Play-testing for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs still runs strong with the force right now. One of the recurring problems had been randomizing the flow of the narrative, that is allowing the story to unfold in every way the dice and the players decide. But using a simple roll has it's limitations, especially when you are looking for more inspiration than answering yes/no questions. I've tried something new yesterday and it worked so well, I thought I'd share.
Randomness and the Picaresque
I roll everything at the table but the bare necessities that need preparation. I take my freedom in free association and often enough just go with the flow where I can. The beauty of it is that I might have an idea what's happening in the setting, but have no idea about the story that will get told. But it doesn't go far enough just yet. I'd like to have a random key that allows the story to twist and turn in a natural and random way that goes beyond my capabilities as a story teller.
So every now and then I go and check terms as "narrative structure" or "plot development" on google for inspiration. Problem is, most stories are pretty linear, structure-wise. Not all the time, but often enough even the more adventurous structures just deviate from the known without ever loosing sight of it. One of the few exceptions is the picaresque story, because your basic picaresque is like a rpg game report. In a good way.
|Scene from a picaresque novel [source]|
But it's exactly that elusive arbitrariness that makes it almost impossible to structure it in a meaningful way. I realize that rpg campaigns mostly end up being picaresque because of what the players do, I just want the same "feel" for the gaming world surrounding the players. Because that's what happens in a world: you encounter stories after stories at different stages, sometimes you are the story, sometimes you just start it, sometimes you just witness part of it. Your own story is always the point of reference, your personal center of the universe, your medium of understanding.
And that's exactly the reason why we can enter a story at every point and have an understanding of it immediately: our point reference is, at it's very core, the same. As gamers we already know that randomness can help expressing this better than anything else.
Anyway, I was (randomly, really) looking for for pictures illustrating narrative structures (and structure flow in general) when I stumbled across Vladimir Propp, a Soviet folklorist and scholar from the 20th century who analyzed basic plot components. He came up with 31 ... that's a d30 in my book. Behold! Source is the Wikipedia entry linked with the name:
- ABSENTATION: A member of the hero's community or family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero themselves, or it may be some other relation that the hero must later rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. This may serve as the Hero's introduction, typically portraying them as an ordinary person.
- INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is passed upon the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action.
- VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The prior rule is violated. Whether performed by the Hero by accident or temper, a third party or a foe, this generally leads to negative consequences. The villain enters the story via this event, although not necessarily confronting the hero. They may be a lurking and manipulative presence, or might act against the Hero's family in his absence.
- RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill their plot. Disguises are often invoked as the villain actively probes for information, perhaps for a valuable item or to abduct someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges a crucial insight. The villain may also seek out the hero in their reconnaissance, perhaps to gage their strengths in response to learning of their special nature.
- DELIVERY: The villain succeeds at recon and gains a lead on their intended victim. A map is often involved in some level of the event.
- TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.
- COMPLICITY: The victim is fooled or forced to concede and unwittingly or unwillingly helps the villain. The villain is now free to access somewhere previously off-limits, like the privacy of the hero's home or a treasure vault, acting without restraint in their ploy.
- VILLAINY or LACKING: The villain harms or injures a family member, including but not limited to abduction, theft, spoiling crops, plundering, banishment or expulsion of one or more protagonists, committing murder, threatening a forced marriage, providing nightly torments and so on. Simultaneously or alternatively, a protagonist finds they desire or require something lacking from the home environment (a potion or artifact etc.). The villain may still be indirectly involved in the latter option, perhaps fooling the family member into believing they need such an item.
- MEDIATION: One or more of the negative factors covered above comes to the attention of the Hero, who uncovers the deceit/perceives the lacking/learns of the villainous acts that have transpired.
- BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: The hero considers ways to resolve the issues, by seeking a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise thwarting the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero, one that shapes their further actions and marks the point when they begin to fit their noble mantle.
- DEPARTURE: The hero leaves the home environment, this time with a sense of purpose. Here begins their adventure.
- FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero encounters a magical agent or helper (donor) on their path, and is tested in some manner through interrogation, combat, puzzles or more.
- HERO'S REACTION: The hero responds to the actions of their future donor; perhaps withstanding the rigours of a test and/or failing in some manner, freeing a captive, reconciles disputing parties or otherwise performing good services. This may also be the first time the hero comes to understand the villain's skills and powers, and uses them for good.
- RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero acquires use of a magical agent as a consequence of their good actions. This may be a directly acquired item, something located after navigating a tough environment, a good purchased or bartered with a hard-earned resourced or fashioned from parts and ingredients prepared by the hero, spontaneously summoned from another world, a magical food that is consumed, or even the earned loyalty and aid of another.
- GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, perhaps related to one of the above functions such as the home of the donor or the location of the magical agent or its parts, or to the villain.
- STRUGGLE: The hero and villain meet and engage in conflict directly, either in battle or some nature of contest.
- BRANDING: The hero is marked in some manner, perhaps receiving a distinctive scar or granted a cosmetic item like a ring or scarf.
- VICTORY: The villain is defeated by the hero - killed in combat, outperformed in a contest, struck when vulnerable, banished and so on.
- LIQUIDATION: The earlier misfortunes or issues of the story are resolved; object of search are distributed, spells broken, captives freed.
- RETURN: The hero travels back to their home.
- PURSUIT: The hero is pursued by some threatening adversary, who perhaps seek to capture or eat them.
- RESCUE: The hero is saved from a chase. Something may act as an obstacle to delay the pursuer, or the hero may find or be shown a way to hide, up to and included transformation unrecognizably. The hero's life may be saved by another.
- UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero arrives, whether in a location along their journey or in their return home, and is unrecognized or unacknowledged.
- UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims or performs some other form of deceit. This may be the villain, one of the villain's underlings or an unrelated party. It may even be some form of future donor for the hero, once they've faced their actions.
- DIFFICULT TASK: A trial is proposed to the hero - riddles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics and other ordeals.
- SOLUTION: The hero accomplishes a difficult task.
- RECOGNITION: The hero is given due recognition - usually by means of their prior branding.
- EXPOSURE: The false hero and/or villain is exposed to all and sundry.
- TRANSFIGURATION: The hero gains a new appearance. This may reflect aging and/or the benefits of labour and health, or it may constitute a magical remembering after a limb or digit was lost (as a part of the branding or from failing a trial). Regardless it will serves to improve their looks.
- PUNISHMENT: The villain suffers the consequences of their actions, perhaps at the hands of the hero, the avenged victims, or as a direct results of their own ploy.
WEDDING: The hero marries and is rewarded or promoted by the family or community, typically ascending to a throne.
That last point is something that a system normally already does to some degree or another with leveling up and stuff, so we don't need it. There, 30 entries left. This is what I did: we have quests going, of course, and the characters do their thing, of course, but I roll once at this table, check the result and work it until it's somehow resolved in the story. After it's resolved, roll again ... and so on. If it fits with what's already going on, fine, it's a twist in the ongoing quests somehow.
If it really doesn't fit anywhere, it's something random the characters encounter. They enter a different story at that random point. Go with what you get, even if it seems counter-intuitive and the story is better for it every time. It's also a joy for a DM to see a story unfold in a way he or the players couldn't have anticipated.
Also check out the updated version here.