Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Storytelling games, revisited (a little)

About 2 years ago I posted some thoughts on "role playing games" (more accurately "collaborative storytelling exercises") - specifically my experience with Fiasco, and my observation of Lady Blackbird.

At the time, I enjoyed the concept of Fiasco, but took issue with 2 things:

1) Failure for failure's sake. I feel like that comment/issue got a little overblown in my previous discussion - the bottom line is that I thought people were more excited than necessary about the game allowing and encouraging failure. But it's mostly semantic anyway, and that wasn't my main gripe about the game.

2) Completely reactive storytelling - that was my main gripe. When I think about a story, I think about ideas that are more interconnected and that take more than 1 comment to get across. That's not how Fiasco works - if you go into a scene in Fiasco with an idea that will take any kind of developing, you'll be disappointed. The way to enjoy Fiasco is to have no forethought (indeed, the game is about characters with little or no forethought), no plan, just see what happens and react to it.

That's all well and good, but it wasn't what I wanted from a storytelling game, and after putting thought into what I WOULD want from a storytelling game, I came up with a sort of variant or alternate structure - similar to Fiasco perhaps, but which would give players a bit more control over their own story arc, so their clever ideas don't get sidetracked and overrun by other players' clever ideas.

While Fiasco sets you up to tell a story like those Fiasco movies (Fargo, Burn After Reading, etc), my game would set you up to tell a story more like Pulp Fiction, where there are several distinct story arcs, but they overlap and intersect with each other. Each player would be "in charge" of one of the arcs, which could include more than just a main character (you could have support characters for example), and by alternating what I called "monolog scenes" (maybe a better term is "spotlight scenes") and "Interactive scenes," players would both get a chance to complete some thoughts about what's going on in their story arc, as well as play out interactive scenes with other players which will help shape and drive the overall story.

In the discussion of this idea, several people commented on potential down time - the phrase "monolog scene" seemed to turn people off, as if it meant 1 person would be talking at the rest for a long period of time. I feel like those comments were overly cautious though, as my impression of how those monolog scenes would go is more like "setting the scene" in Fiasco - a couple of paragraphs at most, just a chance for a player to get a word in edgewise without being interrupted by other players. I'd think they'd be short bridges between the interactive scenes, following one player's story arc from their interaction with their left hand neighbor's arc, to their interaction with their right hand neighbor's arc.

Anyway, I'm sure each person has a different idea of what a monologue or "spotlight" scene really is, and each person has their own level of tolerance for listening to someone else's idea before wanting to interject their own. So even if my structure works just the ay I think it will, it's not going to be for everybody.

There was another aspect of my structure that I thought was neat, but it didn't come up in any of the discussions at the time... and that's the set-in-stone-ness of the scenes in the 1st act (once they've played out), toward which you must construct the scenes in the 2nd act. That is to say, in the 2nd act, when the players are re-playing the chronology, they know what's got to happen in the future (they already played those scenes out). So they have some direction... they know they have to get to the diner with the briefcase, for example, but they currently do not have the briefcase. So they have to work that into their narrative.

Last night I was talking to my indie RPG friend, Brian, and he mentioned some new (?) game where the whole premise is that everyone knows the endpoint of the story, and knowing that gives players direction. Unlike Fiasco, which is very open, this type of game gives players a specific end goal that they know they have to work toward. I found that interesting, and it reminded me of my Pulp Fiction game structure, where in act 2, you have exactly that (you know what you have to work toward).

I actually like that in the Pulp Fiction game, you have both aspects - in act 1 you have the openness to create whatever lynchpins you want, then in act 2 those lynchpins provide direction for the scenes to build toward.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was a little more specifically how the Pulp Fiction game would work. Brian pointed out to me that with the openness there's something of a hurdle to get over to get scenes started. That could be one of the challenges in Fiasco, in fact. An interesting thing about these storytelling games is when the characters are thrown a curveball, some stimulus they have to work into the story. I agree with that. Brian was concerned that my Act 1 would suffer that same problem, but I think that's because it wasn't clear that the 'setup' part of the game (analogous to Fiasco), you would be choosing this stimulus in some way. But what way?

My First thought was to borrow the dice draft like in Fiasco, but I don't particularly like that. It's fun to draft from the pool of choices, but rather than feel like "ooh, now I have to work a rabid dog into the story" I just feel like "hey, he got to pick the thing he was interested in, and now I can't pick an "escaped chip" because there are no 5's left (and I thought that would go really well with our current setup), I can only pick "rabid dog" :(" - it's disappointing, and even the fun parts of that setup take a really long time.

I'd prefer to put the elements on cards, and just deal them out as needed, or give players a hand and thy can play one to inject it into the story, or something like that. After talking to Brian it became clear that there will need to be injections of stimulus periodically during the game, especially in Act 1 (in Act 2 you'll be building toward those lynchpins, so it might not be as necessary). So now I'm thinking that when it's time for an interactive scene (i.e. the spotlight scene draws to a close as your arc intersects another players's arc), you draw a card off the deck to see what it is the interactive scene must be about.

So like, my arc brings me to a diner, where I find your character(s)... so what? What are we going to interact over? Draw a card... "Robbery" Oh, so either I o into the diner to rob the place (and you happen to be eating there at the time)... or maybe I enter a diner that you are currently holding up... whichever makes more sense. There's something.

So the setup for this game will probably be deciding which subset of cards (apparently the smart way to do that is to use a standard deck of cards and a chart to cross reference) to use, or just shuffle them all together (possibly separated by type - Location, Action/Activity, Object, Person of note), and defining relationships between the players (like in Fiasco). The thing I like best about Fiasco is probably the web of interrelationships encouraged by the setup, so I don't see a good reason not to emulate that!

One of these days maybe I'll sit down and formalize these rules and try the game, but I'm not sure that'll ever really happen, as I never really play that type of game.


EurojuegosBsAs said...

I've worked on the development of a storytelling game (not my design) and I can relate to many impressions you've written about. Many times competition and distraction, willingly or not, can ruin a story for a character and the experience for a player. The design has both to set the opportunity for a player to participate, and to preserve the core of what was shared.

So I wonder if instead of setting the goal in players building "their" own story (and be messed with by the others), it could work if the goal was that players built "the" story itself, regardless of characters. Meaning, not actually using a character themselves, but in turn each adding a trait to the character or the background by their own storytelling.

My English is not that good, so bear with me for an example: say the story is about this guy, the first player talks for 2 minutes about where and how he is now, then the next player for 2 minutes continues with where he goes, what he is up to, and the next player for 2 minutes with who/what he finds in the process, etc.

In 5 minutes (not 5 hours), you'll have an ongoing story, built cooperatively.

Using cards with story elements that the non-active players choose from their hand and give to the narrator (player in-turn), the story flows with almost no downtime. On the contrary, there is even a time-pressure dynamic in play.

I tell you, it works perfectly for Dias de Radio (the said game). Not only for people playing the game, but also for people around the table just hearing the story unfolds. DdR is the only game I've seen people cheer and applaud at the end.

Well designed storytelling games have a great potential to produce immersion. But most, at the end make you think the game is cleaver, but not many make you thing YOU are the actual genius behind an amazing story created.

My 2 cents :)

Glad you picked back the topic


PS If I understood it correctly, not very fond of the Rallyman-like structure you propose of people entering and leaving the story in different points, for the same reason it doesn't work too well in Rallyman.

Again, my English may not be good enough to clearly follow what your idea is about, so please take this with a grain of salt.

Patricio Mendez said...

If I may ask a question, what is the name of the new (?) game that your friend was talking about?

Seth Jaffee said...

@Patricio - I am afraid I don't remember the name of it. :(

@Juan - I'm not familiar with Rallyman. The structure for the Pulp Fiction game (man, I should give it a name. Is it legit to call it "Pulp Fiction"?) is that you just go around the table...

P1 has a spotlight scene, then P1 and P2 (to her left) have an interactive scene with each other, then P2 continues by himself, then interacts with p3 (to his right), etc... So you'd have a more or less continuous story for Act 1, Then in Act 2 you'd jump back to the beginning and go through the same chronology again, filling in the gaps.