Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 6: The Freedom of Structure and Tyranny of Player Input

The first game has been run, people seem to like it enough for a second and more to follow. I had thought to write up how that went, as it was the basis for Parts 1 through to 4 and, after a fashion, 5 but in doing so, I moved from the article structure and more into a ‘What me and my friends did last night’ kind of deal. Which isn’t what I hoped to achieve with these at all. So, how I’ll work this is continue with the articles but will also write the game up in separate posts, as it gives me more excuses to write and allows me to present specific examples from that week’s game in future articles. It also prevents a monolith of text for you to digest.

So, having chewed up my opening paragraph, on to the article proper:

Most mediums of storytelling have a structure. There are some that will deny this and it’s rare that you’ll ever see/hear those stories and there is a good reason for this. Telling a story is only half a process, the other half comes from the audience who have arrived to see/hear it. So it’s nice to give your audience some consideration and put in a break or two for them to process, reflect and appreciate what in your story has gone before, and what is yet to come. Typically you’ll see examples of this in movie and television as a three or four act structure with beats or transitions to separate them.

Acts are the collection of scenes in a particular part of the story that are as broad-based as Intro, Complication, Climax, Conclusion/Resolution. I’ve heard it, on occasion, being broken into eight structures or sometimes even sixteen (!), which works if you’ve got a story that involves a fair amount of twists. I’ve also heard of scenes that are broken into smaller act structure/formula so as to better ground the understanding of the story to the reader. Incidentally, this has interesting implications in terms of action scenes, l but I digress.

For something where a story is relatively self-contained, this is not without it’s challenges. Planning where to put the act breaks or whether a scene is better suited at the beginning or further into the action is a luxury that just, simply, has limited application to GMing a story. And the reason for that is you don’t know how the whole story is going to end. Hell, you rarely know how the scene is going to end unless the conflict is really easy or is at PlayerKiller level.

I’m fairly sure that I’ve mentioned this somewhere, but it bears repeating: Telling a story through roleplaying is an organic process. In order to get maximum involvement from your players, you can’t have their actions scripted out for them. ‘Bare Bones’ doesn’t even begin to describe what you’ve got propping this story up. More often than not, unless you’re a coach driver for the plot wagon, you’ve got a couple of cool scenes and some loose backstory to put your players on the right path. The roleplay medium is about building a story yourself as you tell it to the players, and then reinterpreting it as the players contribute. It is essentially without form until you start handing out the experience points.

Structure has limited application in a roleplay story, but, surprisingly, what little of it is absolutely necessary. What little you have in place, once your players are done subtracting from your story to further their own agendas, is the only yardstick you have to measure how much of your story you’ve got to tell in what time you have available.

And that is what it comes back to: Time. Audiences, even the most fanatical of roleplayers, have a finite level of energy and attention that they’re willing to commit to a endeavour. If your story goes too long because you’ve got three more fight scenes planned out, along with another twist in the plot, sooner or later your players will poison your coffee or break the blood-brain barrier with a four-sided die to escape. The obvious answer is to take a break every now and then, let your players refresh a caffeinated beverage or use the facilities or somesuch, but in my case I have a game time of about three hours, so I need to ensure that when things break down, nothing more than a minute is wasted at each occurence.

Much of what I’ve talked about is the problems with the role-play medium versus conventional story structure but now I’d like to talk about the single best advantage roleplaying has over any and every storytelling method since bardic tales: Response and reaction. The fastest time that a profit-driven storytelling
medium has to adapt to the changes of an audience, be it personal or on a social/cultural basis, used to be about a month. That would be the comics medium, by the way. Nowadays I would venture that it would be anywhere between a day and a week, subtracting the publishing demands of the internet and depending on the dedication of the artist. This, though, is still a snail’s pace compared to the reactive speed of a good GM and for every other medium lacking internet distribution it’s akin to continental plates shifting.

A GM looks his audience in the eye most times, and if he/she is paying attention, it’s not hard to pick up on the times where you’re losing your audience, where you’ve lost them and when they’d sell their soul to you just so you would tell them what happens next. Sometimes this can be tricky, as clues to judge as one person’s boredom is simply another’s unconcious habit. Chances are, though, that you’re running this game for friends and you’ll have something of an idea of what to look out for. But if you’re in a situation where that is not the case, or you’ve only just realised that you don’t know when enough is enough, here are some of the things I used in my last game:

Be prepared to cut. I had five or six acts planned out where the danger level would just continue to escalate, but I ended up using about three to four and discarded the rest. And I made this judgement by…

…ensuring the players had each accomplished something. In the future write-up you’ll see that each player had a major role or action that moved the story in a cool and different way. Something that was almost tangibly their shining moment. And perhaps there are some instances where your idea of how a player contributed is different to theirs and the clue to what they’re thinking is…

…Are the players more interested in what they just did or what is coming around the corner? When they’ve accomplished that cool thing, whatever that might be, that’s the last thing you want to leave them with. Whether this is for a scene or for the entire game, that feeling of euphoria is what they’re going to take from the game, and as a GM, those are moments you want them to take.

So look at your players. Are they more thrilled by what they just did, or what they are going to do next. The moment it shifts to the former, and provided you’re approaching the end of the time available, that’s when you want to at least consider fast-forwarding to the resolution.

Roleplaying is the best example of storyteller and audience coming together to share an experience and no GM worth his/her salt would ignore at least a half of that story for self-gratification.

For those who are interested, look at the writeup for the game and see if you can pick the structure. See if you can see the intro, conflicts and resolution act structure and most importantly, see whereabouts I made the decision to cut a third of my planned adventure for everyone’s benefit.

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