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Lost in Old School D&D (and other stuff)Jens D.http://www.blogger.com/profile/18394303166081684904noreply@blogger.comBlogger442125
Updated: 4 days 8 hours ago

The Good End, Part 2 (get it?)

Sun, 10/20/2019 - 12:04
I was thinking about not writing that part 2, leaving Part 1 hanging in thin air to make a point. Just wouldn't be the right point to make, so here we are. However, it's still not an easy thing for me to wrap the head around the following: what makes a good end depends largely on the set-up before (constituting a recognizable end to a pattern) and most role playing games suck at this a bit, as the games themselves are open-ended by nature. We are still figuring this shit out. Alright, let's take a look (and expect excursions into the unexpected, I guess).
Computer games have it backwards?

Computer games make for a great comparison, as players have an active part in the narrative within a digital environment that follows certain rules. And yet, it is different because of the limitations that come with the hardware to run those games.
The biggest among them (which will get important later on) the notion that the area of interaction needs to be predefined and complete. When the player arrives (as in, starts the game), it is all set up and done to a degree that a game can get finished (although DLCs and updates and fan based work opened games up a bit in the last years).
You'd need the whole picture to make it work [source]Maybe it is just a matter of time until AI will create unlimited content on the fly, but we are not there yet. Until then the limitations have to be taken into account and must result in designs that could be considered backwards to what role playing games do in that they have to have the end (or several endings) done before the game is even played. All the player decides is the level of engagement, which, naturally, also describes several arcs that need to be considered.
In a sense this means more traditional storytelling with the player going through the motions and having some choices. I've seen the point made that in its extremes it relates to what among role playing gamers is referred to as "railroading".
The argument has merit, imo, because it tells us something about that particular variant of playing rpgs that is easily overlooked: not only are more people accustomed to that sort of gaming/thinking then there are roleplayers (due to the sheer popularity of digital games alone), the reason why railroading works is found in the realization that the fun is in the execution (or rather, if the tools for the execution are well done).
It doesn't get more railroady then, say, a shooter. Level-based, very little advancement (mostly temporary or through weapons) and the narratives are lack-luster most of the time. However, when done well ... the popularity of the genre speaks for itself. And if it works for computer games, it very well should work for role playing games. Actually, board games work a bit like that (having a very limited scope on a subject that could be described as railroading), and crossing that bridge into role playing territory is even easier.
(Guess what I'm saying is: don't hate the railroad, hate the game that doesn't make it fun?)
You are doing it wrong ... [source]Computer games took a lot of inspiration from early D&D and the like. Although one could argue that level-progression and hit points and even that specific way to tell stories would have happened naturally sooner or later digitally as soon as people started writing games for that new medium (and it would be very interesting to see what that would have looked like), it can't be denied that some of the most popular and influential tropes and even games in the early dawn of computer gaming had been made possible because of D&D.*
Nowadays it's very much it's own thing, yet retro-games are still very popular and digital gaming has a highly innovative independent scene creating all kinds of old school and new games, while online gaming made digital games more of a social phenomenon (with good and bad results, I might add). The benefit of having mass appeal is that the fringes are also well seated, which allows for lots and lots of innovation ... What I'm saying, is, if it works, it stays and the digital interpretations of what the early role playing games made work, holds true even today in very many different forms and that should make you think.
Alright, mid-post summary: I'd argue that a huge part of successful computer gaming was inspired, nay, even leaning on the development of D&D right before the dawn of the personal computer and the gaming that was made possible with that. The newer medium emulates, reflects and interprets the older one ever since, proving simply by vote of popularity that having an active part in a narrative can be entertaining within very strict and abstract restrains as long as the means of interaction are fun, engaging and challenging. We furthermore can take the insights garnered there and apply them to our hobby to some degree, which should help us to gain an understanding how narratives work and, ultimately (because that is what the post should be about), how to fabricate Good Endings in our stories.
A word on how repetition intensifies an experience
No, I'm not talking about learning Latin or something like that, although the principles at work there should be the same here to some extent (with another purpose, though). This is about one of the main tools with which computer games intensify and manifest their narratives.
If you have played any amount of computer games in your life, you are aware of the vicious cycles of repetition necessary in many games to achieve the level of proficiency necessary to move forward. Play, die, repeat. Now, while a player needs (to be encouraged) to go through the motions again and again to see where a game is leading to, it is the very act of doing so that makes them appreciate the story of a game even more, because the more you repeat a segment or scene in a game, the more details you will be made aware of.
So beyond the very obvious pattern of what you need to do to advance to the next segment, there is a deeper understanding of said segment that only reveals itself by playing it over and over again. Ideally there is nuance, and, as the player sets himself into relation with the design that is manifesting, a story. You discover little secrets or new ways to interact with the game and you internalize the artwork, rhythm and sound of a game that way (like you'd learn Latin vocabulary, but way more fun)**.
While the implementation of the concept described above only lends itself loosely to role playing ("saving the game" as an option really didn't make a lasting impact in ttrpg***, thus creating loops like that is difficult), there is something to learn about segmenting games and rhythm and distinct narrative framing (or whatever the equivalent to level design would be called in rpgs).
See what I'm getting at? [source]I've dabbled a bit that concept in the past and found that the loops a DM needs to create are clusters of words he wants to resonate in the narrative to an extent that it ends up having a lasting impression on the players. That way it will be part of the manifesting narrative (interested parties may start here exploring that idea further). The terms we use in our games work like that, btw., using constant repetition until the terms become part of a group's sociolect and "color" the experience (prime example would be the D&D terminology that is nowadays influential enough to appear in popular culture).
With having those "loops" in place like that, we can form or establish a pattern (a collection of words supporting a certain means the DM is working towards, going from basic connections players need to make to atmospheric vocabulary enhancing those little "segments" a narrative forms). And with a pattern (you guessed it), we can produce endings.
Endings in computer games, then
The obvious end gamers will experience over and over again is the classic "game over", and there is something to be said about that. A close second would be the end we chose, and I'll start with that since it immediately relates to our hobby.
I'm pretty sure I'm not alone when I'm saying that I have more games**** started and never touched again than I have games I played for any serious amount of time or even games I actually finished (and games I really, really aim to invest some serious amount of time into ...). That, as well, is a form of ending. You start a game and you just keep dying ... that could be all the story you can get out of the game and moving on is part of that.
Even more detailed: the mechanic didn't do it for you, the game is full of bugs, you name it, and you will always find an "end" describing why you stopped trying your hand at a game. The interesting part here is, that we will find the proper answer if our interaction with something manifests towards a less satisfying experience. As the German proverb goes, you'd more often than not chose an end in terror than terror without ending ... Which is to say, endings like that will most likely be bad by definition and circumstances.
The "game over" screen, on the other hand, can also be an encouragement to try again and feed that loop we talked about above. It is a bad ending designed to enhance the good endings a game has to offer. You are allowed to keep playing the game if you manage to overcome its obstacles and your award is seeing more of the game, or gaining achievements and the benefits of getting better at a game as your character and your technique advance.
[source]Now, the crowning achievement of playing a computer game would be to play it to completion. But well designed-games will give a player that feeling in advance by having (and communicating!) distinctive segments that can be completed.
Succesfull games lead players through their story in a way that lets lots of little successes and failures accumulate to one big narrative and a satisfying conclusion. Failure is designed into those games to enhance the feeling of success and accomplishment and hard work should be awarded as well as ingenuity. 
Up to this point we were strictly talking about how to manufacture patterns that allow a proper opening for an ending and how our engagement with a game may constitute a bad end in itself. That'd be all we need to talk about here, as the one thing that could still make or break a game would be the execution of the end of a game. The part where the player loses control over the game and sees what happens next.
In computer games that can actually be rather arbitrary or short. Mario needs to rescue the princess, so guess what happens in the end. That sort of thing. However, even simple things deserve to be done right and even the best game can leave a bad taste in your mouth, if the end rubs you wrong or insults you or makes fun of you or tries to sell you the next part or simply seems off (here, have 50 examples where endings went wrong in video games ... with spoilers, obviously).
That said, what I'm able to say about bad writing should already be said in Part 1 (which makes this, if you haven't read it just yet (and read so far starting with Part 2, you rare soul, you), a great opportunity to go there and do so real quick before we come to a conclusion of sorts here).
The Good End
This was always meant to be a series of posts about how to tell better stories in our games and how to bring them to positive or at least satisfying ends. And isn't there always more to say. I have a feeling that we only scratched the surface here before even talking about the subject proper. However, sometimes all you need is conjecture, comparison and transfer. Going at it this way has me thinking that this already covered a lot of ground nonetheless.
As far as concrete advice goes, I'd have to say, it had to be very abstract to catch it all without writing another post just as long as the last two. Abstract works for me, I guess, and the advice I'd condense this towards would look something like this:
  • Manifest a pattern the characters can interpret and analyze and relate to (inspiration for this would be, for instance, C. G. Jung's ideas on archetypes and Daoism, to give but two ... there's definitely more). 
  • Create little loops to make segments of the narrative distinguishable from other segments. Related to that, you should communicate the transitions and offer closure ("You are leaving now the Forest of the Floating Feet and enter The Valley of a Thousand Farts. You don't think the Goblins will follow you here ...", like, keep it distinguishable and vary your vocabulary). The system you use should support this notion.
  • Include little advancements and victories that accumulate towards something bigger. Little "Boss Fights" (or hyping a fight up like that) could work or gaining valuable knowledge.
  • Allow narrative awards to enter the narrative loops to enhance the level of engagement ("You are now called Guardian of the Forest and may wear the title with pride!" or something like that ... let the players have as many of those as you dare without making the sum of them meaningless, maybe change and advance some already established ones later in the game).
  • Allow failure as part of the narrative, as some bad endings can make good endings better (have a character die every once in a while, if opportunity arises, have players learn from their mistakes and introduce (fun) consequences for bad rolls). Every Yin needs its Yang, baby.
  • Don't offer interpretations of what it all means unless it is necessary to give players a hint into the right direction. Let what manifests in the story stand on its own, because if you have to explain it, you've already done it wrong. Show, don't tell, folks.
  • Don't force it, don't rush it, don't push an agenda down your players throats. If the pattern emerges, the end will reveal itself naturally. Always.
And that's it, as far as I'm concerned. Getting more specific about a topic like that, would necessarily mean to get very specific. However, finding your own way through this is a very important process in becoming a proper DM. Sometimes all you should need is a direction, so let's leave it at that.
Final Thoughts

There is a couple of loose ends left hanging, I guess. It is a broad subject and if anything, I can only try to encourage readers to come to their own conclusions. What I wrote in that last paragraph above is true for everything in life. The world surrounding us can only give hints and directions, but you have to go the distance yourself to come to conclusions.

Another Daoist truism is: if the pupil is ready, the master appears. Which, to me at least, always meant that, if we keep looking and learning, what we need will be there for us to find. Sounds a bit like  a bail-out, but I think it's a reassuring thought. The universe abides.

I'd have loved to go a bit more toe to toe with computer games. Comparing and analyzing them towards ttrpgs and the way we play game is an incredibly rich subject, from how we interact with games to design innovations there and the implications here. So. Much. Stuff! Like, would it be possible to write the equivalent of a Jump and Run or a FPS as a role playing game. What would that look like. And those are only the fun subjects from the top of my head ...

Computer games will eventually drift away from role playing as a medium that a comparison will get very difficult or very different (if I were to guess, I'd say it'll compare closer to LARP in the very near future). But given the amount of material that is already produced right now, it will take decades to evaluate that output before there is any need to check what else is happening.

Writing this made me realize (and a bit sad) that I might need to reduce my, let's call it, fast-media input. I loved to chill back and see a good movie or tv show, but the more I keep scrolling and scrolling through the streaming media offerings, the more I think it is all the same, which can be nice if you haven't seen anything it (the benefit of youth, I guess), but it gets harder and harder to find that innovation that keeps me inspired and creating.

The positive side-effect of this would be that I end up reading and writing more. And I'm telling you, it's a freeing experience (I can't stress this enough: books don't have a direct social media interaction and no advertisement ...). Musings on that should be part of another post, I guess (working title in my head is 'Learning to read again' ...).

Thank you for reading all of this. I hope you enjoyed reading it and that you took something with you after investing all that time. If you like to share any thoughts on any of that, I'd love to hear them, so please, comment away.
Here's a whole slide-share about archetypes [source]
* I try to avoid writing footnotes like that, but I can stray only so far, so have this related but random observation hidden down here: computer games are a billion dollar industry, far more powerful than music and tv put together. Gaming is strong like that. The great benefit of being THAT important, is that people actually invest into research and there is lots and lots of science about games one could check out. That's not for debate. However, look how weak it still is represented at universities. Now consider how much money is in ttrpg and what you get is ... people like me doing a hack-job academic discourse in their free time? Nah, it's a bit better than that, but not by much. Also of note: all the bad business practices in digital gaming are highly adaptable in our analogue variants, with fewer means to do anything about it. Big corp just tends to force D&D in the direction where the money is, corrupting the core concepts of role playing towards something more "marketable"  ... Anyway, I started to slide into the D&D-as-theme-park development and that's definitely too much of a digression here. Moving on.
** Incidentally that is why gamification of the workplace is such a success. You can make repetitive actions fun that way ... Which is only a good thing if the thought appeals to you to be a "level 34 facility manager with a Broom of Lightning" or something like that.
*** Although I have seen it done in a rpg called Rune. There you could spend xp to "save" the current version of your character sheet. I thought it was a nice touch for what the game was: a rpg game based on a computer game. Beyond that, I've seen it done in SF rpg like Paranoia (which introduced the idea of having a clone you could use in case you die). Beyond that I'm not aware of any games that went in that direction. Not even board games, for that matter. 
**** ... and books and tv series. It is a very common phenomenon.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Opinion: Feast of Legends (Fast Food goes Dice)

Fri, 10/04/2019 - 14:57
I saw this, saw everyone lose their shit and thought I'd throw in my 2 cents: prolific fast food chain Wendy's published a complete RPG with campaign, clocking out at 97 pages and is giving it away for free. This just up front, I'm having a blast right now. Genius. Beautiful. And rotten to the core ... I have opinions on that. Let's have at it.
Not a review ...
I've heard people state that this is a complete rule book and functioning. That is, to say the least, bullshit. No DM advice, no play examples and you only need to read the first page of the adventure/campaign to see that this is hollow and bad (also full of advertisement). That said, you could drop this into almost any D&D derivative of your choice (3e/Pathfinder/Basic Fantasy seem great fits) and it should work (no guaranties, though ... nobody says that this had seen testing for balance or what have you).
Might need some work, but could be fun. Maybe. Once. And you have to have experience DMing.
[source]So it looks nice and crisp. Proper layout, nice illustrations, inspiring maps. It is great at mimicking to be a complete game and yet, it is decidedly not. So, no, I'm not investing time in writing a proper review. This is an artifact and in its understanding on what makes a rpg tick just as deep as you'd expect from someone selling pressed sugar mixed with sad excuses for meat as food. Compared to proper RPG this is what a hamburger is to Beef Wellington.
As I said, it is an artifact, at best. Something that is nice to have. I'd buy this as a book, just to have it in my collection. A RPG it is not, though.
Here's why it's funny
This coincides with another article I've read today, something about why successful subcultures are doomed. It describes how innovation draws consumers and sociopaths until a subculture goes full bloom in mainstream and goes away to die afterwards. I don't necessarily agree with the piece (which should be discussed in another post, I guess), but it gets the basics right and this here is a great example what the process could manifest like. 
I admit, 'funny' is a bit of a stretch. However, it has to be obvious at this point that this is nothing else but a marketing ploy to get some (well deserved, imo) buzz. It's well played and it works. The reactions are as you would expect: people hate it, people embrace it and the more money oriented folks already offer twitch sessions. This draws flies like an old burger in an alley (pardon the bun).
Way more funny, though, is that they treat our hobby like publishers already do for years now. Nice to look at, some variation to well known ideas and a new-game-hype every other week. Just a buck, just a little kickstarter, just something to put into the shelf and forget. We brought this unto us, and we deserve it ... It is how those things tend to play out, and yet, there is an irony to it all.
Here's why it's not funny ...
It's not all fun and giggles, though. We not only have to see this for what it is (a fun promo for unhealthy food), we also have to understand that this is IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM different to what D&D under Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro is: a vehicle to sell product. Sure, you don't have to buy a burger in real life to gain a bonus in the game, but the principles at work are very much the same (and junk food has been a huge part of the gaming experience, so ...).
Splat books, miniatures, editions, merchandise ... the rules are designed with selling additional material in mind. Arguably more so than actually being playable (high level gameplay from D&D 3e onward, if you need an example). D&D's triumphant parade into mainstream shows more and more how they need to divert from the original concepts that spawned our little hobby towards something more .... superficial. It becomes something like a theme park of an adventure compared to the real thing. The difference between reading War and Peace and getting it retold to you by a 3-year old ...
I need to stop. Either way, this is where it's at.
It's not all bad (some will say)
If someone enters the hobby because Wendy's gave it some exposure, it's all for the better. It also does show others that variations to D&D are possible, which is just as well, considering D&D becomes more and more synonymous for RPG in general (while changing and watering down significantly for mainstream appeal ... see above). In all that, the ad is a good (and bright) marker and reminder what mindless consumption will lead to.
That's the morale, if you need one. Big Money will have its way with RPGs, if we want that or not. And while it's certainly good for most people, as it offers new and exciting forms of mindless entertainment, it leaves those behind who took the whole thing a bit more seriously. As with all dying subcultures.
If you need to know what you can do about this, I'd say: built on that to be prepared for the decline. Innovation is what creates new spaces, as they say, and when the whole fad has run its course and D&D is nothing more than a theme park, those looking for more will find plenty. And that's the nice thought I want to close this with.

Guess what I'll have today [source]
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Good End, Part 1

Sun, 09/15/2019 - 14:22
It's rare these days that I wake up with time on my hands and have a blog post waiting at my fingertips. I still didn't for this, as I really should be writing something else today. However, it actually is a topic that occurred to me on several occasions this year alone and I guess I have an opinion on it. So the topic for today is: what makes a good end for stories and what are the machinations for it? Let's see where this will be going.
Lots of bad endings ...
The appliance of this topic for role playing games are obvious. However, where it really hit home for me the last couple of months was with a book that read really, really well for all its 1000 pages and fucked up really hard in the last 50 pages or so. I felt betrayed. It was the cruelest thing. Up until that end I would have recommended it to friends. How the author decided to end it, though, killed the whole experience for me.
Maybe I should go into an analysis of why I thought that ending was bad (or what book we are talking about), but for now, a specific example of something that is not universally hated as bad would make the argument anecdotal and that would be of no use here, right? You all know what I mean (if people are interested, I can share specifics in the comments, though).
That said, there are a bazillion examples in pop culture right now, most popular among them would be the last episodes of Game of Thrones. So bad, that millions of people signed a petition to re-shot that hot mess. Or the end they are producing for the original Star Wars saga. That would (arguably) be another great example (my guess is they'll kill it for good with The Rise of Skywalker). The third season of Glow also qualifies as it had NOTHING to do with the original show and was a waste of time so cringe-worthy, it cemented my decision to cancel my Netflix account for good.[source]My impression is that this is a trend for the worse right now. Maybe the decades-long pop cultural rehashing of the same old themes finally proves to be a downward spiral (who would have guessed?). Or the capitalist impulse to always produce new content actually forces creatives to start at ground-zero zeitgeist every time and hinders innovation in a way that popular stories stopped growing in mainstream and stagnation always carries the danger of running foul (or rather, nothing stagnates ever ... if it's not moving for the better, it starts moving for the worse).
Whatever the reason, it is a phenomenon worth analyzing or at least talking about. I get weary when I start seeing a new tv show and like it, because the end could ruin it for good. It's gotten so easy to produce a frame that makes content just, well, bingeable, that we not only created a new word for the process, we also started neglecting the messages stories transport and the end is always the tell in that regard.
Going by the above, there are several reasons for endings to be received as "bad" (or even where endings begin, for that matter) and all have the obvious common theme that the [drum roll] Suspension of Disbelief is disrupted to a degree, where the experience ends up being disappointing.
The good end no one liked
Let's start with the low hanging fruits, the movies or books or tv shows that run over long times and maybe even with lots of time between parts or seasons. Something you will see or read over long periods of time. Notable examples would be the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3, the third season of Twin Peaks or the last books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books (originally a trilogy, the author went ahead and wrote a sequel 6 years later, where she tried to re-write the original and changed the tone significantly).
And people don't like it. Or rather, popular opinion is against them although, in those cases, the results aren't necessarily bad, just different. If something popular has too much time to fester in the pop cultural mindset, the perception of it changes. Or maybe ownership of the ideas changes. The artist gives something to the public and it keeps developing from there on.
So when the artist picks up a story years after it's initial release, he'll have to challenge the new beast that the story is with his own interpretation. There's a couple of popular examples where this worked once or twice (Terminator 2 and Aliens 2 come to mind), but usually, the result is hated and only reception over time will show if a sequel like that has merit or not.
In a sense, it means that the sequel is banned to the fringes again, away from mainstream, and people willing to invest the time to analyze and talk about a sequel like that, will dig for the nuggets and carry them back into mainstream consciousness.
Staring down mainstream since 1990  [source]The Episodes 1 to 3, for instance, weren't as bad as the initial reaction may have you believe, the Matrix trilogy is a coherent story, just not the one people wanted and Lynch's Twin Peaks is so far away from the mainstream perception of it, that it will take years to digest what he did in season 3 and Le Guin changed as a person and arguably didn't write a sequel but used the world of Earthsea instead to express her new world view, but reception was good nonetheless.
See, these works have merit, but you have to take a closer look, you have to work with the artist here. Some people think, that just because they consumed a work often enough that they can consume it without investing further thought, it must follow that sequels will be just as easily digestible. Those are, however, two different versions of reception. Maybe this deserves a little excursion ...
Consuming versus conscious reception
This is the most important distinction you will have in this argument. It's the two ends of a spectrum we succinctly call entertainment. It describes not the level of commitment (as people can get very committed about just brainless consumption), but the level of analysis you are willing to invest into something.
There is no judgment either, sometimes you just need to see a well-scripted show about baking. Done right, it is a form of meditation. Or you like just aspects of something, so you see it just for those bits. I've had run shows in the background, giving them maybe 20% attention while doing something else, just to get the whole picture.
However, when I sit down to see something and I like what I see, I tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. I will give it my full attention, not chatting, not  checking my mobile every ten seconds, I'm all over the thing: analyzing, connecting, interpreting.
The mindset with which you go into the experience is what will form your opinion on it (consciously or not). So if you go to see the next Tarantino with the expectation that you will get a rumination of Pulp Fiction, or if you go to see what Tarantino did next, makes worlds of a difference (and is a stigma many authors and writers have to overcome after their first success).
The problem is, we tend to fall more to the consumption side of the spectrum the more familiar we made ourselves with a certain oeuvre. That's where, in its extremes, fandom makes an entrance, that's where stories change ownership, in a sense. Music is another good example for this, with a way higher overturn. Once a musician is pinned down to be successful at a certain type of music, they'll have a hard time doing something else with the same success.
We need to be aware of this pattern to understand how reception works and what a response to something means in its context. Or rather, how the level of introspection and objectivity changes the perception of a work and therefor has to be judged within that spectrum. In other words, trust the critique that shows thought beyond the assumption what an artist should have done to succeed as he did with his previous work.
You don't even need to know where the artist is in his life right now or what person they are, you just have to accept that they most likely moved on and will express that in their work with the form they found to express themselves. Only then you can have an attempt at a proper interpretation if the work is successful or not (not commercially, though, that's a different story yet again ...). It's also a good way to create a position towards other opinions you may encounter.
Your perception will furthermore change over time, obviously, so there is  lot to be taken into account before getting a true grip on what works and what doesn't (for you and in general).
Okay, end of excursion. Where were we ...
The bad end
A bad end constitutes that independently of where you are at the spectrum described above, you end up being disappointed. Like, you could be just on the consumption side of the spectrum and it rubs you wrong for some reason. But then again, as you shift your perception towards a more conscious reception, you may find yourself coming to an understanding after all. If that still fails, however, you might have a bad ending on your hand, getting worse as others chime in to express the same opinion (because to a degree this is still about taste and level of cognition).
Ultimately, the general insight if something is bad (or good) is the result of multiple shared efforts over time, especially if the continued progress of a work is geared towards innovation instead of mirroring the success of a former work.
The question is, now, what we can learn from decades, nay, centuries of documented reception. Because we don't always have to start at the beginning, we can (should) stand on the shoulders of those who successfully took a closer look and shared their insights. We can see what went wrong and take a stab at guessing what went wrong and where. Considering all the above, we can also make fair assumptions as to what constitutes a bad ending in general and why.
I've named some popular examples at the beginning. We also see J. K. Rowling right now revisioning her past work for the worse. It's a good example how not knowing when to stop can also make for a bad ending.
Common themes here are (1) rewriting of the established work (in a sense the attempt of the artist to prevent his story from being changed or advanced by the public), (2) the ignorance of the established which then changes the experience significantly (a really common theme there is establishing characters as intelligent and then having them make very dumb decisions, another example would be ignoring established archetypes ... Han Solo, anyone?), and a third big mistake would be (3) to make the final message of a story a lie.
The third point is the most tricky one and the hardest to catch. It's those endings that just "don't ring true", as the saying goes. It's where the antagonist is beyond humanity and acts in a way that fits, for instance, an effort of propaganda (How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sad example for this).
It's also when the Suspense of Disbelief is kicked to the curve and the end is not authentic in the way the story was set up. It's where external forces (like the studio or organisations) change the arc of a story for, say, commercial reasons (like, every cut down version of a film ever) or to fit a certain ideology (Disney had Rogues One changed and re-shot significantly after they felt that the original result had been too much of a war movie).
[source]The thing is, we grow up with stories, among them stories that are successful for thousands of years and there are reasons for that success. We recognize as a collective whole if something is worthy or not, and with more success the more time we have to take a look. You see right there the default line of failure: to be commercially successful you have to turn stories fast without paying too much for it.
Rather new, inexperienced writers, then seasoned but expensive writers, rather starting from scratch and hoping for a quick success than building and expanding something established with innovation ... I could go on. And if something works, it needs to stay the same, it needs to be "All Ages", as if it is a good thing that stories can't grow with us.
There are so many misconceptions how stories have to work just based on capitalist assumptions that favor a short success over a true success, it shaped whole industries, and we see it fail more and more often. As I said, over time those things will be recognized as lies (or half-truths, if you will).
But it gets worse. You have read so far, but it was all to set up this one, final point (I've already hinted towards it): we have become so well versed in making things easily consumable. The right filters, the right music, the right tone, the right people, a symphony of the recognizable REGARDLESS OF THE STORY BEING TOLD. And that's very dangerous. Look at Harry Potter (glorifying a superiour elite as the better people) or Glow (turning full woke) or 13 Reasons Why (glorifying mental illness) or Ready Player One (blatant nostalgia cash grab) or even the Marvel movies (idk ... empty and unproductive entertainment to print money, I guess). Just lean back and let it happen. It doesn't matter what we are telling you, just enjoy the how.
That's a really ugly trend and a lot of ugly endings for lots and lots of famous franchises. Right now everything that Disney touches seems to turn to shit, Netflix seems to be in trouble for spending shit-loads of money for inferiour quality, Doctor Who is losing its fanbase, mainstream comics have a hard time right now ... I could go on and on and it always comes down to bad storytelling and bad endings.
Anyway, I guess I made my point.
The good end
It's been a long time that I went off the rails for that much of text without having a clear picture of the pay-off it all could have. Of course we are still talking games here and how to make the endings in the stories we tell more satisfying. The whole tirade above is to be understood as an attempt to show the patterns that form opinions about stories as well as misconceptions about creating them in differentiation to what we can know and should use to tell stories. As I said before, we don't need to invent the wheel everytime.
So, with having all that on the table, we can talk about how to create good endings. Or better yet, how to bring a story to one of its potential conclusions ...
Holy shit, I don't know how to end this. The irony.
I thought this'd work out for sure ... [source]Actually, that part deserves a second post, because we need to come at this from another angle when talking about games. For one, with role playing games the ones creating the story are also the audience and what constitutes a bad end for a lot of people could work for a select group of friends. The focus shifts and with that the problems or how to address them.
This post, however, should help you recognizing bad endings and bad storytelling and how all that connects or how you stand towards all of it and conclusions you could draw from that. I guess that is something (if I actually managed it). If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear them. Don't expect that second part very soon, I'm afraid. It'll take me a while.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to manipulate narratives when telling stories in role playing games

Sat, 08/24/2019 - 12:33
Hey there. Long time no see ... This blog is not deserted, it's just really slow right now. So many things to do, like, working on getting my first role playing game published or writing short fiction. Most people don't realize, I think, how much time it actually takes to write a complete game from scratch. Anyway, I'm already digressing. What I want to talk about today connects loosely to the last post I had published here, but instead of talking about how to tact combat a bit differently, I'd like to shed some light on how to narrate stories. Or at least how I do it. This applies to all role playing games ...
The Basics
We all have a basic understanding of stories and how timing is the crucial element in everything we tell or listen to or look at. Even with totally random occurrences we tend to interpret our surroundings towards patterns we believe to recognize. We are also able to re-calibrate and update narratives as soon as new information manifests.
There is a beat to it, and even if you are not able to reproduce it, we all know how to recognize it. The reproducing part, however, is what's crucial when participating in the games we play, as all participants are helping to make the narrative manifest. Actually, they will do so if they want or not. I guess that is an important point to make: it's not that we are not contributing, it's how well we are contributing that we have to look at.Timing is everything ... [source]It does matter if you tell bad jokes all the time, if you constantly miss the beat or if you try to contribute, but constantly run in the wrong direction or disrupt the game ... Everything that happens at the table is part of the manifesting narrative. Everything. The lighting, that one player's smelling feet, the divorce story another player keeps telling. It all contributes and part of a DMs job is to navigate and even manipulate the flow of information input towards an engaging experience which then will lead to a memorable narrative (which then, in retrospective, will be called "the story").
That's why groups "cast" players or why people want to keep the chatter to a minimum or why breaks are necessary or why we can only play for so long before the game starts falling apart at the fringes. That's, ultimately, why DM's need tools and systems to enhance their games.
I've said it before and I'll most likely keep saying it: the way I see it, we use the rules of our games as the extension to what we communicate during the game and as described above, it all actually matters, the lingo and terms, the resolve mechanisms, it all helps shaping the game through altering the narrative. The art of writing proper rules, then, needs to include an awareness how telling engaging stories works and how to improve on that. It always boils down to this.
So that's the basics. Everyone contributes all the time, and we should aim to improve and manipulate the flow of information towards a better game.
How to Weave a Narrative
"Weaving" is the key analogy here, I think. Everything is always everywhere on hand, same goes for the moment at the table and it moves and changes constantly. The game gives you a rhythm to apply (good games do), so you have random encounters occurring either in intervals or when probable. Fights have structure to enhance the tension, there are some fail conditions and recognizable patterns to manipulate and extrapolate from on all levels (not only on a meta-level). You have campaign arcs, quest goals, advancement ... The list goes on.
Rules I like to add to the games I'm designing also generate abstract patterns to apply to the manifesting narrative. Tools to manipulate the flow or weave the narrative. I call them "narrative encounters", as in, not a creature or NPC the characters are encountering, but a twist in the story or an unexpected impulse to the narrative.
There are three, in my opinion, crucial benefits for a DM to extend control over the narrative to some form of external system: (1) it offers changes the DM might not have come up with on his own (as we get stuck easily in patterns we like to reproduce), (2) the sum of those impulses helps to conjure the overall impression of, say, genre and (3) it allows foreshadowing from seemingly random decisions happening at the table, since you not necessarily need to now where things are going and instead know what it's going to shape towards.
The Hero's Journey is a prime example of having a pattern like this, but I like to push it all a little further, actually, as I think it's so abstract that, while obviously working, still will reduce a game to just one pattern. It can be applied to the overall structure of a campaign. Easily and to great effect. But I like a bit more random in there. A bit more Tarantino or Pynchon, if you will. As I see it, our games tend to manifest as picaresque, naturally so due to the different sources contributing to the narrative.[source]I have talked about this on length here on the blog, actually (read it all here). What I didn't do, though, was actually talking about what it takes to make it work. It sure is implied, but (as we do so often) I assumed it being obvious. Part of the reason to write this here post is the realization that it needs a little more than "just" the theory and all the pieces.
For now, just remember: if you weave something, you don't only do sowith what you have, you also do it towards a goal. However, there is still more to that ...
Recognizing the Elements of Stories  The first thing we need to be aware of, is THE STAGE. It's the concepts that make the world the game is set in or the understanding and knowledge of the pieces that make a campaign. In a sense, it means narrowing down the expected outcomes of certain patterns (we have magic and no modern weaponry, people believe in fatalism, capitalist theories are banned or hard SF versus Space Opera ... stuff like that).
However, as a stage, it needs to be more concrete than that. It needs details about the area the characters are exploring, to a degree that the players can make informed decisions about their characters and so that the DM is in a position to have lots of moving pieces he can use without harming the Suspense of Disbelief (basically informing the players about possible negative outcomes or ramifications of actions, at least in general enough terms for them to have them believing in those pieces interfering as the narrative responses to their actions).
The Stage, in a sense, is the part of the sandbox around a group they can be aware of and the toys they can interact, with some horizon for their expectations.
THE CHARACTERS are the second big element of each story. The player start with the same process of choice eliminations when deciding what character they are playing. Characters come with certain patterns how they interact with their surroundings. When players make characters, they agree to apply those patterns by interpreting their character's actions towards them (not necessary to follow them, but to play with them in a way that is recognizable by all participants ... the cleric falling from grace, the fighter not willing to fight, stuff like that is within that realm of possibilities).
Each player has a pattern (or several, depending on the complexity of the characters) to contribute to the manifesting narrative as part of an ongoing dialogue, or rather, moderated argument what's going to happen next and why.
THE CHARACTERS are the tools with which the players are able to interact with THE STAGE. Their senses, if you will.
The third major element are the NARRATIVE IMPULSES a DM gives to all those interacting pieces. Some of it comes from the system (or his use of it), some of it comes from the hints he provides the characters with (as in "invitations to act"), some of it comes from moderating all the offerings the players make to interact (when he interprets their ideas to his concepts of how things work on THE STAGE), but the main part of his work is, imho, the twists he is able to weave into the story, the timing.

Be that bambus ... [source] The last crucial aspect is a BELIEVABLE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES, which means that players need to believe that their decisions have real impact. Some of that is carried by the rules (and in that regard, rules benefit from complexity in that they extent the REALM), but a huge part of that is actually down to a DMs flexibility to streamline all the impulses manifesting at any given moment during the game with his own NARRATIVE IMPULSES towards believable outcomes in the perceivable future of the STAGE the narrative is manifesting on. Not only what's happening, but (far more importantly, where it's happening towards.
If all the aforementioned are to a huge degree craft (system mastery, planned management of expectations and moderation) and knowledge about how we actually perceive stories (so we can manipulate them towards seeded expectations), that last one is where the art is. It's like Jazz. It's the ability to recognize and weave randomly emerging patterns into a cohesive and ongoing narrative that actually seems to go somewhere, all that on the fly. There's lots to talk about there.
The Taoist Approach: Doing Without Doing
Once things are set into motion, once players start interacting with their narrative surroundings, a DM is best advised to hold back and react spontaneously as the game dictates and offers opportunities. If he has no agenda beyond what is already established and a loose idea how it might change in the immediate future, he'll have it easier to recognize the patterns as they emerge. It puts him in a position where he can react instead of needing to act all the time to keep the game afloat. That's what "Doing Without Doing" means.
In a sense it means the DM is leaning back and observing what is happening, always only adjusting the game towards the established and letting the rest run its course until an opportunity arises to enhance the game in another direction. A bit like fishing, if you will.

It's all about opportunity ... [source]As established above, part of being able to maintain this state, is having an idea where the pattern is going to. Not in a concrete way, but as an abstract narrative encounter area the game is gearing towards. How about an example: betrayal. To have a betrayal, it needs a situation where someone is getting betrayed. The Narrative Generator linked to above will also deliver genre-appropriate agents for the betrayal or vague reasons for it. Conditions, in a way, that need to be met to make the narrative encounter manifest.
So the DM takes his time, letting the game flow, manipulating it gently towards a situation where the betrayal could be placed most effectively. It also doesn't mean that the characters need to be betrayed, it can mean that they hear a story about someone being betrayed, get an opportunity to intervene with a betrayal or even, that they need to betray someone to reach a goal. Just as the pattern emerges and opportunity dictates.
In my games, I have at least 3 such narrative encounters prepared for each session. How it all manifests is the campaign log. The important bit is to keep this as vague as possible to be able to apply it to what is actually happening at the table. In that regard, it doesn't matter what the characters are doing, betrayal will be part of the narrative in the immediate future (just like encountering goblins would be with a random monster encounter). It's all the characters' decisions and the DMs spontaneous reaction to it, guided by some vaguely predetermined shifts in the narrative that are accepted within the realm of possibility.
The amount of tact and timing you are able to put into this determines to a huge degree the quality of the narrative that is manifesting at the table and the stories being told about it afterwards. 
The Limits of Control
As outlined above, I firmly believe that we don't need a grand narrative. Not in a sense that a DM needs to know he concrete outlines of a campaign (it is a matter of debate if something like this is even possible without a great deal of manipulation towards what the players want ...). There are limits to the control a DM can (or should) have over the manifesting narrative.

The course is the campaign, the trainer is the DM. the players ... [source]DMs define a realm of possibility, players decide how they interact within that, DM reacts to that. Being too specific in that regard will result in a (too) simple win/fail mechanic and the mindset coming along with that. It is bound to be disappointing.

Accepting those limits can open up the game for the DM in a way that has him in a spot where he can play as well. Let's go with the betrayal above and say the DM has a specific NPC in mind that will betray the characters, but they never interact with that NPC again for some reason or another. The DM is now in a situation where he created something he's not able to use unless he forces it upon the characters for some reason.

An easy out here would be to have someone tell the characters a story about that character betraying someone else, which might at least have the characters thinking they dodged a bullet there. However, that's not the point. It rather should illustrate how dependent a DM is on the course of action the players decide on and how prepared he is to deal with it. Or better: where his focus lay in preparation.

The limits of control for a DM are with the specific outcomes of the narrative impulses over multiple instances. If you think something along the lines of:
 "A needs to happen, so B can happen and I can hit them with C, gearing the game towards G ..."you are two steps ahead too far, because what will always happen is more along the lines of:
"X will happen and you have A to gear it towards. which will result in XAY and you having a B to navigate towards, which will have, of course, the result of XAYB and you having C already in sight, so ..."ABC and so on is what you have control over. They are impulses, which is what has us coming full circle to the point I made in the beginning, as those impulses will have an impact on the narrative. They inform genre and if that realm of possibilities is chosen well, the sum of the possible results will give you your Grand and Epic Narrative! The play reports I'm writing here can be examples of that, I think. If nothing else, the stories described there are completely a result of what I described above (you want two good examples, check this one out and this one).

And, done ...

That's it, folks. I'm of the opinion that we need to go places with our designs that accomodate A DMs work where it really counts. It's not all intuitive, although it can be, but most of all, needs to be with most games since that kind of support is missing. It can be explained how we tell better stories in our games. And if we are able to explain it properly, other can learn it as well and get beter at it.

I hope I'm getting closer to offer some valuable insight into how we need to push a little harder when exploring what the games we play actually do and how to make that better. It's one area where we still can innovate, in my opinion.

I'll leave it at that, for now. I get a feeling that I circle the same ideas for some time now (for the simple reason that I need answers for the games I write) and I'm not sure that it still makes for endearing reading anymore. One realisation of late I had is that  might have to change the direction of the blog somewhat away from writing about my ideas of design and more towards something more, idk, easily digestible?

I have an idea for that as well ... We'll see if I can pull it of. I have to chose wisely what I have to write for the rest of the year, as it already shapes up to be a busy couple of months. However, if things go as planned, you'll have a lot more to read in another format in a couple of months. Until then, friends and neighbours.

Soon ...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs