Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

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Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

Characters’ Emotional Arcs, Quick Thoughts

I had a frustrating but informative (and helpful) experience this afternoon while attempting to fix my plotting problems for the sequel to Barium Deep. After I had resolved multiple problems with my plot arcs, charting them out for my own clarity and future reference, I couldn’t plot one of the emotional character arcs that I wanted for Cesium (the POV character for the second book).

I wasn’t doing anything very complicated, just tracking some of the beats for the specific section of storyline that I wanted to follow. That made my struggles all the more obvious.

Minutes before, I’d plotted out a parallel series of arcs for a totally different story; they’d flowed easily, and made good sense. They were simple, straightforward, and very formulaic—which felt fine for the first pass on an idea that came to me last night. I’m sure that they’ll change and become more interesting once I’ve worked more with that story. If they don’t, I might discard the story or put it on ice.

But those arcs, with their clear points of conflict, transformation, and growth, had come so easily that my difficulty with Cesium was glaring.

A brief aside: the idea that came to me last night dealt with using magic (or something similar) as a manifold metaphor for anger, and perhaps war and military service, with weaker connections to violence and abuse.

The physical plot for Cesium felt simple and straightforward. It fit neatly within the expected bounds of adventure fiction and other upper middle grade stories. Even though I know I’ll change it in a heartbeat if I find something else more emotionally and thematically compelling, it feels good to have laid it out. The problem with Cesium’s emotional arc was that I was (and still am) unsure of what approach I want to take, or how to zero in on Cesi’s changes in ways that will feel rewarding without feeling too neat or pat.

I think it comes down to disliking the pattern of total character transformation that I’ve seen in some middle grade stories. I find incomplete transformation more rewarding, because of how it allows individuals to face their struggles as slightly modified versions of themselves rather than as different people. This fractional shift of self is less important when a story covers a long period of time, as more shift can occur without seeming too abrupt. But when I want a reader to follow a character’s emotional shift from A to B, I feel it helps to highlight the ways the character is still uncomfortable / unfamiliar with their new experience at B. At some point they’ll feel comfortable in the new experience, and that will be cool, but if the story is about them facing that experience I want facing it to be dramatic, tense, uncertain.

The upside of all this is that I think I’m closer to a working draft of Cesium’s story. But I clearly still have more work to do.

Writing LARPs for Multiple Audiences, Quick Thoughts

I’ve already submitted the LARP I wrote about last week. Now I’m deep in finishing a second one in time for the deadline tomorrow.

While a more detailed report will have to wait, I can give you additional tidbits. And it just so happens that those tidbits play neatly into another topic: writing for multiple audiences.

The game I mentioned last week is about death and mourning, but I can’t be sure that every person who plays it will engage with it as such. Actually, I can be pretty certain that they won’t. Audiences aren’t monolithic, after all, and some of my players might not yet have experienced death as a personal thing. Even if they had, they might not recognize what I created as anything like their experience.

So I wrote a game that plays with all those themes I mentioned last week, and which has places for good fun outside of but adjacent to those themes—almost like two games running in parallel. My hope is that players who don’t feel the emotional resonance of connecting with and mourning the dead (or being mourned) will find reward in fighting and building relationships with the big scary monsters of the Land of Spirits.

In many ways, the game I wrote is reliant on the skills of my staff and players who start the game as monsters. They need to give the People, the folk traveling into the Land of Spirits, enough space to have their emotional scenes. But they also need to present a challenge to the players who are bored and spoiling for a fight. And I’ve made it clear that I want them to encourage the fighters to engage with them in status-and-respect interactions. The underlying idea is that the Player Characters aren’t the only ones who can be mourned; the mechanics I introduce around mourning and offering respect to the dead work for *everyone* in the game, including people who aren’t PCs. I want the monsters to reward the PCs who mourn them, even after fighting them, because I want the people who are distracted from dealing with mourning and connecting with the dead to be drawn back into the main themes of the game and be rewarded for interacting with them.

The warriors will mostly be self-selecting, so if there are people who want to fight they’ll have the chance. And if the PCs who fight monsters never mourn any of their foes, they’ll still have an opportunity for more fighting. Actually, the more they fight and don’t mourn, the more fighting they’ll get in the future. So while one group of players is connecting with and mourning the dead, getting their enjoyment from the more emotional content of the game, another group can have a totally different experience at the same time in the same place. I hope.

At present, my rules say that dead spirits who are bored can go to RE (our system’s personification of reincarnation). My plan is for bored spirits to come back as more monsters. I see an obvious failure mode here, if RE sends people who lack the requisite skills out as monsters. Game could rapidly devolve into butchery and loss if too-eager monsters murder all the PCs. But as long as RE knows the players well, I think we can avoid that.

With luck, maybe this will work!

Death, Mourning, and a LARP

It feels funny to say this, but… death has been a big part of my life.

Not in any ground-shaking, crushing way, but as something slow and omnipresent and always visible. I suspect my mom’s work with the elderly and in hospice influenced that. I learned that people react oddly to their own incipient death, and that they have many ways of coping with the loss of those they love.

I lost several pets before any family I knew died. Those experiences weren’t at all the same, but in some way the one helped me with the other. Now, most of my grandparents’ generation is dead. I’ve lost friends younger than me, a cousin, others. I was so choked up with an unwillingness to process grief that I took years to say goodbye after my first grandpa died. Saying goodbye to my friends hasn’t really been easier, except insofar as I know that mourning them is a cycle I will revisit many times.

This is something that I’ve thought about more in the past few years. Coco really drove it home for me. I knew after watching that movie that I wanted to create something that would help others learn how they could mourn, learn how they could remember even as they let go.

I’ll tell you more about this when I’m not racing a deadline, but I’m working on a LARP that I think might do some of this. I want to give my players a chance to experience grieving for others, and being grieved for, in its entirety. I want that to be a healthy experience, one that allows for connection and catharsis. And I want my players to have fun. I hope it works.

More details soon.

Exploring Political Stories

I spend a lot of time thinking about stories and what they offer us, their audiences and their authors.

It isn’t radical to describe a continuous circular relation between us and the stories we tell about ourselves. Nor is it radical to say that many stories we tell can be read as being about ourselves, whether they were intended to be or not.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve studied the creation and propagation of ideology through political speech. I’ve studied the creation of stories.

I don’t know why it took me so long to write something here about the political stories we tell ourselves.

Now, when I say political stories, I’m specifically talking about stories that are incorporated into political speech. I refuse to draw a line and say that these political stories are the only stories which are political—any story, like any art, is political. But I’m most interested in talking about the stories that we use, consciously or not, to ground our political arguments. I recognize that this is a somewhat mushy definition.

How much substance, and what sort, do I need before I’m willing to call something a story? Do I need to have an entire literal Horatio Alger novel about gaining wealth through the assiduous practice of Protestant capitalist virtue before I’m willing to call it a story? No. I’m willing to call most things that we tell ourselves about the world “stories” for the sake of this exploration. The important part, as far as I’m concerned, is that what we tell ourselves inform the way we see ourselves (or other people) and inform our actions going forward.

To clarify, “Some people have blue eyes,” doesn’t qualify. But, “People with blue eyes are good,” does. So does, “All men are created equal.”

Furthermore, you needn’t explicitly say “people with blue eyes are good” anywhere in your story if people are able to infer that from the text. And it’s possible to infer from a text stories that the author didn’t intend to include. Stories—and people—are tricky like that.

I suspect that’s part of why political ideologies aren’t static.

I’ve come to this late enough today that I’ll stick to this introduction for now. I already have some ideas of political stories I’d like to explore in more depth in the future, but I think any particular story I explore will deserve more time than I could give it today (and I want to post today). If you have a particular story you’d like me to write and think more about, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments below.

The Knife-Tree

As with The Tower of Peng the Unprepared, this is intended to be a setting-seed for some future story or game.

The knife-tree stands tall at the top of a high cliff, a hard rock face that rises out of the woods below. The knife-tree is so called because it rises to a sharp point, limbs blown back into a shape much like a belt knife when viewed from the bottom of the cliff. It is well known as a landmark in the surrounding area, and was once a favorite lookout spot. It is now assiduously avoided. The locals swear that something odd and dangerous has nestled in its roots for the past two generations at least.

The cliff beneath the knife-tree is riddled through with caves. A few of the caves are inhabited by large and hungry beasts which roam the forest. Several of the caves were clearly once occupied by intelligent stone-workers, but none of the locals know any details beyond ancient stories of folk who lived there underground. Those stories all agree that the folk ruled the surrounding land, but beyond that they’re muddled: some claim they ruled kindly, others speak of their arbitrary nature, or their greed, or the wondrous way they had with the forest around their caverns. Each family passes on their own tales.

Regardless, the locals all agree that there used to be treasures of great value in the caves beneath the knife-tree, left by the stone-workers. They also agree that those who sought the treasure were cursed to wander ever deeper into darkness, never to be seen again. That last part may be a later addition to keep young idiots from tempting the beasts that lair in the caves, or the unknown thing which has roosted at the top of the cliff.

Potential hooks include: legends of the stone-workers, hunting ancient treasure, a hunt for the beast that lairs beneath the knife-tree, desperate locals pleading for help dealing with the beasts beneath the knife-tree, seeking a path into the dark through the stone-workers’ caverns.

Hiding your Rolls, Quick Thoughts

This will be another quick one, I’m still with family. These thoughts are brought to you by an excellent post on hexcrawls I read a while ago… one I’ve unfortunately forgotten and thus cannot cite here.

In RPG systems where the storyteller must roll dice, there’s a long tradition of storytellers hiding the results of their rolls. There are plenty of reasons for this (fostering tension, keeping secrets, the fact that sometimes characters don’t know whether they’ve succeeded, etc.), and some of them are useful. But it’s worth noting that not every roll needs to be hidden. This especially applies to combat in D&D.

I’d argue that—whenever possible—not hiding your rolls is the better course. There’s more to this: when you don’t hide rolls, it’s okay to not hide foes’ stats. You needn’t reveal them immediately, but as PCs spend a while fighting an NPC they will slowly get a feel for the NPC’s capabilities, and that is perfectly natural. This also speeds up play, as you needn’t try to reference material while keeping it secret from players.

With this approach, there are still times when hiding your rolls is better for the feel of the story. For example, hiding your rolls works well when the PCs are surprised or don’t know what they face. This experience of information asymmetry matches the experience of the PCs. In fact, when players are used to getting information about their foes, the sudden lack of information might completely change their assessment of a situation (likely for the worse).

Note that when you’re not hiding your rolls, you aren’t able to fudge them for or against the PCs. Some players love this, some hate it… and it’s definitely more dangerous to the PCs, as dice are random and capricious. Simply put, when not hiding rolls it’s harder for you to protect your PCs from your own mistakes in creating challenges without foreshadowing them sufficiently.

When you’re not hiding rolls, I would suggest playing more openly in all ways; talk with players about what the PCs are able to see, what they might guess based on their previous experience, and what capabilities they know their opponents have (thus far). Be generous with that information! Nobody likes to be “gotcha’d,” and there’s no need for you to trick players in that way. Save that cleverness for creating exciting and tricky encounters, puzzles, or what-have-you.

Of course, all these suggestions cultivate a particular flavor of game. You needn’t use them if you don’t like them. But I’ve had good experience with them, and I think my players felt more rewarded by their victories when they knew that I hadn’t coddled them by fudging die rolls in their favor. I hope you find them useful.

Forbidden Spells & Summonings, Quick Thoughts

My family is waiting for me to run a game, so this will be short.

My brainworm of the day was wondering why wizards in D&D 5e have so few summoning spells. That’s morphed into thinking about what kinds of summon spells wizards would have.

Traditionally, at least in my brain, wizards have a long history of calling on powers they cannot control and meddling with things they do not understand. It’s part of why wizards have a bad rap in some places. It’s also part of why the ones that survive end up so powerful. Drinking from the firehose and all that.

In the 5e Player’s Handbook (and the other official 5e spell collections I’ve seen), wizards are able to safely summon elementals and a few spirits (Unseen Servant, etc). And if you think of the official 5e spell collections as the “mostly safe and authorized” spells, these limits make sense.

But there’s a model for unsafe summoning spells, via Contact Other Plane. So what if PC wizards researched their own forbidden spells, to let them summon dangerous entities without any guarantee of control? These summoning spells might take the shape of an encounter table, with one entry being the entity the PC was aiming for while the other entries are unknown to the PC.

If clerics can summon celestials, and druids can summon the fey, perhaps wizards dabble in the unsafe arts of everything else. If they manage to make bargains with the things they summon up, they might become warlocks. If they fail to contain the dangerous things they call on, they might become dead—along with most other people around them.

There’s probably some correlation between the level of the spell and the power of the creatures it could reliably control. A PC wizard might begin their spell research by learning about what to expect, with early missteps possibly leading to greater danger down the road.

Clearly, the more ambitious the wizard, the more dangerous the spell.

I’ll explore this more later. Right now, some eager adventurers are calling for me.

The Tower of Peng the Unprepared

This is a quick glance at a location that came to me this morning, something I might put to use in a story or game in the future. It’s deliberately scant, intended to spark more ideas and let me fill in the details later, without committing it too firmly to any one setting or story. I’ve written it such that I can replace any backstory I establish here without altering the physical location. Maybe you’ll also find it useful or inspiring.

Continue reading