Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Novel Is Not A Movie Is Not A Poem Is Not A Game

As of today, I have read 47 books on screenwriting (just counted them), have a bachelor's degree in film/video production with a concentration in directing/screenwriting, and have written 6 feature length scripts and a television pilot [all on spec :( ]. Throw in my over 20 years experience DMing / GMing/ Storytelling/ Narrating various games of all genres, and I have picked up a trick or two with regards to developing compelling stories and characters. This is not to brag, but merely to preface my esoteric ramblings, and apologize if I start waxing philosophical on the art of story a bit too much.

***Universal Spoiler Alert***
Now a quick warning, in this blog I'm gonna talk about some tricks some screenwriters use to create plot structure and character development, and it will alter the way you watch movies and TV. It's a lot like a magic trick, once you know how it's done you'll never be able to enjoy the trick in same way again. So, if you like your movies the way they are, stop here; otherwise, moving on...
One of the first things you learn is a writer is to determine which medium is best for telling your story. This may seem like a no brainer, but understanding the limitations of the your chosen format can save you from trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
For example, if your story is a tale of radioactive alien dinosaurs blowing up national parks with a few million megatons, you'd rather watch it on the big screen than read the vivid descriptions on your Kindle, so you would starting penning the screenplay. Now, if your story follows a band of stalwart adventurers attempting to return The Muffin Tin of Power to the Bakers of Kraz Mandingo, and along the way they explore sites rich with history legend, encounter nuanced characters, and the whole time dealing with the inner struggle of your protagonist as he copes with the misery of soggy boots. Well, you'd end up with a two hour movie before the protagnoist finished his toast and jam, So you should probably write a novel.

"So, what the hell does this have to do with gaming already?"

Well, just like novels and screenplays have stories that do not work for them, so do RPGs, and identifying whether or not your story will work as a game can save you a lot of heartache and a lot of work.
So what are some of the key elements of the RPG format?
Lack of Protagonist Control

This is the biggest difference between a game and all other formats of storytelling, and that is that the writer(GM) does not control the actions of his characters. Sure you can guide, coax, and cajole the players to send their characters into the deep dark maze, but the ultimate decision of whether or not they do it still lays with them. This is the biggest hurdle most GMs have to contend with, and will be a topic of many of my future posts.
  • Does your story fall apart if the protagonist does not hit every plot point, or takes route B instead of route A?
  • Does your story require a character to take specific actions at the exact right moment?
  • Does your story require you to remove control of the characters from the Players at points for it to continue forward? 
    If so it may not be the best story for a game.

Interactive Audience

The players are a huge part of what makes this format unique, and to forget that is folly. In most common formats the reader/viewer is a passive participant sitting back and taking the story in. This allows the writer to be pedagogical and go on for great length about the marvels of his creation, this is not so in an RPG. 
We've all been there when the GM handed out his 20 page synopsis of his homebrew world as required reading before character creation, or had to sit through an hour long one-man rendition of the fall of the Kingdom of Quizalpoop where we witnessed the GMs various NPCs do the stuff our characters only dream of. A game needs to involve the players.
  • Do you want your players to be interested more in the actions of your kick ass NPCs than in their own characters? 
  • Does your story revolve around the actions of an NPC, who your players just happen to be helping? 
  • Would you rather play in your game than run it?

    If so it may not be the best story for a game.

Open Ended

This one may be a bit more high-falutin, but stories are told to teach us something about the world, this lesson is known as the premise. Simply put, a story can be seen as a question to which the ending supplies the answer. "Can love conquer death?" is a ripe ol' chestnut, and whether or not the protagonist conquers death through love supplies us with the answer and sets the premise of the piece. A "Good" film addresses the premise in each scene, exploring the potential answers to the underlying question, creating a debate whose answer can be seen in the conclusion. With a game's conclusion out of the GMs control, it means the final premise of the story is out of his hands as well. 
  • Do you want to tell a story that confirms your belief system? 
  • Do you want to prove a point? 
  • Do you care whether the opposite side of your argument ends up the victor?

    If so it may not be the best story for a game.
Now, just because your story won't work for a game doesn't mean that it is a bad story, just that you should find another format in which to tell it.

Good Gamin'!

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