Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Playing out the Story

Forms of narrative development in roleplaying scenarios.

Some debate on how narratives can be achieved with the Tefr system have already occurred on this blog. The debate, I believe, stems from some confusion over what I mean by narrative. Playing out any scenario will result in some form of narrative, by their nature roleplaying is about cause and consequence. But I am talking about offering what seems to be a structured narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. This will most likely seem to be counter to any notion of freedom of choice on the part of the player characters, but bear with me; it is possible to use a progressive narrative that will still give the players freedom to act within the framework of the system and the constraints of the environment in which they find themselves.

  Delivering any kind of designed plot without forcing the players to follow a linear path will be more down to the style of the narrator, the players, and the scenario they are undertaking than the system itself. Some narrators simply create a situation, a place, a set of non-player characters, encounters and objects then let the player characters explore the environment at will; allowing the actions of the characters and the system itself to determine the sequence of play and the way the story develops. This is usually the simplest form, though it is not the same as gameplay, because it relies on the players to roleplay within the situation they create. With only a small amount of help and adaptability from the narrator, this can result in some quite fabulous narrative created amongst the players themselves.

   For example: the characters learn from a messenger that a nearby city may need mercenaries. They travel there and try to find work (or they don’t, end of story), but are offered the chance to help smuggle a child out of the city to avoid a powerful mage extracting his essence.

If they accept this work their narrative will turn one way, if they refuse, it will take a different direction.
The resolution will depend upon the character's actions following their initial decisions.

    The next form is to use an unconnected plot arc that occurs at the same time as the type explained in the previous paragraph. The characters learn snippets of this story as they are undertaking the scenario, but their actions cannot influence its outcome. However, clever delivery by the narrator can sometimes lead the players to believe that the characters are involved in this other plot arc, even though their actions and choices will not change it. Their actions will only change their immediate, and usually unconnected situation.

   The characters encounter an exhausted messenger and learn that his Duath and his army have been defeated by an army from Tukis. The Tukisi had a mage with them who could unleash incredible destructive forces. The messenger must get to the Duath’s home city and warn them that they are soon to be besieged.

    In this example the city will be besieged, even fall, whether the characters chose to help the messenger or not, but they feel somehow involved. If they deliver the message, they will meet people in the city, perhaps even get hired to try and smuggle a child out past the enemy lines. But the city will still be besieged, there is nothing they can do that will prevent that.

    A more complex narrative will involve storylines which the player characters can influence. This requires a degree of further adaptability on the part of the narrator. Generally, outcomes are based on the way the narrator believes the non-player characters should react to the actions of the player characters in the context of the plot arc. While most good narrators will write, or at least consider, a number of outcomes for various encounters and conjunctions in the scenario, if the story changes in some unpredictable fashion, then the narrator must adapt it on the fly. With this method there is always the risk that whole chunks of pre-planned story can be lost or altered. Either the narrator comes up with a secondary plan to bring the story back on track, or simply goes with the new direction and rewrites when there is time.

   After warning the people of the city, the characters are asked to try and smuggle a child out of the city, but they learn that the child is rumoured to be Aren, The Lord of Light re-born in human form, and is the reason the city is under siege. The Tukisi mage wants the child, believing he will gain god-like powers by capturing his essence. The child, however, knows a way to deactivate the magical artefact that allows the mage to wield such destructive forces.

   Thus the characters can now learn the means (if they ask the right questions) to directly influence the plot arc in several ways, how, or if, they use the knowledge, is down to them.

   Plots like this can often be nested within even wider plots, perhaps the war is on an imperial scale, perhaps whoever has the child can influence some even greater event. A good example of nested plots can be found in a fantasy book series. In general the same characters will feature in each book, and all the books are connected by some overarching global story, a story that progresses in some small way in each book, but only concludes in the last volume. The individual books also have their own complete narrative stories, and within each book, every chapter will have some independent narrative structure. There will also be sub-plots, and secondary characters that appear and play out over longer plot arcs that might cover several chapters of a book, or even several books of the series. It sounds like it ought to be complicated to implement, but for the most part such plot arcs are all things which can be delivered in discrete packets, and for the most part are self sustaining. For example if the player characters have an encounter with a non-player character, the plot element of this might simply be why that encounter occurred, or perhaps the non-player character is there to tell or let slip some piece of information that builds on some ongoing story, like the exhausted messenger detailed earlier. There is no reason why that same character might not reappear in a later scenario, developed in some way by the story, ready to deliver some new information, or perhaps the reason for his reappearance is as a result of the characters’ own actions.

   Using combinations of the above types of story delivery, it is possible to create arcs within arcs; arcs the players themselves have created; long and short arcs that cross over; subplots and backstory that combine to make a strong overall sense of narrative progression for the players. Nested plot arcs will allow them to feel like they are playing a key part in an ongoing story, raising the interest above that of a simple game, to a feeling of participation in the events of the world in which the narrative is set.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Black Orchid

Continuing with the posting of the short narratives that I'm wrtiting to front up each of the chapters in the Prelude to Rhapsody book, I've finally completed the piece for Chapter 5 (Healing, Herbs and Alchemy). For some reason, this one proved a little problematic; having set myself a 1000 word limit for each story, this one hit 2000 in its first incarnation, and even now, after heavy editing, is 1100. I wanted to pick a subject that wasn't about the obvious someone hurt gets healed story-line, and this little narrative about herb-lore seemed a good introduction to the way it could be used in a Tefr scenario.

Black Orchid
The forested landscape undulated between clusters of granite topped hills; rocky islands rising from a sea of tree filled valleys. Twice during the morning Saneshi thought she’d found a shaggy cushion of the plant they sought, but Omrahot only shook his head.
‘That one is not good, it will make your companions even more ill,’ he said.
When the shadows had crept beneath their feet, they stopped and ate some flatbreads Omrahot had stuffed with cold woodhen and herbs.
Saneshi had made Yversh and the others as comfortable as she could, before leaving the camp in the first golden slivers of dawn. Only herself and the guide had avoided succumbing to the mystery ailment that had struck the others in short succession, leaving them weak as babes and unable to take more than water without puking.
Though he looked and often behaved like a bear, Yversh had worked at one time in the houses of Atana, and his knowledge of healing and medicinal plants was considerable. He had told Saneshi to search for a herb called peldin’s thesil, that would treat the symptoms, if not cure the sickness, but with her pitiful knowledge of herb lore she had little chance of finding any without Omrahot’s help.
Omrahot himself was an odd one; he’d been surly and uncooperative when he’d learned they were seeking the old Felini citadel, but had become almost indispensable since the others started falling ill. Saneshi herself hadn’t succumbed; she had always considered her solid constitution a side benefit of her gods‘ curse, along with her coating of speckled feathers and golden hawk-like eyes. Though barely an hour after lunch her stomach gave an unexpected lurch and the feathers around her neck turned clammy as a sickly heat flushed her face.
‘Omrahot wait, I have to stop. I think I’m coming down with it.‘
Saneshi sat down on an exposed rock, trying to will the feeling away, then clutched at her midriff as a cramp shuddered through her insides.
Omrahot bit his lip and watched her.
‘What do you want to do,’ he said, ‘should I take you back?’
‘No, I’ll be alright in a minute, you continue looking for the peldin’s thesil, I’ll hea...‘ she had to pause as her guts writhed again, ‘I’ll head back over the hills,’ she said between gasps.
‘Very well, if you have not returned by the morning, I will come and look for you.’
She nodded, keeping her lips pressed together. Omrahot paused, then shouldered his satchel and walked off into the trees. A minute later Saneshi’s stomach clenched, forcing its contents back up to spatter the forest floor. She had rarely been ill before, and the prospect of dying from something so intangible terrified her. She continued retching noisily, rocking backward and forward, until the spasms subsided and she began to recover a little. Perhaps she would have the strength to make it back to the others, perhaps Omrahot would find the peldin’s thesil and by some whim of the Lords of Light it would cure them. Perhaps not.
Taking care not to provoke her delicate stomach, Sanechi hauled herself to her feet, and headed up over the ridge. She assumed it would descend into the valley where the others were camped, but she found herself climbing up towards another hilltop beyond. Leaf framed glimpses of the wooded landscape below offered no recognisable landmarks to guide her, but at least the walking seemed to be helping; though she still felt hot, her strength was returning and her guts had stopped dancing.
The snap of a breaking twig somewhere ahead made her freeze. She had made her way down the far side of the hill and was now nearly at the bottom of the slope. Whatever made the noise was not small. Ducking under an overhanging hornbeam, tawny feathers becoming dappled shade, she waited, ears straining for further sounds.
It was Omrahot.
She must have gone parallel with the ridge and caught up with him as he turned back towards the camp. As a woodsman, he should have known Saneshi was there, but he seemed preoccupied; doubtless still seeking the precious herbs to save the group. Her golden eyes followed him as he stooped to pick something near a fallen tree. He Inspected it briefly before tucking it into his satchel.
A memory came to her, of woodlands near her childhood home where her grandmother had pointed out a green-black orchid.
‘Never pick the black hyoscymus child,’ she had said ‘It may look fair, but Its very sap is a vile poison that’ll make you sick, even kill you.’
And now, here was their guide collecting these flowers instead of the plant they had been sent for.
‘What’s that you’re doing?’ Saneshi said stepping out from her hiding place.
Omrahot turned, eyes wide with surprise.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ he said, then frowned. ‘Are you not ill?’
‘I got better,’ she said. ‘Been picking flowers, have you?’ She pointed to his satchel.
‘I was just...just getting herbs for your healer.’
‘It didn’t look much like peldin’s thesil?’
‘No it’s a local plant, just as good for sickness.’ He took the black orchid out and offered it to her, ‘here it’ll make you feel better. A little of the juice?’
‘Ah yes, a little juice, perhaps that’s how you are so well, while everyone else has been getting ill?’ She took a step forward.
‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ he said, biting his lip, ‘I only had enough for me. But you can have this,’ he held the delicate flower out to her like an offering from an errant lover, ‘have the whole thing.’
‘No, I insist. You are our guide after all, what would we do without you.‘ She took another pace, and Omrahot stepped backwards.
‘No, I don’t need it.’ Another pace, and Omrahot found himself with his back to the fallen tree.
Saneshi’s sword whispered from its scabbard.
‘Eat it,’ she said.
‘No, it’s poison. You were never ill, I have given you all poison. I had to. You would have gone to the Felini citadel and disturbed the old gods of darkness. Lords forgive me, but I had to stop you from bringing their doom onto my village, my people!’ His voice rose to a hysterical shriek.
‘Eat,’ said Saneshi. ‘Is that not the punishment for a poisoner, to be given their own medicine?’ She let the steel tip catch on the thin skin across his windpipe.
He brought the flower up to his mouth and ate.
‘Now, let’s just pray Yversh knows an antidote,’ she said, prodding Omrahot back towards their camp. ‘Perhaps you should pray too.’

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Can't, or Won't, Write a Narrative

Chances are you already know how to write a narrative roleplaying scenario.

What is a narrative? "Cass hit Jargo" is a statement; there is action, but no true narrative. A simple narrative needs a description of cause and effect. "Cass hit Jargo, so Jargo him back" has narrative; each element alone is merely statement, but together they start to tell a story, albeit simple. This kind of narrative is already implicit in any roleplaying game. Going from a simple narrative to a simple story is not a difficult leap at all, it merely needs a structure. A beginning, middle and end is the simplest: "Cass hit Jargo, and ran off. Jargo pursued Cass and hit him back" has a structure. Without any particular intent most roleplaying scenarios have a similar structure, the inciting incident at the start that makes the characters undertake whatever the mission, investigation, or journey that the middle of the scenario/story comprises. The resolution of the scenario: finishing the mission, the objective of the investigation discovered, completing the journey, or even failure to do these things marks the end of the story, and is a natural consequence of the first two elements. Building on these elementary premises is something we learn from being read stories as children, it isn’t hard.
Roleplaying systems also intuitively lend themselves to the creation of character motivations, both for player-characters and non-player characters. Such character motivations can be used to create sub-plot and narrative tension within the story structure. If the players begin to see motive for the way the story is turning, they begin to feel a much greater sense of narrative involvement. Detail adds the final flourish.
Using all these elements could transform a simple story, like the interaction between Jargo and Cass, into something more epic: "Cass, the bastard eldest son of the Lord of Toramas beats his brother Jargo senseless, and flees the scene. The following day Jargo hires a group of bounty hunters to search the town for his brother. After some investigation, the bounty hunters learn that Cass left Toramas in the company of a hooded companion, heading for the neighbouring province of Sekris. Jargo accompanies the bounty hunters on the journey across the mountains and corner the fugitive brother in a Sekrisian village inn. Outnumbered, Cass is subdued and bound. Jargo beats his defenceless brother demanding to know the whereabouts of a girl called Lirande, but Cass refuses to tell him". As it is possible to see from the example, the original story kernel is there, but within that we now have character motivations, as well as a developing plot with the Lirande. The story is also leading towards a point where the other characters involved, the bounty hunters, may wish to choose to switch loyalties to Cass, rather than their current employer Jargo (creating a sub-plot). A story will still happen whichever they choice they make, it will just be a different one.
As has been shown, creating a storyline is not difficult, nor is using character motivations to flesh it out. In the example above the narrator is expecting the player-characters to side with one brother or the other, but there is always a possibility that they might do something that wasn’t as predictable. Presumably, he was also banking on the player-characters successfully learning that Cass had fled across the mountains into Sekris in the first place, and that the characters manage to make that journey, but they might not have. Being adaptable and able to re-think a narrative plot-arc on the fly, or between sessions is not that difficult either, but it is the key to being a good narrator. Even if some part of a plot is compromised, a new course for the story will be available, and such dramatic and unexpected turns of events can be one of the great attractions of roleplaying.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Please Feel Free to Cheat

If the system is getting in the way of the narrative, can overriding it be the way forward?

The Tefr roleplaying system serves three functions; firstly to give both players and narrator a framework within which to tell the story: the world, combat, magic skills, religion; secondly it provides believable limits not only for the characters and their foes, but for the world of Tefr itself. Limits can, and should, be scaled to fit the magnitude of the story. Lastly it is there to provide a mechanism by which random chance can help the evolution of the story; giving the players a sense of risk and excitement over the outcome of their character's actions. This last can also provide a sense of excitement to the narrator’s own decisions as well, though as I will explain, the narrator should be able to override a chance roll that they have made, if it will have a negative effect on the narrative flow (though the need should be rare).

Creating a narrative form of roleplaying using a system like Tefr is more about the will and style of the person running it, than the system itself. This was one reason why I chose to not to use the term game-master, referee, or dungeon-master; instead using the term narrator. I also deliberately avoided such terms as game and rules to indicate that the responsibility for determining how the events in a story-scenario unfold lies with the narrator and players. This leaves the system to be a guide and framework rather than an absolute set of rules. The thought of fudging the rules to ensure a better narrative might seem a little odd to some, something akin to cheating, but if it’s not a game but a story, how can you cheat at that?  Being able to use fudging wisely, and discreetly is a skill in itself; do it too often and the story risks becoming safe and dull, too obviously and the players will begin to lose the sense of excitement that unpredictability brings.

I’m not saying don’t use the system, after all it’s been created to help the way the story progresses while ensuring some events turn on chance to make the story unpredictable and exciting, but if the system gets in the way of the story, if a random outcome is undesirable to the narrative, then change the outcome, fudge the result, cheat; go on I give you permission.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Website is Afoot!

Tefr has been given a good metaphorical boot up the backside and the brand new www.Tefr.com website has been wound up and set running. There are still a few elements to put in, but Tefr is an on-going project so it will be updated as new elements become available.

Now the website is up and running properly, Tefr needs to move onto the exciting stage of letting people Beta test the books themselves. After a frustrating time trying to get Lulu to keep download statistics for free ebooks, I finally threw in the towel, dusted off my knowledge of flash and implemented a simple download form for both the Prelude to Rhapsody, and Knowledge is Power ebooks, please feel free to download your free copies.

 Editing of the Prelude to Rhapsody book is now roughly halfway through; the copy available reflects this, so please forgive the typos in the second half. I'm also pushing on with the short narratives that will front up each chapter, and I'll put those up on the blog as they are written. The Knowledge is Power book still remains unedited, mostly unillustrated, and more importantly, a single volume. Once the Prelude edits are complete I will move in with my red pen, but feedback at this stage is very much appreciated (please note, I've done an MA since writing it and my spelling has improved a little).

Tefr is not intended to be simply a vehicle for myself, I'm actively looking for new writers who are interested in becoming involved at this early stage. Writers who can see past a mere game system and come up with well written, narrative based scenarios/campaigns that work within the Tefr paradigm. Please get in touch if this is something that you are interested in.