Guide to Story Participation

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Participating in a story requires that characters are moved through the plot. Usually a story consists of some basic parts:

  • Creation of a problem
Something happens that starts the ball rolling. This is the genesis of the story itself, there is something to do now and a reason to go do it.
  • Gathering of assets
The party gets together to solve the problem that was just created.
  • Study of problem / Find a solution
The party then has to figure out what the problem actually is. After information is gathered, often the party members cannot make sense of it on their own or need some kind of confirmation of suspicions. A solution comes from study of the information and problem and accounting for resources that the party has at their disposal.
  • Compose / Execute a plan
Once a solution is found, the party must then compose a plan on how to bring that solution to life. The plan should be dangerous, require skill, and may require pulling in additional resources in the form of other characters not generally part of the party or NPC's of some kind. The party then actually puts this plan into motion to solve the problem. There is always risk involved here, plans cannot solve a problem usually without potentially causing something worse to happen.
  • Profit
Drinks at the bar after, ticker tape parade, random men and women throw themselves at the party in gratitude, etc. etc..

Prevailing Paradigm

Since the advent of the online / computer role playing game quests are seen to follow 3 basic goals and formats, where the game (or GM) tell the party / character what is needed and they go perform whatever act.

  1. Combat
  2. Collection
  3. Escort

In these cases the player is told their characters need to do one of these three things. They need to go to some location and fight something, collect something, or escort someone out who cannot defend themselves. Each of these is fairly easy to do in a computer programming sense. Lost, however, in the prevailing computer game model is where players have to think about how to solve a problem. In the computer RPG the player is presented with a well defined quest, a location to go to, a person to talk to, a specific job to do or sequence of jobs to do. The limitations of the genre are not the topic of this page. It will simply suffice to say that this is not what role playing is for the settings run here.

Even in games where the player is given choices on what to say in character to NPC interactions, there is almost always one choice for the best outcome with limits players being in character. Everyone knows this who has ever played any computer RPG. We have all played a game and thought how it would make sense to do something else rather than that thing we have to do. Usually game developers have to mix and match the 3 above types of quests into something that they hope feels different and takes effort to do. Effort is usually measured then in time spent playing to accomplish something or level of gear required / skill required to complete a combat or sequence of combats.

Construction of a Path

Any quest must offer the characters something to do. More importantly, they should be free to choose among several different options. Many a storyteller has groaned inwardly where the player characters bypass a long sequence of carefully written and considered jobs that all lead to one end. This is because they are ultimately free to have characters do anything they want, even go off on a side-quest, loot an entire village rather than help them, abandon the lost child in need, and a host of other things.

Storytellers thus need to provide signposts to the role play, signals of which way a character or party should go along the way. These should be customized to the group and provide incentive for players to go along the prescribed path with their characters. If there is a party member that is trying to pull everyone off track and go to - say - loot the town instead of rescue the lost little girl in the woods? Incentive, give that character a reason to want to go to the woods or a reason to want the town intact (for now).

The path should be clear to the players who can then provide feedback about their characters. Storytellers should not be ashamed to throw extra stuff at a party to nudge them in the right direction. As such players should try to follow the signposts.

Paradigm Shift

Since computer role playing games have trained people to be spoon-fed what to do, players should realize that in a free form game they aren't going to know what to do until they seek out what needs to be done. This is part of the process and how a character goes about it can shape a story. If something needs to be collected, the character has to have a method for finding that out. While it is possible to have some old wise man or woman point it out specifically, the fun in role play is to meet challenges in character doing things that you can't do in real life.

Refer back to the opening sequence of events.

The storyteller should furnish players with information that something it happening, and thus a reason for them to get together but players should then martial their resources, find things out, and try to read the results into a solution to the problem. This means, research. This means reconnaissance, observation, perhaps even a science-type character. This is what people miss the most coming from the standard computer-RPG paradigm. They wait to be handed an order of something to do when in reality, the fun of a free form role play is that they get to decide what they are going to do!

Providing for Answers

Within a game there is a need to collect information. We've seen it in TV shows and movies, in Star Trek they ask science officers to research things a lot but it is largely done off-screen so it is easy to forget that it happened. There is always a stage when the main characters don't know what's going on (or at least, don't know for sure). Think of Doctor Who, how often the Doctor has a moment of clarity and the true cause of trouble presents itself.

Within a game, the storyteller should provide a facility if the characters lack the ability to interpret information themselves. This is usually the form of an old wise man or woman within most games, someone who knows a lot about the area, a lot of lore, a lot about magic, or about science. The players bring them the information they've come up with and the person then returns to them some conclusions. Players then can use those conclusions to devise a method of solving the problem they were investigating. Thus players need not all be scientists or wizards but they might know some that could help.

If players have those skills (say a tracker has to find out what kind of animal is killing livestock, which is doable), they should be allowed to do this themselves. This highlights less combat oriented characters and provide cohesion to a group of players and their characters alike.


In short, players should have characters seek out answers and problem solve to come up with solutions themselves. This is what players are expected to do. The storyteller should not be responsible for doing everything of substance, players have the responsibility to participate at every stage.