Monday, 8 August 2011

Wrestling With The Stuffing

Sometimes ... and I am sure many modders will agree with me ... as much as our hobby of writing a story to be played in a module is a joy and a pleasure to create, there are times when the story refuses to play along. Note, I'm not talking about the main path or outcome to the story, but the "smaller" details that take place in between that help flesh out the game as a whole. It's a little like being faced with a blank page to fill between each event of the main story. These pages need to be filled in and made interesting, as they act as the glue between each other, and success in their writing can be the make or break of an otherwise well-built module.

The Main Plot

Let's take The Lord of the Rings (LotR) as an example of a story. The bottom line to the main point of the story is: Frodo has to take a magic ring to "Mordor" where it must be destroyed! That's it. Yet, look at the many books that make up the complete story and it's not hard to imagine that there is much more involved in that story than a simple journey. Writing a plot for a module is a similar task, in that a player needs to be presented with challenges and choices that help flesh out their experience of the story as they uncover it through play.

Side Quests

Note, I am not talking about side quests. It is true that modules can and do provide side-quests that help to give a module longevity, but, in my opinion, these should act as incidental events rather than experiences to replace the main story, which should be the crux of the game. In other words, side quests, while briefly entertaining should be something that, if missed by the player, would not detract from the module/story as a whole. Now, why do I mention this? Simply because, I believe that a good "litmus" test for a module is to remove the side-quests and to see what is left for the player to do to complete the story. If, for example, you find that a good percentage of a module is made from side quests, then I believe the experience of the game as a whole will quickly dissolve into disappointment, especially to experienced players who have played more than their fair share of RPGs.

Main Quest Events

The answer, as I see it, is to break the story into main quest events, which the player can explore at their own pace. However, this is not easy to achieve. When writing a book, the events are predetermined and the direction the reader has to take is controlled by the author. For a module story, however, the writer has to be careful not to railroad a player along a path just to ensure plot rigidity. Many modules are built this way, of course, and to some degree some direction-pushing cannot be avoided, but it should be minimised to allow at least an appearance of choice for the player playing through it. Now, for me, managing these main quest events is where the wrestling comes in. For starters, what makes a good quest event as opposed to an orchestrated plot? Secondly, how will one main event affect another?

Referring back to LotR, we can see how the choice to travel through the "Mines of Moria" after failing to cross the "Misty Mountains" acted as a great event in the course of the main story. Of course, if the same event was written into a module, a writer may like to consider writing both paths ahead of time, to allow a resourceful player the chance to succeed in crossing the Misty Mountains where in the book they are said to fail. Such a second path would, however, take more work and require extra creativity to ensure it fitted in with the spirit of the main story and offered similar pros and cons as taking the path through the Mines of Moria.

Whether both paths are written or not, these are what I would call main quest events - and it is these types of areas that form part of the main quest that I believe require careful attention to detail to ensure the whole story is made memorable and remains cohesive irrespective of the path taken. Note, while these quest events may share similarities to side quests in that they may have their own objectives to complete, they are still part of the main quest, as the player must do these quests to finish the game.

Better The Demon

In my own module, Better The Demon, I have a number of these main quest events already outlined and set in place. From the perspective of the main story, they all link together to move the plot from point A to point B - and I do not mean just in the way of transitions, but also from a perspective of the story as a whole. However, there are one or two areas (with their own main quest events) that currently refuse to work themselves out in my mind. The logical flow of one "internal" event into the next has just not revealed itself to me yet. I could force the issue of course, and perhaps many players would not notice, but I can also be sure that some will ... and that eats away at my need to get it right and not to leave a bad taste with the player.

As a simple comparison to LotR, while travelling through Moria, the heroes had to overcome a number of obstacles, defeat some monsters, and even overcome a puzzle before they could enter in the first place. i.e. The adventure in Moria felt like a whole quest in and of itself and added to the final weight making the whole adventure/story as memorable as it was. And while I have the equivalent "Moria" sections of my adventure in place, they do not yet currently meet my own expectations and are the areas of the module I am currently wrestling with. Once I have these parts clearer in my own mind, I can then start to place the final pieces of Chapter 1 into place. Such ideas and story development cannot be rushed and I thank readers for the time and patience they have already given me. Hopefully, a few more days and night's with the particular adventure locations in mind will help unravel these elements of the story within me soon enough, while avoiding orchestrated or cliched ideas. <- Probably impossible, but I will do my best to add an interesting slant.

In the meanwhile, I continue to write conversations for the NPC's that are already well established.


Master Changer said...

Interesting thoughts as always, Lance. The attention you're paying to the storytelling craft through the medium of this module is intriguing both as a process and for what it says about how your adventure will turn out!

Some thoughts about your main quest events along the way: You could perhaps consider what major forces are acting in ways as-yet unknown to the PCs that shape their choices. In your Moria example, the opposition of Saruman narrows the choices of the Fellowship partially because they have to fear what he is capable of. The destruction of the Dwarvish colony and the presence of the Balrog are big unknowns--information, in fact, that is intentionally kept from the reader/characters.

Another line of thought to consider in shaping your quest turning point is what you want to foreshadow about the ultimate object of the quest, or what you want to reveal about the principal actors. In the Moria example, several important character points are revealed that will become relevant later on: the extent of Gandalf's ability to contend with a great power of evil, Aragorn's leadership when the chips are down, and the resilience of the Hobbits to great danger and harm.

Hopefully some of these approaches may help you in thinking about your quest events from a new angle. Perhaps they won't, or you've already considered them! If so, you could perhaps run parts of the story by another person who doesn't mind being spoiled; sometimes something that seems like a major roadblock to an author is actually no problem. Maybe you could tell your story to your rabbits! Sometimes just talking it out can help resolve it, even without feedback.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi MC,


This is exactly the kind of reply I need at the moment - ones to help me to focus on those points that I have let slip due to looking at other areas of the module.

It's sometimes hard to move from one stage of thinking back to another, especially if one is also distracted by real life activities.

And in your examples you do touch on some of the issues I am wrestling with ... some of the real problems due to the fact that I am also introducing a new area that has some of its own background and history, which I don't want to start unravelling too much just yet, but at the same time need to do so a little to stay true to for the sake of a good story.

Thanks again, just the kind of post I need to help start moving in that direction again.


Anonymous said...

I like the general idea of your main quest events. On the one hand, they have the "incidental" quality which makes them interesting for the whole of the story--it wasn't a "good" decision to go through Moria--yet, however, you want these events to provide characterization. This is good! The problem, as I see it, is that most side-quests in games exist "apart" from the game itself. They offer no coherent continuity to the overall plot/world. They're just kind of there, and nothing should just 'be there' in a game(or, for that matter, anything).

In my own case, any optional events done by the player are under the umbrella that they're gathering supplies for the Nagas(obviously more than that, but you get the idea). That said, there is still the difficulty of making sure that things mesh within the overall plot structure(and corresponds to the themes I would like to express).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like your framework. :)

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi CW,

Thanks! Like you, I don't like to have too many quests that appear to be present just for the sake of it. By concentrating on main plot events, I hope to provide different "quests" but with a single purpose. Of course, there will still be the odd side quest. ;)


Kamal said...

Apologies for mistakes as I'm currently restricted to my phone for Internet.

When stuck on a way to move things forward, I will sometimes " force it" and just put in placeholder dialogs, areas whatever, things I can come back to later when I have it worked out. Sometimes forcing things gets things going by itself. Hemingway was a great advocate of this, he wrote from 8-noon, whether he felt like it or not. Sometimes forcing it just allows you to progress to sections you are more comfortable with and inspired about.

Some games are all about the sandbox, in those cases the main quest can be incidental and the "side quests" become the important thing for the player, Elder Scrolls, Legacy of White Plume Mountain, even Civilization. In those there's enough that can be done the player can make their own objectives and story.

One thing that can be done is offering the player sidequests, but then closing them off if not completed in a certain amount of time. Eg: other heroes have rescued the old lady's cat.

Large cities and areas need plenty to do and see or they don't feel "lived in". Sidequests, assuming the player doesn't need to work on the main quest this instant, are how you can accomplish that. I keep a template conversation to use for a generic three step sidequest giver (give quest, quest in progress, player reporting success in quest, post success). I also have a template conversation to use for the quest target of fetch quests, and template ondeath script for kill quests. Having templates simplifies adding small and straightforward sidequests, and I can chain the templates together for a string of straight forward quests from one giver or a multi-part quest. I'd bet big sandbox games use templatized quests to fill out their gameworlds, and something like the Neverwinter Online Forge or the NWN2 Flip project will allow quick construction of these types of straight forward quests.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Kamal,

I always have a "scared" feeling about leaving blank templates, as I always feel as though I am building up work to return to. If I build up too much, then I quickly become overwhelmed at the thought of what I still need to do. ;) That said, I do use templates reservedly, as I do recognise their use as you rightly point out.

I hear what you say about the differences between a "story" and "sandbox" game with respect to side quests. I guess I never really thought of D&D as a sandbox type game, except that it does offer an alternative option for the player in a game that also has a main story. As you point put, cities is a good place for such a design ... and is probably why I avoid designing cities. ;) (I am not very good at this kind of design.)

Interesting and welcomed points as always Kamal. Many thanks!