Structure First, Story Last.

Structure First, Story Last.

I’ve been working a lot with how RPG sessions are run and planned.  What’s been bugging me is that it has always seemed difficult to find that right blend of preparation and improv as a GM.  I’ve run from both ends of the spectrum, and I’ve run in between.  In twenty or so years, I’ve hit what I feel is every major variation of running for and preparing a game.

And I still haven’t been happy.  I realized first that what has filled me with discontent is not the notion of preparation or improv or preparing to improv; it has been the notion of preparation itself.  Until recently I haven’t found a proceess that coincides with the way that I think an RPG should be run.  My process used to be something like:  Figure out a story, describe some situations, prepare the maths/crunchy bits go.  Sometimes there was more refinement to this, other times there was much less.

The first epiphany I had was:  Story is an artifact of play.  Re-phrasing: Story is the point of playing an RPG.  If story is the thing that you’re making,  you shouldn’t then fill your preparation with narrative.  Prepping story is like shovelling dirt in the hole that was dug to build a pool.  You’re going to need that space emptied for the players to do anything and to have fun.  Story is typically the first thing GMs build, trying to define the beginning middle and end of a narrative, when that in reality should be the thing that we do not define.  Story comes last, because creating the actions and reactions with the characters inside a fictional space is why we gather to play.

Instead we should build situations.  Adventure Burner does some great work describing what makes a great situation.  What I’ll add is that the best situations present an event, then also pose a question relating to that event.  A monster approaches the players, bellowing loudly. What does it want from the players?  In the answering of that question is where all of our play begins and then progresses.  You can add more or less detail to the situation, and you can ask more particular questions for followup.  Once you have the event and the questions (it should go without saying that these are implicit questions, not specifically posed to the players) you have created a space where play can happen.  Instead of filling the space of events with “if players do this, then that”, you let it be explicitly blank and powerful.

Underlying the creation of situations is what should be our first step: the creation of a structure.  What is the framework that the situations rest in?  What are the implicit genre assumptions we abide by?  What is the ultimate progression that events might lead us to?

More succinctly:  What sort of story do we want to see in play, and what is the best “box” for that story? For example, I’ve decided that I want to do a murder-mystery.  I know that structurally, the characters must be introduced to a crime (someone getting murdered), and then they the group will be involved in scenes where the interrogate and explore the people and environment. Finally, they will confront their suspect.

With this structure in mind, I know what elements that I need to create, and where the gaps will be left to fill up in play.  If I tried to think about this in terms of story first, it is certainly doable but in my experience it’s harder, because building story tends put you in a linear, narrative mode.  Building a a space for RPG play is best when you work from structure and fill out just the parts you need. Structure provides guidance but few answers. You shouldn’t be doing a lot of if this happens, then this will occur.  You are building key events and describing the flow of  play, then you consign yourself to what happens in play.

When you have a lot of story, it’s easy to go off-script.  When you have a lot of structure, you never go off-script, and you never truly waste elements.

Adventure Burner talks pretty deeply in this vein, and one of the many things I like about Marvel is that it already does a lot of what I’m talking about.  Because of Marvel’s structure-based adventure writing, you can play the Breakout intro adventure multiple times with the same people and never have the same story twice.  The event has a flow and it has elements, but little else.  You orient the players, spark the inciting situation, and boom! You’re all set for a few sessions.

I’ve also done a bit of chattering about situational play on the old site.

Earlier I mentioned experimenting with this kind of preparation.  A little bit at a time I’ve been building a 13th Age adventure called Hell’s Harvest that uses some of these principles.  If you want, you can follow along and see what you think.

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9 Responses

  1. Awesome. Remind me to add you to my Burning Wheel circle, not that I post much to any of my RPG-specific circles nowadays…

    I get the feeling you’d like Apocalypse World/Dungeon World/Monster of the Week/whatever other incarnation it takes. The concept of “fronts” is very in-line with what you’re musing about, the idea of an adventure as the setup of a grand, dynamic situation. More a “scenario” than an “adventure”.

    I suppose you could say that the adventure is what’s written by the players.

  2. I am a huge fan of Dungeon World and Apocalypse World. I excluded them only because I’d like to talk about them in a slightly different context but yeah, they are leaning in the direction I like.

    And I would definitely say that the adventure is what the players write. If we as GMs build a bunch of story, we’re going to have to scoop it out for players to live in or we’ll be railroading them right along.

  3. Pretty much 100% in agreement with this, but then I’m a massive fan of the Alexandrian’s posts on the subject. If you’ve not read it then it’s definitely worth your time:

    More than that though, the Three-Clue-Rule has saved my bacon several times over already, and the series on node-based design is really awesome too.

    Like you say, this attitude to designing playspaces doesn’t just work better, it’s also radically better suited to the medium, and more importantly, the goals of the medium. Impossible thing before breakfast, and all that.

    Nice post!

  4. Those are great posts. It’s been some time since I read them but I do like them. Three clues particularly. Glad you liked the post, and thanks for stopping by!

  5. Quinn – I put this question on the 4e forum as part of our conversation there. I wanted to put it here for discussion too:

    The way you put it (and I agree) is that the point of us getting together to play an RPG is to create a story together.

    That raises a question: If many DMs are writing the story (and I’ve done this myself, as have you), then what is it exactly the group is doing when they sit down to play? If the story is written, what is the purpose or goal of actual play?

    I know I’ve sat down with story prepped plus all the scenes and mechanics. I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what the goal of that play /is/ specifically, even though I’ve done it that way. (“Have fun” is a little too simplistic IMO for the purposes of this discussion.)

  6. You know I thought I had replied to this before, but looking at the comments now I see that I hadn’t? Sorry for the delay.

    Basically, I think that many people, though they argue otherwise and have a lot of grand theories that claim to counter it, are just adapting, shaping and tossing and steering players according to the content they’ve created. Sometimes the manipulations are subtle, sometimes they are not.

    I think the goal of play is always to construct a story. It’s the implicit aim of roleplaying games. I think people tend to eith over-emphasize or try to completely de-emphasize these goals in RPGs, but it is in the DNA of the form itself from the very beginning. Even when you acknowledge D&D’s origins to “providing context for a wargame” you have to recognize that what emerges out of that is a story. All games tell stories, but the stories are typically adjunct to whatever else they are doing. In chess, I’m trying to checkmate you. In sports, I’m trying to score more goals and win. Most other games have victory conditions. RPGs do not (I’m sure there are some notable exceptions) have victory conditions to them, so that leaves only the story that the game tells as the main artifact of play (artifact as in “What does the game leave behind when we’re done?”).

    So no matter how we’re getting there, even if we do it awkwardly and inefficiently, we always move towards story in RPGs. I think over-preparation of the story before hand is really more of a risk management/authority strategy. Having all the answers ahead of time, so there’s never a feeling that there’s something you haven’t prepped. I’ve been there (despite people’s insistence that I work merely from theory), but since I’ve been on the other end, I don’t find that the quality of the game is any less. But I do think there is this sense of “getting it right” that drives people towards filling the space that should be open and emergent.

    Sorry this took so long, but hey, it gave me more time to think and reply!

    Thanks iserith.

  7. Thanks for the reply, Quinn. Not surprisingly, that thread devolved and fast. One who would think that “Hey, prep better!” would be non-controversial. D&D folks – well, I guess I don’t need to go out of my way to be unkind when anyone can just read the thread and see the level of vitriol.

    Good points in your reply. The “goal” really /is/ the same, but it does seem a matter of risk management as you say. Like you, I’ve been there myself and have now found a “better” way that gives the same results and fits into a busy life. “If this, then that,” is time-consuming and rarely fruitful.

    As an aside, I had the opportunity to play Marvel this Sunday. In reading it, I see that the way they do prep and frame scenes and whatnot is /exactly/ the way I’m doing it in D&D (with some Dungeon World elements) I’m pretty surprised and pleased to see it in an actual published game.

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