Sustained Storylines ~ Establishing Buy In First


In a world of short attention spans and the media that caters to them it can be challenging for a gamemaster to establish long term buy in from their players. It's easy to blame this on the players but as in all things the problem, and therefore the solution, often lies closer to home than many are willing to admit. Using the simple writing techniques of series writers from the world of fiction and understanding a bit about the psychology of your players (and yourself) you can set yourself up from the start to establish a campaign with longevity.

"I just don't know guys. I can't put my finger on it but something just isn't working anymore. I don't think I can keep running this campaign anymore."

Ever say that? I have. More times than I'm comfortable with. We all know the feeling of a player telling us they don't want to play in our campaign; it can be crushing. Imagine how our players feel when we tell them we don't want to run something for them. This would usually happen to me a couple of times right after running an epic campaign of length and significance. It took me years to figure out what was going wrong, and once I did I sat back and poured myself a shot of Jameson's and had a laugh. At first I always assumed there was something wrong with the players; that they weren't seeing what I saw in the new campaign idea, that they weren't really into their characters for some reason, that they hadn't given me enough information to work with to make sure that I was running a campaign they actually wanted to play in.

It was me though.

The longest I was able to go without a series of false starts was when I managed to lock in to a run of linked campaigns that all somehow were related. To find my solution I took a look at what made that work as well as it did. First, they all took place in a persistent world that existed and moved and changed whether there were PCs running around in it or not. Second, because the campaigns were all linked in one way or another (related PCs, common NPCs, common theme or tone, etc). Third, and most important, because we all cared deeply about the world and therefore the subject matter. Seeing all of this in retrospect it was easy to make the leap of reasoning that there hadn't been any false starts in between because *there had been no in between*. In it's own unique way it was actually one really long campaign.

Why did this work? Because I didn't think about it at the time.

The first roadblock to running a long sustained campaign storyline is trying to run a long sustained campaign storyline. As an author I was already well aware that a story isn't done when you're finished adding to it; it's done when you're finished removing the parts that don't need to be there. Why I had never applied this train of thought to the campaigns I was starting and then stopping I have no idea. Arrogance? Ignorance? Probably a bit of both. The end result though was that I was trying my hardest ot repeat that same experience. Not the same campaign, but the same emotional experience of having been able to go to the same well over and over and always find the water fresh. A simple fact worth facing is that experiences are singular. They happen and then they're over. They're transient. Fleeting at best.

So instead of mapping out the groundwork for a long term and sustained campaign, I had insted to map out the *potential* for a long term and sustained campaign. My problem was that I didn't know how to do it anymore. The last time I had to do such a thing I was 18 years old. An incredible amount of life shaping water had passed under the bridge between then and when I found myself sitting there with a shot of strong whiskey in one hand and a blank notebook in the other. Every single idea I came up with made me sneer. Every thought...trite. Every notion...limp.

I considered giving up on gaming. I really did. All I had were the ideas I had never found a way to use in the last long stint, and now I hated them all. Never one to just give up I approached the issue from a very different angle. I drank the shot, put the notebook down, and tried to envision what the solution would look like I did indeed know what it was. What I ended up doing was laying down the map for all my future endeavors as a gamemaster...genreless roleplaying.

I know I can't write a genreless story, so how could you run a genreless campaign? Everything fits into a genre somewhere. What I found myself doing was divorcing myself from my traditional views of genre to free myself from their trappings and compromises. I picked up my pen and book again and decided to figure out exactly what it was about *fiction itself* that got my motor running. Leaving out the fixtures of genre and milieu I was able to see what it really was that excited me.

As it turns out, I hate elves.

Further it turns out I hate fantasy itself. Maybe hate is a strong word because "hate" is a word you should only apply to something you would actually plot the death of and carry out the murder. An hour later I looked at the pages in front of me and realized I wanted to kill fantasy, so I must hate it. All the things I liked in fiction itself, free of genre or milieu, were things that were far more prevalent in other forms of fiction than in fantasy. I shared this insight with another gamer friend of mine and he suggested "maybe you just need to run something else, maybe you're burned out on fantasy."

He didn't get it.

When I worked back around to genre and milieu elements, I found that I was still incredibly drawn to the potential within fantasy roleplaying and had a hard time thinking about any long term and sustained storyline in a campaign that took place in any other "genre". I still needed a fantasy setting to tell the stories I wanted to tell with my players...I just could not bear for those stories to be fantasy stories. They had lost all their significance to me on an emotional level. I thought back to my perception that maybe I didn't have enough information from my players to run the campaigns they wanted to play in, back when I was still blaming it on them, and realized they would benefit from this process as well. Despite knowing now that it was mostly me and my lack of buy in, I couldn't ignore that they had all looked a little glazed over as well during the false starts that had come since.

"Where is all this leading?" you may be asking yourself. Don't worry, I would be wondering the same thing right about now. Before one can discuss how to maintain buy in though, one must discuss how to really achieve it on a deep emotional level to begin with. You can't keep what you don't have.

The initial process is simple because it's not really about what you know, it's about what you do with it afterwards. There's a very bold statement I have to make first, before we get into that actual process of identifying what resonates with you and your players. Take a deep breath now, maybe get a shot like I did. Here it is:

If you're a fantasy gamemaster...stop running fantasy campaigns immediately.

Whatever your "genre" is, replace the word fantasy with that and repeat the above sentence to yourself. Seriously. Do it. Say "I will stop running (insert genre here) campaigns." Now say it again. Do it. Trust me. This is the best thing you will ever say to yourself as a gamemaster. Before you skip to the bottom of the page and start formulating your well crafted response let me explain.

If you are a fanatsy gamemaster and you are running a fantasy campaign you are planting crops in salted earth. "Fantasy" is not a "genre", regardless of what publishing houses want us to think. It's a generalized retail categorization that makes books with dragons and men holding swords on the cover easy to find in the store. "Fantasy" is more a function of milieu than it is a genre. Action is a genre. Adventure is a genre. Mystery is a genre. Horror is a genre. Erotica is a genre. The same goes for all the other invented genres. Science fiction? That's a setting descriptor. Spy? That's a setting descriptor. Steampunk? Not a genre. I don't really care to have the dictionary definition of "genre" waved in my face either, and this for one simple reason; thinking in those terms will not help you identify the core elements of fiction that draw us to what we like at a deeper emotional level. Some things are true no matter what you think or feel, no matter what the dictionary says.

Unless of course you find yourself drawn to men holding swords on a deep emotional level. If that's the case ignore all of this, draw a map of a dungeon, fill it with monsters and treasure, and run your fantasy campaign. None of this is going to help you because you're already doing fine on your own. What's more likely though is that you are drawn to the bold adventure. You're drawn to the archetype inherent in that iconic fantasy hero. All of those things you're drawn to exist in other "genres" though as well, so why box yourself in by running a "fantasy campaign"?

I'm not suggesting you abandon milieu and setting related details that you love. I'm getting to the good part now, I promise. What I'm suggesting is that those things that let you run long and sustained campaigns in the past are infertile now. You've used them up and need to expand your horizons.

So the process is painfully simple. You sit down over dinner, drinks, whatever...and just talk. Talk about gaming. Tlak about all your past campaigns and what worked and what didn't. Talk about this like you're never going to game the same again because after this you won't. Talk about movies. Talk about music. Talk about books. Talk about whatever you want. Don't talk about *what* so much as talk about *why*. Ther is one inevitable...someone says something like, "Yeah man, I just like dwarves. It's that simple."

No it isn't.

There's a reason why. There's always a reason why. Saying something like "yeah, well I just like them" is lazy and hackish and it's a short cut to really thinking.

Doing this with my own players I found out that one of them loves dwarves so much because he loves strong familial bonds, ancestor worship, and stout honorable types that are implacable in the face of disparity. He *loves* fantasy because he *loves* dwarves. The only reason he loves them so much though is because he has a deep seated fascination with Japanese warrior culture. Go figure. The only thing he actually *loves* about fantasy is something that is best represented way far outside of the "genre" he thought he would kill or die for. There were lots of things he didn't like at all about dwarves but he was willing to ignore those things because of the things he loved about them. Now in my new setting there's a nation of strong willed people just like he wants them to be...and no dwarves, because no one else liked them even a little bit.

This should take hours. Transit should stop and everyone should stay over or call a cab as the sun comes up. You should write down as many things as you can on a page for each player. This isn't your standard "player survey" we've all read so much about (and maybe used with mixed success), this is a deep and extended mining of the texture of each of your underlying psychology.

Having done all of that you should have pages of information that look less like "Sally likes campaigns with liches, Bob likes campaigns with gnomes" and more like "Sally is fascinated with death and the dead because..., Bob likes mischief and magic because...". You're going to need a few weeks to ponder over all of this and decide what it means...if you want to do it right. You might go over it quickly and run a fantasy campaign...but that means you did it wrong. In the end the two campaigns, the right one and the wrong one, might turn out looking exactly the same; but the underlying *reason* you're running them will be vastly different. You'll have a deeper understanding of what makes you and your players tick *away* from gaming and as such you can establish a ridiculously strong emotional bond to the campaign.

So now you have this great idea, and it's going to resonate on every level possible with you and your players. So how do you sustain it once it gets under way? Luckily I think I have the answer to that question as well, and I'll provide it tomorrow in part 2. For now it's 1:00am and I have a meeting with my publishing partner about marketing strategies...something for which I have almost *NO* emotional buy in for, but which is important and so I must attend.

Until then, if you find yourself struggling to emotionally connect with your material or if your players are facing that dilemma, ask yourself this very important question:

"What am I pretending not to know?"

Thanks Scott. Lots to think on here.

At first blush what resonated with me is that you identified addition by subtraction as a key to telling a story worth telling. Break out of the prison of assumptions.

We all think of swords as the "standard" weapon in a fantasy novel. A spear has a longer pedigree and is arguably more effective on the battlefield. We have a medieval notion of a castle.

I used to teach Gr. 13 English lit. and a favourite saying of mine was -- give the reader what they want; but not in the way that they expect it.

I love the idea of a long "discovery session" with your players.

I have played this game a long time, but have only run about six campaigns. Sometimes I forget what it is like to start a new one. I sometimes wish I could end the one I run now and start again from the beginning. Two things stop me: there is so much story left to tell, and my players would crucify me. I am resolved that if they get killed off in mis-adventure I won't give them any escapes or mulligans. After more than twenty years -- I owe them that. I will keep making scenarios and challenges and won't build any artificial party-busters and we can see how long they can keep above water.

So, what do you write?

Addition by subtraction is super important. The most important thing in writing, in my opinion, is clarity. In very few (if any) cases can clarity be gained by adding something. I don't know whether or not enough gamemasters realize this. If a gamemaster finds thier voice, speaks in it fluently, and does their part in telling a story they care about *clearly* and it still flops? It's because no one cared but him. LOL. It's funny, but it's true and there's no shmae in it.

It's funny you mention spears. I have a player making a character for this new thing I'm running that asked me "is there any benefit in using a spear?" and I directed him to the internet...or 300. I blame Arthurian legend, but surely it goes back further than that. That is merely the most relevent first example most people are fmailiar with. There's somethng romantic (and phallic) about swords I guess. The potential phallic symbolism of a spear is maybe too grandiose and arrogant for some to accept. Ha! I know that if a fight broke out in my apartment right now I would wish to ahve a spear over a sword immediately.

The discovery conversation (nice wording, it's what I've called it since I came up with it) became the biggest tool in my kit as a gamemaster. As I mentioned, the campaign you run may turn out to be identical to the one you'd run without the discovery conversation but now you know mor about *why* than *what*, which directly leads to a clearer understanding of *how* to pull it off. Take Sally, this fictional person I've made up for the purpose of example. Knowing she lieks liches is great...knowing that the reason *why* she liesk them is her fascination with death and dying allows me to focus more on the people the zombies *were* rather the fact that they're zombies. Sally is now deeply emotionally attached and wants to see the whole thing through...not to defeat the lich far in the future but because it hits her spine like tuning fork and she simply cannot resist being deeply immersed in what is happneing. It goes far beyond the superficial on a storytelling level and instead of a tale of zombies and the lich that created them we're now telling a story about the look and feel and texture of Sally's emotional and psychological landscape. There's no way for that to fail because we know why we're doing it and so where to shine the spotlight.

The issue with most "player surveys" is that they focus on the game and not on the players. At best they focus on the player's perception of the game and not the player's perception of reality itself. This results in a game that engages player expectations and preferences rather than human resonance. One of the most important tools a storyteller possesses is their ability to connect to the deep and sometimes inky insides of their audience, and yet gamemasters aren't ever told how to do this in rule books...I suspect because the people writing them don't know how to do it either. It's more common to flail about until you hit something, not know why it works but do it anyways, and then when it dries up close our eyes and flail some more. There's a far easier way to do it that storytellers don't have access to...and that's just sitting down and asking the audience (the players) what they like and why.

(sidebar; I write speculative fiction about beings that mortal humans think are "angels" and "demons" but which actually are not. My work borders on erotica but doesn't *quite* go all the way into that much maligned genre. It's graphic both sexually and violently. Especially violently. I'm also working on two graphic novels with my partner but only as a story consultant as I don't care too much for the medium as an outlet for my own creativity. In addition to that we're starting our own imprint so neither of us have to deal with standard publishers and their content demands ever again. We have a few artists and authors ready to launch things with us when we go live in the first quarter of 2012, including a fascinating book by a professional and very expensive escort about how she got into the sex business many years ago. Riveting, but clinical. There's nothing sexy about her book at all. LOL.)

One thing that has just become far more important to me than writing part 2 of this right now is this; bangers and mash.

I'll post part 2 tonight sometime after midnight which seems to be when I do the most writing anyway.

Excellent article, Scott.

It's been very interesting, reading your article and thinking about my own group. We have those "discovery conversations" just about every time we get together. It helps that we're all very opinionated, and very interested in art, especially narrative art. It also helps that we're fairly well read, composed of I think three English majors, a Theater major, and a Science major (who is Lorthyne, actually). So we really can't help ourselves, and reference the games quite often in terms of what we enjoy or don't in storytelling. It gets very literary, though, as always with great art, still very primal. I think that this tendency to think in literary terms is to a great extent why our games since forming this group have been uniformly awesome - we are all trying to tell a story and are aware of what makes a good story.

I also quite liked what you were talking about as far as breaking out of genre conventions (I hate all fantasy races, generally lol). One great thing about our group is that we don't tend to run long campaigns. I've discussed this before, but I find it really useful. Lorthyne and I in particular tend to get a little twitchy after a while and get ideas for new things, plus a desire to either run or play in a game again. So we go by "seasons" like a television show. We wrap up a particular plot arc over the course of 8-12 sessions, then put down the GM stick for a while, letting whomever run their particular game. Over the course of the last year, I ran season one of my gangster game, then Lorthyne has been running a fantasy game, and now another member will be doing his first stint as GM running a dark fantasy setting. Once the newbie has finished his game, I'll run season two of my gangster game. This keeps them all fresh and interesting and doesn't allow us to tire one out. It also gives our GMs some rest and keeps the GMing dynamic as everyone's style is different and we switch them around. But what it does best is it automatically keeps you from being trapped in a genre, like Scott mentioned. You can't play a dwarf in 1920s Boston. You can play an Irish clanner with a deep connection to the homeland and strong familial bonds with an equally strong sense of duty and honor, however. It forces us to evaluate what's interesting emotionally and thematically, and then apply that to the setting. For instance, when I finished my game and we picked up Lorthyne's (which we just finished in awesome fashion, if anyone's curious) we had to make new characters, think about what was interesting in his idea and setting and carve our own place in it, thematically. It helps to give us that buy in.

Speaking of which, there's one great way to give the players buy in - have them write the campaign. For instance, when both Lorthyne and I started our games, we only gave the players a framework, which they then filled. With my game, I told my players that we're doing a gangster game, and they have to be part of the same gang at the start. That's it. Then we talked about the game, what they wanted to do and began to build it. They decided they wanted to be Irish gangsters, in Boston, in Prohibition. Just by making those decisions, before even making characters, they had buy in. They decided what they were interested in, and that's what we played. Similarly for Matt, though a bit tighter in focus. Matt gave us his world, said he wanted us to be a small ship's crew that helped protect merchant vessels on dangerous fantasy waters, and then let us run with it. We built everything, families, enemies, former crewmates, captains, lost friends, camaraderie, etc. That, I've learned is how to establish buy in. Everybody is interested in what they create, without question. So let them create it, let them tell you the story. From my experience, great GMing is nodding like the good doctor, then later saying, "Oh, really?" Everything else the players will give you.

That's my two cents, anyway.

"But what it does best is it automatically keeps you from being trapped in a genre, like Scott mentioned. You can't play a dwarf in 1920s Boston. You can play an Irish clanner with a deep connection to the homeland and strong familial bonds with an equally strong sense of duty and honor, however. It forces us to evaluate what's interesting emotionally and thematically, and then apply that to the setting. For instance, when I finished my game and we picked up Lorthyne's (which we just finished in awesome fashion, if anyone's curious) we had to make new characters, think about what was interesting in his idea and setting and carve our own place in it, thematically. It helps to give us that buy in."

-You're spot on to a degree. What I'm suggesting is that you abandon genre conventions *within* your genre. Don't run a fantasy investigative horror in a fantasy setting and it ceases being a "fantasy campaign". My favorite example is Star's not a sci fi story even though it's in a sci fi setting.

"They decided what they were interested in, and that's what we played"

-Fantastic. That's what I do as well. I have a list of non-negotiables that absolutely will or will not be part of the campaign, tell the players "this is your paint". If they don't or can't I nudge the brush but I won't take it from them. I get to play with my non-negotiables and be perfectly satisfied, they get to play with theirs and be likewise satisfied. The discovery conversation sets them up to know what their non-negotiables are and then everyone owns the thing. It's not "my campaign" or "their campaign"..."it's "our campaign".

Lol @ Tzuriel accidentally using my forum handle and my real name interchangeably in his post. For clarity, when he talks about "Matt," that's me. :)

It seems to me that we all pretty much approach this the same way. I'm curious about how sustaining a story works in the longer term campaign, since I'm mostly accustomed to shorter ones. I've heard a lot of GMs talking about writing an enormous, nuanced, complex plot before the campaign ever starts, and I have a hard time believing that such a plot could even be carried out unless the player characters are nothing more than silent participants in the story, which I'm not interested in at all. I just finished what I consider to be the best game I've ever run, and without hesitation I will say that every single moment of significance within that story has its conceptual roots firmly planted in something that a player did, and not of any particular brilliance on my part. Typically, after the game themes and characters have been established, I'll look at what the players have given me, and paint some very vague, very broad strokes for the direction of the campaign, and then focus on planning stuff one or two sessions at a time. Is that how you "long haul" folks do it, or is there another method?

One of the most beautiful (and most challenging) parts about roleplaying is striking the balance between preparation and improvisation. Literature, poetry, film, television, and recorded music are almost entirely preparation based, in that they are created (either by an individual or a group), packaged, and delivered. Theater and other live acting, live music, dance, and other performance art are both preparation and performance based, in that there is an established score, script, or choreography, but the execution is as much a part of the art as the execution. Roleplaying is much more similar to performance art in this way, because all GM's know that the execution is so often very different than the script.

At the same time, I feel like roleplaying is incredibly different than any other form of collaborative art, because in every other form of art of which I am aware, the script/score/choreography is laid out on the table. Improvisational comedy, with which roleplaying is often compared, is still different in that way, because there in improv, there is no script, only rules of the game. Within a roleplaying game, each person at the table brings their own script, unshared with anyone else. The experience of a roleplaying game is the combined experience of everyone sharing their script at the same time. In most RPGs, it's determined in advance that the GM has the primary script, and has the final authority in weaving all of the other scripts into a single tapestry of story. In other words, the preparation happens separately with each person at the table before the game, and then the execution period is identical with the collaborative creation period, with all of the discarded ideas and "could have beens" simply cease to be a part of the work.

I recently was talking with a member of our gaming group about the experience of first attempts at GMing. She is a relatively new player and has no experience GMing, and we were talking about this within the context of another newer player who has decided to try on the GM's hat for the first time. I compared the experience of roleplaying to a group standing in a small room. As a player, you're intrigued by the new environment and interested in exploring its bounds. As a first time GM, you find yourself standing on the other side of the walls, and you realize for the first time that these walls are paper-thin. You stand there, terrified because, in their good-natured exploration, the players are punching their hands and feet through the paper walls of your room, and you're worried they'll all discover how truly fragile everything is. As you gain more experience, that terror slowly fades. I think it's less about having a better construction in your room and more about realizing that it doesn't matter how thin the walls are, because the players want to stay in the room. You eventually learn that most of the time, a player punching through the wall only reveals that the room's dimensions had been far greater than you ever thought they were, and that when they uncover something unseemly, the players will politely withdraw and even help you patch the hole.

"Typically, after the game themes and characters have been established, I'll look at what the players have given me, and paint some very vague, very broad strokes for the direction of the campaign, and then focus on planning stuff one or two sessions at a time. Is that how you "long haul" folks do it, or is there another method?"

- This isn't quite how I handle it. I often have a very specific idea in mind of the type of campaign I want to run before hand. It forms the bulk of my list of "non-negotiables". I wouldn't say that I have it all scripted out (though many years ago this is precisely what I did, often with results that disappointed me). I do consider, to a point, what the players have given me...but at the same time I have an idea and I'm going to use it regardless of what they do. If I plan to run a campaign where a war is brewing between two nations I *will* run that campaign no matter what the PCs are doing. The next installment of this little series of articles talks more about how I pull this off while still allowing the players their freedom (and not just the "illusion of freedom" as many prepublished scenarios and campaigns give). What I do is make sure that I'm not really planning out specific situations and scenes so much as I am planning out the individual little functions of the plot and pasting them to whoever the PCs are engaged with. This way we *all* get to tell our individual stories and it all blends seamlessly together.

"Within a roleplaying game, each person at the table brings their own script, unshared with anyone else. The experience of a roleplaying game is the combined experience of everyone sharing their script at the same time."

-This is absolutely true. Taking it one step further, each player is actually telling two stories at the same time. The first one is obvious, it's the story that of the character. For example; "I want to play a badass who's rude to people and solves his problems with his sword. He's a bit of an outcast from those he used to call friends or allies and this is how he ends up with the group. He's at odds with the fighter's guild due to past wrongs, and there's a certain faction of assassins after him for some familial thing I'll leave up to the GM to surprise me with". Good stuff, and it gives the GM plenty to work with in relation to the character. There's a second script though, one that even many players are not aware they carried in with them. It's crucial as a gamemaster to know what the second script says and it can be challenging to get the player to realize it even exists. Every player has a reason they made that specific character and it's important to identify what that reason is. Essentially, there's the character's story (the first script) and then there's the player's story that they are trying to tell with the character (the second script). In this case it might be "I want to tell the story of an outcast who resists forming bonds with those around him but, unbeknownst to him, he acutally desires to have meaningful relationships. He won't though, because he sabotages his interactions with others and drives a wedge between them so he doesn't get hurt. Ultimately I want him to be even more disenfranchised with the concept of friendship and comraderie by the end of campaign, but despite all this he makes the ultimate sacrifice and eventually dies saving those he thought he hated. He'll be remembered as a hero despite how reluctant he was to fill those shoes".

The first script gives me information on how the character will be played...but not *why*. If I don't know why then I can't provde within the campaign all the things necessary for the player to be able to tell that story, and in the next campaign they'll make the same character all over again, only in a different guise. We're all familiar with the player who seems to make the same character over and over again; this is often why. They haven't been able to tell the story they wanted to tell and so they are doomed to repeat the attempt. With the information in my example of the "second script" I know as a GM that I need to insert NPCs that genuinely like the PC in question so the player gets to play him chafing against the awkwardness it makes him feel. I need to provide him oppurtunities to foreshadow his own demise. I need to make sure that, instead of that PC ending up on a throne somewhere as the bitter ruler of a fief by the end of the campaign, he gets his big "Black Cauldron" moment at the end of the storyline. The character remains unaware of all of this of course...he just thinks he's a grumpy badass who doesn't like people much, and of course he probably doesn't *want* to die. It's only the player that is aware of the endgame. In the absence of this understanding it could easily turn into a story where the character ends up realizing his social shortcoming and overcoming it...a good tale, but not the one the player wanted to tell.

So...there are many more scripts at work than many people realize. Each player has one for the character and one for themselves, and the GM has one for the campaign and one for himself as well. Understanding what's behind each of them before you even begin makes sure that you get the chance to tick off everyone's little boxes on their wish lists. In the end the storyline will sustain itself, and everyone walks away with an afterglow.

"There's a second script though, one that even many players are not aware they carried in with them. It's crucial as a gamemaster to know what the second script says and it can be challenging to get the player to realize it even exists. Every player has a reason they made that specific character and it's important to identify what that reason is. Essentially, there's the character's story (the first script) and then there's the player's story that they are trying to tell with the character (the second script)."

I absolutely agree. One my favorite characters was an old man who had spent his youth living as a hermit as a way to run from guilt and responsibility. As a result of sheer necessity of circumstance, he was forced to bear a heroes burden on his weak shoulders. His story (the first script) was about accepting heroism in the face of fear, a lifetime of unresolved guilt, and overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. The "second script," my story, was really about discovering heroism in difficulty, in a reluctant fashion, because I was trying to break out of my character rut of stoic, unflinching, triumphant heroes. I was interested in the idea of heroism as a breaking force, that doing the right thing would, of necessity, cost everything, and I even told the GM that I wanted my character to die heroically at some point in the middle of the campaign. The refusal of other players to take the "lead" role so my character could take my desired place in the background (along with some other factors) was initially frustrating unwittingly added to that dynamic, but looking back, it was actually the perfect circumstance to place him in. At a point during the campaign (which fell apart before it came to a satisfying conclusion), I told my GM that I was done with this character's story and that I wanted him to die heroically. Due to another character death in the group, our character dynamic was in shambles, and another death would have put it in the coffin, so I was never able to reach the place I wanted to with him.

Any thoughts or tips on how to uncover the hidden "second script" in players or, even harder, in ourselves?

"Any thoughts or tips on how to uncover the hidden "second script" in players or, even harder, in ourselves?"

LOL. I wish it was as simple as just asking them and having them tell you. So far in my experience this is incredibly challenging because that degree of self awareness is beyond a lot of people. I usually start by asking them to describe a few pivotal scenes they see along the timeline of the character's development during the campaign, and how they see the character changing because of those scenes. Then I ask them why those particular scenes appeal to them as players. Another thing I've done is ask them to picture the ultimate version of their character in a perfect world and to decribe the backstory that got them there...then I rewind and start the campaign well before that point. The formative events never play out the way the player described them, I make sure of that, but the overall tone and theme they described carries through.

Just last night I was asking my girlfriend about a new character she is working on and trying to uncover her "second script". Everything she described was far more "first script" until it dawned on her that what she actually wanted very badly was to play a character that shaped the world around her to the same degree of magnitude as characters I've told her about that other players played in past campaigns before I even met her. Her desire to become part of the ongoing saga that is my career as a gamemaster was her hidden second script. That makes it super easy to make sure that the pivotal events in the game that will ensure this outcome come to pass. She desires significance in the tapestry of my own personal gaming stories; her character on the other hand just wants to find places no one has walked in for centuries. If I only had the first script to go on, the character's, then I might fall short of providing her the oppurtunity to not only find these untread places but also to have truly world changing events take place in those locations.

As to finding those things in yourself...all I can recommend is deep and lengthy self discovery. Knowing what you like and doing it is just the start; figuring out *why* is the key to the second script. Using an example from my own experience, the moment when I discovered there was a second script at all, was before the last long running campaign I ran. By "long running" I mean a year and a half of us playing 8 hour sessions twice a week. In the past I ran longer campaigns than I do now, but they meandered quite a bit. As I progressed as a writer I found myself getting more from less in my roleplaying. Addition by subtraction, as discussed above. Anyway, the campaign I ran before that was very long, it spanned multiple characters and multiple storylines but was in essence one big long campaign; the story of the rise and fall of humanity as a race in the setting I started designing when I was 14. Almost 20 years later it came to an end and it felt limp to me. I was unfulfilled. I realized why during the night of Jameson's and note taking and soul searching I described above...I didn't realize it at the time, but the end of the campaign should have been the destruction of the world.

Let me drill into that a little deeper in the interst of clarity. When I was a little kid I would build collosal structures of wooden blocks, intricate and beautiful...just so I could knock them down and laugh at the ruins. I didn't realize it at the time, but this opus of world design was essentially that; a structure of brilliance that existed only to be destroyed. So, the next campaign I ran, a year and a half in length, was the story of a different that is detroyed in the end of the story whether the PCs succeed in their grand quest or not. That quest wasn't to save the world (though they of course thought it was) but rather to save the people of that world as it burned. I cast the old setting in the role of a compressed singularitry of angst and unfulfilled potential as a moon of raw destruction and negative energy that was inexorably growing closer as the campaign progressed (think Atropus from Elder Evils if anyone has that book...d20 D&D or not I highly recommend it if you have the desire to destroy or almost destroy a setting). They rushed to stop it, saw they couldn't, and opted instead to save as many of the setting's inhabitants as they could.

They succeeded and felt like heroes. I succeeded in destroying a world utterly and the limp feeling of angst and unspent creative (or destructive depending on how you look at it) potential went away.

The "discovery conversation" mentioned in the main article goes a long way towards finding out what themes and tropes make the players get fired up, it's then absolutely critical that a good GM includes these oppurtunities in the campaign in grand, flashy, unforgetable style. You can do it all on the surface and still run a good campaign...but if you do it on the deeper resonating level you don't run a campaign, you create a lasting work of fiction. It can be awkward at times, but during that discovery conversation you have to be ruthless and unswerving in your quest to mine deeper and deeper into the *why* beneath the *what*.

Jeez, you get busy for a few days and everybody goes nuts.

This is all awesome stuff. It's funny, because almost all of my characters are first conceived in terms of the second script and then fleshed out as the first. I'm always looking at some thematic concern in every game, whether it's one I'm running or playing. For example, in Lorthyne's game we had a fantasy setting where everybody was religious and everybody agreed as to the nature of that religion. It was just an accepted part of that world, kind of like gravity. Lorthyne is a fairly religious guy and was playing with religious themes as part of the world. Myself and another player in our group are the resident loud-mouth atheists, and we decided, per the second script, to go against type and play very religious characters. He played a wizard who was part of a race that felt it had a religious mandate to control magical activity in the world, and the entirety of his story circled around personal conflicts with the hard-line nature of that race. Turns out the player himself was less interested in the religion than in struggling with origins, a coming of age story if you will. I played a lizard man who'd one day had an awakening of sorts and wandered off from his race, like a baby, almost. Long story short, he becomes a part of society and becomes very religious, finding in the religion some sort of salvation. This came out of my second script in that I knew we were playing in a world that didn't really have room for epistemological doubt, and so I created a character whose main thrust was self-creation. A literal baptism, if you will, coming out an entirely new creature. What was interesting was self-doubt, and growing self-awareness, and how that interacted with the larger religious concerns of the world. I tend to make themes, and then give them faces, even when GMing lol.

I think finding the deeper script is a very intuitive thing. The players are constantly trying to tell you as GM what it is, you just have to tune your ears to listening. In particular, any time a player breaks character and can't decide what to do next, looking around the table for thoughts, they are attempting to find that second script themselves. We all need it, to keep us interested. One thing that's very useful about my style as a GM is that it lends itself to this particular thing. Don't get me wrong, I have many a weakness, but I tend to think on this level storytelling-wise, which helps here. I always focus on character moments, and devote more time to those than anything else in my campaigns. These moments are ideal for bringing out the second script, because these moments are designed exclusively for that, even in other mediums of storytelling. In my last campaign, I once spent about an hour with a player detailing a developing romance. I let him carry that hour, as it was his character's moment. Through this character's conversation with this girl, the player was able to bring in what interested him, which he hadn't been able to play up as much yet - guilt. This being a mob game, the initial thought on his character was an ambitious hitman, trying to move up the ladder. Turns out, revealed through this and other scenes, this player wanted to actually talk about something else. He wanted to talk about humanity in extremity. Just how much violence could his character exist in before he lost his soul?

This is awesome stuff, guys. Classic gamegrene goodness.

First of all, Scott, this is one of the best written articles that I've seen. While it didn't go in the direction I thought it would, it was very well written and thought out.

Unfortunately, my current players are too new for a soul searching conversation like you guys are talking about. I have 1 experienced gamer and 3 noobs.

One thing that Scott touched on but didn't elaborate on very much is sticking with a genre instead of a setting. I like Thrillers and Action/Adventures. Those are genres. I put them into Fantasy setting and have fun. One of my favorite campaignes was based off the Matarese Cirlce by Robert Ludlum (the same guy that wrote the Bourne Trilogy). I took the basic plot: at the end of a great war an extremely rich man invited a bunch of once powerful but now bankrupt men into his home. There he laid out a plan for world domination and killed himself, leaving each of these men with detailed instructions and the money to see it through. These men formed a shadow organization that manipulated governments, companies and slowly started taking over the world. 30 years later is when the story starts with several high ranking people being assassinated in a way that points to imminent war between two powerful countries.

I ran that same plot in a fantasy world. Fantasy was just the setting, it was the story that compelled the group to play. As in the book, I had framed a couple of the players (and thus the group) for the assassinations and they were being hunted by another party (NPCs) that they hated who had also been framed, the governments of both countries, and assassins from the shadow organization.

What's worse is that I added this to a campaigne that was already in progress that we had been playing for a while. It was fun as hell and the players were scrambling for answers. They didn't now if all this new stuff was part of the campaigne they were working on, a new campaigne, old enemies coming back for vengeance or what.

Imagine taking some of the Indiana Jones storylines (from the books as well as the movies and tv show) and running those in a fantasy world. Who gets to be the Nazi's? Humans? Orcs? Elves?

That's the direction I thought we were going with here. Find a good story and then throw it into the settng of your choosing. The Bourne Identity works in a Fantasy, Sci Fi or Old West setting as easily as it does in the modern day.

"Unfortunately, my current players are too new for a soul searching conversation like you guys are talking about."

-Unless they're new at being human or new at experiencing fiction independent of RPGs then they're not too new to talk about what makes them tick. In fact, they are free of all the baggage and habits and expectations of long time gamers and that makes them ideally suited for this type of discovery conversation. You won't hae to deconstruct as much before you can get to the gooey center.

If you focus the conversation on gaming then you're doing it exactly wrong.

"Imagine taking some of the Indiana Jones storylines (from the books as well as the movies and tv show) and running those in a fantasy world. Who gets to be the Nazi's? Humans? Orcs? Elves?"

-That is exactly the point of this; though the point isn't to stick to a genre and ignore's to stick to your setting and not let that setting become confused with the genre. Abandon "genre" as it is typically defined.

I was actually right on the verge of running an "exploration and dicovery" style "fantasy" campaign. I lost a player due to a move, but I'll be starting it up as soon as I have a replacement for him. So...imagine it I have. Imagined it and laid the groundwork and set up various factions involved with the search for a lost something or other.

I think thought that if you cast some other group as the "Nazis" then you've done it poorly. If it is obviously "Indiana Jones in a fantasy setting" then you didn't take the concept far enough during your development. You may as well just call them Nazis because that's what everyone is going to see anyway. The idea here is to dissect fiction to its component parts and assemble the parts that resonate with your palyers...core components, not broad strokes like "Indiana Jones"; because "Indiana jones" is made up of the small core components I'm talking about, and those might not be the right mix for your group.

The whole point is to eliminate cliches by taking them all apart into little pieces and building something actually new (and perfectly tuned to you and your group) out of those little pieces.

"One thing that Scott touched on but didn't elaborate on very much is sticking with a genre instead of a setting"

-There are parts of that I just can't go into any further detail on because I'm not you or your group. I quite simply can't elaborate more. That's the point of the discovery conversation...YOU have to do the elaborating. What I'm talking about here isn't "here's some tools for gamemasters" so much as it's "here's how to make your own tools". Roleplaying has gone up its own ass to a great degree because it's become self-referential. This is the framework within which you can take things back to first concept and not rely on others for the details anymore.

When teams play a game in American football, the coaches script or plan out the first 15 plays of the game. They study how the other team's defense reacts to each of these plays and then adjust their offense to take advantage of any weaknesses or habits that they see the other team falling into. As with these coaches, when I start a new campaign I plan out the first few adventures and study the players and their characters. I learn their strengths, weaknesses, personality and habits. Then I craft a campaign tailored for them.

As with Scott, I tend to throw in a lot of random things (fake plothooks) and I also overlap adventures. The players never know when something is a plothook or just random. I may start you on one adventure that takes a while to build up as Scott used in his Church Battle example. Then I run an entirely different adventure, dropping in comments, news and small encounters referring to the first adventure. Basically I let the first adventure percolate in the background of the second and even third adventure before things build up enough to suck the players back into the first adventure.

The feel of the game is free form, as the players never know what is or isn't a plot hook and can pick and choose where they go and what they do. However, the adventures are tailored for them and their characters and so tend to pull them in without clumsy plohooks and awkward encounters.

Then we are in fact doing pretty much the same thing. The difference being I don't think of the "randomn things" as random...or as fake. They are very real and not random at all...they are the things *I* want to happen in the campaign. They happen regardless of what the players choose ot do with their characters. I try not to think of them as fake or random becaue that vocabulary diminishes them in my opinion. I also try not to think in terms of "adventures". There's the stuff that happens, the stuff that doesn't, and that's it.

It's all one long uninterupted motion; the wheel doesn't turn on pushes and shoves.

"It's all one long uninterupted motion; the wheel doesn't turn on pushes and shoves."

I like that. I like that a lot.

One of the things I've grown to love about Gamegrene is that there a few topics in which we all take up arms and wade into the fray, but that for the vast majority of topics, we all nod our heads sagely and say, "this is what I've been doing all along, but with this slight variation."

As far as determining the second script in your players, one of the biggest tools I've used in this regard is the text message. It sounds pretty silly, but sending a text message or two a day or two after the session (after the player had time to process everything that happened during the last session) asking three pivotal questions: 1) "What is your character thinking/feeling about what just happened?" 2) "What does you character want to do next session?" and 3) "What do you (as a player) want to see happening for your character?" The text message format is casual enough that it keeps your players thinking about the game between sessions without it feeling like homework (which it is), and it gives them time to construct a coherent response.

In the example Tzuriel mentioned previously, about the "wizard who was part of a race that felt it had a religious mandate to control magical activity in the world, and the entirety of his story circled around personal conflicts with the hard-line nature of that race," talking with him in this way gave me the entire conclusion of his character's arc. No kidding. I had been thinking a lot over the last few sessions about how I had really played up the "hard-nosed" nature of the race, but I wanted the players to see them as actual people who have a lot of justification for their agenda, and not simply extremist "bad guys." The player expressed to me via text message between the second-to-last and last sessions of the "season" that his character was concerned about his relationship with his father after blaspheming his cultural heritage (which had happened several sessions earlier, in which he rescued his friends (read: other PCs) from his own people). In previous sessions, this player had hinted that his mother was a softer, more forgiving parent, and so I had been playing with using her to give the character a sense of closure, but the first hint that I ever had that this character cared about his father's opinion was in this conversation. The character's father was entirely reinvented in my mind, and the result was a father who for political reasons had to exile and disown his son, but privately expressed approval and pride in him for the very decision he made.

Because fundamentally, those three questions are a way at digging at the player's second script, even without their realizing it. Ok, so the third question is a pretty obvious attempt, but most players who care a lick at all between the separation of character and player are plenty familiar with wanting stuff to happen for their character that their character hates, and are fine with expressing that.

"It sounds pretty silly, but sending a text message or two a day or two after the session..."

-I took this one step further and set up a Facebook Page for the entire setting as a whole (which is far more than just this one little fantasy corner, I'll be talking about that as well in a future Sustained Storyline piece,,,when I have time to write them that is). You can find it here if you want to "Like" it for whatever reason.!/rpgmetaverse

I haven't updated it in awhile, and it's currently set up for the jungle campaign I was going to run...but that'll be changing in the next couple of days to reflect what I'm running now.

I don't know about how seamless and random some things seem when reading about it here on Gamegrene. Most fantasy stories (as an example) are pretty heavy handed when it comes to starting a campaign. Robert Jordan had Trollocs and Fades attack an entire village, targeting three young boys, and forced the party to go on the run. That's what started the Wheel of Time campaign. Gandalf showed up on Frodo's doorstep and said, "Dude, you need to leave. Don't ask why, just do it!". Even Tad Williams killed off Dr Morgenes and set fire to his cottage to force Simon to go on the run. Look at Luke Skywalker, Willow Uffgood and even Conan. They all got kicked out and forced to start a campaign with methods that would be totally frowned on here. However, I have used some of these as starters and the players loved it.

Just something that I've noticed.

It can be great. Just that most of the time it sucks, because it's obviously what it is - a plot device. What makes it work in Star Wars, for instance, is that it's given actual emotional weight. There's a great part where Luke finds his uncle and aunt's corpses before he agrees to leave with Kenobi. That scene really sums up his feelings on his home and what's happening to it, the mixed emotions that are working through him the entire film. Most of the time, it is not given that weight, and comes off as clumsy and obvious.

Generally, though, I avoid this device, but that's just because the hometown is more interesting to me than the frontier.