narrative space

Using my gaming icon for this post, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, but this is as much about writing as RPGs.

Tonight — presuming none of my players manage to contract ebola or something in the next eight hours — I’ll start running Once Upon a Time in the West, my oh-so-cleverly titled frontier Scion game. This is the second tabletop game I’ve run, with Memento being the first. (No, I don’t expect this one to turn into a novel, much less a series. Then again, I didn’t expect it with Memento, either. But this one will be more heavily based on game materials, so I’d say it’s unlikely.) As a result, I’ve been thinking about games and how I plot them.

One of the hardest parts of running a game is getting it started. Players usually create their own characters, so now you have this wacky and disparate group of personalities, and it’s up to you, the game master, to figure out how to wrangle them all into the plot. The stereotypical D&D approach — which has the merit of both simplicity and silly tradition — is “you’re all sitting in the same tavern when somebody comes running in shouting, ‘Orcs are attacking the caravan!'” Or you can try the mystical approach: some crazy old man spouting prophecy that insists Fate wants the player-characters to work together. Both of these, though, are thin disguises for the Hand of the GM coming down and shoving everybody into position. As such, I find myself reluctant to use it. Sure, anything I do will ultimately be the Hand of the GM, but I want to make it feel as natural as possible. So instead of shoving, I’m laying little trails of breadcrumbs, tailoring each one to the individual character, and trusting that my players will obligingly follow the paths toward each other.

There’s a fine balance between that and “railroading,” which (for those of you unfamiliar with gaming jargon) is when the GM has a predetermined idea of what things the characters should do, in what order, by what means, and resists any attempt on the part of the players to diverge from the tracks. Basically, you want it to stay cooperative. I took the same approach to starting Memento, laying breadcrumbs to lead the PCs toward one another, and not only did my players cooperate, they charged toward each other with rather more gusto than I’d anticipated. Once they were together, then we could open things up and let them decide which direction to go.

The opening challenge is different in writing, even when you’re working with multiple pov characters or protagonists. The same mind has created all of the characters, so it’s easier to build in reasons why they would encounter and work with one another. And since that one mind is making all the decisions, railroading isn’t an issue; so long as you don’t force your hero into uncharacteristic actions for the sake of your plot, nobody cares if his solution to the problem is the one you wanted him to use. In fact, that’s generally how it works.

But once you have your cast together . . . then I think gaming provides an interesting perspective on writing, when it comes to creating your plot.

I think I borrowed the term “narrative space” from ancientwisdom, who headed up the Changeling LARP I played in for many years. It applies particularly well to LARPs; a tabletop game generally has somewhere between three and six players, but a live-action game has trouble surviving at less than a dozen, and may go to a hundred or more. You can’t design specific plot paths for that many people; it’s unmanageable. What you can do is create narrative space for them.

It’s a form of worldbuilding, almost. Here are the people in this narrative; here are the things they want, the things they’re willing to do, the resources they can offer and the dangers they present. Here are conflicts, which the characters — PCs or protagonists — might wander into, witting or unwitting. It’s like presenting your D&D adventuring party with a map, and asking them where they want to go, while you the GM have at least a basic sense of what they’ll find no matter where they go. And what they’ll find is something that can generate plot.

This is the approach that’s been informing the Onyx Court books, when I remember (and can muster the will) to do it. Narrative space, admittedly, is labor-intensive to build: you put all this effort into knowing what’s out there, and then some of it may never get used. (You must resist the urge to shove it all in there, just because you came up with it.) There’s a couple passing references in Deeds of Men and In Ashes Lie to how the Cour du Lys is pissed at the Onyx Court; that’s a bit of narrative space I built off some of the events of Midnight Never Come, which has never come into play in the subsequent stories. But the details I worked out for the Irish and Scottish faerie courts did get used, often in ways I didn’t anticipate when I first had the ideas.

This does two things. First of all, it creates a sense of realism. The author isn’t just laying track six yards ahead of the narrative train; the world goes beyond the boundaries of the page. Second, and more importantly from the plotting perspective, it can save you work (or at least headaches) on the back end, when it comes time to actually plot the story.

Because if you find yourself needing a plot complication, or a bit of timely assistance for your heroes when they’re faced with a challenge they can’t defeat, you aren’t starting from a dead halt. To switch metaphors for a moment, it’s like having a well-stocked fridge: when you’re hungry and need food NOW, it’s a relief to know you don’t have to get in the car and drive to the grocery store before you can feed yourself. Instead you can survey your options, and choose the one you like best. Odds are much improved that you might even put together a well-balanced meal, rather than making do with waffles for dinner because that’s all you have on hand.

(Er, not that I’ve ever done that. Several times.)

I try to approach my GMing in this fashion, because it avoids railroading. I know what kinds of resources are available to the PCs, and what kinds of dangers wait down various paths; and if they go for some option I never thought of (which players are notorious for doing), it’s easier for me to adapt from the material already on hand. But I’m also trying to learn to write in this fashion. It’s a lot of work on the front end, but once I’m eyeball-deep in the plot, it’s a profound relief to be able to stretch out my hand and have a suitable plot development fall into it, without me having to pace and pull on my hair and stare at the walls wondering desperately what could prevent my characters from doing the thing I need them not to do.

Speaking from experience: if you’re writing (or running) a political plot, this is especially useful. Because those should have lots of different players and factions, all working toward their own goals, while your characters try to forge a path through that tangle.

I’d be curious to know if other people, be they writers or GMs, conceive of this in the same way. Or if you have different approaches that you prefer. Especially if you’re the sort of writer who outlines, instead of plotting as you go: do you think up this kind of material in advance, then use it to build your plot, or do you build the material in response to your plot structure?

0 Responses to “narrative space”

  1. pentane

    The level of groupthink in how PCs groups assemble (regardless of how much the GM is railroading) always astounds me.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, presuming your players aren’t out to screw you over, they’re generally pretty good about spotting and then following the blinking neon arrow saying “PLOT OVER HERE.” What really gets me are the bits of emergent perfection: when players, without any prior consultation with one another, take independent actions that dovetail for a flawless bit of narrative any author could be proud of.

  2. mr_earbrass

    I’m with you on the narrative space concept and letting characters go where they will–railroading on the part of an author can be just as obvious and obtrusive as railroading on the part of a GM. Roleplaying, at its best, is collaborative storytelling rather than hack n’ slash or an exercise in a GM’s onanism, and for my part I’ve found writing to be similar. Obviously a character in a text I’m writing isn’t the same as an actual person roleplaying a PC in a campaign I’m writing, but the end result should be the same–the character should impact the story at least as much as the story impacts the character. I think this is why I was resistant to outlining my novels–it seemed to creatively freeze things up by assuming choices about characters I wasn’t yet intimate with–but I’ve actually taken up the practice with the last few projects…I just don’t stick to the outlines very closely. But then I think I’m much stronger with characters than I am with plots, so obviously it behooves my stories to let the characters have a lot of wiggle room. So while I have a large stock of plot and character details built up before I start writing, I’ve found that a lot of my favorite bits come about on the fly when characters are engaging with the plot as organically as possible.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t think authorial railroading is quite the same thing; players may resent it when the GM thinks there’s only one right solution to a challenge, regardless of whether it’s a good solution or not, but in a novel, that only becomes visible if the solution in question is out of character for the protagonist (or whoever). Still, yes, there are times when you can see the author stuffing the book into a straightjacket, forcing it to conform to their pre-determined idea of the plot, and that definitely isn’t good.

  3. stormsdotter

    H’mmm, how about “You are all on a train (or stagecoach) heading West.” If there is a Native in the mix, he should have been hired as a guide, or he’s part of the crew hijacking the coach or train, except he gets double-crossed by his friends.

    By the way, I love how you approach problems as a GM and am now even more annoyed that you no longer live in Boston, becuase I would be bribing you with anything under the sun to play in your games!

    • Marie Brennan

      Games? You say that as if I run them regularly. Remember, this is only my second trip down that road.

      I’m actually starting the PCs in San Francisco, with a dead body and a stolen cargo. Didn’t quite manage to draw them into a single group in the first session, but they’re in two parties at the moment, and will meet up soon enough.

  4. unforth

    I had a lot of fun chatting with you about plotty stuff – Hope things go awesome in the first session!

    As to your question…I certainly try to do it this way, but I don’t always succeed. I have the idea of narrative space from the same source as you, of course, but my problem is that I’ll be halfway through something when I suddenly think of a brand new player who really should have been doing X, Y, and Z all along. Needless to say, this causes me problems. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, sometimes the element you add in changes the shape of everything around it. Still, trying to set up the chessboard at the beginning hopefully cuts down on the number of times you have to revamp everything to accomodate a new faction.

  5. drydem

    I am going to respond in my own journal.

  6. la_marquise_de_

    I’m a fairly tight ref, in that I tend to work with very well-defined worlds and to put some restrictions on character types — so my 17th century France campaign had no women warriors or magicians, for instance (and my mini-max player was only allowed one big gun, which was slow to reload); my 1900 Shanghai-with-magic campaign similarly had no pc demons, for instance, and no aristocrats or others with privileged court access and had the prerequisite that they were all connected already to a local school. As a writer, too, though the character are often amongst the first things I know about, they also arise from the setting and to fit together more easily.
    The big difference to me is the impact players can have on plot. They come up with avenues and ideas that I haven’t thought of, they develop quirks and form relationships with npcs in all sorts of ways that tend to both thicken the world and (sometimes) baffle the ref. And you have to let them, and think on your feet, even if it causes brain-ache. Mostly it turns out good, often it’s interesting, and sometimes it’s howlingly funny. That happens less in writing, I’m (mostly) relieved to say.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think it’s good practice for writing, having to adapt to other people’s ideas. Otherwise it’s easy to get stuck in your own familiar ways of doing things. And I think the different approaches make a bigger impression on your brain when you have to actively deal with them, rather than passively reading them on the page.

      As for the well-defined worlds — I’m trying to strike a happy balance with that for this game. It’s the nineteenth-century Old West, but (for reasons of my own) I encouraged my players to go for diversity in their characters; the result is that out of five, there’s only one non-minority (a white male). The others are Chinese, Mexican, a white woman doctor, and an Irishman (who doesn’t count as white for the period). As a result, it didn’t really work to say they all knew each other ahead of time; I’m having to create reasons for them to work together. Which is a problem I knew I was making for myself, but hey.

      • la_marquise_de_

        This is why I hooked mine around the school — the campaign has one French priest, one Russian emigre captain, a local Chinese play boy, a fox spirit and a street kid. The priest teaches at the school, which is attended by the fox spirit and a female cousin of the playboy; the street kid uses it at a bolt hole and the captain’s (Russian orthodox) priest is an acquaintance of the French priest. It just about hung together.

  7. mrissa

    For me it’s definitely some of both, but I have lots of notes about the world in question (even if it’s a variant on our world) well before I’m writing any serious amounts of prose.

    • Marie Brennan

      So the setting up of factions etc. goes hand-in-hand with the creation of your outline?

      • mrissa

        “Outline” seems to dignify an object that may not deserve it. Early in the process, it looks like this:

        [notes on stuff that may or may not happen]
        [chunk of prose]
        [more notes]
        [another chunk of prose]
        [another chunk of prose that goes after the previous one but not immediately after]
        [more notes]
        [notes about factions, calendars, items of historical relevance, etc.]

        And the two kinds of notes may not be as well separated as they are here, especially if something wants explaining: it may go:

        INTRODUCE FACTION A FIRST
        [chunk of prose]
        SPLINTER GROUP B DOES THEIR THING
        [notes on splinter group B]
        [chunk of prose]

        I yell at myself with some of the plot stuff, especially if I think that I may not notice, scrolling through, that there is something I wanted to remember there. Notes rarely get yelling.

        As the book progresses, the notes that do not get directly incorporated into the book get moved into a separate file–usually about 10-30K into the book I will do this, less for a YA. The book is still “beginning” at that point, but it’s clear that it is a book, and it’s starting to get unwieldy to deal with the thing all in one file, and it’s much more useful to be able to tab back and forth.

        But in terms of political factions in particular, that comes out of relationship, which is what I write from. In What We Did to Save the Kingdom, for example, some of the central relationships I knew about earliest were Yaritte and Linne, Yaritte and Agithe, and Yaritte and the king. Each of those dictated the existence of various other political forces just by the shape of them. Linne would not relate to Yaritte as she does if not for her awful aunt and her awful aunt’s faction; if her awful aunt’s faction was all the opposition there was, Yaritte’s relationship with Agithe would be completely different, and if those two factions were all there was, the king would be up the proverbial creek in a different way from the way in which he’s actually up the proverbial creek. (I hope this makes sense even when people have no idea who these characters are.)

  8. beccastareyes

    I love figuring out creative ways for the PCs to meet. The second-to-last game I ran had the added challenge of a pre-generated adventure for which only half the party technically fit the given hook, so I had to get characters together, then drop enough stuff to keep them together. Thank goodness many of the gamers I know are good at giving me hooks once they used to it. I’m starting to look at Spirit of the Century and the (upcoming) Dresden Files RPG, where the GM and PCs actually create ties between the PCs and NPCs as part of character generation (and the Dresden File RPG includes setting detail-building* as part of character gen).

    And, yeah, I love throwing in those little details about the world in my writing. It gives a sort of effect that this is a real world, and things happen outside of the viewpoints of the narrators (and that can lead to story seeds, and look like foreshadowing even when it’s just ‘huh, I can use that’ later.)

    • amysun

      I love the way Spirit of the Century works this in! I’d definitely consider incorporating their system of generating character history in a campaign, even if I was using a completely separate rule system for everything else.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve heard of Spirit of the Century, but never played it. In this particular case, I did consider doing something like that; but since I had reasons to want the PCs to hail from a variety of different pantheons (including non-European ones), and there’s nineteenth-century society to consider, this didn’t seem like the right game to try that approach with. (Though if I could have ever gotten all of my players together at once before the start of the game, I might have tried. Sadly, the scheduling just didn’t work out.)

      • beccastareyes

        Yeah. For SotC, it works since the characters both belong to an organization by default and are already established as adventuring types, and have done things and made connections before the series opens. For characters that are just getting their awakening as a demigod*, or are level-1 adventurers in D&D, it might not make sense.

        * I played Scion once. Or tried — I think we got through one character’s intro before the game fell apart, but I still have my sheet.

  9. mindstalk

    I think the standard RPG.net jargon for your narrative space is sandboxing. GM runs a world, PCs run around it; GM provides plot hooks, not plot; players may ignore all plot hooks and go somewhere else.

    Character group… probably something to be said for shared character building, and having the players deliberately make ties to each other’s PC. Of course, some games get this more naturally: the wizards of an Ars Magica covenant, the members of an SG-1 or any other mission team[1], a Dragon-Blooded family or sworn brotherhood.

    [1] I’ve seen suggestions for earlier versions of that. A “lance”: knight, squire, archers, pages. Or Judge Dee; magistrate and helpers. Knight or magistrate might or might not be a GMPC, depending.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, yes. I’ve heard that term before, but had forgotten it.

      Some game types lend themselves much better to pre-organized groups. Scion doesn’t build in much at all toward that end, though; the books don’t even give much in the way of suggestions as to how a Band comes together. Given that their sample characters include one from each original pantheon, it might have been nice to see a section on why all these different people decide to work toward the same goal.

  10. brigidsblest

    I had the most marvelous time working on Scion for White Wolf. It’s awesome to see people playing stuff that I worked on. πŸ™‚ Your game sounds massively cool.

    • Marie Brennan

      I have some quibbles with mechanics and other small points, but at its core, Scion is exactly my kind of game: it makes use of real-world folklore and mythology, and lends itself to a story-based approach that can go pretty much as gonzo as you want it to. And I can’t help but contrast the books’ content with the D&D 3.5 approach of “more feats, more prestige classes, more spells, more magic items” — sure, there’s some relics and alternate Boons and the like, but there’s also a wealth of setting material that helps generate ideas. In fact, the WWII chapter in the Companion book is what turned our thoughts in a historical direction in the first place. So the lack of fluff content is deeply appreciated.

      • brigidsblest

        Ironically, as far as the two companies are concerned, they couldn’t be more different. Feats, classes, spells, items, and anything that requires rules usage are considered “crunchy bits” at WW, and those sell. Setting books, source books, NPC books are what’s considered fluff, and don’t sell as well. In my experience, of course.

        • Marie Brennan

          I believe it, though it makes me sad. Crunchy bits don’t generally give me campaign ideas, and settings do. (To pick a 3e example from D&D, the Draconomicon put all kinds of ideas into my head, because of the stuff about the draconic life cycle and dragon graveyards and all that fun stuff.) Scion struck a good balance, I think: you could look at Companion, for example, and point at the pantheon Purviews and relics and monsters and so on and say “see? Crunchy!” But the crunch goes hand-in-hand with three much-needed expansions to the world, making it possible to run games dealing with Celtic or Chinese or Hindu mythology.

          I admit that things like the nWoD sourcebook on Boston don’t interest me a great deal, because it’s usually too specific for my tastes. But books that provide me with fodder for my own ideas? Those are excellent. In fact, I think it would be fair to point at that as exactly the sort of thing I was talking about in this post: narrative space that can be used to generate conflict and plot.

  11. cloudshaper2k

    Honestly, my longest running campaign, I asked the initial players to create characters all from the same small village. Subsequent characters had their own reasons for joining the party – usually something I found hidden in their background.

    For keeping the campaign going, I started with my primary villain – figured out his goals and how he planned to accomplish them. Then I locked him in a magic mirror and stranded it on the burned out husk of a different world. Then I gave the party a threat to their village, one they had to go searching for an answer to. As they finished each story, I always had two or three hooks for them to choose from and let them decide which to pursue. Then, between sessions, I scrambled to flesh out that hook into a new story. Eventually, resolving the threat brought them into contact with the mirror my villain was stuck in and, naturally, they let him out, starting the second phase of the campaign.

    Of course, to do that at all, I had to build the world first and find the plot from there. Lots of work on the front end, but it paid off over the five or six years we played. (We really only stalled out because one of the key players moved out of town and can only get back on rare occasions.)

    • Marie Brennan

      God, yes — if you’re running something for five or six years, you really want to make sure you set up a good foundation early on. Otherwise you’ll end up with the Chris Carter/X-Files result, one thing after another tacked onto a tottering structure that doesn’t make much sense at all.

  12. ailaes

    Most of the Role Play I’ve done is online, and in free form rooms at that. In this space, the action has been (at least for me) off the tops of our heads. Some story lines have been planned, with a few doing the Storytelling, depending on which part was being played out. The few LARPs I’ve done, it was again going with the flow.

    That being said, I’ve been writing something for the past ten years and for whatever reason, years ago made the protagonist my primary role play character. As such, I’m incorporating some elements from the role play into the story (and have permission from the main person I was playing with). There are issues because of the nature of the role play, kinks I’m still working out.

    With my other stories, one of them I’ve no idea where I was going with it, and another I’m re-writing parts. For the most part though, an idea forms and from there I just go with it. If I happen to think of a plot point I tend to write it down and work it in somewhere.

    Probably not the most constructive way to write, but I’ve found that if I over-analyze the plot, I get stuck in a rut.

    • Marie Brennan

      The free-form thing is what I started with, too, in message-boards on CompuServe. πŸ™‚

      “An idea forms and from there I just go with it” is also how I started off with writing. It’s still a fair description of my current process, although I’ll often have one or two plot points I know I want to aim for somewhere further along in the book. But I have definitely started putting more work into stocking the narrative fridge at the start, less with specific plot in mind, and more to give myself material to work with as I invent the plot later.

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