Situational Story Design

By | November 9, 2013

Hello again!

Last week, I introduced our concept of Fail-Next Design.  To recap, there are no “partial successes” in the design of Infinite Earths.  Instead, when actions are met with failure, this acts as an indicator to Players and Guide alike that something else must be tried to move the game forward.  Did you fail?  Try your next idea!  This works, ostensibly, because nothing that is required for the story to move forward should require dice rolls.

That all sounds great, but what does it mean?  After all, what if you only realize you don’t have any more ideas once the idea you had has met with failure?  What if all your attempts to enact your ideas meet with failure?

Let’s begin at the beginning, with how stories are designed in Infinite Earths.  For most folks, “Story” falls into one of three loose categories (which I paint here in the very broadest of strokes):

  • Something everyone at the table comes up with together, collaboratively, with the structure of the story fairly exposed.  This is the trend with Story Games such as Fiasco.
  • Something fairly linear and structured, such as an adventure path or module, which is designed for a fairly linear presentation.  This is the trend with Traditional Games such as Pathfinder.
  • Something loosely structured wherein players encounter obstacles and the story lies in how those obstacles are overcome.  This is the philosophy behind the OSR.

For the purposes of Infinite Earths, “story” falls somewhere between OSR and Story Gaming, but with a twist.  We call this twist “Situational Story Design.”  Here’s how it works:

The Guide comes up with a location, a situation, the major NPCs involved and a rough structure of what they’ll be doing, when and how.  The Guide builds this as if the PCs will not be interacting with it: that is very important, because if the Guide starts structuring the game considering how the PCs are going to fiddle with things, he’s going to start building linear paths to success whether he intends to or not.

With the town guard called to the front to help in the fighting against the invading empire, there were so few lawmen in the city that the prisoners in the local prison were able to riot, breaking free of their bonds and capturing the prison.  

    • Their leader, Clyde Travaille, wants his freedom.  Now that he’s got it, he doesn’t know how to keep it.  
    • Everyone else in the prison is following his lead.  It’s worked so far; but if things start looking bad, they might just abandon him and take their chances in the streets.
    • The local Duke is furious and wants to either starve the rioters until they surrender or send in his own forces to slaughter them where they stand.
      • In 3 days, if the rioters still haven’t surrendered, the Duke’s remaining forces will storm the gates of the prison.  The results of this might be disastrous.

The above represents the situation, which is the basic framework of a plot.  It has the major antagonists (Clyde and the Duke) and the events that have transpired (a paucity of troops, a riot) and the implications for why the Players might want to get involved (they could be friends with Clyde or the Duke; they could not want the rioters to run rampant of the Duke’s authority; they could want to “stick it to the Man” by freeing the prisoners).  It also contains the timeline of what happens if the PCs don’t intervene.

By having this plan available, the Guide is not dictating how the story must go.  The Players, upon learning of this situation, could choose to come at it from a variety of angles.  In this way, the Players help to determine what the overall story is; the NPCs and environment are the fuel, but the PCs are the spark.  Their involvement gets the ball rolling in whatever way they choose.  For example, they could:

    • Tell the Duke that a small force, like themselves, could infiltrate the prison and remove Clyde, giving the prisoners no more leader and making them likely to surrender.
    • Tell the Duke that the situation could be resolved through peaceful negotiation, thereby sparing the lives of his troops.
    • Tell the Duke that a small force like themselves could infiltrate the prison and tell Clyde that the situation is more dire than he thought, and that he should throw himself and the others on the Duke’s mercy or die.
    • Infiltrate the prison and set themselves up as allies to the prisoners, helping them defend the walls against the Duke’s troops.
    • Infiltrate the prison and wrest control of the prisoners from Clyde, then use them as a fighting force to wrest control of the city from the Duke.
    • Wait until the Duke’s men and the prisoners are fighting, then use the opportunity to loot the town without fear of reprisal.

Literally the Players can react to the situation in whatever way they want (including, though this would no doubt be frustrating for the Guide, ignoring it altogether).  The Guide has a Situation, the Situation + the Players’ reaction to it = the Story.

So, how does this prevent the story from grinding to a halt when actions fail?  It tells the Players and the Guide that the story is not something that already is.  The story is something we are currently making.  This helps inspire creativity because it means there are no specific movements we have to make; we are free to take the actions we want to take.  Or, when things get down to the wire, the actions we have to take.

For example, let’s say the PCs have successfully snuck their way into where Clyde is hiding to talk with him.  They tell him that the Duke is going to attack, so he should surrender.  Clyde, thanks to the PCs’ failed rolls, don’t believe them.  So they tell him the Duke sent them to negotiate, and that no one has to die.  Clyde still doesn’t believe them, because the dice just aren’t on their side.  So finally they get fed up, someone pulls a knife, and they hold him hostage, telling him that he can either tell the prisoners to stand down and take the Duke’s deal or they’ll kill him and find someone more likely to negotiate.  Now they get a success, and Clyde reluctantly agrees in order to save his own hide.

This is how the story is formed; through the difficulties the characters face and how they choose to handle them.  But there is still a structure in place which informs the story and gives the Guide a method by which to react to the Players’ actions.  The Guide is in control of this Gamescape, and this Gamescape reacts to the Players instead of against the Players.

But let’s say, in the above example, that the Players didn’t have a set of ideas beyond “the Duke will attack, you should surrender.”  How does the Guide keep the Players engaged and the encounter moving forward?

Every failure encountered by the Players is described by the Guide in terms of a hint of alternative actions the Players might take, which might also be successful.  These alternatives don’t have to be successful; they might be less likely to succeed.  And Players don’t have to try the alternatives so presented; this is just a way for the Guide, who always has a better perspective on the Gamescape than the Players do, to act collaboratively with the Players and help them through their story.  For example:

Player 1:  “The Duke will attack at dawn unless you surrender tonight!”  Speech Roll fails.

Guide:  Clyde looks skeptical, then shakes his head.  “The Duke wouldn’t do that, he values his men too much.  Throwing them against this prison would be throwing their lives away.”

Player 2 gets the hint that Clyde thinks he would win that battle:  “A lot of people will die, yes, that’s why he sent us to negotiate.  He’d rather have a peaceful solution, but he will not tolerate this affront to his authority.”  Speech Roll fails.

Guide:  Clyde shakes his head, clearly too confident in his men’s ability to hold the walls against the reduced forces outside.  “The Duke’s people, not mine.  You’re here to negotiate for their lives, not ours.”

Player 4 gets the hint that if Clyde can be convinced that the Duke’s forces will win, Clyde will stand down.  But Player 3 goes first, and Player 3 got a hint that Clyde wants to negotiate for his life.

Player 3:  I take out my sword and hold it at his throat.  “You want to negotiate for your life?  Fine, let’s negotiate.  Stand down, now, or bleed out, you criminal pig.”  Roll succeeds.

The hints listed in the example above are a little more obscure than they need to be.  The Guide could have said “Clyde is not convinced.  He thinks he doesn’t have anything to worry about because the Duke can’t win against his men.”  The hints can be as blatant or obscure as the Guide is willing to provide – as long as the hints are there.  The hints can also simply identify why the action failed:  your Athletics check failed because you were trying to walk on water, or the King isn’t willing to dance naked through the streets because that’s humiliating.

The job of the Guide, in Infinite Earths, is not to smile enigmatically while the Players desperately try to figure out something that will work.  The job of the Guide is to facilitate everyone’s fun.  And facilitating fun does not mean the Guide must ensure everyone’s success.

Call this cleverness training if you want to.  Some folks would just call this good GMing.  But therein lies a bit of a problem.  Why should functional and effective storytelling be the purview of “good GMs,” people who’ve read “how to” manuals and combined that with innate ability and earned experience?  Should not one of the objectives of a well-designed game be to teach the player how to play the game?

As hobbyists, we have been willing to accept that the rules of good storytelling aren’t built into the game itself.  That notion is changing; more and more, the rules for the story are being built into games.  Usually, though, this has been to support a specific and particular kind of story.

The trick we’re trying to pull off is to support any kind of story.  Are we going to be successful?  Well, every failure gives us new ideas to try.  And we’ll keep trying.

Until we can tell the story we want to tell.