September 12, 2013

Storytellers, Puppet Masters and Toymakers

Pretend this is Cosmopolitan magazine for a minute.  The cover has a photoshopped female celebrity in fashionable but practical seasonal clothes, plus splash graphics about losing weight, celebrity interviews, or sex secrets... and there's always a quiz:

...So let’s skip to hypothetical page 24 and do that quiz! 

1. When preparing for a game session I first envision what...
A) The protagonists will be doing on their adventure.
B) The antagonists need to do next to achieve their sinister goals, or how they will react to what the protagonists have done recently.
C) Dramatic questions I would like the protagonists to face.

2. More than anything else, campaign or adventure plot is a framework for...
A) Scenes of cool things that the protagonists get to try to do.
B) Sinister plans the antagonists will attempt to perpetrate.
C) Generating complex challenges for the protagonists to resolve.

3. NPCs are most important because they...
A) Help me tell the story, providing information, motivating protagonists, or serving as enemies to be defeated.
B) Are the primary way I determine how the plot moves.  They drive the plot with their plans and actions.
C) Can be used as obstacles themselves or hooks to pull the protagonists into conflicts.

4. The most important thing about an NPC is...
A) How I can make her interesting to the story - either as a cool enemy, intriguing source of information about the story, appealing hook, or colorful ally who takes action to advance the story.
B) What her long term plans are, how that informs what she's been up to lately, and how that offers challenges or opportunities to the protagonists.
C) How she can be used as a challenge for the protagonists, resource by the protagonists, or how I can use her as a hook.

5. My campaign notes most resemble a…
A) Novel outline or summary
B) Pile of CIA dossiers on various terrorists and illicit conspiracies
C) Therapist’s or teacher's notes on each of my players’ characters listing things each cares about, ways those things could cause trouble in their lives, capabilities at overcoming challenges, favorite challenge types, etc.

6. My session prep notes most resemble a…
A) To do list of cool events that are probably going to happen, with either/or options in there to allow player agency.
B) Series of conflicts and why they are happening, relating back to NPC and faction plots and conspiracies.
C) List of the challenges that the protagonists could encounter given their current goals and intentions.

Scoring:  For each A answer, give yourself 1 point.  For each B answer, give yourself 3 points.  For each C answer, give yourself 5 points.  High scores aren’t necessarily good and low scores aren’t necessarily bad.  They just place you on this continuum…

6-10 points:  Consummate Storyteller:  You rely on your charisma and enthralling storytelling abilities to craft exciting and captivating adventures for your players.  They probably feel that they can do just about anything.  Your greatest challenge is keeping them from feeling like your arbitrary whims determine the limits of their characters’ actions.  Your second greatest challenge is keeping the world from becoming too easy on them by letting them have everything they want.  Balancing between arbitrary limits and permissiveness keeps them feeling like they can affect the world, but that the world can still affect them.  Try to think more about what the protagonists “must overcome” than what they “will be doing.”  Examine the hooks you’re using and make sure you’re not being too heavy handed.  Give your players more options and choices if you are.  Your primary creative agenda is probably “Narrativism.”  For you, the system is good if it lets your players participate as Storytellers as well; and bad if it only lets them interact with your story by escaping or resisting it. 

11-15 points:  You share characteristics of the Storyteller and Puppet Master.  Your stories probably rely on a lot of colorful NPCs, though in an individual game session or scene within a session may be more about what the protagonists do than what the antagonists do.  Try to let yourself think like a Toymaker sometimes, and don’t plan for the protagonists’ actions as much.

16-20 points:  Consummate Puppet Master:  You use NPCs to drive the plot, so your world feels very real to your players.  Events all seem to fit into patterns and themes, and when your players push, the world pushes back in a believable and rational way.  Your greatest challenge is making sure that the story makes sense from the players’ perspective.  Your second greatest challenge is making sure that your NPCs are always creating interesting challenges for the players, rather than just info-dumps or ambush attacks.  Your primary creative agenda could be just about anything.  For you, the system is good if it lets you create interesting challenges quickly so that NPCs can react to PCs’ actions immediately.

21-25 points:  You’re a Toymaker who links everything back to a few NPCs or factions.  One of the Toymaker’s greatest challenges is stringing the challenges he makes together into a coherent story, and you use NPCs and factions to serve that purpose.  One of the Puppet Master’s greatest challenges is making sure that the NPCs are creating challenges that interest the players, and your lean towards Toymaker tends to take care of that.  Both the Puppet Master and Toymaker are encouraged to put themselves in their players’ heads and imagine what the game looks like to them.  Seeing things from the player’s perspective helps you to plan challenges where some of the possible solutions are the players’ favorite activities at the table.  It also helps you to make sure that the story is coherent from their point of view.

26-30 points:  Consummate Toymaker:  You love to create situations and see how your players will react to them.  You rely on your knowledge of the players and their characters, and a well-tuned system to create challenges that thrill and excite.  Your greatest challenge is making the individual events cohere into a narrative flow that makes sense and feels real.  Your second greatest challenge is giving the world life, so that NPCs and settings have character and story beyond their utility as “toys” for you to challenge your players with.  Your primary creative agenda is probably “Gamism” or “Simulationism.”  You like to draw maps, especially if there are multiple ways to go and places to visit.  For you, the system is good if it lets you build a variety of challenges that are carefully balanced and thrilling to resolve no matter what strategy the players choose.  It also helps if your system injects story and setting into your challenges or conflict resolution mechanics for you.

Comments are welcome!