So, You Want To Run A Story Game? – Part Four – Designing Your Game

Still thinking about story gaming – especially White Wolf games – and the rather careful approach needed by gamesmasters in that form/genre/style, because it does take care.  These games are harder to run than old-school stuff – for a story game to have any value it needs to be worth investing in, and it needs to be something that the given set of players and GM want to invest in, and it can’t rely on random encounter and event tables and random map generators all the way down.  You can certainly improvise, and use randomisers to kick-start the improv nodes of the sleepy brain, but for the game to be WoD rather than, well, gothy D&D, things need to have some sort of symbolic value, some sort of resonance.  The world is designed for the characters to inhabit to a much greater degree than in the old school games, since the point of the game is exploring the characters rather than exploring the world.

That’s not easy to do.  A lot of people don’t twig that story games work this way around and end up creating Their World into which the players and their characters have to be shoehorned… basically, there are a lot of bad World of Darkness GMs out there, and this annoys me because people who have a bad experience with a game, run by someone who doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to what makes the game different and worth playing instead of Ravenloft or Call of Cthulhu, seldom come back to play it again, and talk shit about it in my presence to boot.  I could spend forever grousing about how a bad GM doesn’t make a game bad, or I could be pro-active and attempt to teach people how to GM new-school story games with some sort of sensitivity for the core values of those games.

By the way, after writing the previous entry I had the vague inkling that I’d borrowed the ‘please don’t call me Storyteller’ angle from something I read a long time ago, when I’d first bought the game.  Thanks to the wonders of the modern Internet, that something has been exhumed to amuse and delight the modern player.  Stevy’s Advice to Vampire GMs was quite the influence on the young Von, and on my attitude to the World of Darkness.  Might be worth having it open in another tab while you read this.  Ready?

Design nothing before you have the player characters down on paper.  Ideally, get everyone together to generate characters.  You’ll find that players’ ideas bounce off each other and make their characters immensely richer, and youre life will be made easier as setting and story options fly out of that shared atmosphere – you’ll be creating something that you know will fit what your players want to play, rather than designing something and risking it not being what they want. You’ll also be able to develop or seed plot hooks based on stuff that your players thought up and are presumably interested in.  The group dynamic should shut down anything particularly out-there – you should be able to avoid having a sterotypical North African Follower of Set, a Viking Gangrel anachronism and a sassy Malkavian farmgirl who’s never been out of Alabama hanging out together for some artificial non-reason.  This is also a good test for logistics – if you can’t get everyone into a room for character generation, your group has scheduling conflicts and those need addressing before you try to start playing.

Encourage players to link their characters together, think about how they met and what they have in common and to create links between each other.  You can’t rely on “you all want to go down this dungeon, kill monsters and win fabulous prizes”, and you can’t rely on “your party all has a grudge against NPC X or have been asked to do something by NPC Y or both” to hold together a group of disparate people (and remember, storytelling games are about people).

However, discourage your players from generating stock ‘tactical role’ characters (the face, the sneak, the brute, the ‘wizard’, the ‘healer’) “because the party needs them” – there’s always a way to compensate for the absence of a particular set of mechanical abilities.  Player investment in characters is more important than anything mechanical here, and you don’t want someone taking the cleric bullet (as it were) and ending up with a character they don’t give a used fig for.

Okay, so you have your PCs.  Now, when you start doing GM stuff, don’t try to tell a story. If you have specific scenes and specific dialogue and a specific ending in mind for your game, write a novel; it is obviously what you secretly want to do.  Story gaming is about participating in storytelling, not having a story to tell at the end of it – this is, incidentally, why nobody cares about your eighteenth level Paladin, because the value’s in the experience, not in the end result; the process, not the product.

via deviantart, used without permission, withdrawable at creator's requestInstead, design a setting that’s appropriate to the players’ characters – a place in which the character concepts your players have come up with can fit together, and in which they make sense.  Things should have started suggesting themselves in the PC design session.  Follow Stevy for this bit – you’ll often find you don’t need masses of detail at the start, just an idea of who’s overtly in charge, who’s controlling them, and districts where particular things can go.  Obviously, if a PC concept is tied to a specific location, you’ll need to find a place for that to fit into.

Otherwise, go with broad strokes and zoom in on details as and when you need them. Say you’re using Victorian London: that divides nicely up into East/West and North/South divides. Each area needs to be characterised in a certain way. South-West is rich and fancy (Kensington, Paddington – the area where Harrods is today), North-West is slightly bohemian, blending into rough the further out you go, North-East is rough as rats and twice as hungry and South-East is poor but hard-working and has Greenwich sitting on the far edge being all intellectual-like. That’s overgeneralising and probably inaccurate, but it works.

Design NPCs to inhabit that setting.  Give each NPC two plot points – goals, plans, secrets, religious animosities, whatever – that connect to other NPCs, and at least one that connects to at least one PC.  This might seem a bit pre-emptive and contradictory, since the players devise the story, not you, but look at it this way: you have no way of predicting who the players will be interested in and whether they’ll want to aid or abet that NPC’s plans.  If you fill the setting with schemes and plots that you find interesting, you’ll have something to keep you invested in whatever the players end up being invested in.

Having your NPCs connect to each other will make your setting more natural and not feel like a collection of disparate individuals all put there to offer plot points to the PCs.  It also provides you with a way to advance events in the game-world without the PCs necessarily triggering those events – you should have a rough idea of how each one’s plan would resolve if the PCs weren’t there to screw it up, and have those plans moving.  Having NPCs connect to PCs gives your players someone to interact with right from the word go.  Again, some ideas for NPCs should either emerge from or be seeded in the PC generation process.  USE THESE.  Anything your players think is worth mentioning is worth building into the game.

Don’t bother statting up every single NPC exhaustively.  This isn’t D&D, the focus isn’t tactical combat, and you don’t need a full statblock for every last thing under the sun.  That said, I think it helps to have at least a Physical, Social and Mental dice pool for every NPC, as well as an idea of what supernatural powers they are most likely to use and what dice are rolled for that.  If someone has a mind-control power, or anything else that will be used to compel, influence or otherwise mess with the PCs ability to choose and govern, play fair and stat it up – same with physical stats for things that are in there to fight players.  There’s a design randomiser here (should be obvious which one it is) that’s quite useful for generic Vampire stats – turn to the sixth page and use the pools and discipline point allocations suggested there.

Remember, PCs are the principals, NPCs are the chorus.  Once the players have foiled or enabled a few NPC plots, they’ll start having ideas and agendas of their own.  Be ready to dial back your cool ideas and make room for their cool ideas.  Your stuff stays there, ticking away in the background, keeping the setting dynamic and meaning that, if by some miracle your players have no idea what to do in session X, you have some fresh plot ready to engage them with.  In other words, don’t design anything so big that it can’t move into the background.

That’s about it for design.  Next time – that tricky first session.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

3 thoughts on “So, You Want To Run A Story Game? – Part Four – Designing Your Game”

  1. To be fair, White Wolf games in general get attacked because a) They tend to insert really creepy shit on their books and that offends people.

    Like bestiality, the Technocracy, random Creationists rants, etc.

    and b)Both the fanbase AND the company wanking over how their games are better than the games of another company, in this case D&D.

    That out, anything that stops the unfortunately common scenario of a GM pulling out his penis and telling players to suck it is a good thing. So +1 there Von.

    1. Easily offended people are their own problem, frankly. I can see why White Wolf gets it in the neck from them and I concur that(NSFW) Montreal By Night had it coming (NSFW, and what are you doing reading this at work anyway, eh?), but again, the game wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t staked out that territory and said ‘this is a game where you can have this sort of thing happen if you must’. Without that, the whole thing would be oddly… cosy, at least to the jaded sorts for whom supernatural entities are pop culture standards by now, and some people won’t take a road unless a company’s said it’s okay for them to take it. To some people, a vampire isn’t creepy enough; to play a game of personal horror that actually works for them, you may have to go a bit further.

      As far as the company/fanbase thing goes… yeah, I’ve done that, in my foolish and mistaken youth. It takes a while to work out the essential fallacy in Newer + Different + More Suitable For Me = Better, which I think is the principle that all this nerd fighting boils down to in the end.

      Thanks. I’m just sick of bad GMs ruining games for people – people who then give *me* the evils when I ask them if they’re interested in teh WoDs.

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