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.
Today I’d like to talk about a fun world-building exercise that I’ve used to some effect myself, and you might find useful in stoking your own fires of creation.
I’m a big believer in using random seeds to spark creativity. Draw a card! Roll on a chart! Use the Internet to come up with all kinds of random elements, then use your imagination to figure out how to bring those elements together into a cohesive whole!
Here, let’s try an example:
Movie #1: The Transporter. Okay, it’s an action movie about a courier who uses a fast car, martial arts, and guns to get the package where it needs to go, no questions asked. That’s a pretty cool premise.
Movie #2: Let the Right One In. Hmmm. A moody coming-of-age drama involving an adolescent boy and the vampire girl next door he falls in love with. Sort of. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but as I recall, one of the sub-themes of the movie is how vampires pull people into their orbit and turn them into their minions.
I can work with this. Just… give me a minute.
(Montage of me staring into space, scribbling on paper, throwing the paper away, making notes on a whiteboard, setting the whiteboard on fire, then banging my head against a wall until blood appears. I suddenly turn to the camera and grin, blood running down my face.)
I’ve got it!
In a world much like our own, vampires wage a brutal war against each other from the shadows. These undead creatures need to stay mobile and well-protected, even as they sleep during the day. To this end, they recruit crews of specialists to drive them where they need to go, carry out their will, and protect them with lethal force.
That’s a good start. Not bad for a single montage of brainstorming, though it’s still missing something to tie it all together as a cohesive whole.
A certain amount of world-building is scaffolding; it’s creating all the parts that need to exist in order to support a central idea. In this case, my idea is “action heroes drive vampires around.” I need to create a world that makes this element not only essential, but inevitable. (“In a world like that, of course you’ll have specialized vampire transport teams!”)
Let’s build a little scaffolding:
- Vampires sleep not only during the day, but for weeks at a time. Maybe they only arise during the full moon.
- Sleeping vampires are very telepathic, and capable of giving instructions to their minions, but aren’t always entirely lucid. Some humans are better than others at communicating with the sleepers. Some can’t do it at all.
- Vampires can sense each other’s presence. (Yes, just like in Highlander, but moreso.) The longer they remain in a place, the stronger the “signal” they give off is. This is part of why they need to stay on the move. While it’s possible to just hole up in a secure location (fine, you can call it a “lair”) for an extended period of time, doing so means that everyone will eventually know where you are. Sooner or later, you’re going to be in a siege position. While some very rich and powerful vampires might be okay with this, the rank and file find it more efficient to just keep moving.
I like where this is going. I think it could be a fun storyworld with a grindhouse, over-the-top tone to it. I’m not sure it’s worth developing, but this has been a good way to exercise the old world-building muscles.
This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page. If you’re not a patron yet, I’d encourage you to swing by the page and see what we’re up to.
I’ll be honest: I expected to be further along on this “cannibal card game” idea by now. I’d intended to show you a full game pitch like those I’ve done in the past, but life, as it often does, had different ideas. That’s okay. We’ll make do with a short snapshot of the work in progress.
Here’s a sample of one of the cards I’m working on:
Strength: The game sort-of cooperative. As member of a gold-mining expedition, all the players are trying to reach Colorado without dying. To that end, they play cards each round. If they play enough total Strength, they progress to the next checkpoint. If not, they’re that much closer to starving to death in the mountains.
Suit: The twist is that while everyone puts in some Strength each round, the players who put in the most and the least get penalized. To break ties, each card has a suit, which is ranked from highest to lowest.
Text: Some cards (maybe all? I haven’t decided yet) have game text that can help you, hurt your opponents, or help the expedition as a whole. Sometimes, you may play a card you otherwise don’t want to because you need its game text.
So how exactly does the game play?
I’m still working on that part. I’ve got some solid ideas, but need to test them before sharing them with the world. Hopefully I’ll have something to show in another week or two.
In my case, discovering Cannibal the Musical led to thoughts of designing a game about the most famous cannibal in Colorado, which led to… a spring break road trip deep into the mountains in search of inspiration.
It was March. The girls were out of school, so we took a couple days and headed up to Lake City, Colorado, which is home to the Packer Massacre Memorial and… not much else.
Lake City is a charming tourist town surrounded by lakes, mountain peaks, and terrible cell service. It’s also a ghost town. Oh, I’m sure the place is hopping in July, but in March? We saw more deer on the streets than we did people.
Honestly, it felt like we’d wandered into Silent Hill. A hush lay over the tiny town. Its buildings were old-fashioned, yet well-preserved. When I saw the iconic church building standing stark against the mountains, I almost expected to hear an emergency siren and see black snow start to fall.
I’d hoped to visit the local museum for more local information on Alfred Packer and his doomed expedition, but it was closed for the season. We did find some local info at the Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill, the only eating establishment open before June. (The theme combines Alfred Packer and the Greenbay Packers, turning into a cannibal sports bar, which is as oddly amusing as it sounds.)
Ultimately, there wasn’t much to do in town. So while the kids amused themselves by watching hotel TV, I started putting together notes for a Packer-themed card game.
Next: The results of those notes.
I’m starting to feel cursed.
It was about 10:00 at night and I was making my way home on the freeway last week. My head was full of board game ideas from the prototype/playtesting event I’d just left, and my tires were full of air. I knew they were full of air because I’d spent 20 minutes driving around downtown looking for a gas station with an air pump after seeing that the right front tire was dangerously low.
Ten minutes later, I heard an ominous “bang!” from the rear of the van. Two minutes after that, the vehicle started to shudder, and I knew I’d lost a tire. On the freeway. Again.
I pulled over to the shoulder. It wasn’t much of a shoulder. More of shoulder blade. There was exactly enough room for one vehicle to fit between a concrete barrier on the left, and four lanes of high-speed death on the right. I squeezed out the driver-side door and headed to the back to of the van to check my hypothesis.
The good news was that I hadn’t over-filled the front tire. The bad news was that the right rear tire was flat, and trying to change it was out of the question. There was simply no room. Just squatting in front of it in the traditional “Hey, I’m changing a tire here!” position would result in my sudden transformation into roadkill.
It took the tow truck half an hour to arrive. I don’t know if I’ve ever been quite so aware of my own mortality as I was during those 30 minutes. Every few seconds, a car zipped around the corner behind me and shot past with only a few feet to spare. The van rocked, and I had to wonder if the next car would be the one with my name on it.
Needless to say, I survived the ordeal. But after three such incidents, it’s starting to feel personal.
I’m starting to feel cursed.
Cannibalism makes for some great game ideas.
Previously, I wrote about my
obsession with interest in Alfred Packer, the sole survivor of an 1874 expedition that ended in death and cannibalism. While pondering the story of this infamously well-fed man, I’ve realized that it would make a great basis for a game. After all, it has elements of:
- Push Your Luck Games: This is a classic game mechanic, and one that cost the Packer expedition their lives. “Should we listen to the natives who say we should stay out of the mountains during snow season, or press onward in hopes of getting more gold?”
- Cooperative Games with a Traitor: In games like Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot, the players are all working together to beat the game… but one or more players are secretly working towards their own personal victory. While we don’t know exactly how the expedition came its grisly end in 1874, it’s safe to say its members were all working together–until they weren’t.
- Strategic Tension: Games often have a tension between multiple strategies. Any of them can win you the game, but if you embrace any single strategy too tightly, it might actually cost you the game. In a brutal “eat or be eaten” survival scenario, there can be tension between eating enough to keep up your strength vs. making yourself a target vs. keeping your head down and waiting for the aggressors to finish each other off.
As a game designer and armchair historian, I’ve mulled over these elements for years, but they didn’t really come together until the spring of this year, when a trip into the mountains went horribly wrong.*
Next: Road trip of death!
* Okay, it wasn’t horribly wrong. I mean, no one got eaten. But it could have gone better.
It was over a decade ago when one of my friends asked, “Hey, man! Have you seen the movie Cannibal! the Musical?”
I hadn’t. I hadn’t even heard of it.
He handed me a DVD.
“I think you’ll like it,” he said. Turns out he was right.
For the uninitiated, Cannibal! the Musical is a musical comedy retelling the actual, historical tale of an ill-fated trip over the Rocky Mountains in 1874 that ended in death and (you guessed it!) cannibalism. It’s a low-budget film from a pair of filmmakers who went on to do other, more famous things.
Cannibal! remained a cult favorite among my friends. But it wasn’t until I learned I was going to move to Colorado (where much of the story is set) that I dug into the history of the incident. Because there was only one survivor (Alfred Packer, the eponymous cannibal) and his story kept changing, it was a mystery with no clear answers…
…But a lot of potential for a really cool game.
Next: Why cannibalism and board games are two great tastes that taste great together!
The suit itches, and it stinks of sweat and other, less pleasant things. Still, it’s all for science, and so I persist.
Okay, I’m not really doing cat-science. But I have been buried under several NDAed projects, such as:
- That one un-announced game design I’ve been forcing all my friends to playtest.
- That other unannounced game project that’s had me working IN AN ACTUAL OFFICE several days a week.
- The video game writing contract that’s allowing me to stretch my creative muscles in new directions.
- The other video game writing project in which I’m helping polish a fun and charming story to a high sheen.
- The tabletop RPG line that lets me practice my InDesign wizardry.
Whew. You know, writing it all down like that, I don’t feel quite so guilty about letting the blog lie fallow a bit, or how much Ghost Punchers has languished the past couple months. Still, I look forward to when I can start showing this stuff off you fine folks and say, “See? I’ve been busy not lazy!” and have you believe me.
I hate buying new computers.
Oh, I love shopping for new computers: catching up on all the improvements since I was last in the market, comparing bells and whistles of various makes and brands, and ferreting out those secret spots on the Internet where the best deals are hiding. Fun stuff!
I love having a new computer. The upgrade in speed and functionality is always a rush.
But the moment of purchase? The actual buying of the computer? If freaks me out, man.
Because I know—I know—the moment I pull the trigger, a better deal come along. As soon as the charge hits my credit card, I’ll see an ad for a machine twice as good for half the price. As soon as I casually mention that I picked up a new computer, one of my tech-guru friends will appear and say, “I hope you didn’t get [insert exact model of computer I just bought], because it’s slow, prone to catching fire, and actually full of tarantulas.”
I know. Because it happens every time.
That’s why I’ve put off replacing my work laptop for months. I’ve tried to deny its shuddering instability and love of crashing at inopportune times. But the truth is, it’s costing me money. “Time is money” is a horrible cliché, but it’s true—especially for a freelancer like myself. And when I lose two minutes out of every 10 while the computer randomly freezes, the beast takes 15 minutes to fully reboot after a crash, and it crashes at least once a day… That adds up to a lot of time.
I can’t afford to lose this much productivity. I can’t afford not to buy a new computer.
The new laptop is supposed to show up this week. No, I won’t tell you what it is, because I don’t want to hear how it’s overpriced and gives off radiation. But for my friends on Facebook and Twitter, I will tell you this much: it has a solid state disk drive.
It’s true. I’m obsessed with storyworlds and world-building. I’m also a huge fan of tabletop RPGs. And while these things go together like whatever “two things that go together” cliche you like (I prefer “like peanut butter and bananas” myself), mashing them together does raise some challenges.
Me: “Hello, gaming friends! I have picked up the Dino-Elves RPG and it is amazing! But before we get started, I’d like you to listen to me tell you about the setting for an hour, so we’re all –“
Friends: (Threatening growls and reaching for sharp objects.)
Me: “On second thought, why don’t you all take it home and read it over. It’s only 200 pages of –“
Friends: (Flip the table, snatch the book from my hands, burn the book, burn the table for good measure.)
Me: “Or… we can stick with the game that we’ve all been playing for 20 years because — I get it — who’s got time to learn a new world just to play a game?”
Learning new RPG worlds is work. And it’s stressful when you’re looking at 50-200 pages of storyworld, and don’t know what’s “fun to know” versus what’s “essential to play the game.” Of course, if you’re the GM and it’s a world of your own creation, it’s not quite such a hassle, but even then, it can be intimidating or annoying for your players.
With this in mind, I’d like offer a few tips for you Game Masters who want to introduce a new game world without assigning homework, or having your table flipped:
Go Broad: Explain the storyworld in the broadest terms possible, giving your players just enough context that they can create characters or start playing without being completely lost. (“It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy world that used to be full of high magic, but is now a low-magic wasteland populated by psychic elves who ride dinosaurs–that’s you–fighting evil mutants–that’s everyone else.”)
Expand as You Go: Bring up details as they become relevant, and not before. But again, keep them as broad as you can; the goal is to keep the game going, so don’t get bogged down in minutia.
Make it Personal: Possibly an exception to the “as broad as possible” rule, you may wish to give players details about the setting that their characters know. So instead of having all the players read five pages of background, give five players one page, and let them share their information with each other as it comes up. (“The acid swamp? I’m actually from there! We’ll have to watch out for swamp-squids and albino gators, but the tree goblins are actually friendly.”)
Make it Rewarding: Background details can be valuable. This could be a mechanical reward (“You learned the true history of the Bird-gods of Cerland! Here’s 100 experience points!”), a narrative reward (“Now that you know the dirt on the Bird-gods, the people of Cerland will join your revolt!”), or some combination of the two. The point is that the adventure causes the players to ask questions about the storyworld, then rewards them for finding the answers.
Encourage Expertise: If a player loves some aspect of the storyworld and becomes an expert in it, run with it. Let her memorize the Giant List of Dinosaurs and Their Habitats, and let her character expounds on the topic, even if that character doesn’t technically have the “Know Stuff About Dinosaurs” skill. Make sure there are opportunities for that player’s knowledge to pay off. After all, she’s put in the work. Give her a chance to shine!