The RPG scenario is an interesting form of writing.
It’s a technical document, of course, and a set of instructions to a gamemaster about how to create a particular experience as well.
As I write Eternal Lies, though, I’ve also been thinking more and more about a theoretical scenario reader who has little or no intention of actually running the Eternal Lies campaign, but is interested in delving into its setting as fiction. Given the way a scenario has to be presented, such a reader would have a vastly different experience than he or she would in reading the same material in the form of a narrative—as a novel, say, or a film. There are few—or no—dramatic reveals in a scenario, after all. You can’t keep secrets from the gamemaster or you’ll break the whole thing. But on the other hand, the truly omniscient perspective the writer of a scenario adopts can give the reader all kinds of deep insight into a world that a novelist or screenwriter can essentially never provide. The RPG scenario is almost like a story presented in a form of an encyclopedia.
I’m enjoying thinking about writing Eternal Lies this way, as I write it.
Curiously, I’ve been experimenting with a structure in my Gumshoe materials—including my chapters of Eternal Lies—that does afford some dramatic reveals to the reader. You know this already, of course, but I think it’s interesting to discuss this point out loud. I sometimes withhold nuggets of information from the front matter of a chapter so that a reader discovers things during the read, creating a sensation that’s a vague shadow of what the players should experience when they discover a scene’s secrets.
This is delicate work, of course, as I want my scenarios to function as GM’s guides, as technical writing, as well. As well. That means finding places where I can build a bit of suspense in the reader, even if that suspense isn’t identical to the player’s. For example, this is why I say it’s good that we reveal “what really happened” in Chapter Four, rather than right up front. This makes good sense referentially—because that information is located in the physical artifact of the book close to where the GM will need it during actual play—but this also works well for that GM who’s reading the text for the first time and is getting hints about What Really Happened before that section of the book appears and reveals the whole truth.
It’s tricky, of course, because a game scenario is both a reading text and an instrument of play—a machine sort of like a game console. It needs to work both in the moment of the reading, when it captures and inspires imagination, and in the moment of play, when it helps the GM channel that captured energy into exciting scenes and dramatic fun.
My experience with the Gumshoe system, thus far, has been that it’s remarkably flexible to read and to write. Scenarios can lean more towards prose-like fiction or more towards machinelike function and still operate smoothly, leaving plenty of room for atmosphere and inspiration. I’m enjoying it.
Pelgrane’s Scenario Spine worksheet for most of their GUMSHOE games seems to fit what you’re talking about a little. As does Dogs in the Vineyard’s “town” worksheet. Basically each worksheet has the writer start small and get bigger, revealing more details as they go.
One idea for structuring writing so that the GM gets some revelation enjoyment might be an inverted chapter structure wherein the author first provides the clues, then, at the end of the chapter, gives the “this is what’s going on” information.
As a GM who rarely has time to run games, I read a lot of scenarios as fiction. This conversation is really interesting.
Sam, calling it an “inverted chapter structure” is beautiful. It pretty closely describes what I often try to do, too—draw a box, zoom in, fill in the box, then zoom back out and show the box filled in. In fact, I’m going to go and add a bit to one of these Eternal Lies chapters tonight, ’cause I just got a better idea how to show the box filled in!
d’awww shucks. Glad I could help.
Huh. I’ve always tried to mask a given scenario’s “reveal” deep within the text so that it would be a revelation for the reader (presumably potential GM) and not readily apparent on a casual glancing look.
As I mentioned to Will in an e-mail, I’m skeptical of the wisdom of organizing a scenario in any way other than in a very straightforward, very journalistic style, where critical information is not withheld (or even delayed) from the reader-gamemaster.
My bar for critical information would be that you’re probably going wrong if you delay the delivery of any information that might rise to the level of dramatically interesting, such that you’d be tempted to delay the reveal. That is to say, if it would be dramatically interesting to delay the reveal, you should not delay the reveal.
My issue is pragmatic, and based on my experience. I never have enough time to prepare for a game, so I skim published adventures in as much detail as I can given the time at hand. It needs to be drop-dead easy for me to locate the critical information while four or five people are waiting for me to do it and getting more and more bored with each page I flip, which means that the tried-and-true encyclopedia entry format—critical information up front, details in back—is the way to go, for my money.
Will is careful to say that he wants scenarios to function both ways. And I agree that if they can function both ways, that’s great. But I’ve been confused—and my players have had less fun than I think they otherwise would have—when I’ve run published adventures without crackerjack information design.
The central issue at question is probably whether it ever makes any sense to adopt the beat-by-beat, hope vs. fear modulation of gripping narrative in a technical document like an RPG scenario. Opinions will vary, of course, and it’s probably pointless to take a dogmatic position in the absence of a specific example. A topic for a future post, perhaps.
For what it’s worth, one of the things I’m really enjoying putting into the current project are small details that I suspect most players and their PCs are unlikely to ever find, but which are nice little snacks for the reader, which paint the NPCs in more interesting light, which make certain horrendous villains a little more tragic and a little less two-dimensional. I suppose that in addition to being little gifts for the gamemaster, they might also help said gamemaster understand those NPCs better, which might improve the at-the-table experience.