Writing stories that keep the players attending your games
When writing a scenario, or any kind of literature for that matter, the author must take several things into consideration.
First, the style of the game must be established, meaning that the atmosphere must be created for the game effectively. If the game is energetic and fast the action and style of writing must reflect the speed and urgency of the situation. Alternatively, if the game is to be slow, mysterious and dark, then attempts must be made to keep the atmosphere smooth and detailed so that the players can absorb the story and characters.
To maintain the atmosphere during writing, and to keep the style consistent, it is best to keep you surroundings similar every time you sit down to write. Keep an ambient soundtrack playing softly in the background with a melody that will reflect the game. If your writing a fast paced game then play the high-energy tracks, keep up the adrenalin with the thought of the action you are trying to emulate. If your writing something a little more sombre, keep the tone low and brooding and, in both cases, try to imagine how the players will react to the designs and situations you are creating.
Secondly, figure out what kind of game the players are used to playing. Also think about each of the Player Character’s (PC’s) aims and styles of character. Try and give a little of something for each player to do to spread out the involvement of each of the friends at the table and try to avoid creating a scenario that really only applies to a portion of the players. If all the players are used to high-energy games then create an original story but with the required amount of guns and action. The flipside of this is to turn the desired story up on its head; the players are big action heroes, so turn down the heat and get serious. Switch the explosions and blaster fire for dark corridors and flashlights, something a little more investigative. Many players will respond eagerly to a complete change of style of play and then be more willing to explore aspects of the game. If they don’t go for it, that’s fine. At least you’ve used that night’s gaming as a test bed to see if you can introduce a new flavour into the mould. It’s advisable to introduce these new ideas every few sessions; if you test new ideas every week and the players don’t respond positively then they might not come back for more.
The plot is the biggest thing of all. It is the flow and content of the story the players will remember. If all they remember is how they took down the enemy, blew up armies and defeated the bad guys then they would be more suited to playing a wargame, not a roleplaying game. Roleplaying should have defining moments, including the conflict, but a lot of those moments should be defined by high levels of drama, the melodramatic stuff that most people have come to expect from films such as Star Wars. When Luke was hanging off that pylon in The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader said ‘I am your father’, it was one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. There was no need for blasters or starships exploding or any kind of physical conflict (fair enough, they had been knocking each other about in a lightsabre duel), but the moment, that defining moment, was what took people aback. You remember the sheer sense of wonder at the flying energy bolts and the ships tearing through the asteroid field, but that sense of drama, of horror, at the revelation of the relationship is the best part.
If the players kill enough dark magic nasties or uncover super-weapon plots on a regular basis they’ll get bored. If you make the games memorable with the situation you put the players in and the problems with the dangers and characters they come across the players will be a lot more interested to see ‘what happens next’. This is what makes soap operas (even dodgy ones) successful.
It has been said that there are only nine basic plots for all genres of story to cover. Romance, murder mysteries etc. This is a bit of a pain. How can you make the story original if you’ve already exhausted a hundred storylines with different modus operandi? Well, the key thing to remember is that its not generally the reason behind the story that drives an adventure’s plot - it is the route the players or the unfolding events will take that make the game memorable. As long as the players get to do something different every week they should keep attending your games. They won’t care that there was another murder in this week’s game, but they will care how the murder took place and for what reasons. Be careful, though, not to try and re-hash old ideas and make them bigger and better than before. The players will know straight away that you are trying to recapture the highs of a past game and won’t respond to it as well. It is originality that keeps the players at your table.
How long do you intend the game to last for? This depends on whether you want to run a campaign or single- to two-night sessions. When writing a long campaign it is always best to design a basic situation, with a rough sequence of events and the lists of goals and non-player characters (NPC’s) to pace out the story. That way, when the players finish the game for the night you can make a few notes about what they did and accomplished and have it affect the sequences of the next game. If you just play out the game week by week to a set curriculum that you have designed to turn into a long campaign then the players will not only get bored with having their PC’s led around by the nose they will also be less willing to turn up for the next game if they think the same thing will happen again. That makes the hard work you have put into the campaign design worthless, especially if the players give up on you. The golden rule is that the game is for the players, not the pages and pages of linear material you slaved over for this very reason.
A lot of GM’s are concerned about how much detail they should put into a game design. Should they list every possible outcome of the story? Should every nuance and capability of the NPC’s be listed in detail? The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much detail you put into a design, as long as you are comfortable with it. If you need all that information then go ahead and get it all down on paper. If you think you can do without it and that all the information you haven’t put down is easily winged, then go ahead and wing it. A lot of the time it will depend on how experienced the GM is. As long as the GM is comfortable with the material he or she has in front of them then they will run a relaxed game, which in turn will make the players feel more comfortable. It’s amazing how pressures on the GM are communicated to the players. The GM is the narrator and their feelings are transmitted with their narrative.
Designing a fresh and imaginative game for keen players is not an easy task if you’re new to the hobby, but it gets easier with practice and exposure to the game and to the players. After a while, new GM’s will get the feedback from players that will make their games more suited to the group’s needs. There are some experienced GM’s who still enjoy working out every fine detail of an upcoming campaign, and there are those who just write a very brief synopses of the story and take it from there, embellishing the game as it progresses. If you’re comfortable with it, do it. But don’t forget to take the above details under a little advisement; after all, everyone who sits around that gaming table wants something from the roleplaying experience and it is up to you to provide it.