). In "Location, Location, Location" Gareth went a bit further and suggested not a single constrained location, but rather a string of constrained locations linked by time. So, there are lots of possibilities here.

Allow players to understand your containment. It's not enough to just contain your game. You also need to try and provide good reasons for that containment. Why can't players go beyond the carefully constrained area that you've created? Or, why won't they want to?

Detail your setting minutely. Once you've decided upon your small, contained area for your game, you need to detail it extremely well. The thing is, that unlike in a tabletop game, you don't know what your players are going to be interested in. Thus, you need to detail everything (or, at the least, everything important), so that players can find out more information when they want to. For Castle Marrach, one of our experienced designers estimates that a single room (be it a real room or an outside zone) takes at least an hour ...

The Problem of Doing

Once you've figured out how to build a setting that will stand up to players playing in it while you're not there, you need to take the next step... and figure out what the players are going to do.

In a tabletop game you can just ask the players what they're interested in, then start telling the stories that they want to hear. But, as a StoryBuilder, you instead must prepare those things to do in advance.

The average player of this type of online game spends between 20 and 40 hours playing it every week... so what are they doing in that time? Socializing? Fighting monsters? Politicking? Improving their skills? You need to figure out what the day-to-day activity is going to be in your game and make sure it's part of your plan from day one.

Develop stuff for lots of different players to do. You'll be the most successful if you manage to allow not just one activity, but many. That way, when each player comes to your game, each with their own interest and their desires... each player will actually have some opportunity to be happy.

The Problem of Running

And that brings us to another topic that I've discussed before — actually running your game.

As a tabletop gamemaster you might be used to running a game for a half-dozen or less people. In an online game, those numbers climb tremendously. You might have only one gamemaster for every fifty players, or more. And, those players could be around at any time of the day, whether you are or not.

Use your gamemasters efficiently. When you start trying to develop online games for large numbers of people you need to have each gamemaster entertain a lot more than a half-dozen people; the old idea of sitting down to run a single adventure totally falls apart. Instead, you need to figure out how to entertain fifty people, and to do so for an extended amount of time, and to make your plots reusable when possible.

Don't Be the center of plots. And, once you've started a plot, you want to figure out how to stop being the center of attention. If you can figure out how to get your players to interact with each other or with the game environment, then suddenly the game is playable without you, at a time that you're not there... and you can worry about what's going to happen next.

The Bottom Line

When it comes down to it, being a StoryBuilder for a Skotos Tech game isn't like being a gamemaster at all; rather, it's like being a game designer, creating a scenario book that's going to be used by someone on the other side of the world who you're never going to see. You thus need to prepare for every weird eventuality.

And, that's all multiplied by the fact that there won't be just one group of players playing your game, but hundreds of groups of players (one would hope) and they're going to keep playing it for a long time, and they're going to all be doing it at the same time.

So you have to write an adventure in advance, never quite knowing who your players will be, that can't be upset by the weirdest actions and that is infinitely reusable.

Easy, so go to it.

Did I mention that Skotos Tech is accepting proposals for new games again and that we'd love to see some more from gamemasters and game designers alike? Hop on over to Becoming a StoryBuilder and start putting together your own proposal!

Blatant Plug Department

I'm continuing to write my other column, Thinking Virtually, for Sometime the column reprints Skotos articles and sometimes it offers totally new pieces. The last three weeks' articles have been new:

If you haven't already read The Elements of Good StoryTelling, and you want to be a StoryBuilder, go do so!

And then I'll see you back here next week when I want to talk a little bit about what you can currently do with our StoryBuilder Toolkit ...

your opinion...