Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More Talky Talk On Scenarios And Storytelling

I've been a crusader against story in gaming for a little while now. By this, I don't mean to say that there shouldn't be any story at all, though. It's been a little bit difficult to articulate my theory, in part because I guess I don't really know where this is going, exactly. It seems to me that adventure gaming is an entirely new artistic medium - hey! look at me! I can be pretentious! who knew? - and that, while we can take ideas from other media to help us out, there are aspects of adventure games that have no ready parallel in other art forms.

Ever since Dragonlance, at least, there has been a tendency to include plot directly in published adventures. The writer will come up with a story line, devise a series of scenes that articulate that story, and write up the interactive elements as almost an afterthought. This seems to me to lose much of the potential of the medium.

Even though there are probably ways to improve on them, I think that looking to the first few adventures published for adventure games can be helpful in trying to figure out how best to approach adventure game scenario design. Let's look at the "Against the Giants" series.

The main characteristic of these adventure modules was that they presented locations rather than plots. There was a situation, to be sure, that was sketched out: the giants were becoming more active and so the players were contracted to investigate and discover why. However, the scenario is presented in the main as a set of locations with inhabitants. We can call these "scenario elements". To be sure, the background of increased unrest among the giants is another scenario element, but it is not the centerpiece (well, until much later, in an entirely different series of adventure modules, when the reason for the unrest becomes the more direct element of the scenarios).

What is missing from this, though, is a plot. There is a general idea, but the specific details are left to the Referee. This means that there is a lot of work set on the shoulders of the Referee, because she has to develop what the giants will do if the players do nothing, what they will do in response to the players, and so on. What this does is allow the players wide freedom to shape the story to suit themselves. If they want to attack the giants in a series of commando raids, they can do that. If they want to make a frontal attack, that's an option. If they want to sneak in and acquire knowledge and goods by stealth, that method is supported. If they want to negotiate with the giants, they can do that too.

This is made possible because the scenario doesn't lay out scenes, nor does it prescribe a timeline of events. Now, it could have done the latter. In some later games, the timeline will become the most important scenario element. Those timelines, though, must be approached flexibly. That is, they must be understood as what will happen if the players do nothing. Player involvement can change things dramatically (and even their presence at a fight can change the outcome, as the fight would be played out, replacing the event that is predesigned in the scenario's timeline).

What I am advocating for is the replacement of "scenes" set out in advance by "scenario elements", which can be locations, timelines, characters and monsters, and so on. The scenes would still exist, but they would be created on the fly by the Referee in response to the players' choices within the scenario. At its simplest, the scene would be generated in response to the players choosing to enter one room instead of another. This room exists as an area on a map and a description in the map key. How the players enter the room, and their intentions and so forth, generate the scene.

This comes back to my theory of "Players as Storytellers". The Referee and Scenario Designer (who may or may not be the same person) are not telling the story. They act more as Editor or Production Designer. Within the setting created by the Referee and Scenario Designer, the Players tell a collaborative story to each other and to the Referee.

So, um, adventure gaming theory and whatnot.


  1. Replies
    1. Sure! I guess I'm just trying to start creating a critical vocabulary that takes into account the unique aspects of adventure gaming to replace, or rather supplement, the current vocabulary which is entirely drawn from cinema and literature. It's a similar process to the way that cinema developed its vocabulary from literature, but added to it as necessary.

    2. I didn't mean to sound belittling.

      Put that way, it's an intriguing idea. Much like some early AI work focused on defining frames of reference that could nest, thus simplifying the requirement to pull meaning from text.

      In my own experience running OD&D and AD&D 1 and 2, I think I was less a "scenario designer," and more like a "set designer." Set elements would include all the items you listed... but really calling it a Set or a Scene is probably just splitting hairs.

      Looking forward to see where you take this!

    3. No, you were fine. Lightheartedness is generally welcome!

      Yeah, something like a set designer is pretty much what I mean. A scene, to me, is a set at a specific time plus the events that occur in the set during that time. The driving force behind the events that occur is, or I think should be, the players. That's something that got lost in the rush to declare the Referee to be a "Storyteller".

      A scenario, on the other hand, is a combination of sets with characters that have motivations, but are not necessarily the driving force behind the events. So, a scenario would include all of the sets, but also the NPCs and their plans. By extension, it also includes the PCs, which are the main elements of the scenario that are not developed by the Referee or Scenario Designer.