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Friday, 26 February 2021

How stories emerge

Good stories arise out of what the characters do. Bad stories result when you decide on a plot outcome first and then manipulate the characters’ behaviour to reach that goal.

Showrunner Peter Gould explains how it works on Better Call Saul. And that’s the writers’ room on a TV show, where you might think they can just make the characters do whatever the plot demands. Not on a good TV show, they don't. So if you’re running a roleplaying game and you’re defining a story goal and only then going through the motions to get there, you’re not roleplaying, you’re writing – and you’re not even getting writing right.

I’ve talked before about stories as a cascade of events, the same way a series of gravitational tweaks to a ball’s velocity leads to a parabola. This was what I was trying to do with Dreams at Elixir Studios. Designing from the top down is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

(Incidentally, designing a game like that using grown-up characters in a modern town was also the wrong way to do it. The player's expectations of how human-like characters ought to behave are too high. If you want a story-creating game, start with simple animal characters and stories like you’d find in Farthing Wood. That’s my Figments concept, but let’s talk about that some other time.)

How do you encourage that cascade of events? I think the best stories arise when the rules themselves don’t address story as a goal. Take care of the details and the story will take care of itself. A good simulation system is the best narrative game.

The proof? Look around you. It’s all just physics. Real life has no story-creator processes going on at the level of the engine. Yet here’s the universe doing drama very well indeed – sometimes a little too well, as when a preening bully whips up a riot because he can’t accept he lost a fair election – and all of that is just because everyone’s acting in the moment.

I grumble about GURPS. It’s even a tag on these posts. But it’s like finding fault with an old friend. Many of our best games have sprung spontaneously out of those mechanics, which might look dry on the page but are fertile soil for stories. Like nuclear fission, GURPS if used responsibly will do whatever you need.

Maybe you’ve been put off trying GURPS because it has the reputation of being complicated? (It’s easier than physics, believe me.) The books cover everything, but you’re meant to pick the parts you need for your campaign. Admittedly I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said to players, “We are using just the basic books, no mental disadvantages, no quirks or perks,” only to have them come back with some skill they found in a supplement. Be firm and it’ll work. Start off with GURPS Lite (which is free) and take advice from The Path of Cunning, a fine fanzine (also free) published by Roger Bell-West and John Dallman.

That and imagination are all you need, and the stories will take care of themselves.


  1. I'm absolutely with you there, Dave. I've long since abandoned trying to generate a plot for my campaigns. I like the Forged in the Dark approach, where you have a "Starting Situation" (two groups in conflict, and a third poised to profit) and then let things go from there. I find the players are much more engaged in a plot that they have helped to generate. It's also fascinating how random characters that I've thrown in on the fly end up becoming the most important ones in the campaign, precisely because they have an organic relationship with the PCs. A large portion of my GMing is now improv, and my prep is more about thinking about the ripples caused by the last session. I'm not sure it would work for a Castle Greyhawk style Dungeon Delve, but for plot-driven campaign, it works really well. Even the end of the campaign tends to emerge organically - not in a TPK, but sooner or later an arc emerges.

    It's not entirely reactive GMing, though - I find it helps when the world is chugging on beyond the characters, creating outside events that the characters can respond to or ignore as they see fit.

    1. I think that's the best way to create a scenario: write what's going to happen if not for the PCs. I don't hold with the current trend to talk about a scenario in terms of acts I to III, unless done firmly with tongue in cheek, because it seems much more interesting and original to try to replicate the messiness and truth of life rather than emulating fiction. If I want a movie, I'll go watch a movie.

  2. The best fiction advice I've ever received is to 'write your first draft without the end in mind. In that way, your readers will be just as surprised as you are.'

    And since my university days, I've never had enough time to plot out adventures. Instead I focused on world-building so that I would have an idea on how the world would react to the players' actions.

    The best stories are always the emergent one.

    1. Definitely. For me, part of the fun of being a GM is not knowing how on earth things are going to turn out!

  3. Although fence sitting is fraught with hazard (and potential splinters) I sort of half agree and half disagree with you Dave. I freely admit to driving the train to railroad PCs on occasions. Choo choo! Although to be fair that’s mostly been due to player age (i.e. kids playing and inexperienced gamers) rather than an ego driven desire to direct a kind of mental improv “play” to a GM determined script.

    Others have beaten me to the punch and eloquently stated the case already against plotting the campaign. Sue you’re not writing a novel but it’s not an either or proposition. Players should have the freedom to play their characters, but I think there’s an important caveat. The key is to drop enough options for players to have choice but within the boundaries of the large sandbox the GM has made (or at least thought about). Emergent play within boundaries if you like. I think I’ve mentioned before that I think there should be a kind of social contract or implicit understanding at work that the GM will try to facilitate an enjoyable game that gives the players the freedom to play but the players have to give a little too and not be obtuse or objectionable (although perhaps their PC might be those things on occasion).

    But to balance that out, what should happen beyond the immediate context of the players’ choices for the PCs’ actions, is not strict plotting of a structure to a predetermined ending but rather that events in the world happen and change regardless. Just like the real world rolls on largely indifferent to our own petty striving.

    When things happen and change, albeit slowly, whether or not the PCs are involved I think it gives a sense of reality and history and immersion. The players shouldn’t feel like if they look behind the facade they’ll see it’s just a movie prop with plywood and scaffolding holding it up.

    In the game world, beyond the PCs, people should be born, die, move and change sides. There are wars and skirmishes and invasions and religious cults and plague and natural (or not so natural) disasters and all this stuff is going on whether or not the PCs are involved. Sure sometimes (if that’s the tone of your game) they’ll be right in the thick of it - shaping history (maybe even saving the world). Other times they might be involved on the edges as minor participants or observers - maybe gathering a footnote in the history books. Or maybe it’ll just sail by as another ubiquitous tavern rumour the GM just appeared to roll on the rumour table and they’ll ignore it and prepare to bash the next orc that pops its head round the dungeon corner…

    But even if the party decide not to steal the magical Maguffin, somebody else probably does undertake the quest and try and succeed or fail or use it for good or ill themselves. The PCs may look on enviously and find motivation to participate more in the world then...or maybe just go back to orc bashing.

    I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that provided choices have consequences (just like in real life) I think it’s okay to direct traffic a little bit. Sometimes the PCs will throw a switch and change the track you’re all on - which is fine - just so long as there’s not a cataclysmic derailment!

    1. I have to admit there's no one-size-fits-all, Nigel. The plot isn't what interests me in most movies or novels, it's just a MacGuffin to hang character interaction on, so naturally I'm not going to be grabbed by attempts to replicate the same elements in roleplaying campaigns. I'd much rather see players defining their own goals and setting out to achieve those, and when I do give them things to react to my preference is to throw in a bunch of story threads and see which ones they follow, if any. As soon as a game involves a quest to do some world-changing thing, to me that's D&D and I switch off. But there's a whole other school of thought that says face-to-face roleplaying should emulate CRPGs more than it does real (fantasy) life, and I'm certainly not prescribing how folks should get their fun!

  4. Considering how good a job you did making A Fabled Lands RPG I think A Way of The Tiger RPG would be A Great Idea and below I've listed 1 change to each of The 7 Way of The Tiger Books that would make A Way of The Tiger RPG even better then it would be without them. What do you think?

    In Book 1 if you choose to infiltrate the castle by pretending to be A Entertainer have the option to Spike Manse's Food, that way if your lucky you can kill him without having either Honrics Sword or The Amulet that prevents him using A Spell A Scroll that causes instant death

    In Book 2 make going through The Goblin Caves mandatory and make it possible to encounter The Goblin King and leave without killing him by convincing him that The Scrolls are good, not evil, could harm his people and you're taking them to a place were good can never get them

    In Book 3 when you are visiting The Cities 3 most popular pubs change the encounter that if you hesitate means death so that you can persuade The Member of The Secret Police that you thinking about the question but can't think of anyone better

    In Book 4 make visiting The City ran by A Paladin Mandatory and have him give you A Amulet of Nulag(I think that's the name) that he keeps not to use it for Evil but to stop others from using it for Evil

    In Book 5 make it possible to get rid of a lot of Honrics weaker troops by using Illusionary Magic to trick The Soldiers of Honric that have Missile Weapons into thinking their allies are actually their enemies

    In Book 6 make it possible to get Foxgloves genuine loyalty by convincing her that you have genuinely fallen in love with her, even though you haven't, that you can persuade Kron to save her soul, that she has a future as your queen and the children you and her will have will found a dynasty that will last centuries

    In Book 7 make encountering Honric mandatory, change him only(?) being blinded to him being blinded, crippled and insane, give you the option to kill him and make it clear its not justice or revenge, but rather a mercy killing

    1. I can't take any credit for the Fabled Lands RPG; the designer was Shane Garvey. An Orb RPG would be a fine idea, and would show the scope of the setting extends far beyond the ninja adventures in the gamebooks. Mark Smith's original Orb campaign was D&D, so the best fit for an Orb RPG today would be 5e -- which I think is an open licence; maybe somebody out there who knows more about it can confirm or refute that.

    2. Did you really have nothing to do with the Fabled Lands RPG?. Sorry about assuming

      The reason for the mistake is that I lost my copy of The Rulebook last year but I do remember thinking that The Rulebook was so good that you must have written at least part of it

    3. The FL RPG was originally planned to cover all twelve regions of the world. It's a shame they only did Sokara and Golnir.

  5. The world of Orb is a masterpiece of creativity. Sure it’s a bit strange/wondrous and an odd mix of high and low fantasy elements...but wow that would be fantastic. I’m sure you’re too polite to mention there was an Orb world book/RPG in the works but... *insert disappointing and dodgy details here* ahem.... Anyway... even a system less world book/gazetteer would be snapped up (well by me at least). From memory some dedicated soul pulled together a short encyclopaedia of Orb by diligently trawling through all the WoTT books and Talisman of Death to reference all sorts of cool stuff about the world...

    1. I think the only person who could write an Orb RPG is Mark Smith. He knows his world inside-out, whereas the impression given by the Way of the Tiger is very skewed to all the pseudo-Oriental stuff -- there were no ninja in the original Orb campaign. I don't even think there was a god corresponding to Kannon. I know Mark had plans to do more with Orb (novels, an RPG, maybe more gamebooks) but it could all be years away.

  6. Kwon... well how about we get him a Patreon or Kickstarter...? As much as I enjoyed the Avenger books and had the teenage obsession with Ninjitsu etc the best part of the books (in my view) was the little snippets of information about the broader world. And talk about villains - Yutchev, Cassandra and Thaum...Honoric how memorable were they?!

    1. Lol, you'll have to ask somebody else about that, Nigel. I played for one afternoon in Mark's campaign, got killed, and he didn't allow resurrection. So all I know about Orb is from the stories other players told.

    2. Kwon's Windmills was a pretty potent attack as I remember! Have you read/got Falcon, Nigel? Another one of my favourites.

      The Way of the Tiger/Falcon versus Bloodsword/Critical IF? Now, there's one I'm not touching with a 20 foot barge pole, Dave!

  7. How about we each list our favorite thing and least favorite thing about each Way of The Tiger Book?. Here's mine

    In Book 1

    My favorite thing is the fact that despite how powerful The 3 Main Villains you never hesitate about fighting them

    My least favorite part is that even that despite the fact that The Blood of Nil is said to guarantee the death of whoever swallows it Honric survives

    In Book 2

    My favorite part is that you get the chance to defeat a invading army by killing its Leader

    My least favorite part is that you aren't guaranteed to get the chance to defeat a invading army by killing its Leader

    In Book 3

    My favorite part is The battle with The Weapon Master from The Sword Legion of Doom in The Sacred Trials(I've forgotten the exact name)

    My least favorite part is that The battle with The Weapon Master from The Sword Legion of Doom in The Sacred Trials(I've forgotten the exact name) isn't mandatory, its either that or go through the area ruled by The Dead King

    In Book 4

    My favorite part is that at the start of The Book you get to run a entire city

    My least favorite part is that Avenger is naĂŻve enough to trust people that only days earlier were very loyal allies of The Last Ruler

    In Book 5

    My favorite thing is all the different things that you can do during the battle

    My least favorite thing is that if you don't infiltrate the enemy camp and learn about The Wyverns you're guaranteed to lose

    In Book 6

    My favorite thing is the fact that you get to meet some of my favorite characters from other books in the series

    My least favorite thing is that without Cassandra's Sword you're guaranteed to die yet I didn't take it because its magical and likely booby-trapped

    In Book 7

    My favorite thing is that I am so happy that despite the fact that for many years readers believed that Avenger has no family he has a cousin

    My least favorite thing is that Avenger has a cousin yet once he was presumed dead his cousin never assumed rulership of the city

  8. How about we each describe our favorite thing about each Way of The Tiger Book that has nothing to do with The Books Plot, Story or characters?. Here's mine

    For Book 1 its that its the only Book in the series that I beat on my 1st attempt without cheating or using a guide

    For Book 2 its that its the only Book in the series that I converted into A Adventure for The Original Dragon Warriors RPG

    For Book 3 its that its the only Book in the series that I converted into A Adventure for The 1st edition of The Warhammer Roleplaying Game

    For Book 4 its that it was the only Book from The 1st edition of Way of The Tiger that in my opinion was good enough to justify getting a copy of The 2nd edition version of it

    For Book 5 it the quality of the interior artwork

    For Book 6 it is that its the only Book in the series that I converted into A Adventure for Dungeons and Dragons Edition 3.5

    For Book 7 its the fact that on the front cover theirs a lovely picture of what I assume is The Spirit Tiger

    1. I can't comment, never having played any of the Way of the Tiger books, but you might find some WotT fans interested in discussing it on this Facebook group:

  9. Although I won't be joining you on that Facebook group jmisthe08, as a fellow The Way of the Tiger fan, I'll describe my favourite things from the books if one of the three following things happen;

    Nigel does his top 7 first
    Jamie makes a rare appearance to discuss
    Dave manages to interview Mark Smith

  10. Well I suspect the easiest path the elicit Andy’s reminisces is for me to wax lyrical about this wonderful game book series. There’s probably a couple of spoilers but it’s mostly nostalgic references which will probably only make sense to those who’ve read the books...

    Book 1 Avenger - innovative combat system. Oh and Olvar the Chaosar. How awesome is that map in glorious colour?! Oh and Glaivas the Ranger

    Book 2 Assassin out of the frying pan into the fire- no easy escape as you’re still stuck where the last book left you (a theme to be repeated). Tyutchev, Cassandra and Thaum - an evil party of adventurers?! Who woulda thunk it? Teen mind blown ;-) Hannya the serpent bodied witch (a lamia or Naga I suppose) was a truly scary and brilliant piece of art. We meet Vespers, Tawflr, Eris and Thybault. Were they once characters in Mark or Jamie’s game?

    Book 3 Usurper okay so Darth Vader wasn’t Avenger’s father but hey a whole major city and the surrounding lands...not a bad inheritance! Just have to go to work to get it… Aiguchi the Weaponmaster. Scourge the Centaur Devil. Wolfen - again my teen self thought that was seriously awesome… But Everyman the flesh golem - wowser what a nightmare inspiring for..just like the Terminator he absolutely will not stop...The Demagogue (now that’s a nose). Force Lady Gywnneth and the Shield Maidens of Dama - don’t mess with them! The Paladin Dore Le Jeune. The Old One (aka mindflayer!) and of course Honoric and his magical sword Sorcerak!

    Book 4 Overlord - ruling and running a city? Isn't that the goal of any adventurer dragging themselves up from sandal straps to King? Conan’s path...Does it get better? Yes! Mandrake the Assassin and Foxglove. Who do you choose as advisers? Whose advice will you follow? And budgeting??? Who woulda thought it cost so many talents of gold to run a city? Tax time!

    Book 5 Warbringer - Does it get better? Yes it does! the clash of armies - massed combat becoming a general and leading your army. Too cool. The map pans westwards to tantalise us with ever more exotic lands… and troops! A tactical map with army units marked on it - like something straight out of war gaming! How to deploy your forces? How can you use the terrain to advantage? Archers in the Wickerwood? How to face the Legion of the Sword of Doom - the best troops in all the Manmarch?! And we briefly meet Ogg Red Hand wolfen commander of Moraine the God of Empire’s cavalry… as well as Shadazar. Arguably the best book (or at least one my Brother and I enjoyed the most).

    Book 6 Inferno - into the Rift we go. That great Grand Canyon like chasm of vileness left an indelible impression on me much like it did on Orb. A great rescue mission dungeon delve. Avenger is left hanging in a “sticky situation”. Cassandra and her ice sword… what a memorable villain. The sisters of Nullaq...arachnophobia! The Black Widow!

    Book 7 Redeemer - time to get outta the Rift! Been hanging around for about 27 years I think (1987 to 2014) based on my editions’ publication dates)! What a glorious homage to the original sextet. In fact you probably need to go back and play all 6 books again before you attempt this one. It brings the series to a wonderful and poignant finale.

    1. For some reason I had Billy Joel’s “ We didn’t start the fire” running through my head as I was recounting these random memories. Somebody with musical/lyrical talent should do a mashup of WoTT like that...

    2. You like Orb, eh? Did you know at least 3 out of 4 of the two-layer Duelmaster Books are set there? Book 2 is in a valley ruled by a Firedrake who hunts people down for sport, Book 3 is a full-blown war between two kingdoms east of the Dwellings of the Fey and Book 4 is a gladiatorial contest in Mortavalon.

    3. That counts me out then, Nigel! You've put my knowledge of WotT to shame there. There is a book 0 called Ninja if you didn't know, although I'm not sure if Mark and Jamie had anything to do with it, so perhaps not considered Kannon.

      I can't beat you and jm, so I'll instead put seven WotT related events from my life, in chronological order.

      The first WotT book I came across was actually Usurper. I got it on the same shopping trip as The Eye of the Dragon and they remain two of my favourite gamebooks. I think that's what's missing from new gamebook releases, you can't beat the smell of hundreds of gamebooks as you're happily shuffling through them in WH Smiths. I've just been hit with a whiff of nostalgia.

      An artistically gifted girl in my junior school created badges for charity. I asked her if she'd do me one of the tiger from the WotT logo. My first (and probably best) chat up line.

      I'd rank the end of Inferno up there alongside the end of Blake's Seven as a "that can't possibly have just happened" moment. I looked through the book numerically to see if there was another ending elsewhere.

      I got the computer games WotT and Avenger for the C64. Avenger wasn't bad but WotT was rubbish. A year after, The Last Ninja was released and I'd hazard a strong guess the creators were fans of the series. If Jamie had managed to get a tie in with that game he'd now be able to afford an island next to Dave's notional one for TMNT.

      The books got me into Ninja films. The local video shop let me rent out a load of 18 rated films when I was 10. That was until I tried to get Sho Kosugi's Pray For Death. My and my mate went in three times when different store people were on, to no avail, so in the end I just got my Dad to get it for me (film classification being thankfully lost on my parents). The film was a stinker!

      My GCSE artwork was largely Ninjas ripped off from the books. My GCSE result was ungraded as the school said my work had vanished. It's only now writing this 30 years later have I realised how ironic that was.

      When relooking at the books some years back, a little Erratum note dropped out of Inferno where they'd got the paragraph numbers muddled in the book. My wife helpfully informed me that Erratum was Latin for error.

      I'll sign off with the following advice. Never, ever, ever, attempt The Teeth of Tiger throw.

    4. Actually, no I won't. I'll sign off with the following chat up line if you've just been given the cold shoulder. Go back five minutes later and say "I'm so sorry, I understand my Doppleganger's been bothering you".

  11. Geez Andy if only I had you as a wingman/adviser back in the day perhaps I would have had more success with the ladies! 😆

    1. None of the moves described above were advisable, Nigel. That disclaimer was a Godsend.