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[Story Steps] Playtesting Narrative Support Structures

Started by Bill Cook, March 20, 2005, 08:03:18 AM

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Bill Cook

Not sure if this should go here or in actual play. I've been working on design of this game for a while now and do plan to release it into the wild, but there's not a specific timeframe for that. I put together a two-section, thirty-something page booklet as an alpha, several months back. The first section outlined general thoughts on creating a story. The second was a complex wargame. I got the criticism that the first section needed to be fleshed out and that the second section was incomprehensible. So I've been soaking thoughts on how to support the kind of story progress I care about.

I tossed together a number of ideas and commited to doing a one-shot at a meetup group. I wrote out two pre-gens, one sheet each. To answer the question "what's your game all about?" I usually tell people, "You say where you start and where you end; play is what happens in between." So these sheets had that much down. To appeal to a common point of reference, I set this scenario in a fantasy world.

Dubaius - travelling minstrel; deflowered a noble maiden; running for his life.
First Step: armed men burst into the hovel. Dubaius and Aleria sit up, naked in bed. Gaiden, Aleria's father, steps through the doorway, garbed in finery. "Thou devil! I'll have thy defiler's tools!"
Last Step: Dubaius presents Gaiden with a hefty payment for damages to his property.

Gareth - Dwarvish miner; has discovered a vein of precious metal in the King's mines; wants to smuggle it out for his personal wealth.
First Step: collects gear from an abandoned mine shaft when it collapses! After being dug out and taken home, he finds gold among the dirt in his pockets!
Last Step: his wealth is coined. He commissions a mountain-side hall as his new estate.

Play happens when a player takes the next step. A good analogy is ordering a meal at a restaurant but with one catch: there's no menu. So you describe something you think you'd like, and the staff does their best to render it. A player describes the next unit of story progress towards his Last Step, and the GM serves it in courses (i.e. scenes). Scenes chapter a Story Step, which is really a brushstroke or milestone.

If you accomplish that step's objective, you get three points of Impact to spend for dice. You can also gain Impact by authoring your own scenes or finishing other players' step drafts. I also pay for Crossing. Ron failed to achieve most of his step objectives, so he didn't get to spend much Impact. Kevin had a streak of wins and payed to resolve a number of contests in his favor. He had nine Impact, at one point, and spent eight to get a bald-faced lie to pass.

Scenes come in different flavors, serving different functions: stress the Last Step, risk terrible costs, establish requirements, provide a new opportunity, etc.

I also wrote a list of scenes for each character designed to increase pressure. Each one was based on a character in their social network.

[*]Kerig orders a crew to clear out the collapsed shaft to recover the lost equipment.
[*]Tunin discovers the gold in Gareth's clothing and reports the find to Kerig.
[*]King Rucker makes a surprise inspection visit. While pressing Kerig on production, he orders that the previously abandoned shaft be further explored.
[*]Gareth goes drinking and pays Dubaius for song and jokes by tossing out a gold nugget onto an open table in a full hall.

[*]Gaiden roughens a prostitute friend of Dubaius to learn his whereabouts.
[*]Aleria commits suicide in pining for her fleeing lover.
[*]Gareth blabs to Measley that Dubaius is in town and tells him where he usually camps.
[*]Measley catches Dubaius flat-footed, bathing in a stream, and chains his ankle to an oak before leaving to summon Gaiden.

The rules intend that these be improvized during play, but I put some together as insurance against drawing a blank. Although, that was cowardly; the rules let you pay the players to write scenes, for themselves or others, to get the GM through a dry spell.

Some I used verbatim. Others, events transpired to make inappropriate. There's an obvious link between these two characters: one needs money, and the other needs help to smuggle loot. The players picked up on that and stepped it in. The biggest curve they threw was to partner with Measley as a laborer to the mining operation. Another surprising player suggestion was to have Measley betray them both, which led to the only combat scene in the two-and-a-half hour session.

I eschewed the wargame bulk. Scenes that had no conflict were simply narrated. Uncertain outcomes were determined by a vs. dice roll with some bonuses, depending on circumstances. In the final scene, at the smelter's forge, Measley put a layer of coins, at the top, inside bags of stones (more player authorship). Gareth rolled with Dwarvish greed (an analog to Acuity) to discover the fake, and combat broke out.

I was very much in a "to hell with time-consuming processing" mood (BW'll do that to ya;) and just used dice rolls for ordering of narration, without controller restaints or margin-determined effects. That was one wacky combat, and a lot of fun, too. The smelter branded Gareth on his shoulder. Dubaius cracked Measley's skull with a rock; he fell hard, losing his knife, and then meakly climbed under Gareth's wagon for protection. The dwarf pulled the smelter down by the leg. Dubaius collected the loose brand and stamped the donkey's ass, causing the heavily loaded wagon wheel to crack the shin of the scampering Measley. Dubaius raised his lute behind the smelter's head. Just then, Gareth uppercut the smelter's package so hard he got frog cheeks. He doubled over. Dubaius swung through the air, lost his footing and toppled onto the pile on Gareth.

** ** **

I still need to let this playtest digest, but the crux of my quandry is that I've got the workings of a story-telling procedure (which I'm fairly pleased with) in one hand and a very technical wargame in the other. Should I even try to put them together?

Ron Edwards

Hi Bill,

I've been chewing on this post for over a week now, and I guess I keep seeing that you answered your own question.

You didn't play the wargame part, so we can't say that you playtested it. You simply didn't use it, because it wasn't what you wanted to do.

Well, given it's not what you wanted to do, why keep it? Take the part you playtested, which seemed to work very well (and which seems to have a lot in common with Sorcerer, based on this brief account), and develop it.

Perhaps the wargamey stuff is a fine foundation for playing that way when you do want to do it, later, in the form of another game entirely.


Bill Cook

That makes sense. I actually have playtested the wargame part over several sessions. And it works about how I want it to. This latest push is about shoring up the story end, i.e. yeah, we're fighting, in exquisite detail, but what for?

I find that getting into legistics of combat causes it to become the focus of play. I mean, it is an entree, but I don't want it to crowd everything else off the table.

Kevin made the comment that he would have been more comfortable with some kind of margin-based qualifier to narration. Being more focused on rewarding authorship and progressive input, I used something off the cuff for combat, only slightly more complex than coin flips:

[*]Announce intent.
[*]GM assigns an attribute base and modifiers.
[*]Repeat for each player.
[*]All roll their total pool.
[*]Result determines order.
[*]Narrate effect, without limits or controller restriction. (Ye gods! The power!) Apply immediately.
[*]Repeat for each player.

And that was fine. What's native to the wargame section is this:

[*]Select a prescribed action, qualified by steady and transient constraints. (e.g. "Are you in range?" "Did you miss last round?")
[*]Choose a target, if applicable. Roll your base.
[*]Process by match by carrier (of initiative) by target. Complete sub-levels before proceeding to next of same.

(i.e. If a match has a carrier, process the carrier before proceeding to the next match. If the carrier has a target, process the target before proceeding to the next carrier, etc.)

[*]For opposition, margin wins and rates. (Re-roll failed dice and then successes to resolve ties.)
[*]Suspend effects until processing is complete; then apply.
[*]Apply defense effects according to weapon type to limit damage effects.

And there's even more detail I could go into: attack progression, matrix of opposition/canceling, prior round constraints, system of tracking/logging, mode of conflict, heroic advantage, etc.

We left out mechanics for powers entirely. That's basically permission to write your own damn spells/laser gun:)

I like it all. It all makes sense. It plays reasonably well. It doesn't have to go together. I could separate the combat rules, write a tight game world (e.g. Gun Runners of the Delta System) and wed them as a second game; something more sim-y and taskish. Or I could boil it down to something a little less intimidating. Not sure, not sure ..