Can a Sword Smile? Creating a Storied Item

Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.

Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.

Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.

More than a MacGuffin

To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.

Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.

A Sword, Any Sword

Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.

However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.

There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.

A Hook by Any Other Name

There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.

This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?

The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade. This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.

Details, Details, Details!

Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.

The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.

The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.

The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.

Backstory is Essential

When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.

Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.

The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.

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NPC Q&A

When conceiving these special items, the GM must ask themselves a few questions to get the creative juices flowing. How recognizable is the item itself? Does it have a reputation? Did the maker/owner of the item have a reputation? Or is there a folktale or story circulating around them and thus the item? Does the item have a name itself? Players and their characters may be asking these questions themselves. Therefore, the GM should have answers ready typically through the mouth of NPCs.

The blade could have been forged somewhere to the south. Where the high-grade silver used for the blade is refined from lead. This is also where the skills necessary to craft such a blade are not rare. There is a village in a remote area of that region rumored to raise the dragon-worms that produce the extremely rare fire-silk, but no one has seen newly spun fire-silk in an age.

A Brief History of Bling

The next step is making the “bling” jive with the history you have written. Turn the details into clues. First, make sure the attached background NPCs, important details, base materials, and general craftwork go together. Make sure that they collectively put the story of the item forward. This does not mean, however, that all the details need to match or correspond in some way. You can also use bling to put forward a telling contradiction between details. Alternately, you can use details as a device putting to the players a puzzle, a paradox to be deciphered. Using the details in this manner can serve to perk up the players’ curiosity. Or help to coax them along the path the item reveals to them.

The characters on the blade say, “Death to the Usurper of the South!” The sea-serpent skin is from an extinct variety of sea serpent. It was known as the Sapphire of the North Seas fished by enterprising fishermen. Additionally, there are characters engraved around the edge of the pommel that are hard to read and badly worn. They mention a name — Master Snake Commander of the… — but the last few characters have worn away.

Backstories & Side-Quests

The backstory the GM creates can lead to a side quest (i.e., away from the main thrust of the campaign). It can run a parallel course, intertwine with the main story usually joining at a certain point. Or can be any combination of the three. Intertwining the backstory of the item with the current campaign direction can keep a wayward player engaged. Doing this by merging their character’s story with it and thus the campaign dragging them along by their curiosity. It can also help to engage players in a concurrent story if the current main plot is not keeping them hooked. At a certain point it can serve to lead them back to the main story at a certain point.

Intersecting points in the main thread with the story of the item can be multiple. Giving a little tidbit of information to the players each time they reach such a story point. Such as while traveling south from a northern frontier the PCs get the related odd tale or a small bit of conversation. Each of these shedding light on specific aspects of the item(s). As the PCs chase down their main goal they will run into the points of the game where the special item figures in.

On your stop-over in the village, the town-drunk regales you with an old story. Its widely known in this region. It is about the young son of a wealthy merchant. The merchant’s riches were said to be held in uncounted smooth-cut gems. Some of which glowed with an inner fire of their very own. A barbaric warlord descended from the mountains with his horsemen and conquered the whole of this region. The merchant’s family slaughtered; their riches pilfered. The son ran to the provinces of the north vowing vengeance upon his return…

A World unto Itself (Sort of)

The backstory of the item can expand upon or add to the campaign world. Just as would a well-constructed NPC but unlike an NPC its details are passive. It requires the players and their characters to investigate them actively. Or have an NPC recognize and communicate what they know about it to the player characters (PCs). Its added flavor if nothing else but it requires the participants to actively engage it. To taste it as it were. This is of course barring any supernatural abilities that may grant the item agency.

These types of specially designed items will add to the game-text for the group. Especially so for the specific player whose character owns it. However, the latter choice may alienate others in the group. Unless you are trying to pit them against each it is probably not the best idea. In this case, tailoring the item to a single character is best. Add in storied items for the rest of the group gradually not all at once.

In fact, it might be useful for the first item to lead to the next and that to another. This lets the GM bait the entire group with each item. Each providing a single piece to a puzzle that begs players to solve it. Or a story that they cannot help but want the conclusion to. Not to mention the items should be useful for the characters in-game. This is outside of the clues and backstory. It is particularly important to never forget this. If it is useless in-game, why would they keep it? Always play to the players’ practical side. However, at the same time use their greed to hook them and their curiosity to propel them.

Players and thus their characters tend to become attached to specially detailed items. Much the same as favorite NPC’s if the backstory and details are just right. The players may even face a hard decision later on in keeping a beloved but mundane item over an upgrade. A rare case of emotional value triumphing over practicality. A well-crafted item can contribute to the overall quality of the game that is if your players are willing to bite.

In Conclusion

Designing a non-MacGuffin item as you would a full-blown NPC has its rewards during gameplay. The item can become a worldbuilding aid as well as evolving into a story point in and of itself. It deepens the game world and can help to engage curious even greedy PCs rewarding them not just materially but with emotional payoff as well.

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How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Here is another Hubpages article from me, Robert A. Neri Jr.A chaotic session of actual play

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

This article explicitly goes through my process for when I write my actual play blog entries. The blog entry that the article refers to for examples is The Dragonslayers Pt. II: The Day the Music Died. The entry is an early one and so the writing quality is a little off but it illustrates my points of construction without them being too obvious. It also shows that the process described in my article is my process and that I have been using it and developed it over time. I consciously think about certain points when I transcribe from my notes.

Sometimes stories and incidents generated during a tabletop RPG session are worth putting out into the world for others to enjoy but how do you transform your session notes into an enjoyable read?

You can read it here: How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Other Hubpages articles by Robert A. Neri Jr.:

Building Tabletop Myths

Game Mastery: Establishing Atmosphere

Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

The Dark Lord: Building Better Lords of Evil

The regular weekly actual play blog, The Rats of Tanglethorn, will continue next week.

Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

As a work of traditional fiction has a basic underlying structure so does a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG). Story, Plot(s), Scenes, and Story-Beats are the building blocks of traditional fiction. Likewise, the structure to a TRPG is built of a Campaign, Adventure(s), Episodes, and Play Units. As knowledge of the basic structures of fiction can help authors write their stories the knowledge of the basic structures found within TRPGs can help to sharpen a Game-master’s communication skills and adventure-writing/story-telling prowess. Both traditional fiction and role-playing games structures are tiered and begin with the most basic of building blocks, the smallest units composing those higher up with those of higher tiers increasing in complication. The most basic building block of a fictional narrative is the Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) and which is replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants; these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. As the characters that are involved are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM is where the story-beats lie. The story-beats are smeared across realities that is they are present inside of the game world and outside the game world among the participants and as there is not always an emotive change marked in certain specific characters determined by a single author but is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game. Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants known as a Play Unit.

GMs should take note, always take down notes by the way, of the exchanges that seem to be important either those that contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, those that apply directly to the current action in the game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. GMs should initiate exchanges with vivid and characterized descriptions playing to the interest of the players and/or their characters in order to hook them immediately. It is also vital that the GM’s narration contain enough information for the players to act on but not overwhelm them with too many extraneous details. It should entice the players to ask questions and/or act maintaining longer and more frequent exchanges improving the overall flow of a campaign. These exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. Multiple Play Units will build a single fictive scene.

In fiction a Scene is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) and which contains an event which moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. Essentially the same can be said of TRPGs save that sometimes the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place with characters dying in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning it’s slightly less structured strictly speaking. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes. An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of related Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between 2 PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs. This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here.

However, a TRPG session is not a very appropriate unit as it contains both real-world interaction and the exchanges between participants which build the fantasy world of the game. In addition, as most game sessions often run a few to several hours, there will be tons of information most of it being extraneous to the narrative the blogger may be pursuing aside from the world-building elements. A full session will also probably not have a clean break at the end or a cleanly demarcated beginning especially if the session begins on a continuation of a battle which began last session or on such an incident which has stretched across several sessions. Thus, a single session can consist of several Episodes strictly speaking and may not even contain whole Episodes at the beginning and ending. Not to mention distributed episodes, that is small exchanges or incidents that connect into a single episode but which are not temporally contiguous (they don’t follow each other in occurrence), are separated by other unrelated exchanges and/or episodes or are otherwise composed of out-of-sequence Play Units.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only bank on multiple exchanges where they hope to end on a desirable result from their perspective. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line. Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure which may or may not be consecutive or broken up among episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions which will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. Basically in fiction this is Plot/plotlines. Plot is a sequence of events divided into Scenes each single scene often presenting a single event. A fictive plot is constructed of a sequence of scenes (as are Subplots but for the purposes of this article there is really no distinction between Plots and Subplots). A minimum of 3 scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. In a TRPG, plot is essentially constructed of 3 vital exchanges or episodes which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. As the building blocks of a TRPG plot is constructed of a series of bundles of exchanges guided by the writing (the GM’s and any other authors of any of the material they may be utilizing for the game as well) within the context of the game world and which is very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably even from the GM’s perspective, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

An adventure is of course slightly more complex than the previous two lower tier structures (Play Units and Episodes). As stated before an adventure is composed of three parts which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. These component parts need not be in equal size or be executed in roughly equal spans of time (either real or in-game). Each component is however, an episode. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM which presents information that gives the players something to be solved or acted upon in such a way as to lead them to another scene or episode though whether the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to make another go at the Presentation or put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The next in the strict sequence of episodes that build an adventure is Complication.  A complication is the consequences of the players’ action(s) or an additional bit of information which throws a wrench into the players’ plans basically it’s a bump in the road or any type of obstruction separating the players from their goals that they otherwise couldn’t predict or that didn’t exist beforehand. The solution that they find should ideally lead them to the next component episode, the Twist. ‘Twist’ refers to yet another unforeseen consequence of the players’ current action(s)/previous solution, or the addition of another element by the GM which the players probably didn’t plan on appearing; this element however should have had clues as to its nature and its possible appearance scattered throughout the previous episodes that the players have already played through.

The episodic structure of adventures can be demonstrated in certain methods of writing adventures, adventure in the sense of current common usage that is, such as the Hook, Line & Sinker (HLS) format which structures adventures into 3 tiers. This structure though does not have to be limited to just 3 episodes it may take more to get the PCs to go along with it (if they ever do which is probably a hint to the GM to just drop it and present something else) or for them to progress through each single stage. The HLS format puts the plot-hook in the beginning episode to immediately try to capture the players’ attention by having the GM play to their characters’ motivations but a GM should also try to play on the players’ interests as well. Basically, it’s giving the players a reason to act and can also be inserted between the Presentation and Complication stages as well if the PCs were initially uninterested. Placing this ‘reason’ at the very beginning places a fair amount of trust in the players’ abilities not just to pick up on it but also their will to act on it. Putting it off until it can be used as the bridge between the Presentation and Complication phases can give the players more to latch onto adding to the likelihood of their taking action.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction this structure which is composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world-building) in which the events of the story take place. Of course, these underlying structures which authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call the Story of a TRPG a Campaign. A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or author(s), and the game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. Adventures help to propel the characters and thus players through this shared world which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically.

A TRPG Campaign is built of adventures, episodes, and finally communicative exchanges between the participants called Play Units. Knowledge of these basic structures will allow the GM to plot out adventures and help their improvisation technique when dealing with at-the-table exchanges within the context of the game world which serves as the sandbox for the players. Game-masters can seize control of their writing through the use of the 3-tier structure of adventures and can collect information learned from certain episodes to direct the flow of the campaign. They can break down the campaign and its subsequent adventures into episodes allowing them to find and pick up lost threads (ones not intentionally dropped that is) within the campaign and gain a deeper knowledge of the PCs and maybe even their players perhaps even themselves (when it comes to gaming style).

Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Discussions about the writing and running of tabletop games in terms of fictional narratives or as a sort of collective fiction or exercise in communal story-telling are very common as are the debates brought about by such subjects. Especially when discussing the writing of Game-Masters and the use of not only the terms but the devices of fictional narrative. According to my own personal experiences in roleplaying in both the Game-Master and Player roles as well as an avid reader of fiction, Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different.

“RPGs cannot easily be characterised in terms of standard narrative theories, presenting a different approach to narrative. Their interactive character-based approach differs both from the classical Aristotelian theory and the analytical models proposed by the French Structuralists.” [Louchart, Sandy & Aylett, Ruth. 2003. Intelligent Virtual Agents: Solving the Narrative Paradox in VEs – Lessons from RPGs. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, Germany. 245]

Narratives in fiction and that of Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPGs) are fundamentally different even though they have certain similarities. From the smallest units used in their composition to visualizations of their basic overall narrative structures to how they are composed (authored) and to what audience they are meant for both forms have an array of differences though in these differences also lay similarities.

Narrative in its most basic sense is a chronology of events which build upon or relate to one another from which the basis of story and plot is built.

“Chronology is made up of identifiable events or episodes. These episodes are identified by where they occurred (the setting) and by recalling who was there (the characters). The moments in between which are often not remembered serve to merely link one with another.” [Minot, Stephen. 1993. Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey. 177-178]

As narrative is a very basic element of story, plot may be considered a separate idea artificially constructed by the author(s) where concerning fiction to give the narrative direction.

Plot, as opposed to narrative, is constructed in order to follow the narrative to an ends which can carry personal meanings or messages and is meant to immerse and propel the reader along the course plotted out beforehand by the author(s). Narrative is not constructed of plot but plot does steer narrative in a certain direction that is determined by the author(s). In Fiction Narrative plot is directed by the author(s) and similarly in TRPGs plot can be said to be the same as all the participants (GM and Players) are in place of the author(s). However, in RPG’s plots are less ‘plotted’ rather than constructed by the interaction of the participants against some sort of framework previously setup by the Game-Master which can be termed ‘Adventure’ as the equivalent of ‘Plot’ where concerning TRPG narrative.

“The Game-Master exercises control at a high level over narrative unfolding, plot, pace and the structure of the story. Since the a priori plot line for a campaign is only hypothetical, the Game-Master needs specific tools – in the form of […] encounters […] – to gain some control over the overall campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The TRPG narrative is collectively gathered from the participation of the GM and players including the accumulation of details authored by each whereas the plot of standard fiction is determined by the author(s) and is often carefully constructed to follow the intended narrative.

“A fictional plot is a weaving together of events that are interrelated and which work toward a conclusion.” [Minot.183]

The plot of fiction and TRPGs are similar on a very basic level and this is where the confusion between Fiction Narrative and that of TRPGs can produce unfavorable results which should be familiar to most TRPG gamers.

The desire to change the shape of the adventure and/or campaign into that of a traditional fiction narrative on the part of the GM is the prime example of the confusion between TRPG narrative and Fiction Narrative. When the GM behaves in this manner they essentially hijack the agency of the players taking away their power to affect the game world and alter the shape of the story. This is called ‘railroading’ and is often to the detriment of the game (however, I have met and played with those that prefer the rails and often spend time in-game seeking them out).

“While the DM [Dungeon-Master] can limit players’ actions, in reality, the players have a great deal of agency in creating the story of the TRPG.” [Grouling-Cover, Jennifer. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 49]

Essentially when trying to steer the roleplaying game into the territory of narrative fiction the railroad-GM begins to exclude a major part of the gaming experience and excising an essential part of the TRPG that makes it unique and apart from standard fiction. Railroading is the practice of forcing the players to stay within the confines of a plotline written or in the mind of the Game-Master thereby changing the very nature of the game. Where the GM has acted more as an author of a choose-your-own-adventure book rather than acting in the more appropriate referee mode though commonly in tabletop RPG’s (TRPG’s) the GM may author elements of the adventure particularly the background elements of the campaign world perhaps even the campaign world itself. “The player in a TRPG [Tabletop Role-Playing Game] is not out to discover the secret to the DM’s story but to help create that story through active participation [.]” [Grouling-Cover. 37] There is no sole author when it comes to roleplaying.

The GM acts less as an author of fiction or the care-taker of an all-important storyline but should behave more as an arbiter of the rules, a referee when it comes to negotiating in-game conundrums, and maintain control of the game using the tools available to them such as encounters, playing on meta-knowledge of the players, and the capability of the characters among a few others.

“The Game-Master expects that the encounters specifically created for a session, will trigger actions, reactions, discussions or decisions from the party in such a way that an anticipated plot will unfold. This plot however has a hypothetical aspect since what actually happens is the direct result of the party’s generated reactions to the different encounters. They can be used by the Games Master to shape and pace the dramatic unfolding of the narrative as well as presenting the main source of entertainment to the players, and embodying key events in the construction of the plot. Their smooth orchestration by the Game-Master is critical to the creation, development and unfolding of an RPG campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The GM makes use of in-game devices such as encounters, expressing scenarios that the players may happen upon or induce through their behavior, and determining when the element of chance is required to be relied upon which typically takes the shape of a dice roll of some type. If the party gets too far off the path of the adventure at hand threatening take the campaign into territory which would diminish the overall fun for the group then it is the GM’s responsibility to get them back onto the trail as it were by intervening in certain ways.

“Interventions are generally caused either by players taking longer than expected in dealing with encounters or by the story branching in an unexpected manner. Branching may occur when the party incorrectly determines their role and what is expected from them, pursues future plot events omitting essential encounters or attempts to reinvent themselves. The need for interventions illustrates the plot’s provisional nature and stresses on the Game-Master’s preparation and flexibility.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246-247]

This can be avoided with certain other GM techniques such as “sandboxing” or keeping the details of the adventure as fluid as possible allowing the actions of the player to codify them and the Game-Master should allow themselves the flexibility to work those elements into the adventure allowing them to keep a firm hold on the direction of the campaign.

“Because the DM [Dungeon-Master] cannot predict players’ actions, he or she can not [sic] know what direction the story might take or what parts of the world might be explored. While the DM may control the world to an extent, this control is far more ephemeral than that of an author.” [Grouling-Cover. 92]

In the classical understanding of narrative the author constructs the fictional world, the characters, directs their actions within it, and develops the plot-line via the chronology of events within the story. “[…] RPGs work with a hypothetical plot which is dynamically modified, the mechanisms supporting this dynamic modification seem to rely … on out-of-character and out-of-play direct interactions.” [Louchart & Aylett. 248] Right off the bat it is evident that the narrative of TRPGs is very fluid and mimetic as compared to that of fiction which is much more monolithic. Of course, plot and narrative in both veins are composed of smaller more basic bits. These smaller parts of Fiction Narrative and TRPGs respectively are Scenes, Story-Beats, Episodes, and Play-Units.

Fiction narrative is written by a single author or group of authors who for the most part are all considered primary authors with each more or less contributing an equal amount of material to the story. Authors write for a captive audience whom as they read have no choice but to follow the narrative set down by the author upon whose shoulders and skill rests the ability to keep the readers immersed and in a state of suspense. This allows for a structured plotline running through the events contained in the narrative to make sense of them to the authors’ ends.

The underlying structure for fiction narrative known as Dramatic Structure when visualized appears very similar if not identical to a Bell-Curve (a more strict analysis could yield something more akin to Freytag’s Pyramid but this is a more general discussion) with the climax of the story, the height of the action, occurring at a single point. Of course, the events following the plot often will increase in intensity building up to the climax afterwards the main plotline if not all plot-lines including those attached to participant characters are tied up ending the story. High points on the curve would be points of high-energy and/or action and the low points would of course be lulls in the action. Each of these points represents a single scene or event, the building blocks of the story.

Fiction “is made up of a sequence of related scenes [and] is a construction of units in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” [Minot.184] A scene is the smallest unit of story and each scene is built of beats which are marked changes in the fuzzy or emotional bits or ‘feel’ (not to be confused with mood) in a scene. Story-Beats are the smallest unit that makes up fiction most often applied to screenwriting, or as defined by Robert Mckee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) as an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.

In fact, by this definition the GM and the players are included in the story which is not far from the truth of the matter but it is a little lacking when it comes to TRPG’s due to the breaking out of bounds of the ‘story’. Instead of Story-Beats that make up fiction’s narrative, in roleplaying the smallest unit of narrative is a Play-Unit which consists of a scenario (presented by the Game Master) + decision (made by the players) which then may lead to action (a high point) or inaction (a low point). [Edwards, Ron. 2001. Sorcerer & Sword. Adept Press, Chicago. Pg.80] Basically the Story-Beat of fiction narrative can translate with some work to the Play Unit of TRPG’s. Similarly, scenes can absolutely be drawn from the narrative that forms during play thus relating RPG Narratives to that of fiction and as fiction has its smallest units (technically the scene and emotively the action beat) so does the narrative that evolves from a roleplaying game session.

However, the narrative flow of TRPG’s as opposed to the narrative flow in fiction is very different.

“A narrative in a RPG is here defined as a description through game play of a series of events created by the interaction of two or more participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

The narrative flow of an RPG campaign is essentially a sine-wave with the high points being moments of action and the low points being those of calm or inaction, the definitions of the highs and lows being identical to those of fiction narrative.

The narrative flow of fiction usually moves upwards climbing towards a climax (or anti-climax) with the high and low points on the visualized graph being much the same as that of those on the Sine-Wave of TRPG’s but may be increasing in intensity as the author can reliably craft or manipulate these events in order to do so, in RPG’s the events as they also depend on the unpredictable actions of the players and many times on an element of chance (the dice) will have varying and sometimes seemingly random variances in intensity/thrill-level.

In the same vein, the thrill-level may be at variance for each of the players as well. This is because the narrative of a TRPG is authored by not just a specific individual or group but a whole gamut of folks from the Game-Master, each individual Player, to the deeper levels of authorship which may not be personally present during the game such as the authors of additional supplemental game material.

Basically, it’s the participants who share the authoring of the TRPG Narrative not to diminish the work of the GM whose responsibility it is to both referee games and often provide background material and characters as well as incorporating any supplemental material into the campaign. This also includes authors that are not direct participants in the campaign those authors that have written material used to supplement the game by the participants thereby creating several levels of authorship with the players at the shallower end.

“Although RPG players have a good idea of the overall story in which they are involved, they are more concerned by the development of their characters and their focus is situated at a fairly low level within the overall story, the individual level.” [Louchart & Aylett. 247]

Essentially, it is more helpful to refer to what is called Story in Fiction Narrative as a Campaign in the context of TRPGs as the authorship of narrative between TRPGs and fiction is so very different.

“The creation of a campaign is a collaborative process where the characters, as well as the worlds and environments in which the campaign is set, are developed in common accord between the Game-Master and the players. […] This laborious but highly participative creation process allows the Games Master to prepare the campaign episodes with a good understanding and knowledge of the different characters and world involved. This favours the delivery of a highly flexible narrative structure[.]” [Louchart & Aylett. 245]

The narrative of a TRPG is dynamic, it is a contributive exercise involving the players and the GM and commonly other remote authors where the narrative is simply not consistent across its audience.

“Game play is dynamic and, as it relies upon input from the player, can at least possibly differ for each player. Any narrative will be experienced by a player as a result of their game play. As the game play of each player differs, so their narratives may differ.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 54]

This can dramatically alter the narratives not only retold by each participant when recounting their experiences but their view of the campaign through the experiences of their character and their own meta-game experiences actually playing the game around the table.

“The narrative experienced by a player will be informed by the total sum of their game play experience.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

This very fluid structure and continual nature of the narrative structure of TRPG campaigns seems that it would be at a sublime disadvantage when it comes to the attentions of a passive audience.

A Campaign World is the collection of information that forms the background essentially the stage on which the game occurs and where the characters act. This is aside from the TRPG narrative component equivalent to story in fiction narrative. A campaign world is often referred to as the setting, the place where the adventures happen.

“Campaign settings are designed not to tell stories, but to create spaces for stories.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

What differentiates these game settings from the worlds of traditional fiction narratives is that the players have agency within the world having the power to leave their marks on it.

“[W]hile the world exists independently from the way the characters and players progress through it, the participants of TRPGs do influence the development of the world.” [Grouling-Cover. 77]

The players and even the GM change and build the setting as they progress through their adventures and thus the fantasy world. In many cases it’s the players’ interest in the world that surrounds their characters (the PC’s) that fills in the minute details and sometimes even creates whole new aspects and features within the setting.

“The interests of the players and the questions they ask also affect the world in more detailed ways that more directly influence the narrative.” [Grouling-Cover. 78]

This is not to say the players and their characters have ultimate say in the course of events unintentional or otherwise, the GM still has certain planned events which can alter the player characters’ paths.

“Many details of the world get fleshed out only as the players (characters) progress through them; however, certain events in the world progress regardless of the characters’ involvement with them.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

In TRPGs it’s the audience that has agency over the narrative.

The audience that TRPGs are written for or rather meant to entertain is the participants around the table playing the game. “A RPG narrative is not made for an audience, but for the people participating.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55] The audience of an RPG Campaign is also its authors. When it comes to relating their adventures the players and Game-Masters will form their tales into narratives from their point of view which may be from outside of the game or from within coming from a specific character. These ‘tales from the table’ often divide the narrative into scenes which are extracted from the over-arching campaign. These scenes as they are called in fiction narrative are better referred to as Episodes in TRPGs.

In TRPGs episodes can be a smaller part of an overall campaign or be limited to a single gaming session especially where the group is playing out a specific scenario in the game. It is also especially useful when referring to Episodic Play where the participants in a gaming group may shift, meaning the group is not composed of a fixed membership of individuals or even set number of participants at any one time where using one-shot type scenarios is a particularly useful tactic on the GM’s part to be able to get a game together and keep it together perhaps only later trying to tie them together into a greater campaign. The TRPG campaign like the Story of fiction is composed of Episodes as a story is drawn from a series of scenes. These scenes are composed of smaller pieces, story-beats, and thus an episode is also composed of what are also essentially story-beats better referred to as Play-Units in the context of TRPGs.

As defined before a Play-Unit consists of a situation presented by the GM and a decision made on this scenario by the player(s). The most fundamental bit of TRPGs is a back-and-forth between the participants.

“[An] RPG narrative is constructed by a continual process of communication and feedback between the participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 58]

This interaction is communicated through the context of the rule system they are using.

“Rule books… provide rules that assist participants in creating and controlling their storyworld. These books create the system that is used to structure the game.” [Grouling-Cover. 11]

It is through this filtering medium that the participants are able to negotiate and come to agreement as to what will become a part of the campaign and a reality in their collective fiction.

Negotiation describes the way the group uses social interaction to decide how the events will progress in the narrative… negotiation is a process of reaching a point that successfully lets the story progress.” [Grouling-Cover. 33]

It is from this seemingly basic unit of interaction that the TRPG story, a campaign, evolves from the collective imaginations of the participants, the RPG Group, most likely using material drawn from multiple sources and authors.

The basic smallest building blocks of both types of narratives are similar but still different as they serve different purposes. As discussed previously authors place story-beats of their fiction narrative in order to move the plot along using events which ultimately will lead to the climax of the story. The narrative and indeed the plot that can be extracted from a TRPG session seems to be an emergent narrative, that is it evolves and grows though the GM may set the player group on the path to a certain event and/or climax (which in RPG’s is more of a chapter-mark or framing device) and may completely diverge into completely unforeseen territory. The philosophy of the TRPG is essentially “story now”, the players and indeed the GM will want to enjoy their game NOW, and if any of them find it boring they do have the freedom to try to find the fun in any way that they can.

“The key concept is simple: Story Now. Not “It’ll add up to a story someday,” or “Your character will be tough enough to start a story some day [sic],” or even, “You don’t know this, but a really cool story is underlying these adventures.” No. Story now means that the conflicts and resolutions played out openly on the table are engaging and coherent, at that moment.  […] It means the proposition of conflict, the pivotal role of the heroes’ decisions, and a resolution of the conflict.” [Edwards.80]

When it comes to levels of authorship, traditional fiction is a little more streamlined than the multiple levels found in even a cursory glance at TRPGs. Often there is only a single level with the author(s) being the primary having full control over the narrative and its components. This of course is not taking into account certain series of books or fictional universes where multiple authors contribute to multiple works all set in the same world or universe such as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

In TRPGs authorship is a multi-level dynamic and liquid thing where not only the participants create fictive elements amongst themselves when interacting through the medium of the game but when adding in elements from materials written by other authors. In roleplaying games the authorship also overlaps with the audience as the participants produce their campaign narrative for their own entertainment whereas when it comes to fiction the author(s) produce their stories for an audience that has no agency within the author’s fictive world. The final demonstration of the absolute difference between the narrative structure of TRPGs and that of Fiction is the visualizations of their general underlying structure, the difference between the potentially perpetual Sine-Wave structure of RPGs and the finite Bell-Curve structure of classical fiction narrative.

In conclusion, RPG Narrative Flow is very different from that of Fiction Narrative Flow which can be demonstrated by comparing any of the most basic components of either not to mention the dramatic difference illustrated by way of their line-graph visualizations. RPG narratives are unlike that of the Narratives of Fiction alternating in action or high points with low points at pretty regular intervals as a sine-wave whereas Fiction Narrative has a definitive structure that escalates in action & drama moving towards a climax. In RPG Narratives a set piece may mark a climax and (hopefully) coincide with a high-point providing some closure to most of the prescient story-lines that were prominent in the campaign.

The various components of either type of narrative can be said to be related and can be translated in limited terms back and forth. Fiction is often plundered for ideas for use in the game world and the basic elements of fiction can be extracted from a campaign narrative with the most bottom level translation between fiction’s Story-Beat and Play-Unit being approximate at best. There are relations between the two different narrative styles and structures but a TRPG is not a novel though a novel can be extracted from the conglomeration of story and detail created through the play of an RPG campaign if the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist and the Dragonlance books can stand as examples.

However, the most important difference, at least in my opinion, between the narrative flow of classical fiction and that of TRPGs is player agency and the shared authorship of all involved regardless of their level of participation.

“This [the TRPG Narrative form] is fundamentally different to many other narrative forms, in that the participants have an active role in shaping the future form of the narrative.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 59]