Instant Drama – Just Add Failure – Part 1

Posted on July 18, 2017 By

Failure is important for good storytelling. Failure is what drives stories forward, what drives protagonists to try stupid, risky things, what raises the stakes so that what started out as a minor issue turns into a life-threatening crisis. Without fear of failure, there is no tension. Without actual failure from time to time, that fear becomes a lie.

That’s all well and good for writing a traditional story, but that’s a big challenge for writing games.

When you’re writing a normal (non-interactive) story, you control the characters.

  • Need the hero to overlook a clue so she can have dramatic regret in act 3? Okay.
  • Want to raise the stakes by having the hero try to fix the initial problem, but only make it worse? No problem.
  • Would it amuse you for the hero to make the clearly wrong decision for purely internal reasons? (“My mother would choose this, and I hate my mother, so I won’t do it!”) Done, done, and done!

But when you’re writing a game story, that’s not the case. You don’t control the main characters; the players do. And players hate to fail.

(Quick aside about the term “game story”: I was originally intending this post to be about writing for video games, but realized that most of these ideas are equally applicable to writing adventures for tabletop roleplaying games. Which is good. Because there are a thousand times more GMs out there than video game writers.)

So. Failure makes for good story, but players hate to fail. What to do?

I have some ideas.

(To be continued…)

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