Role Play 101 #14: Story Telling for Dungeon Builders

At times it may seem there are two kinds of role players, the dungeon-type gamers, and the story-gamers. Two styles of play that are worlds apart. Dungeoneers may feel lost in a story type game, story gamers feel underestimated in a dungeon. But the styles may have more in common than it may seem, and in fact you could write a story as if it were a "dungeon".

The Difference: Story vs Dungeon

Dungeon gamers generally love Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another, Story gamers often don't - and instead prefer more "open" games where character and story are more important. The first group likes to just get into the action, and let any stories unfold as they do, if at all. The second group likes to get into their roles, and want to feel their heroes lives unfold in a story resembling an exciting movie or book - something with a plot, or at least something with some real depth and if possible a beginning and an end.

Often there is no dungeon whatsoever in a story game, just like there may be no story in a dungeon game. So what do these game have in common? Well, they're both games - role playing games. They just have different frames of reference. One has rooms for building blocks, the other uses scenes.

The Similarity: Scenes are a kind of Room

When you frame your game either as a dungeon or as a story, you are very much deciding how your game world is delineated. Are you moving from room to room, or moving from scene to scene? Rooms or scenes are your borders, your frame of reference in which you can move around. Sure, you can break down walls and make new rooms in a dungeon, but basically each new room is a new game situation. In a way, each new room is a special sort of scene.

In the same way, scenes are building blocks of a story. Sure again, one scene may flow over into another, but each scene is a separate, limited game situation. And just like every room has walls, exits, and stuff or even creatures or people in it, so every scene takes place somewhere, with someone, at sometime, with some central action and theme. You can almost think of a scene as an "encounter" with someone, or something. A scene is a sort of challenge, in a way. It can be a fight, a chase, a briefing, sneaking past the guard, breaking into a house, and so on.

A scene is limited - almost like a room. And like a room has exits, a scene has different "story exits", or leads, to other possible scenes in the story.

Connecting Scene "Rooms" into a Story

A role playing story is formed during play, and not during preparation. The choices of the players are just as important in how a story develops as what the game master may have thought up beforehand.

Dungeoneers often complain that they feel railroaded in a story game, much the same way all gamers would feel railroaded if they were in a dungeon with just one route to take - and no going back. Nobody would like that - and yet that's what many earlier modules looked like - and may still look like.

So the trick in any story game is to provide enough choices. Somewhat like a dungeon with many routes. Every scene should have several "story exits" to choose from, each leading to another scene. Thus you could have a map, or a flow chart of scenes - much like an abstract sort of "dungeon". But you can also just have a list of potential scenes, on a sheet or index cards maybe, and think of possible links on the spot, while you're game mastering.

Thinking in such scene exits may sound a bit more difficult than just drawing a new corridor or door on your map, but it doesn't need to be.

Scene Exits

So, what would a scene "exit" look like? Some typical exits could be:

- follow the villain - tracking him down, or chasing him,
- follow a clue or lead to a new location or contact (typical for mysteries),
- run away from danger,
- travel to a new location on route to a quest goal,
- rest and prepare for the next day or scene,
- follow an invitation from a patron or friend,
- get captured by enemies or the guard,
- go and shop for necessary supplies or special gear,
- go do research about the adventure goal, or about the antagonist,
- go get help from friends or authorities,
- and so on...

Whenever you are in a scene, it makes sense to think ahead to which new scenes the players may want to move. If there are no obvious choices, you should provide some. If they didn't find the clues you wanted them to find? Make a new scene exit for them, and throw in some new clues pointing in a useful direction. Are your players going another way than you expected? Either go with the flow, or throw in a "random" encounter  that becomes a new scene with new choice exits. Are your players bogged down, and not sure which way to go? Throw in a new friend, enemy or patron to give them new options. Also don't be afraid to just skip time, and say: "ok, you spend about three days in town, and then the next thing happens…".

Story Entrance and Climax Chamber

No innuendo intended. Just like a dungeon has some sort of main entrance - or multiple entrances - so your story should have a starting scene, with enough options to continue. Opening with a raid by the villains minions is classic, and so is a dying man's delivery of an important message. But there are many other options - you could even start with the "ending" of a never played adventure, much like the openings of Indiana Jones movies.

The ending of the story or session should also be special. As a dungeon may have a special treasure room, or the master bedroom of the villain, a story also needs climaxes. One often used in video games is the "boss level", but you need not make it so corny. A major confrontation with the villain would make a good end scene, as would a major rescue, or a break neck escape from danger.

As you may see, dungeons and stories have more in common than it looks at first glance. Perhaps, if you are a hard core dungeon gamer, thinking of a story as just "a sort of dungeon", will make playing a story game sound more attractive. And the other way around too - both styles can show new worlds to each other.

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