Design Essentials: Storyworks


Storycrafters employ various methods to fashion tales. The mechanisms are called "devices", or "techniques", and comprise the inner workings of tales, giving each its own character. Stories can be spun without knowing the names of all the assorted gears and sprockets, but some basic familiarity with the widgets can enhance storycrafting skills. Passing down the knowledge from crafter to crafter is the very best of all.

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Everything Starts with a List

A short list of plot devices and literary techniques is presented here as food for thought and discussion. Several robust compilations are linked herein for reference and further study but even these are by no means the last words in storycrafting. A full encyclopedic review isn't needed however. More valuable here are testimonials of the methods that the community storycrafters actually use or intend to use in the future.

Alphabetical Starter ListNote 1
The narrator or a character addressing the "audience", not meant to actually have been spoken or heard by other characters in-story. There are direct forms, as a Parabasis, and indirect forms, such as talking to ones self out loud to confer thoughts as in a soliloquy. Table-top RPGing offers fascinating possibilities where the designer, GM, players and characters all have potential voices.
Background story
A background story is generally not defined as a device itself but can be broken down into various methods of delivery. A common, yet unnamed, approach is to present part of the background as the initial setting and then parcel out further detail as the characters make their way through the story, with twists and surprises at climatic points.
Original contributions or modifications by player action is a common variation in table-top use.
(Anton) Chekhov's Gun
This is referred to as a "literary technique" at Wikipedia but also appears on the plot device list. For the purpose of this article both types will be considered coming under the Storycrafting Devices umbrella.
Checkhov's Gun refers to the writer's belief that no object should be included in a story if it were not to be used or play a role in some way, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it" but evolved into something insignificant early on becoming more important later in the story.
Cliff hanger
Perhaps the best known plot device that could really drive players batty between sessions.
Often ridiculed as an incomprehensible act, such as a villain killing James Bond with an intricate and slow-moving device giving the hero a chance to escape, but actually highly useful device for table-top RPG settings.
Deus ex machina:
"God in the Machine" meaning anything from an object to an occurrence or character that unexpectedly saves the day in a hopeless situation.
One clever naming that fits scenarios with magical items is Omni-device.
A revelation that dramatically changes a story.
Dream sequence
A method to add information which a character wouldn't otherwise possess.
Flashback, -forward
Narration or foreshadowing of future events, new information from past events.
Flashing Arrow
Indicating the importance of an item without directly stating "This is important".

Note 1Credits: Roughly built upon the list found at Changingminds.Org. Information gleaned at Wikipedia, University of North Carolina's "All American: Glossary of Literary Terms", Brainyquote, etc.

An Aside: Have you ever spoken to the characters directly, instead of the players, as GM?

While I've spoken in character n behalf of an NPC and made comments about a particular player character to the players I've never conversed GM to character. It is an intriguing idea and I'm tempted to think up a way to work it into a session.

"Hang in there Jack, the dice will roll your way eventually..."

The voice in an episode journal I tried once addressed the audience with tales about the party in the past tense. Technically only the players read the journal so it could be an aside variation.

In what ways do you use the background story as a story device?

Doling out the story is a major consideration for me. The setting is an essential start and the game wouldn't be any fun without discoveries on the way. I allow for player input on many levels, making the tale interactive.

What is your take on Chekhov's Gun?

I've learned the hard way to be more careful about the idea behind the original quote. Adding many items or characteristics that are pure flavor and don't come into play at all can be highly distracting. D&D creation is a challenge because there is a huge potential for details that have meaning on some level but little impact on the game story.

In one case I went to great efforts to include specific material components in the description of a large population of magic-using NPCs. For example, the spell Mage Armor called for a patch of leather and another spell called for a key-shaped bobble. All the sorcerers of a certain level had one of each. Unfortunately I completely forgot to consider the intensity of focus on items like keys for veteran dungeon crawlers. The key-bobbles weren't meant to be used as anything except detailing so it really set up the players for disappointment if they wasted time and effort collecting these "keys" and looking for a place they would be used.

In hindsight I realize I could have described them in a way that indicated what they really were -- the Flashing Arrow -- but I completely missed the opportunity during the play session.

Red Herrings are another case altogether.

Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?

I've tried to a degree to spice up interest in the next session but I prefer some degree of resolution per session myself.

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?

Not entirely, but I made some pretty horrendous creations when I possessed more D&D enthusiasm than GM talent and experience combined. I wouldn't use the approach now unless forced by circumstance and would try to mitigate the effects. I agree with Aristotle's position that a good story (tragedy) must remain plausible. Hopeless scenarios should be a.) avoided or B.) truly hopeless.

Have you invoked a deathtrap?

Yes, and I would highly recommend using this device on occasion. It makes for a great escalation of tension. I recommend not allowing an Omni-device to save the day. Be prepared to lose some player characters.

Warning: Never give the bad guy a Vorpal weapon if you're not prepared for some amputations.

Do you utilize dream sequences?

Not nearly as much as I would have liked. It is on my list of "Would like to do".

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?

Not to date. I don't have any idea-seeds on how it would work into a campaign yet.

===[ Cut-&-Paste code for your posting convenience ]===

Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?

Have you ever invoked a deathtrap?

Do you utilze dream sequences?

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?


Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?

=I do...almost every session. There's generally some resolution to be had each session, but I tend to run quite long and involved campaigns (plotwise), so there's always another shoe to drop just as everyone is about to pack up their dice. I found in the past that the hightened tension derived from this made sure I had good turnout for the next session. That isn't an issue now, but my players have come to expect it.

Interstingly enough, even if I didn't hang the ending they would likely think that I had. A cut and dried ending to a session would be seen by my players as a sure sign they had missed something. LOL.

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?

=I used to do it all the time, back in the garage days. I wasn't much of a GM back then, but I was the only one that was willing to do it, so I made alot of mistakes. I've always seen this device as a cop out.

Recently however I had a very very long campaign end with this, and it worked amazingly. The only reason it looked and felt good to all involved was that the point of the campaign was never to defeat the great evil, but rather to bring the gods back to the world so that they could do it. Given that, it wasn't *really* deus ex machina as no one helped the players "lift the veil" so that the gods could return...they did that on their own.

Have you ever invoked a deathtrap?

=Just once, and my players made me vow never to do it again. I was still palying around seeing what kind of things they liked in adventures, and it turns out that they prefer their traps to be pits with spikes in them...and maybe some poison on the spikes. The throne room of this particular dead king wasn't to their liking. I had a blast, but I lost the fun-vote.

Do you utilze dream sequences?

=I've used a few of them in various campaigns. My players seemed to like them, but I never got anything out of it as a GM. The only exception to this was a shared dream a group had once where they travelled to another place in said dream, ala Lovecraft's dreamlands or whatever he called them.

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?

=As narrative scenes, I've used flashbacks a number of times. I've never used flashforwards, but it might be something I try in the future.

I ran a Fireborn adventure once. I didn't much care for the rules system so the books are still creaky when you open them yet covered in dust. That particular game/setting uses flashbacks heavily; in fact, it's the only way you get to play your other character...every player has two. The flashbacks can be triggered by either the GM, *or the player*, which is kinda interesting in and of itself.

Please keep in mind that I've only GMed a single campaign (and wrote about it on Gamegrene), which didn't last very long.

Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?
= While I've had cliffhangers a couple of times, they weren't preplanned. I chose to end session a bit early when the cliffhanger presented itself.

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?
= Not yet, and I hope to avoid it.

Have you ever invoked a deathtrap?
= Nope

Do you utilize dream sequences?
= once, and it was a nightmare (for the character)

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?
= Nah

Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?
=I have used a few, but they are difficult to set up and I would just as much finish on a note of resolution. The difficulty is that a session almost never runs on time. We start late, get sidetracked, and s**** happens.

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?
= I am ashamed to say I did this once. I could feel my players radiating hate rays my way. It went something along the lines of "The mysterious stranger deftly deflects the arrow." to which the player responds, "How did he block an arrow with a dagger?"... "Well, you see dear player the mysterious stranger is just that cool."

I had another GM who used it regulary and it annoyed the hell out the players (me included). Suffice to say I learned my lesson.

Players like to be in control. They want to know that their actions are having some effect. The deus ex machina robs them of control. Its like mice in a shock cage. When the mice have some mechanism of turning off the shock (like pressing a lever) then they live longer healthier lives. If they have no means of turning off the shock they become unhealthy and despondent.

Have you ever invoked a deathtrap?
= Yes I love the deathtrap. The players feel like they accomplished something when they get out of them. Of course there always has to be a way out.

Do you utilze dream sequences?
= The entire party was sharing a dream induced by a monster. The monster stalked them in the dream. If it killed the character in his dream then they would never wake up.

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?
= My players don't do introspection.

Do you, as GM, use cliff hangars?
= Not intentionally. But when our time draws to an end for a session, I start looking for a way to end it. Sometimes I stop the session right as the characters start combat. That way, they'll look forward to starting the next session with a good fight. It also gives them extra time to plan out what they're gonna do. Does that count?

Have you invoked "Deus ex machina"?
= No. I have cheated with dice rolls to save the day, but that's about it.

Have you ever invoked a deathtrap?
= Not a James Bondish one. But I tend to put my players in extremely difficult situations where they could easily die. But I always leave a way out. They usually make it, but not without sweating.

Do you utilize dream sequences?
= I've actually used the World of Dreams from the Wheel of Time series. It was cool. I am currently using it as part of a character's precognition ability in my modern day campaign.

What about Flashbacks, Flashforwards?
= Never flashbacks, but I have dealt with precognition (which is hard as hell to pull off, I might add). I find it best to keep my "flashforwards" as ambiguous as possible. Much like religious prophesy.


Wow, these are cool answers. I guess I'll put a few of my own. Keep in mind, though, that, despite what my players think, I'm a relatively inexperienced GM and just haven't had the opportunity to use most of these or even finish a campaign (grumble).

Cliff hangers-I've used them every now and then. I've thought about ending every session that way, but I'm not sure I really want to. My campaigns tend to be long, arcing storylines (prolly why I have yet to finish), so, technically, every ending is something of a cliffhanger - they did finish the battle, but they have yet to find out what the mysterious ring the halfling found in the caves is...

Deus ex Machina-I've never invoked Deus ex Machina, but I have something to say about this. D.E.M. can actually be a really cool plot device if done correctly. What I'm saying here is don't bring don't Astarth the All-Powerful to get the job done, but make the PCs themselves the D.E.M. I watched a movie a little while ago called Donnie Darko, which is, in large part, about the Deus ex Machina device (and is also an excellent movie, by the way). It was probably the only good example I've seen of the device being used, but it was brilliant. I don't know when I might do something like this - I have no plans currently, but it's still a really cool idea. Just make sure your players are willing to facilitate something like that.

Deathtrap-Depends on your definition of deathtrap. I like really, really hard encounters that challenge the players in a number of ways. Recently, I had the players attacked by a flying tentacle monster while they were on a platform suspended in mid air hundreds of feet up, which platform was controlled by a rope that went through it's middle. Oh, and the tentacle monster could paralyze it's foes. Very fun encounter, and I saw some PC brilliance and bravery that makes me excited for following encounters and more bold in making them better (the encounter itself wasn't my idea btw, I was using a pre-made which has been modified to my tastes).

Dreams-I have and plan on doing it a lot more often. Some of these will simply be me telling the PCs what happens in their dreams, and others will be when they make decisions. I'll try to keep the latter to a minimum, however, as it naturally focuses on one character. I don't care much for the idea of the whole party having a "dream adventure" - it's just an excuse to stick them in a really weird environment with no thought as to why it's that way. Also, it ruins the personal feel of dreams - part of what makes dreams so powerful is that their for us only.

Flashbacks/forwards-Have not, but definentely plan on using it soon. Any of you watch Lost? Most brilliant use of flashbacks, and, recently, flashforwards I've ever seen. If I were to use flashforwards, though, I would either make it all prophetic, like Calamar, or about other people, giving the players the ability to play somebody else for just a few minutes until the purpose is served. Trying to make the PCs play in their future is just too weird, though, if I was able to do it right, it would be beautiful, but I think it would take someone much more talented then I to pull that off.