Short and sweet so you don't have to spend the hundreds on MasterClass. Although I highly recommend it if you like learning new things. Costs around the same as a couple of nights out drinking and you get it for a whole year.
Background: Master Class is a subscription that allows you to take consolidated courses on various subjects taught by experts in that field. What I'm going to write here came from Amy Tan, James Cameron, Salmon Rushdie, Martin Scorsese, Walter Mosley, Margaret Atwood, Danny Elfman, David Lynch, Levar Burton, N.K. Jemisin, and Aaron Sorkin.
These are random, not necessarily related to each other, and in no particular order.
I will use the terms players and audience interchangeably
- When writing for you games. Pretend that you are talking or writing to a good friend, someone you can be yourself around. They just asked you to explain your plot for your
. If you have to add in "filler" or exaggerations to make it seem more exciting (the way people do sometimes when telling someone a story), then the idea needs more work.
- The story is like a car. And the plot is the engine. If the story is big and bold, the engine needs to be powerful and able to accelerate the occupants on a whim. Big cars with poor engines are dull and no fun (generally). You need the appropriate answer to the question "How" when figuring out the plot. How is the plot being delivered and how is it actionable for the players? It's an entertainment experience.
- You don't need to flesh everything out. If you want to, that's fine, but storytelling can be done in a range of ways, and there are basically two methods marking the ends of that scale. One is like writing a symphony, it's technical and somewhat rigid. It must be planned very carefully and executed the same. But can be very powerful. The other is like playing Jazz. The artists know the basic idea and there is certainly a structure, but there's a lot of room for improvisation as well. Id recommend being wherever in-between the two that you are most comfortable. I would not recommend full improv with no plan. Yeah some people can accomplish it, but I'd wager all my money that the fully improvised story with no planning is not as good as the one they would have had with more thought. Even if the DM is good at improv. They definitely missed out on ways to make it that much better.
- Piggybacking off of number 3, if you know the characters and story generally, and where you want the story to go, your idea is much closer to being ready than you think. If you know everything about your NPCs, and story, every little detail, it leaves very little room for getting sidetracked by the players. The players need to have the agency to drive plot and story elements. If you have the proper amount of wiggle room in your story, you can play ball with them more easily.
- Capturing and holding wonder. The audience wants to be in a realm of "wonder". That could be excitement, fear, dread, immersion into character, whatever. Depending on the game and story. Once you have them there, you'll know because they are "there". They'll say "oh wow" at your twist, they'll role play their character more than average, they'll talk amongst one another, they will express their hatred for the BBEG out loud, they'll be undistracted. Once they are there, hold them there. Suspend that feeling, let them stay in it. Don't take that break yet, don't pause to go into the books to find stats if you don't need to, and feed into whatever it is that has immersed them.
- Building and releasing tension. Build tension of some type and hold onto it. All Dnd games revolve around a tribulation. It's not happily ever after yet. Something is wrong, and it's gonna get worse before it gets better. Move relentlessly towards that. Here's a technique: "Cutting" is used in films to build tension as two converging story lines grow closer. (Shifting from one point of view to another, highlighting the state of peril the characters are in). I believe this can be rather easily translated into DnD, since I have done it before, but is more art than science. All I can give is an example. My players were in the midst of a battle with the BBEG (in a sci-fi game). They had the BBEG trapped in a skyscraper, but he seemed to be stalling their confrontation. An NPC friend of the party informed them that unknown starships were approaching on a direct course. The party concluded that a rescue was inbound for BBEG. They did not want him to escape. They split into groups and raced against the clock to converge and surround BBEG. I had one group act one quick scene, then cut to the next before letting them finish their pursuit, letting the next group go, then gave them all an update on how close the starships were now. This is important: tie the merging story lines together with exposition. If one group shot an enemy in the hall, as soon as the next group goes describe that they hear gunshots coming from another part of the building. The "PC" doesn't know who is shooting, but the "Players" do. It doesn't matter that they all know what happened, an audience in a movie knows those things too, even if the main characters don't but the effect is the same. You're in the theatre thinking "GO! YOUR FRIENDS ARE IN TROUBLE!". Then, eventually, all the separate elements merged as they rendezvoused and confronted the BBEG, fought for a round, and the BBEG barely escaped as the starships swooped in.
- It's okay if the players are ahead of you in terms of the plot. You can sprinkle in (premeditated or on the spot) elements that are "secrets" with the intent of not being that secret. A little bone to throw the audience. As long as you follow up and REWARD the players for catching on, it becomes a promise. "Hey remember that little thing you noticed, here's the payoff. I'm gonna continue doing that so stay invested". I now call this the "class two rating" element. It's a reference to Aliens. Remember that scene in the beginning where Ripley offers to help the Marines with their cargo loading? She says "I can help use one of those loaders, I have a class two rating". She then proceeds to show off her skills using the machine, and we are left thinking "maybe that will come back later". And it does in a big way later in the film. She emerges in the mechanical loader ready to fight the Alien queen and defend Newt, declaring "Get away from her you bitch!". The audience is left basically saying "Yaasssss!"
- Piggybacking off of number 7: If the players figure something out earlier than you intended, don't change the ending, don't panic, and don't tell them that they aren't on the right path to throw them off. Those are all punishments for engaging in your story. Instead pivot slightly and try your best to turn it into a "class two rating" element. Keep it moving and turn lemons into lemonade.
- Don't try too hard to make your story unique, different, unusual, whatever. What makes a good story able to transcend time and culture is the commonality of human nature. Moby Dick is still enjoyable today. Books written by people from other countries are just as enjoyable as ones written by people from your own country. This is because human nature transcends those barriers. We understand how people in those stories feel and act, and in return we feel things about them too. So make your story able to be related to. That doesn't mean don't innovate or experiment. Just know that if the idea is so foreign that the audience doesn't connect with it. It probably won't be very good.
- Things happen in good stories. What's happening in yours? The players should not be wandering around wondering what they're supposed to be doing. It should be obvious. How they react to it is up to them but "im having trouble figuring out what I'm supposed to be doing" really shouldn't be a question your players have to ask. They don't HAVE to stop the warewolf with strange arcane markings all over it that just busted into the tavern. But at least they know that's what they're being offered as a course of action.
I thought these lessons were very interesting, although a bit messy as a group. Some seem somewhat obvious but when distilled to this level of simplicity and spoken by great writers, they become more meaningful to me. I can get caught in the weeds sometimes. Hope they are cool to some of you too! Happy Tuesday.
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