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?