Getting Specific About Scenario Design

If you want to understand the process of creation, you can do worse than to think about Harold Bloom’s famous book The Anxiety of Influence. The central thesis of the text is that strong imaginative forces deliberately distort and misread their predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space.” This gives rise to a kind of pugilistic notion of writing, where in order to ensure that your version of something becomes the best version, you need to destroy the artists who came before you. If they occupy a creative space that you want to occupy, you’d better move them out of there! Of course, you can pick and win a fight with a static creative work, because you control the rules of the game. Nevertheless, it’s a handy strategy for proving you were right all along. Even in the absence of any kind of cynical motive, if you’ve got a dream or an idea that doesn’t fit precisely with work that came before, of course you prefer your own imaginative effort.

Some ways of creating imaginative space are easier than others. At its height, Dungeon Magazine had a list of the so-called “Dirty Half-Dozen”. They were a magazine that relied upon submissions from the public at large, but they ruled out any game that included, for example, Kobolds. The banned stories were just such well-trod ground that the publishers recognised and decreed those story tracks dead. Of course, by now with the Old School Revolution, you can probably go back to some of those concepts. At the time, there was no imaginative space left. So many people thought they could “solve” the Kobold problem, and do something that nobody had done before, that it became impossible to do anything new with them. I don’t doubt many people tried anyway.

The motivation to create and hence create your own imaginary space, is frustrating for publishers of game lines, whose customers basically want what they were getting from the existing iteration of the game line. This leads to comments like Dale’s rueful musings on Scenario Structure:

When I worked with other authors, I found that few of them submitted scenarios in any form that resembled the structure I had established for EPOCH scenarios.  Indeed most were in sharp contrast the rigorous divisions I had established.

I was one of the offenders, allowing my own ego and design ideas to take precedence over the needs of the publisher and the game. Dale’s one-line summary of the game I eventually submitted was that it was a great homage to an EPOCH scenario, but by no means suitable as written. That’s a hard lesson for someone with a strong creative agenda of their own and considerable success, albeit locally, at writing and running games. Hard, but valuable. The GUMSHOE Writer’s Guide makes the case in this way:

Impress us not by reinventing the wheel and finding a new way to present and structure your scenario. Impress us by fitting your exciting new idea into the existing structure—and by allowing it to do its work of helping you create an understandable, entertaining GUMSHOE adventure.

In writing up my demo scenario for Night’s Black Agents, I tried to follow the guidelines provided. I doubt it’s perfect, but it’s not intentionally deviant. 

Dale’s post points out that the problem of scenario structure isn’t confined to one or two games, but it’s widespread. While I believe that the cause is probably something along the lines of Bloom’s space-creation, I wonder why it hasn’t been superseded by a more generally coherent approach that suits most games. The core structure of both EPOCH or GUMSHOE seem flexible enough to suit games unrelated to horror, and there are other generally well-structured scenarios out there to use as models. I suspect that the reason is that our hobby as a whole remains somewhat fluid. It’s not necessarily even that we don’t understand scenarios, but that we don’t understand what’s happening at the table a lot of the time. That’s the unpopular premise behind Ron Edward’s “Big Model”, isn’t it? My Forge-theory is weak, but I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m maligning the movement in some way.

One of the main corollaries of this problem is that there is a lot of very well-meaning, well-considered, intelligent, and in every way virtuous, advice out there for budding GMs about how to write their scenarios, almost all of which is generic to the point of uselessness at best. One recent post in particular bugged the hell out of me, because I thought that almost every bit of advice offered was actually destructive to fun if taken too seriously or literally. The core advice of this piece is essentially to relinquish story authority, which to me sounds simply like a recipe for listless and unfocused play. It’s a far cry from the excellent and specific advice in EPOCH or Greg Stolze’s How To Run Roleplaying Games, which both include far better advice for generating player engagement without simply giving up, as advocated by the Trollish Delver. I may not always want to do things as prescribed by these worthies, but at least I can always appreciate the reasons they have for the advice they give.

My favourite punching-bag for “bag advice” in a roleplaying game is Dirty Secrets, because it conflates the adversarial experience of the hard-boiled detective with an adversarial experience for the players. Encouraging conflict and obstruction at the table is almost always bad advice. I’ve previously outlined my case in some detail, so I won’t repeat myself here. The key point I want to recall here is that Dirty Secrets doesn’t provide a story grammar for the genre it plans to emulate. Nor does almost any roleplaying game actually, and that makes it difficult for most games to really offer specific constructive advice for getting the game to work. General advice, divorced from a particular game, is naturally going to struggle even more to ensure that a game runs well, because it’s divorced from a specific creative agenda – isn’t that another foundational precept of the “Big Model”?

Picking on Trollish Delver’s advice again, “Don’t Plan For Every Eventuality” is probably okay advice in a free-wheeling Pulp game, but it’s terribly advice for a murder mystery. It’s predicated on the old saw that no plan survives contact with the enemy – which is itself almost categorically “wrong-think”. Bad plans don’t survive contact with the enemy, but find me a victorious general who won without a plan and I’ll eat my hat. Planning is not anathema to improvisation, it’s orthogonal. What you really want to do is provide context for the possible eventualities and ways of structuring incentives so that what you want is what the players want. One of the best things about EPOCH is that the game structure is very closely aligned with the fictional structure, so it’s very reliable. The real problem that I think most neophyte GMs have is planning for impossible eventualities, rather than over-thinking the possibilities that actually exist. The concept of “core clues” in GUMSHOE trains the GM to think about their breadcrumb trail with clarity, because in a well-formed scenario it is necessary to write down that Clue X leads the investigators to Scene X+1. The game which does this best, in my experience, is Spirit of the Century, which is one of the few games to provide a story grammar and explain how that grammar exists at the table. SotC doesn’t discourage GMs from planning for “every eventuality” if they want to, but more importantly, it describes how to structure a game so that these eventualities are predictable.

As you can imagine, while I applaud the effort in theory, I’ve never had that much use for story seed packages. The best two that I know of are The Big List and The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations. The problem is that these kinds of tools are intended to generate possibilities, while story design is about controlling and constraining possibilities within an interesting echelon. Once you’ve picked a story or dramatic situation, you need to build a story and you’re on your own again. I’ve never particularly found that ideas are the problem – getting them into the right shape is the problem.

To a large extent, the reason that story grammars aren’t included in roleplaying games is because we are supposed to know how stories work already from fiction. The relative obscurity of the pulp fictions on which Spirit of the Century is based made it a necessity for it to include a story grammar. I doubt most people playing the game have any native familiarity with the Shadow or Doc Savage, so it is necessary for the game to provide that knowledge. Similarly, one of the problems that Night’s Black Agents has to overcome is the diversity of spy stories on offer. There’s little commonality between James Bond and Bernard Samson, and any game about “spies” needs to spend at least a little effort explaining which of the two it favours. In this way of thinking, it’s obvious why a game like Dirty Secrets doesn’t adequately explain the structure of the hard-boiled story, beyond providing a system that models the individual scenes from which a hard-boiled author constitutes a novel. It also provides a theory about why Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons and Dragons are the industry-dominating behemoths that they are.

Both are games that are reactions with and against a strong vision of genre. Call of Cthulhu in particular is structured and driven by interactions with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, and successors. Each iteration of the game seeks to re-imagine and re-interpret the original stories, as well as previous roleplaying games. There is perhaps no clearer example than Trail of Cthulhu, the break-through product for the GUMSHOE system. Inherent in the game is not only a creative vision, but an interpretation of Call of Cthulhu. The core book reads as a reaction to its predecessor. Trail of Cthulhu draws on the same kind of space-creating process that Harold Bloom describes in his analysis of poetry. It creates by creating space, by pushing Call of Cthulhu out of the way, just as Call of Cthulhu pushes H.P. Lovecraft out of the way.

This suggests to me one very good way of getting specific about scenario design: get specific about the story you’re telling. This is a lesson ripped straight from the success of Call of Cthulhu. Pick a specific story, and move it out of the way. React to it, respond to it, and adapt it. If we think about the success of Spirit of the Century, and its story grammar, we can see the process at work there too. I think we’re trained in today’s world to demand novelty and innovation, but spontaneous creation of new material is chimerical. If you bring to mind any great artist, you’ll see them doing something akin to Bloom’s notion of creating space via adaptation – why should roleplaying games be exempt from this?

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