Baked-in story

So, Pete suggested a while back that I should talk about games with built-in story structure, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.

The truth is, I’m fairly new to “indie” games, which for the most part are the ones which have built-in story structures. I think my first experience was probably Fiasco, which I think I got about a year ago. This year has been packed with new and exciting gaming experiences. So anyway, what this means is I have a few thoughts on this subject but a lot to learn.

I think the game with the most baked-in structure that I’ve played is, ironically, one I’m writing myself: Disaster Strikes!. The game is split into three Acts and an aftermath, running from the introduction and placement of the protagonists in the context of the disaster site, the explosive emergence of the threat, and the plan to escape or confront the disaster head on. The game supports this with specific mechanisms: the GM and players are required to behave differently in each of the three Acts. For instance, in Act I players are not permitted to notice or comment on the developing disaster – the most they can do is to dismiss it in some way as not that bad. Meanwhile, before Act III the GM is not permitted to kill protagonists that haven’t put themselves in harm’s way. This is all modelled, to some extent or other, on actual disaster movies, and the entire game is written to hand-hold you through the process of running a disaster movie. And this is for a very good reason: it’s a zero-prep game, so you don’t want a blank sheet of paper.

Fiasco is similar, albeit much more versatile (and indeed DS! is influenced by Fiasco). Fiasco’s structure is looser, but it gives you more detailed tools to get started with: every game starts by generating the relationships, objects, locations and (most importantly) needs which will drive your story. It has a two-Act structure and everyone knows that in Act I they’re setting up a grand plan, after which there will be a tilt which throws everything up in the air, and in Act II we watch the plan go seriously off the rails with tragic and/or hilarious consequences.

A different approach is taken by Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has relatively little built-in structure; the first session is run differently from subsequent ones, but the story very much unfolds organically after that. But the game provides a toolkit of moves the GM can make to accentuate the drama and keep the game moving. It also provides a built-in structure to the GM’s prep, by organising the GM’s plots into fronts, collections of related threats which, left to themselves, will slowly unfold and put the players in danger.

The same designer as AW also created Dogs in the Vineyard and, similarly, the game provides clear guidance to the GM on how to run things. The characters are sort of enforcers for the in-game faith, travelling from town to town to expose pride and root out sin. The game has a built-in story structure of sorts: every new story involves the Dogs entering a new town and being approach by people to sort out their problems, directly or indirectly. Better still, the game provides excellent guidance on how to break down the moral problems the Dogs must deal with, and how to ensure they’ll be interesting (broadly: two people must have opposed interests, so at least one must lose out from whatever the Dogs do, and both must be sympathetic enough that you’ll care who is going to lose out).

Anyway, the point is this: there’s a lot of good shit going on out there in terms of games which help you to make an interesting story happen, be it through clever mechanics, awesome GM guidance, or built-in structures that lead you through the story. These games sort of point you in the right direction, so you can get on with being creative and focusing on your roleplaying without the worry that you won’t get the kind of game you wanted. They also, not coincidentally, contain some great transferable lessons on how to be an effective GM (and roleplayer) more generally.

Any other suggestions on games that do this stuff well? Chuck ’em in the comments section. My spam filter has been concealing comments from me recently but I’m wise to the problem now, so will keep an eye out for them as they come in.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

6 thoughts to “Baked-in story”

  1. Not sure this is exactly what you had in mind, Pete. But then again, you’ve got your own blog if you want to see exactly what you’ve got in mind 😉

  2. I think there’s a world of difference between “baked-in story” (from the title) and baked-in story *structure*. Indeed, I think one of the biggest challenges when trying to design a game to promote a cool story is trying to put enough structure in that the story does emerge, but not so much that the story itself is predetermined.

    I haven’t played the latest incarnation of “Disaster Strikes!” but I’d be interested to see how the balance works there.

    One of the reasons I like Dogs’ built-in structure is that while each individual episode has a given structure as you describe, the *real* story, i.e. how the characters develop and grow long-term, is not dictated at all.

    1. Nick: This is all true. I’m not sure whether DS! delivers on that score – will hopefully be opening it for beta playtesting soon, so we’ll see how that works out.

      Re DitV: I’m not sure I quite agree, because the MC is encouraged to resurface the same themes over and over. The decisions the Dogs take, and therefore how they develop, isn’t dictated (nor is it for individual sessions) but there’s very much a baked-in longer-term structure of: provoke their judgement; see what principles they seem to be operating on; now test those principles over and over until you find where they’re drawing the line. So I wouldn’t say the long-term story is structure-free.

  3. We-ell, yes that is true, but that structure is pretty generic, wouldn’t you say? A similar pattern (albeit less explicitly) happens in a lot of (maybe even most) stories – see how far the protagonists are willing to go to achieve their goals.

    *Game*-wise it’s quite a specific structure, because of the setting. *Story*-wise I think it’s little more than “and see where those decisions take you”.

    For example, there’s no guarantee that the line they’re drawing will stay in a constant place. Perhaps they’ll have a total change of heart after seeing their limits pushed. Or perhaps they’ll respond by becoming more and more extreme, going back to places they’ve been before and revising their judgments accordingly. And so forth.

    1. No, I don’t agree it’s generic, at least no more than “have a sudden and unexpected acceleration in action at the halfway point” (the tilt in Fiasco) or “put them in a spot” (on of the moves in AW). It’s a clear agenda for steering the story which wouldn’t just automatically happen.

      Sure, it may happen in some or most stories, I can buy that. But this is about how game structures support storytelling.

  4. I would agree that DitV long-term structure is similarly flexible to Fiasco’s tilt or AW’s “put them in a spot” move, yes.

    I think that all three are very flexible indeed, and very rewarding as a result of that flexibility.

    … I’m not sure whether that’s agreeing or disagreeing with you 🙂

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