LESSON Setting Up Stories

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY MECHANICS' started by Kestrel, Aug 22, 2014.


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  1. So, you're going to be leading a quest. That's cool, great even. You're going to guide players through a story arc and give them a fantastic roleplaying experience. That sure sounds exciting, but how do you go about this?

    Hi, I'm Kestrel. I've been a GM for... Well, most of my ~7 year old roleplaying career and lead a number of long-lasting roleplays, two of which completed, as an on-going RP since 22/11/11. I figured that's enough credentials to pretend to know something about the topic. For this guide, I'll be covering how I go about setting up a story. I may or may not do stuff for other aspects of GM'ing in the future, but this guide will focus on just one thing; how to set stuff up. I'll be covering a number of subjects, from what should be present in your posts, basic storytelling structure, etc.

    Before all that, I need you guys to acknowledge a crucial difference. Some consider it controversial, but ignoring this difference leads to many GM's falling flat on their faces. It is the difference between writing and roleplaying.

    Writing vs. roleplaying

    A lot of people think roleplaying is similar writing a novel or short story. This is wrong! The primary differences between novel-writing and roleplaying are participation and interaction. Posts their main function is interaction and setting up interaction. This can be interaction with other characters, NPC's, the environment, etc. Sure, players will enjoy a well-written post, but they're not just an audience; they're participants in the creative process and your fellow writers. Reading is only half the experience for any roleplayer, they also came to write. This is why you don't just need to entertain them, but provide them with building blocks. As their fellow player, and especially as a GM, you need to burn that into your mind. Here's a small list of things GM's, both new and experienced alike, run into when they confuse writing with roleplaying;

    • As a GM, you're not telling a story, you're facilitating a story. The outcomes of scenes should depend largely on the actions of the roleplayers. If the actions of players don't influence the outcome of a scene, you're just making your players writing your story for you. This is called railroading and railroading is bad, because being railroaded is boring. Feeling powerless to change something may be interesting in a novel, but use it sparingly, if at all, in an RP, because being powerless inherently demotivates people to try anything.
    • If you're forced to make a choice between pretty words and getting a message across, always choose the latter. In general players are far more motivated by the content they can produce than by your wordplay. You want your message to be clear and concise. If your message is complicated, sometimes this means you have to tell before showing. It's a sin in novels, but you can afford more vague moments when your readers don't have to instantly react to something. In roleplay, you don't solely rely on your words to engage your players, you rely on theirs.
    • When you make an obstacle, make sure there's more than one way to get around it. If every problem has only one solution, you're railroading. If you have a dragon guarding a treasure, don't force players to slay the beast, give them the option to sneak in, bribe the dragon, lure it out and have team B steal it while you distract it, etc. That doesn't mean any option has to be easy, just that multiple should be viable.
    • Make sure everyone can grab the spotlight. Don't appoint (or banish the though, make your own) main character, unless you want your roleplay to die. Die hard. No matter how interesting said main character is. For every player, their own character is the main character. Respect that. If you choose to fight the dragon, don't make it's only weakness an arrow to the eye. Or at the very least, force everyone to work together to create an opening for the archer to take their shot.
    • Make sure everyone has something to do at every moment. When someone posts their character doing nothing of importance whatsoever, it's a waste of time and space, as well as demotivating for that player, the other players and you, the GM. You can't interact with someone posting nothing. Some players are more passive than others; so give them incentive. Don't put just one NPC in the room you expect everyone to talk to, create multiple NPC's, or other forms of interactive elements, each possessing their own little tidbit about the information-puzzle.
    • Don't have too many characters in one scene at once. In a novel you have complete control over what to discuss, but with multiple writers big scenes can quickly become chaotic. Or worse; if you have eight players at the same spot at the same time, people will only use their post to react until everyone has posted, with the only action happening in one or two posts. Ideally, have three or four, five at most characters at the same scene at the same time.

    Remember that before storytelling, GM'ing is people management. The best roleplays come out when everyone is motivated to write, so you should facilitate that freedom over trying to tell a story of your own. Understand you're writing collaboratively and the moment even just one player joins, the story isn't just exclusively yours anymore. You can't make an RP work if you can't make your players write it.


    Now, much as I've outlined the difference between writing and roleplaying, that doesn't mean we can't gain anything from common tools used in writing. Whether you tell or facilitate a story, you need to know how at a basic level, a story works and how it is structured. The determining factor to the structure in a story is, of course, pacing.

    Pacing determines the speed at which a scene or plot moves, and is the most influential factor in engaging your audience. Because there are people far better at explaining the general concept of ideal pacing than I am, here's a great explanatory video about how pacing works from people who like videogames.

    That was it.

    If you didn't watch it (shame on you) it boils down to the following. When setting up any form of entertainment, you want to start with a hook; something that instantly grabs people their attention. After that, you want a slight lull to acclimatise people to your story before ramping up the action again. Every time you ramp up from there, you create just a little more excitement than in your last peak, before you lull again. Basically it's a cycle going;
    • Action
    • Lull
    • Action
    • Lull
    • etc.
    This goes for every arc, every scene, and even every action. First engage, then let them breathe before doing it again.

    Now, there's two big differences between creating good pacing in videogames (as put forward in the video) and in roleplaying.

    • Where the video names three different sizes for the curve; being arc, scene and action. In roleplaying I will use arc, scene and post. As a GM you have no control over the pacing within a player's post (obviously) and your influence over a scene is limited. After all, the scene is a sequence of posts. You only have your own posts to influence the pacing of a scene. Use these posts wisely. Understand where to slow down and where to speed up. In spite having less control, you have a lot of direct input to read into. When characters become more passive or posting slows down, it's probably time to ramp up the action. If it becomes chaotic and confusing for players to follow a scene, you probably waited too long with the lull. Optimal timing is hard and can be different for different players, but as you practice, you will come to read into the moment more naturally.
    • The second big difference is that roleplays have lull moments whether you write them or not. This is because unlike other media, you don't have a constant stream of content coming your way, but you have to wait for people to read and respond. Because of this, make your lulls short. Give people small breathers before they have to go back to saving the world, but limit the time this takes. Tavern scenes are where roleplays come to die. To compensate for this, use timeskips where needed.

    Long story short; everything you write needs a balance between action and rest. You need not only read into the scenes to properly balance this, but also into the feedback of your players.

    Three-act structure

    Where pacing deals with the engagement in a story, the three-act-structure deals with coherence and is basically the glue of a story. As the name suggests, the three-act-structure splits up a story into three main segments.

    • Act I deals with the exposition; introducing characters and environment, as well as the premise of the story. This is where the first plot-point will be introduced and dubbed the inciting incident. With this, the story is set into motion. For your typical fantasy story, this can be meeting with the king and hearing (or maybe even watching as) the princess is kidnapped by a dragon. Why dragons keep doing that remains a mystery...
    • Act II is the meat of the story. This is where the protagonists of the story will be jumping over hurdles to reach their goal. Be it by training how to joust against a dragon, going through the ancient trials to be found worthy to wield the dragon-slaying lance, etc. Usually act two introduces the second plot point, where everything turns around (dubbed the reversal). If you want a plot twist, this is the most convenient part to place it in. Maybe it wasn't the dragon who kidnapped the princess, but the princess is plotting to use the dragon to usurp the throne from her father.
    • Act III, finally leads to the climax. This is where the plot hits hardest and the final confrontation takes place. Stakes are highest and the action is the most tense. To defend king and country, the heroes take on both the dragon and the princess. Then, after the heroes succeed (or fail) there is the denouement; which is pretty much a difficult word for bringing in the lull we learned about with pacing.
    Like the pacing cycle, the three-act-structure doesn't just apply to story as a whole. Especially with roleplays that tend to be composed out of multiple arcs, it can go down as deep as the post- and scene-levels. Although probably there won't be two plot-twists per post, there will probably be a small Act I to every obstacle. Keep in mind though, that unlike pacing, the three-act-structure is not to be enforced with an iron fist. You can deviate from it if you feel so inclined and have the skill and confidence to pull it off, but the three-arc-structure is a very convenient baseline to work with.

    The Golden Rule

    The golden rule is that no matter how carefully you planned your story out, at some point, your players can and will poke holes in it. I strongly recommend you to embrace this. In spite of everything you have planned and plotted out, roleplaying is a collaborative effort. Sometimes players will derail your story. Maybe a knight's loyalty to their king wavers, causing one player to throw a wrench in the party's plans by leaking to the enemy. Learn to see this as a natural part of roleplay, because in my honest opinion, players surprising you is one of the best parts of being a GM. So be flexible, learn to improvise, and don't be afraid to tell your players you need an extra day or two to figure out where to go from there.

    Also here's an obligatory reference and yes, I totally think this paragraph deserves it's own chapter.


    Now that we have covered the basics for the overall structuring, we're going to go down to post level. As a GM, most of the time you're supposed to set the scene, meaning you'll be showing off the environment, NPC's and obstacles players will get to play with. This is called exposition; you expose your players to their environment.

    The important thing about exposition is that it can't be too long, but it can't be to vague either. As mentioned way back, players are more motivated by getting to write than getting to read, so it's important not to info-dump your exposition. Only write about what is directly relevant (unless you plot on using Chekhov's Gun). Make sure what you write has a function. You don't need to narrate every detail of an NPC's new Mercedes, that's not relevant to the players. However, if the NPC describes every detail of their car, players will learn about his passion and can potentially use that fact to change topics when trying to avoid a question, or threaten to destroy his car if he doesn't work with them.

    The exception is Chekhov's Gun. Chekhov's Gun is a narrative element that may seem irrelevant at the time it's introduced, but becomes relevant in the scene afterwards. A slightly different looking egg in the hen house may not seem worth mentioning, up until you have tiny snakes crawling around. Players won't need to be told these were snake eggs, because you shed light on the detail earlier, they'll connect the baby snakes to the odd eggs.

    One important element that may not directly be interacted with, but still is essential, is atmosphere. Describe the atmosphere when entering a new space. Again, don't info-dump, but do stimulate the senses. Here's an example about the dragon's den;
    • Sight, when entering the den, the heroes can see scorch marks on the walls and skeletons and armour laying around; hinting at the dragon's cruel treatment of unwelcome guests.
    • Hearing, if they hear a dragon's snoring or they hear it's roar has completely different effect on the atmosphere, even if everything else is the same.
    • Smell, smell is the sense closest related to memory, as well as an indicator of the unseen and unheard. When you describe a sweet smell in the air, you're throwing players for a loop and make them wonder; is there something else besides the dragon in this den?
    • Touch, which may be the most difficult, but whether a dragon's exterior feels like cold, hard scales or they are so fluffy you're gonna die has a big impact on how players will interact with it.
    • Taste is a little more obscure, but it often warns us of what we should and shouldn't put in our mouth. Also, if you can taste the air, that's a good indication breathing it might not be such a good idea.

    You needn't stimulate all senses (especially taste is often irrelevant) but try to at least address a couple. We experience the world through our senses, and this is a great show don't tell method to set an atmosphere and so immerse players in your world.

    Conflict & Obstacles

    What is a story without conflict? That's like drinking a cup of muthafkin tea. Not very exciting. No, a good story requires multiple parties to clash in some way, be it with arms, words, possessions, etc. Now there's basically two kinds of conflict; man versus man and man versus environment. Man versus man suggests two concious parties having conflicting desires, for example the classic hero versus villain set-up. However conflict isn't just two guys or gals butting heads, it could be between small groups, or two entire planets. You could make it a three-way conflict, or be a neutral faction in a war trying to end it peacefully. Man versus man simply means you are dealing with a concious antagonistic force actively pursuing a clear goal (regardless of whether this force is an elf, a group, male or female, has seven legs, etc).

    Man versus environment works with a (mostly) non-conscious antagonist. This could be trying to survive in the wilderness, a hurricane ravaging your hometown, etc. In a roleplay, environment is rarely the main antagonistic force, but that ancient trap-filled ruin you're exploring or the vast forest filled with feral predators and poisonous lants are common examples of man versus environment in roleplay. The environment isn't consciously out to stop you from reaching your goal, but interferes with it nonetheless.

    Conflict gives birth to obstacles to overcome. Different obstacles require different approaches, and multiple viable ways to get around. You should vary your obstacles and optimal solutions. Some fights are best avoided, others it might be easier to beat the opposition down than to reason with them. However, not everything is about combat. Let's take an example obstacle and see a number of different ways you could go around it.

    The party needs the support of a king to further their quest, but the king does not trust strangers. What can they do?
    • Attempt to coerce the king through force.
    • Win the king's trust by slaying a beast that's bothered them.
    • Call in the help of mutual acquaintances to convince the king, or woo his daughter and have her convince her father for you.
    • Entertain the king at the grand ball, slowly winning over his trust.
    • Find a way to make it profitable for the king, making him an offer he can't refuse.
    • etc.
    As you can see, there's multiple ways to go about it. You may even want to cross off a couple options, like the king being guarded quite heavily, making a solution with force backfire, or making him a tyrant so that flattering him will suit you better than employing a third party. etc. Note that obstacles aren't always fights either, and many obstacles can be overcome without combat.

    Action-reaction cycle

    Last, but certainly not least, the action-reaction cycle. Almost any good post, from either player or GM, consists out of two parts; reaction and action, or interaction and setting up interaction. Let's break that down.
    • A reaction is an acknowledgement of what was written before you. This can be applied to almost anything. Maybe the other character swings a sword at yours, then your reaction will include blocking, dodging or taking the hit. Maybe they ask you a question, and the reaction is the answer to that question.
    • The action, on the other hand, deliberately sets something up to push the scene forward. After blocking the sword, your character attempts to parry and counter-attack. After answering the question, they ask a question of their own. Actions you set up will require a reaction from the other player(s) and so you keep the cycle going.

    While players can be a little more passive here or there without much consequence, as a GM all your posts have to evoke a response. You're the pacing master, you have a quest to guide your players through. With every post, you are expected to push the plot forward and give players something to respond to. Reactions are equally important, because player actions need to influence a scene (or they'll feel useless) and because acknowledgement in and of itself is a little reward. Most of us prefer to talk to other people than our bedroom walls because they respond. The same applies to collaborative writing. Acknowledge and write something to everyone, even if it's small, so they feel part of the roleplay.

    That's All, Folks

    You learned about the core differences between roleplaying and writing, conflict and obstacles, how to structure your arc and what to include in your post. Now it's up to you to apply all that. Both have a basic structure and be prepared to deviate from your original idea, understand when to speed up and slow down, and at all times consider your players and their needs. Following this guide alone isn't an end-all to make you a good GM, that requires experience and mastery of a wider range of skills, but it should at the very least give you a basic guideline to hold onto when setting up stories. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, don't be afraid to ask how players feel about your set-up, and if something doesn't work out; analyse what went wrong and try again. With that, I wish you the best of luck setting up your new stories. Godspeed.

    Kestrel out.
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  2. Jesus Kestrel, like they didn't teach us this in Kindergarten.
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  3. Awesome guide. All of that information is out there already, but bringing it all together in one place like this is super helpful.
    I feel sheepish about it, but I know I knew all of this... and still I've failed time and time again to be the GM or leading force in a roleplay. Now that I know this is here, *favorites page* I'll be revisiting every time I get stuck. :) Thanks!
  4. Sweet mother of god, you put everything all together in one neat package plus you used one of my favorite shows on Youtube! PRAISE LORD KESTREL!
  5. Well, I was gonna write something like this, but that's out the window now. Leaves me with just two guides left to write instead of three. :bsmile:

    This guide is Brovo approved!
  6. Holy frijoles Kestrel.

    This is like, AAA grade.
    Well done indeed!
  7. Aha! My liberal use of the bump tool has proved effective once again.
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  8. I was wondering why this shot up, I assumed it was a bug... >.>

    But yeah, good thing people feel it's useful. Cheers, ya'll.
  9. I always thought roleplaying and writing were the same thing. Now that I've seen this, it looks like I won't be running any games for the next few centuries.
  10. That's sorta ironic 'cause I meant it to help... >.>
  11. There is room for everyone here to grow, so don't worry about what you don't know yet. Take what you've learned from reading this guide and apply it to your future attempts and you'll notice a marked improvement in your creation.