So, why do authors run role-playing games? Because it is good practice for job skills.
Case in point: These days I am running a BatteTech campaign. On the way to a quest to discover an epic trove of LosTech, my heroes made a series of good decisions and ridiculous rolls that uncovered a plot-changing treasure trove that has the potential to get them instantly killed and/or rewrite the entire timeline. If I let them keep it, then at some point I am not going to be able to follow the story in the novels and fiction. Instead, I will have to do a lot more world-building to figure out what happens in this new, alternate timeline.
Now, this can be a bad thing, and it is definitely something that most storytellers want to avoid. There are some classic responses that I hate, not becasue they are lazy (though they are). Lazy is efficient and I heartily approve of it whenever it serves the story! The common responses are bad story craft because they betray the story.
Bad story craft examples:
The Plot Monster
Summon a plot monster to emerge from the shadows and threaten the characters until they act “correctly”. The meme goes something like this:
Player 1: We have been trying to get through this magic door for two hours now. Jack the Nimble has two broken fingers when picking the lock set off that ward. Wizard Thundermuffin may be glowing blue for the rest of the campaign, and Thumpgrab the Barbarian’s warhammer has been spouting off-color limericks ever since he tried to smash the riddle door! I’ve spent three of my plot points for re-rolls and still haven’t solved the stupid question, either. None of us are going to make counter-think saving throws of negative eighty-two!
GM: And what solution do you have?
Player 1: My character is a gnome ranger, and I have a tunneling speed of 2. That’s not fast. The stone walls will reduce that to a speed of 1 meter per minute, but that’s still a hundred times quicker than starving to death in front of this stupid riddle. Where did you even get this riddle anyway?
GM: I had this crazy pirate cousin once…
Player 1: Anyway, I’m going to make my own door next to the passage that we came in on.
GM: But that’s going in the wrong direction.
Player 1: No, it’s just the outer wall. Since the challenges are only going to get worse, I’m going to tunnel down along the outer walls in a spiral until I get to the bottom level, then tunnel back in.
GM: *checks the rulebooks frantically* Well… there is no spell or mechanic in the Nerd Torturer’s Handbook (15th edition, revised) that makes stone indestructibe, but the Bolster Bulwark warlock incantation double’s a stone’s construction virtue, so that will be only half a meter per minute of tunneling.
Player 2: Thumpgrab mugged that family of bunnies on the way to Foreboding Mountain. We have rations for two weeks, and I have some velvety-soft new mocassins!
Player 3: Wizard Thundermuffin knows Summon Continental Breakfast. If you guys him draw off of your passive ether score, we have food for months.
Player 1: I. Will. Dig. It. All…..
I want to note, for the record, that except for changing names to avoid copyright infringement, I have witnessed the above scenario in person. The players just found a way around the dungeon to the object of their quest. In that game they got what they wanted, missed out on a lot of monster fighting, but returned home with all their limbs and bonus experience points for creative thinking and teamwork. (That game was run by a free-thinker, and thank goodness.)
Here are some examples of bad writing craft that also match up with what I have seen done:
GM: As you approach the outer wall, you feel a rush of terror well up from your childhood. The scratching noises on the far side of the outer wall indicates the sandy soil ouside is full of crivits!
Player 3: *puts his hand on his head* Out of character, seriously? Crivits? This is fantasy roleplaying, not V. Besides, the Tremors movies stole that idea for three movies!
Player 2: They’re making a seventh one.
Player 3: *facepalm* That bit of horror is beside the point. There are no crivits in the game, and you said that The Inverted Spire is in the middle of a volcanic spire! We made three dozen climbing rolls. This whole thing is made of solid granite!
GM: As you ponder what you knew to be true, a black cat crosses the far passageway, twice.
Player 2: Fine. We’ll take another shot at the frigging door… I’m going to start putting together random words… how many could there be in the dictionary anyway? We’ll get the password eventually.
Player 1: Try ‘Mellon’. He’s already stealing from V and The Matrix. Maybe he’ll let us steal from Tolkein in exchange.
The Plot Meteor
Write in a freak meteor strike that destroys the unbalancing bit of the story. (I shit you not. Professional and beloved authors have done this. Literally, Isaac Asimov did this in one of his robot short stories when he wrote himself into a corner!)
GM: Having salvaged the lost Star League jump ship with incalculable wealth, you leave a prize crew aboard her and prepare to jump back to civilized space with the secrets to bring humanity back from the dark ages.
Player 3: Yes! This is totally worth it! After two months of zero-g combat, jury-rigging systems before they exploded, and putting our unit’s entire life savings into safety parts, we did it! We are going to be rich!
Player 2: We are going to be assassinated….
Player 1: Don’t be such a downer! We can sell it or distribute it quick so that we aren’t the ones being hunted! Then we are rich. By the way, we should make a back-up copy for ourselves….
GM: You reemerge to normal space to a spectacle of horror! There was a mis-jump!
Player 3: No way! We spent weeks finding an NPC with a navigation aptitude and kept him alive through five battles! He made the roll by 3 and Bobby’s character made all his engineering checks on the drive.
GM: It wasn’t your fault. You have a momentary sensor reading of a pair of jump-ships within a kilometer of each other. Some civilian transport jumped too close to the same space. It is a major shipping lane. The jump drives built a destructive harmonic that just blew up both ships, forty thousand tons of cattle being shipped to Hesperus, and the lost warship as well. Your prize crew is dead, but all of your characters have survived!
I cannot tell you how often I have seen game masters swat, threaten, or delete their way out of player’s successes. I said before that every time this happens, it betrays the story. Let’s look at the story crimes committed here:
4th Wall Break
Story is about feeling, and feeling depends on verisimilitude. Your readers (or players) need to be able to set aside their knowledge that it is just a story and let the tale be real in their heads. Whenever you do something that highlights anything but the story, you are stealing from it. Making a story decision just for external reasons is flat-out wrong. Every time a storyteller blatantly changes or breaks the rules, he pulls his audience out of the story.
Killing the Cheer
Problem-solving is one of the great joys of roleplaying games. In a well-played game, the players are trying to solve their characters’ problems for story reasons. Once the rules change to meet the requirements of arbitrary rules, then the nature of problem-solving changes.
This is the mechanic that killed Assassin’s Creed III compared to the wildly successful Ezio trilogy. Where the previous games had a dozen of ways, some elegant and some brute-force, to solve almost all critical assassin contracts. When AC3 came out, Ubisoft had determined the way that the missions had to succeed. Suddenly the game play stopped being about how to solve the character’s problem and became how to anticipate the programmer’s demands.
This isn’t fun. Gaming is about fun. Professional storytelling ought to be something that leaves your audience wanting more, so that they buy your next project. Gaming builds the skill because your players have plenty of good things to do with their time, and you need to be entertaining enough to get them to come back!
The Death of Hope
This sort of bad storytelling lowers the potential rewards in the story. You have placed a glass ceiling on their success. If there is only so far they can go, regardless of ingenuity and effort, then why put in more thought or time than needed? This snowballs with the cheer-killing effect and I think it has kept many people from getting the most out of gaming.
I love the 50+ novel cannon and depth of the BatteTech univese, but I have sworn no oath to it. If my characters, logically and within the rules, make a story-level change, then the story changed. Suddenly I’m not telling the canon timeline, but it remains my job to make the timeline as consistent and believable as possible!
Once our characters realize that the canon is a barrier, they know they cannot succeed enough to matter to the history of their world. In other words, they cannot be heroes, only bystanders with guns. That kills the whole point of roleplaying.
Good Story Craft
Since the point of putting aside time for gaming is to develop the skills to be a better professional storyteller, let us take a quick look at some story craft skills to practice when this problem comes up.
Let Success be Its Own Challenge
Roleplaying games and novels can have a broader scope than 90-minute films. In Star Wars the credits roll right after Luke and Han get medals for defeating the Death Star. But there are plenty of new challenges that success can create. What about unrealistic expectations? Will they send Han and Luke single-handed against Star Destroyers because, hey, they’re no Death Star, so no problem!
How do your heroes, perceived as heroes, deal with the fact that they have mortal limitations the same as the day they became famous? What about jealousy of the families and friends of those who gave their lives and didn’t get medals? What about political and economic factions who might perceive the newly-famous as a threat to their power? The possible challenges that rise directly from a success are endless!
More PT, Sir! More PT!
When the potential success is game-shattering in importance, there is no crime in making it too big for the players to handle without more resources or help. Harebrain Schemes did an excellent job of this when, early in the game, the players get a rule-breaking dropship to use as a mobile base.
Harebrain Schemes gives them a mostly-useless hulk little better than their last ship. Over the course of the game, players are able to spend time and resources rebuilding the ancient wreck into a sweet base.
This tried-and-true video game mechanic works just as well in storytelling. Let the characters who have received game-shattering power access it a bit at a time. Better still, let them earn the increments of the power they carry and the story has just added another plotline and more depth! Do they have a psychic sword of instant-doom? The Dead Gentlemen’s Journey Quest series has a blast with an unexpected hero who cannot earn the sword’s cooperation or attention. It is fun to go along with Perf as he gradually learns to get around the expectations and move forward! Share that fun with your fans!
Use Boons to Add Depth
Most storytellers have a much bigger picture of the world they use than their audience will ever encounter. I know how the protagonist in my Lagrandil novels was raised, how he learned, celebrated Christmas, where he got his first kiss, the works. Only a tiny fraction of that is ever going to show up in the story because it doesn’t really matter to the story.
When your players make a story-changing breakthrough, make it an opportunity to reveal more of the world than a normal audience would see. Why not? They’ve earned it!
In the standard BattleTech storylines, it is only generations after the starting point that the standard audience learns about secret factions working behind the scenes of the basic story. Some want to help the Inner Sphere slide into the darkness while others want to build it up, and there is a covert dance of intelligence operatives between them. When my players made a breakthrough that threatens this balance, they have a perfectly valid story reason to start dealing with the factions in that hidden war while fighting to survive the standard battles as well!
Embrace the Luck
When heroes make an unexpected breakthrough, a good storyteller sees it as a gift. A bad storyteller may be tempted to punish them for it. Remember that the holy grail of storytelling is to make your audience feel things. The highs and lows that revolve around unepected successes are far from a disaster. They are an opportunity to make the game deeper and broader than it ever was before.