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Writing Quality Games
All I needed to know about Dramatic Tension I learned playing AD&D

Lindsay "Smurf" Beaton

It seems there is a perennial thread on about poor quality games at Conventions. That started me thing about what all the poor quality games I'd played had in common. A large part of it was just that the games were, to put it bluntly, poorly written. Poorly written how? Well, generally it seemed that although often the writers had a reasonable overall concept, they didn't understand balancing five characters, or plot, or how to make sure all 5 characters have a reason to get involved, or timing and pacing, how to make sure the story runs right. The things that no-one thinks about, that make a game worthwhile If you get all of those things right, you can have an ordinary concept (rescue the princess) and the game is still enjoyable; with a new concept, those things make the game legendary.

How can you learn timing, pacing, balancing characters, involving characters?

By writing 2 and 3 session classic system games.

Lets take a classic 3 session AD&D. From the beginning, it's obvious you need to work toward a cliff-hanger, or a mini-climax at the end of session 1 to lead in to session 2 This could be, discovering the nature of the evil plot, having the beautiful princess kidnapped - whatever.

Naturally you'll need a different climax at the end of Session 2 that sets up Session 3 such as finding out the person you thought was the villain isn't, (Maybe the princess wasn't kidnapped - she escaped?). And, of course the penultimate climax at the end of Session 3 it's classic AD&D so that means the "big battle with the villain" with some kind debrief - happy-ever-after wrap up.

You only want to write a single session game? - Compress it - something climatic should happen at the end of the first hour, the second hour and at the end; if you're writing for a three hour session. If you're only writing for a 2.5 hour session, cut the number of climaxes, aim for one at 1 hour 15 and one at about 2 hours 15

(That happy-ever-after wrap up is handy - don't overlook it, it should be stimulating the writer to think about what the characters want. What would be a good reward? There's the start of your character development.)

Because the system is so structured, you will have a pretty good idea how long it should take the group to get through the puzzles/encounters. If the puzzles/encounters are too hard, they will take too long, or not be achievable. Too easy, and you'll have to put so many in to fill up the time and they'll get boring. So already the structure of the system is forcing new writers to think in terms of the plot - you should find you're asking yourself;

  • How long should this encounter take?
  • Is it necessary to the plot?
  • Can it be left out if the other encounters take too long?
  • Does every character have something to do?
  • If I leave encounters out will every character still have something to do?;
  • Is this encounter just a copy of an earlier one?
  • Does it add something new?
  • If this encounter doesn't go the way I think it will - what happens next?
  • Do I have a way of getting the players back to my plot that isn't obviously contrived?
  • If the encounter stalls do I have a plausible way of moving it along?

Those are the key plot questions, and the key issue is these questions are the same whether your party is 5 standard AD&D characters, or five actors in a Kitchen Sink Drama. If you don't like the word encounter (because it's too D&D) replace it with scene - it's the same principle.

The same principles apply to characters. Because you're writing a "classic" game, you've already got the framework for the characters laid out. For a five character party You will probably have a thief, a fighter, a cleric, a mage, and a fighter specialist (ranger/bard etc)

This means you already know there need to be things for a thief to do, things for a cleric do, things for a bard/ranger to do, combat for the fighters, etc, etc

You don't want to write AD&D? Treat those character classes as archetypes, There's the amoralist - who takes what they want. There's the person whose used to fighting (physically or mentally) to get what they want. There's the spiritual person, probably the nurturer, the person who keeps the group together; the trickster, the person who likes to trick or outwit an opponent. And the person who used to fight, but has now found another way of adding value to their life. Don't like those archetypes? Fine, find others, there are plenty of places to look for guides to characterization in storytelling.

In a classic D&D the first question you should be asking about the characters, Why would the characters stay together? Is often already answered - because they're paid to do so. But there are other questions you should be asking yourself.

  • Is every character different?
  • Does every character have a motivation for being there?
  • Why would the party get/stay together?
  • Does every character have a reason to interact with the others?
  • Are the characters balanced?
  • Are the characters playable?
  • Is every character important to the story?
  • Are there enough hooks for some inter-party conflict?
  • Are there enough outs for inter-party conflict to be resolved?
  • Does every character have at least one encounter/scene in which they will be the main focus?
  • Is there an opportunity for the player to "own" the character?
  • There's nothing worse than playing a character whose sole job is to read out the GM handouts.
  • Am I too attached to the characters? Will I tell players they are playing them wrong?

Always remember, in this hobby players expect to get a character who will need to be fleshed out. Don't end up writing 11 page character sheets that detail everything about the character. Leave the players something to add, you'll be surprised, and often pleased by what they do.

When we write games, we are writing stories. Whether Epic Fantasy, or Kitchen Sink Drama, they are stories. Stories should have a beginning, middle, and an end. Things should happen in stories whether it's May finds out June is Gay and secretly in love with August; or the king is overthrown and a usurper takes his place doesn't matter, provided something happens.

Your story should never leave the audience, or players, wondering why you wanted to tell that story, and not another. Of course, that means you have to know why you're telling that story.

Just like writing stories, it takes practice, and some understanding of the form to do it well. I see writing the classic system games as being the roleplaying equivalent of writing short stories, the rules around the form are better understood, more clearly articulated, and it teaches the beginning author some of the things they need to know about writing. And once they know that, they can write anything.

Ultimately - It's about writing skills, there are books a plenty for aspiring writers, some of them may be useful, some won't be. After all, in roleplaying you never have to worry about writing dialogue - that's what the players are for; your job is to create a story that inspires them.