Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.
In a darkly funny sort of way, she had all the skills necessary to make playing that RPG *harder* for her.
As a table, we talked through what was going on for her. Fortunately, we collectively had a lot of experience with the issues she was facing, and she found some of our contributions and suggestions helpful. The most fundamental of those was, “Don’t know where the story’s going.”
Amusingly, my friend was facing a problem that I’d experienced in reverse when I started writing linear fiction (i.e. fiction without in-the-moment input).
I grew up playing RPGs, with linear fiction as a secondary interest. When I started writing linear fiction, I had lots of useful skills from my time with RPGs. I was great at setting up difficult situations for my characters. I knew how to make exciting physical problems for them, how to create tense scenarios.
But I floundered when it came time to outline a story, or when I needed to build in and map out deeper personal emotional stakes and meaningful personal transformation for my characters. Outlining was difficult because I’d never planned out everything ahead of time. I’d actively avoided that, because in most RPGs that is madness (and results in railroading). And the emotional development and transformation planning was work that I had always done in collaboration with other people, never on my own.
I always set out the story’s starting points and improvised from my players’ input; I’d embraced the idea of not knowing where the story was going. Sure, I might have some ideas about what *could* happen, or what characters might do in response to new circumstances, but that’s not a rigorous outline. Similarly, I might have some cool scene ideas, little set pieces that I wanted to work in somehow, but I wouldn’t force them into the story and I generally let them lie fallow, shiny details I could pick up or put down at need depending on where the story went.
This made writing linear fiction a real pain in the ass.
But in RPGs, not knowing where the story was going meant that I was free to make things up as I went along. I could find out where the fun might be *with* my fellow players. I didn’t have to know what was going to happen, just have some idea of how people might react, or what might go wrong. By not knowing where the story was going, I was more open to collaborative input.
My friend was trying to map out her character’s story, complete with fulfilling emotional narrative arcs, before we’d played the game. She was wrestling with not knowing enough about her character to do that in a way that felt rewarding to her, and entirely flummoxed about how to do that when she didn’t know where the story we were playing would go. This is something she was good at. If we hadn’t been playing an RPG, she could have fixed everything and made a great story, but instead she was staring at an impossible problem with no way out.
But once we, as a table, started talking about not knowing where the story was going, she had a lightbulb moment.
She could still build all the story hooks she wanted, build points of engagement and possible awesome story moments for her character. She could, in fact, make more of those than she might normally, because they wouldn’t all necessarily be incorporated. She just had to embrace making lots of ready foundations for narrative arcs without knowing that any of them would be completed.
Talking about the distinctions between the story-making process of her favorite linear fiction (books, TV, and movies) and the story-making process of our RPG was another big moment.
She was used to seeing—and building towards—those perfectly clean stories where everything ties in and someone good at reading narrative patterns (like her) can tell you where a story is likely to go from watching the first few scenes. She hadn’t realized that playing an RPG was more like collaboratively improvising your way through a first draft. There’s input from several sources that don’t always agree with each other, it’s messy, the contents vary from session to session, and sometimes there are scenes or entire arcs that you prefer not to talk about and instead shuffle under the rug.
There’s nothing polished about this process, and sometimes you have incredible payoffs anyways. Those are the moments that are told and retold (alongside the hilariously dumb ones) and come to represent your memories of the game. But it takes not knowing where the story is going to feel free enough to explore the whole thing.
To be clear, knowing all the underlying narrative and emotional elements—and planning for characters’ arcs!—is useful and good, provided you don’t let that planning constrict you. Your goal is to plant as many good seeds as possible, and to find out which ones grow and bear fruit through the process of play.
When you make hungry characters who want things, you’re planting seeds, building in the beginnings of possible arcs. When you make boring characters with well known motivations and backgrounds, you’re giving everyone else at the table easy access to the motivations and emotional arcs that your character *might* have. This makes it easier for everyone else to see where things might go, to steer the story in directions that will be good for your character—directions where those seeds you planted might flourish.
You may, of course, change all of that during play, because that’s what *happens* as you write your first draft! By the time you’re part way through the story, you may have a character who looks fundamentally different than they did at the beginning. They use a new name, they wear different clothes, they have emotional depth that you didn’t know or believe was possible… and you get there by not knowing where the story is going, by leaving the story open to grow in whatever direction your messy collaborative draft of a game goes.