Storytelling


  • Admin

    So I was reading this over lunch: http://forum.theonyxpath.com/forum/main-category/main-forum/the-new-world-of-darkness/werewolf-the-forsaken/465188-so-story-tellers .

    I think it could be constructive to discuss Storytelling, not so much in the context of this particular thread's specifics, especially since it's not MU-specific, but if the STs among us might want to share their process or whether players who enjoy PrPs had any input on things they like versus what they don't about such processes it could be useful.

    If possible I'd like this to be about building blocks, methods and tools relevant to plot making rather than in terms of people ('Bob is amazing!') since otherwise there just isn't much you can do if you aren't Bob. But tips and ways to write engaging interactive stories could be borrowed by potential STs... maybe.

    What do you think?



  • To start I always look into the feel and theme elements I want to bring in, and think of ways to do so quietly or obviously. I lay out the goals of the groups and individuals involved, and focus some on the NPCs and series events that are likely to be focal and what they might do that would be surprising.

    If there are requests or big character features, I think about how they might manifest and often ask the players to roughly describe how they see their character and the world if I don't already know. Basically gets some active ingredients ready to interact with what the players DO, but know them well enough to fill in some ambiance.

    A flaw I often reproduce is that the opening events or information goes on long enough to paralyze the players into listening mode.

    Last, this is all way more suited to STing repeatedly over several sessions which works less well on a MU*.

    ETA: I generally have templates in mind as to NPC stats, and characters with reasonable related skills can usually see if someone is an amateur, solid or expert etc. Variance from there gives NPCs their roles, their specific reps, and perhaps some surprises or twists in their actions and reactions.

    I am a rat bastard when it comes to the players deciding something is true. If I made a mundane serial killer, no amount of thinking they are a spirit driven serial killer will make me add that in. If players show interest in areas other than the few I have laid out in the skeleton, I absolutely go with it. I also let them know when they think they are on track or not. The characters have skills the players do not, and the players are there for the interesting bits (defined by the current players at hand).

    I knew a GM who when running mysteries listened to the players and whichever solution they were most sure of, that was the answer. Every time. I find that level of "listen to your players' to be in the same realm as "I shot you." "No you missed." Use their interest or thoughts later if they don'tr fit in now.


  • Pitcrew

    I wing most of what I do, almost always. I create a scenario -- something to present to the PCs -- and then let them run with it. I keep copious amounts of notes in terms of what I tell people so that I don't contradict myself, and then release them on it.

    I never really script it out -- this leads to this leads to this -- because that way lies the choochooing. I will create...building blocks is a good way to put it. X, Y, and Z are true. A, B, and C will happen if 1, 2, or 3 happens. If not interfered with, the goal of these NPCs is R, and I get a general idea of how they're going to pursue their goals. Sometimes this means the PCs snuff things out almost immediately, and sometimes this means the bad guy has time to build the army on the borders and invade their hometown and oh boy the whole game just changed.

    Mostly, you have to be flexible, and you have to adapt to what signals your players are giving you. If they ALL start looking in closets, because they are all interested in seeing what's in the closets...well, now your plot had best start involving closets, because they've told you loud and clear that's what they want. If they keep going out and picking fights, they want a fitey game. The goal is fun, for you and for them, so you drill in on what they seem to be interested in.

    Don't plan what they're going to do. Don't ever, ever, ever plan what they're going to do, or hinge plots on the PCs doing something in specific unless you're prepared to outright tell them somehow what that specific thing is. In my recent case example in my OTT game, the PCs had two strict conditions that HAD to be met for anything at all to make sense. They had some difficulty figuring it out, so eventually one of the NPCs outright told them: this is what we're waiting for. I try really really hard to avoid hanging progression on folks doing/not doing something specific, just doing something. If it'll work, let it work. If it doesn't, it doesn't.

    If the players blow up your entire plot through a clever use of a power or something...let them. Get a new plot.


  • Pitcrew

    Over the last few years, I've tried to turn a very critical eye to how I GM, in general, to try and bring it more in line with the things that, as a player, have been some of my best gaming experiences. I've also started watching and reading media with more of an eye to how stories are put together, and how that can be adapted to gaming without sacrificing player agency to define What Happens Next. A couple of general rules that I've embraced:

    1. Information should not be the bottleneck. If there's a bottleneck, it should be as PCs try to decide what to do next. But they should always have enough information available to have an idea of at LEAST one option. And if players seem confused or lack understanding, it's on the GM to make sure that information is clear and informative.

    2. Failure should bring complications, not dead ends. "You find nothing," does absolutely nothing for the fun of the game ESPECIALLY if a two or three hour scene comes down to a roll or two and the PCs manage to fail it. Instead, I've switched to having failure mean that finding the information either costs more than it would have with a success, or triggers a side diversion that is fun and stakes-ful in and of itself. I don't make people roll for the absolute basic information required to proceed in the plot, and if they're good at a particular skill, they may get more information for 'free' so to speak.

    3. The purpose of plot is player fun. In other words, the focus should always be on the PCs and what they are DOING about the plot, not about 'hiding' the plot from the PCs or what NPCs are doing. Corollary: PC actions should be the focus of every scene. If an event absolutely must happen that the PCs cannot affect, then it should happen in the first or second pose, and the rest of the scene should be how the PCs deal with it. Likewise, NPCs have the skills and abilities appropriate to their place in the setting, not at an arbitrary level of 'challenge' for the PCs: random street mugger does not have Firearms 5 Dex 4, and he does not have Willpower to spend to resist the PCs. CEO of a multinational corporation, though, probably DOES have Resolve 4 Composure 3, because she's a hard-ass who has powered her way to the top of the corporate jungle. If PCs figure out a way to get around that? That's perfectly cool. Her stats won't change.



  • @Pyrephox said:

    1. Information should not be the bottleneck. If there's a bottleneck, it should be as PCs try to decide what to do next. But they should always have enough information available to have an idea of at LEAST one option. And if players seem confused or lack understanding, it's on the GM to make sure that information is clear and informative.

    This one's really important, and hard to balance on a MUSH. It ties into avoiding, whenever possible, having Plot Progress depend on one PC being around and doing stuff, and becoming so vital that them dropping off kills the whole enterprise. By the same token, you also want to avoid being so diffuse about the impact any PC has that you nerf the feeling that PCs are impacting the plot at all. Division of labor and responsibility is something I try to keep an eye on, but I've yet to find an ideal way to manage it.


  • Admin

    My process goes roughly something like this, and I'll give spoiler-free examples taken from the latest plot I ran on SHH since it's more fresh in my mind.

    1. Who is the plot aimed for? This can be one character (the hardest thing to do, especially if I'm not familiar with the PC and/or they well established) or multiple spheres. In my case that was "Lost and Mages", so the first I had to come up with reasons for PCs in these spheres to be in it together.

    2. What themes will I involve? This is the fun part - exploration, mystery, high adventure, horror, whatever it is I like to keep it consistent. This is usually where I try to get inspired because if I get bored with whatever I pick over the course of running the story it'll be hard to change and it'll be reflected in the plot. So on SHH I borrowed a page off of The Walking Dead in its Governor arc - two cities competing over depleting resources, and lace it in mistrust, half-truths and paranoia.

    3. How long do I want this to be? Well, I'm not much for short arcs, but the KISS principle applies well; the more straight forward it is in the conceptual stage the better the chance it won't grow too hard to follow after PCs leave their fingerprints all over it. I opted to go for an ambitious two arcs, with a potential maybe third in the near future, but when it started out I really only knew very sketchily what would happen in the second one.

    4. Absolutely and without question, get staff on my side. Get them involved early, keep them up to date. The stupidest thing to do is to run things staff has reservations (or holds anything but both-thumbs-up) about, I'll always cancel or change everything before I run something not fully authorized in advance if it's somewhat big.

    With these in mind I build the overall story. Who are the major antagonists, and what are their motives? Are they interesting people? It's important (to me) that an enemy will make it personal for at least some of the PCs involved in order to encourage their growth.

    They shouldn't fight An Enemy Mage, they should be fighting the guy who experimented and twisted stolen former pets, who twisted noble Arcadian Hedge Beasts and turned them into horrific monsters. The PCs shouldn't want to defeat their opponent, they should need to. I need to find their buttons then push them, which isn't always easy if I don't normally hang out with them.

    Once this is done I think it's important to keep some cards ready to play and a few under my sleeve.

    • How is the story introduced? This is critical since right at first the plot is very vulnerable; no one has committed to it and there's zero momentum. I am personally shameless in introducing the initial plot device - if an NPC comes in with a yellow question mark over their head, well, so be it. That doesn't mean the whole story has to be presented then (it shouldn't) but there should be something substantial and hopefully specific for the PCs to do right away. Do not let them walk out of the first sessions with any ambiguity, there must be a blueprint for the first few sessions. We're building IC cohesion here and the characters aren't committed to the plot yet.

    • What are my contingency plans if the plot stalls? If it lasts for any semi-significant amount of time it is going to stall, that's a given. People will go AWOL, someone will neglect to follow up on obvious IC obligations, so it's important to keep proactive ways of pulling PCs back in when they are getting lazy. (Note that if they do that too much I will lose interest but that's a different issue). It pays off to have some threads you can tug to liven things if they slow down.

    • What is the right format per scene? This is highly experimental since it depends on my players so I have to keep fiddling with it. For instance on my SHH plot I fucked up by opening an otherwise successful social confrontation scene too much; with 8+ people all wanting a say the impact and spotlight of each individual person was diminished and some were frustrated. Future ones had to be more controlled and their structure more layered to avoid it devolving into spammy blocks of text.

    • Keep an array of hooks to pull people in after the plot starts. Sometimes the PCs themselves are that hook (they'll grab friends to bring in, which I am happy to accommodate) but if I get cold-paged by someone going 'hey, can I get into +event 26?' I really want to be able to answer 'yes' without making them magically show up with no plausible explanation. Baking such hooks into the plot ahead of time works much better than coming up with them on the spot.

    • Finally, and this ends up being my top priority... I really, really want to let the PCs be at the center of the plot. They decide where it goes, they're not just witnesses and in for the ride, so once the pieces are set on the board and the story is in motion I aim to get out of their way and just fill in the blanks. Where they go, I react, but they need to be the heroes - when the NPCs are driving the story it's a bad sign.

    There are also some personal touches.

    • I am not great with mechanics. My knowledge is good but pretty specialized, so I need to recruit help early. I tapped Ruin and Corruption often to answer questions on my behalf (which doubled as staff approval as per (4) above) and if needed I'd pull friends to watch a combat scene and help out. There's no shame in accepting help.

    • A wiki page with a brief summary and each log so far linked is really handy to have. It lets newcomers jump in and helps people who forgot what's going on catch up.

    • About combat, I tend to be conservative in what I throw at the PCs. There's usually a wide range of power levels and spent XP (some players twink, others barely spend theirs) and I like to make PC death mean something - if they just die in turn 2 just because I shoved five mooks at the two non-combat characters that's meaningless and lazy storytelling. Challenge should be intimate, the product of hard choices, not just more dice.

    Those are just some notes, but I think overall they've served me well.


  • Admin

    @Pyrephox said:

    1. The purpose of plot is player fun. In other words, the focus should always be on the PCs and what they are DOING about the plot, not about 'hiding' the plot from the PCs or what NPCs are doing. Corollary: PC actions should be the focus of every scene. If an event absolutely must happen that the PCs cannot affect, then it should happen in the first or second pose, and the rest of the scene should be how the PCs deal with it.

    I quite agree with you. Sometimes you see NPCs who are basically PCs in all but name and they steal the spotlight unnecessarily; the PCs need to be the driving force, not just the catalyst.

    Other than attention-grabbing it's also important to put characters in charge because what they do scales. Especially in a large plot it's impossible for a ST to be on enough for everyone to have regular access to every NPC or even major event that takes place - but the consequences of what happened should be out there. One of the healthiest signs for a story is it taking a life on its own outside of direct ST supervision by having PCs go out and proactively meet up, plan actions, recruit help, start research +jobs and generally get involved.


  • Tutorialist

    I'm sure this will make some people cringe, and other people go "I knew it!".

    1. I rarely, rarely plot out a storyline/plot. I come up with a "this thing is happening" or "there is this thing around thats doing Y and it's motivations are X". Occasionally I will give things more structure -- I would do so on HM because staff required it.

    2. I also rarely fully stat out NPCs. I will if staff need them. Or if someone is trying to go after something specific (usually happens with spirits). Most of the time I go: Well 7-dice seems like a fair pool against these people for their actions. Or 10-dice seems fair against these buckets of dice they are having. Oh, it's an ogre? Yes it has stone. It's a physical hob? It has stone. etc.

    3. I try very hard, and sometimes it seems like it doesn't come across that way, to let PCs shape the plot. If someone comes up with a brilliant "AH-HA!" moment that wasn't what I had planned but they feel amazing about figuring it out, I just go with it. The biggest example of this is from TR during one of the mage metaplots. An NPC had previously pointed the players at a hallow with "sad/bitter" tass of crabapples. Later they encountered an NPC that had "killed his emotions" and to "solve" the plot they could give him his emotions back. One of them went OMG WE HAVE TO GET HIM TO EAT AND APPLE FROM THIS TREE! I was like ... that was like YES! RIGHT! GOOD! GO! ... o O ( Huh, okay. Sure, that'll work...)

    4. If I describe something in a scene it probably has some use. However, you can do anything you can think of doing in a scene. Anything. I will turn something that I had noted just for flavor to give the scene some life, and turn it into a plot point if you find it interesting. At the very least, I try to do this.

    5. Um. Idunno.


  • Pitcrew

    @Three-Eyed-Crow said:

    ... avoiding, whenever possible, having Plot Progress depend on one PC being around and doing stuff, and becoming so vital that them dropping off kills the whole enterprise. By the same token, you also want to avoid being so diffuse about the impact any PC has that you nerf the feeling that PCs are impacting the plot at all. Division of labor and responsibility is something I try to keep an eye on, but I've yet to find an ideal way to manage it.

    And there is the terrible, terrible rub. Because this is often utterly incompatible with "the focus should always be on the PCs and what they are DOING about the plot," which is also true, and in my opinion, more important.


  • Coder

    We toyed, once, with the idea of awarding XP when information and plot hooks were spread around. Thus, when Bob knows of the plot, he gets XP when he pulls others in. I think this is the direction I'd like to push Shards when we get open. Inclusion and making the game more communal, in my mind, will work great for this setting and gamestyle we are going for.


  • Admin

    @Cobaltasaurus said:

    1. I also rarely fully stat out NPCs. I will if staff need them.

    I do the same thing, and it drives some staff nuts. :) Oddly enough I haven't ever had a complaint from a player though.

    1. I try very hard, and sometimes it seems like it doesn't come across that way, to let PCs shape the plot. If someone comes up with a brilliant "AH-HA!" moment that wasn't what I had planned but they feel amazing about figuring it out,

    My problem with that is that, while some players are brilliant, creative and proactive others are not. So I often have to do considerable amounts of hand-holding until they feel confident enough to make decisions and guide the plot, which means pre-concieved resolutions must have been thought out in advance.

    Now if they do something to change things (SUCH AS DRIVING AN SUV INTO MY NOBLE GRYPHON) I roll with it and it's fun for everyone - but I think a plan B is needed for the plot to not stall in the absence of decisive PCs.


  • Pitcrew

    @il-volpe said:

    @Three-Eyed-Crow said:

    ... avoiding, whenever possible, having Plot Progress depend on one PC being around and doing stuff, and becoming so vital that them dropping off kills the whole enterprise. By the same token, you also want to avoid being so diffuse about the impact any PC has that you nerf the feeling that PCs are impacting the plot at all. Division of labor and responsibility is something I try to keep an eye on, but I've yet to find an ideal way to manage it.

    And there is the terrible, terrible rub. Because this is often utterly incompatible with "the focus should always be on the PCs and what they are DOING about the plot," which is also true, and in my opinion, more important.

    This is, honestly, why I feel like more MUs should focus on higher quantities of smaller, more personal plots, rather than the sprawling metaplot end-of-the-city stuff that draws in, in my experience, /far more/ PCs than are ever going to have a chance to contribute meaningfully. Which inevitably ends up with people feeling pushed out because they couldn't attend X Plot Important Event, or (sometimes accurately and sometimes not) that some people are 'hoarding' plot or favored by the GMs. And personal doesn't have to mean that it doesn't affect the grid or have wider meaning - that's really an artifact of the cultural expectation that 'personal' means 'PrP' and 'PrP' means 'meaningless sandbox plot', as well as the general lack of communication and documentation of plot results in MUs.

    Even the 'big plots' should be broken down into personal-sized chunks. Want to have an army of evil bodysnatchers invading the city? Look through the playerbase, and pick out players who have had previous contact with things that /could/ be evil bodysnatchers, or who want to have a visit from an 'old friend' only to discover someone's wearing her like a suit, and they can try and exorcise it, or kill it and find secret documents, or lock it up and interrogate it or whatever. At the same time, hit a couple of the antiquities dealers/occultists/thieves with a mysterious buyer who wants an artifact that's hidden in the well-protected archives of some ancient recluse, and give the cops on grid a series of mysterious murders. Each plot self-contained, but a part of the larger whole (the cops can catch the serial killer and get closure, but he's branded with the mark of the bodysnatchers. The artifact can be retrieved/sold/destroyed, but it provides a vision or history that's relevant. The old friend can be saved, and retains vague memories of the threat.)- and no one of them 'required' to resolve the overarching issue, but every one of them providing a real adventure for the PCs involved.

    Too often, we want to build Big Plots like they would be built in conventional media, which doesn't work, because you've got 25-30 players involved instead of five or six. Instead, we may want to look at a more 'distributed leadership' kind of model, where a big threat is represented by a half-dozen or more 'hub' plots, which each draw in four or five players for a more meaningful experience.


  • Pitcrew

    @Arkandel said:

    Now if they do something to change things (SUCH AS DRIVING AN SUV INTO MY NOBLE GRYPHON) I roll with it and it's fun for everyone - but I think a plan B is needed for the plot to not stall in the absence of decisive PCs.

    Sometimes the player is just as surprised as the STer by the character's action.



  • @Pyrephox said:

    Too often, we want to build Big Plots like they would be built in conventional media, which doesn't work, because you've got 25-30 players involved instead of five or six.

    While that's certainly part of the impulse to build big plots, there are also cultural pressures that are maybe a bigger driver of it. Part of it is also a feeling that a plot needs to be "fair." I put "fair" in quotes because, if you're constantly scraping to be give everyone a little bit of everything, you end up giving nobody anything meaningful. But that's often perceived as preferable to focusing a plot on a manageable group of PCs.


  • Pitcrew

    @Three-Eyed-Crow said:

    @Pyrephox said:

    Too often, we want to build Big Plots like they would be built in conventional media, which doesn't work, because you've got 25-30 players involved instead of five or six.

    While that's certainly part of the impulse to build big plots, there are also cultural pressures that are maybe a bigger driver of it. Part of it is also a feeling that a plot needs to be "fair." I put "fair" in quotes because, if you're constantly scraping to be give everyone a little bit of everything, you end up giving nobody anything meaningful. But that's often perceived as preferable to focusing a plot on a manageable group of PCs.

    Which is why I might suggest a shift in how we look at big plots. Don't have the Big Climax that people are used to, but rather distribute the plot such that a lot of people can meaningfully contribute. Like, let's say you have the Army of Bodysnatchers big plot. You give the AoB a...let's steal from Mass Effect and call it a War Score - a number that reflects how much the city has done to beat back the bodysnatchers. The GMs have an idea of how much Score is needed - let's say 50. And they create a whole bunch of mini-plots, each with its own score rating - from a one-person plot for a doctor PC who has the opportunity to cure a friend who's in the first stage of bodysnatcher infection, up to something for five or six players that's infiltrating a bodysnatcher nest and poisoning the grub stashes. As PCs succeed at plots, the War Score goes up - when they fail, it goes down and some other Complication happens (spawning new mini-plots to clear up the mess created). As the War Score gets closer to meeting the limit, the plots reflect a dwindling but desperate enemy population (stakes rise in each plot, while resolutions more clearly eliminate leaders of the army or major resources they have). When the War Score limit is reached, the plot concludes.


  • Coder

    @Pyrephox I like your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. No, seriously.

    I really like this approach and idea. We planned on doing this on a game-wide scale, as there will be mechanics that are directly affected by the outcomes of player actions and plots. We are building everything around the possibility/hope that the player-base will move mountains, as you will, and change the face of the setting and theme.

    EDIT: I realize I keep chiming in with unrelated-but-sorta-related remarks. I like the conversations about the how and why of MUSHdom, so that is how I read through the topics. But I understand that many of these threads are game-specific things.


  • Pitcrew

    @Rook said:

    @Pyrephox I like your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. No, seriously.

    I really like this approach and idea. We planned on doing this on a game-wide scale, as there will be mechanics that are directly affected by the outcomes of player actions and plots. We are building everything around the possibility/hope that the player-base will move mountains, as you will, and change the face of the setting and theme.

    EDIT: I realize I keep chiming in with unrelated-but-sorta-related remarks. I like the conversations about the how and why of MUSHdom, so that is how I read through the topics. But I understand that many of these threads are game-specific things.

    I think one thing to keep in mind is that players will likely have to be coaxed and supported into participating at first - I've noticed that a lot of players have been socialized into the whole 'passive receptor of plot' and 'trying to read the GM's mind for the 'right' solution' mindsets, and you have to be patient with them (and reinforce their attempts at agency) at first, until they realize that, yes, they really CAN go 'off-script' without horrible things happening or plot being snatched away.


  • Pitcrew

    One thing I would like to see more of is something Penny Dreadful did:
    Periodically, I think in this case it was weekly though I would thing monthly might be better, there would be an over arching theme plot, for example Zombies or whatever, and stats would be posted for the generic villains and storytellers where free to run things and use them however, then at the end of that staff would either run a wrap up or select someone to.
    I liked this because while it kept plot scenes small there was still the feeling of being part of a bigger picture, which to me has always been the downside of PRPs they can be great fun but they are basically in their own little world and disconnected to the rest of the game.


  • Pitcrew

    @ThatGuyThere said:

    One thing I would like to see more of is something Penny Dreadful did:
    Periodically, I think in this case it was weekly though I would thing monthly might be better, there would be an over arching theme plot, for example Zombies or whatever, and stats would be posted for the generic villains and storytellers where free to run things and use them however, then at the end of that staff would either run a wrap up or select someone to.
    I liked this because while it kept plot scenes small there was still the feeling of being part of a bigger picture, which to me has always been the downside of PRPs they can be great fun but they are basically in their own little world and disconnected to the rest of the game.

    I remember that, and it was pretty awesome. I think it would be a big help in any game - especially since it can give new storytellers a bit more support, as well, if they don't have to come up with character sheets, or they can see general power levels for antagonists.


  • Admin

    When it comes to reactive passive players there are no ways to deal with it any more than there are ways to deal with a below-average Storyteller; you either learn to avoid them or they get better. I'll be happy to design my plots to include people who're not terribly assertive but I won't carry them past a certain point.

    At this point I'd like to ask you all how you deal with a phenomenon in particular - schedule management. When it comes to smaller scale plots it's not that difficult because we tend to all know each other and that means we're compatible time-wise, but as the number of moving parts increases I've personally had rotten luck trying to get people to organize themselves.

    Is it efficient enough to tell people "this is when I can be on, talk among yourselves and tell me when you want the next scene ran"? Is it more or less fair than that to start the next scene with an +event at some time convenient for the ST and whoever can make it may come? Or is it reasonable for players to expect the ST to go a step further and organize them?