How to Train your Warjack: Once, with feeling

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Different media provide an artist with different opportunities and challenges in expresses their message. Books allow for a consistent internal voice that runs throughout, for the pattern and cadence of the words themselves to be a character in the story. Film allows for storytelling without description or exposition (though Hollywood has a lot to learn about “show, not tell”).
Roleplaying games are a unique beast in terms of narrative media, one that continues to fascinate me. Trying to get the best out of them as a storytelling style draws me back to them again and again, even when I think I’ve burned out.

I think of RPGs as a storytelling medium, but there are two manifestations that change the way you approach the story – once shot games (usually at conventions) and campaigns. Today, I’m going to talk about writing for conventions.

I’ve written for Irish gaming conventions for nearly a decade, and have at some point written for every convention in the Republic (sorry, Q-Con. I always seem to have something on that weekend). I’ve written about 50% pen-and-paper games and 50% LARPS (not the rubber swords kind, more on that later), many of which were co-authored by Harry (who has just joined the Overload crew with Musings of a Mercenary).

Convention once-offs are a unique beast. Generally, there’s a three hour slot in which the game runs, so you’re running to a strict clock. This is the the first, and most difficult challenge. As such, you need a clear idea about what you want to do. A clear theme, a clear tone, and a very simple story. I’ve been ambitious with complex ideas before, but it’s never worked out quite as well as I’d hoped. The best once-offs have a straightforward story.

The three act structure is a classic for a reason, but I’d personally reccomend looking at Shakespeare’s five-act structure. The three act structure totally lives and dies on its second act, and is too simple and predictable. The five act structure (modded for RPGS) goes like so:

1) Exposition/Introduction :

Introduces the world, thematic elements, and the characters. For convention games, I find that focusing on tone more than theme is best. Is the game going to be high-action, swackbuckling, and exciting? Horrifying? Uplifting? If it’s a possibility, a soundtrack can be golden. This is completely dependent on the physical layout of the space – if more games than yours are happening in the room, a soundtrack is rarely an option. But if you can, nothing sets the tone better. If you can’t do that, then you need to leap straight into a scene that sets the mood. In a swaskbuckling game, you want to present your players with the opportunity to leap onto a moving carriage in the first five minutes. If it’s horror, then you need to either be building tension (speak in a flat, emotionless voice about mundane things, and linger on little details of normality that are disquieting) or hit a visceral note right out of the gate.

That said, don’t neglect theme entirely. It puts a shape to the story, and gives the characters something to hook their roleplaying into. There’s a reason “theme” and “tone” are the things that are belaboured in secondary school/ high school English classes – they’re the simple things we pick up on any piece of art.

Having a simple theme and tone is vital for convention games, because players need to pick up their characters cold and get into them quickly. The theme and tone should be reflected in the part of the character sheets that describe the characters’ personalities. Again, keep it simple. A simple set of character hooks is best – a paired virtue and vice (lots of systems have these built in), a “motto”, a single life event around which the events in the game revolve.
2) Rising Action

In which the basic conflict/problem introduced in Act 1 gets complicated. By the end of Act 1, the players should have a clear idea of the main problem (and probably the main antagonist, unless figuring out who that is is the game). Act 2 is where their initial actions to resolve the problem are complicated by lesser antagonists and obstacles, and so will have your first major action scene.

This is where you show them that they’ll have to work for their resolution.

3) Climax/ Turning Point

If your game is a comedy (in the Shakespearean, happy ending sense) this is where your protagonists hit rock bottom and begin to rise again. In a tragedy, this is where your protagonists are on top of the world… right before it all comes crumbling down. You can still defy this structure in the final act with another turn (an advantage of the five act structure over the three act one), and it tends to keep players guessing since 3 act Hollywood has trained their expectations.

This is where the bulk of the action takes place, almost certainly including a major combat to set the story going either from rock bottom to better or screeching down the cliff.

4) Falling Action

Wherein the antagonist(s) and protagonists’ conflict reaches a head, and the final battle takes place. Probably your biggest fight scene. Normally a clear winner is determined here, but you can end this act on a question mark or ambiguity to hold tension over for the

5) Denoument

Here we wrap up loose ends, get the emotional payoff (be it crushing despair or heroic crescendo), and see what happens to everyone afterwards.

The five act structure is a great emotional rollercoaster template. There is a problem (1), which gets worse (2), hits a peak (3), then heads to resolution (4), then resolves (5). It has three easy places to put your combat scenes – more than three eats a lot of time, though I often stick a short one in Act 1 to define the tone and get people used to rolling the right kind of dice.

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6 thoughts on “How to Train your Warjack: Once, with feeling

  1. Interesting, I’m going to have to look into this. Pacing is an area of gamemastering that I continually seek to improve (as I often seem to be attempting to herd cats in roleplaying). This is an interesting take on it that I’ll have to give a few swings.

      • I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter! For some reason most of the groups I GM end up consisting of mildly proactive but primarily reactive individuals. I suspect there are some personality and psychological factors at work there that maintain such a consistent template across decades of gaming. To move the game forward it proves absolutely imperative to provide the freedom of choice while giving them clear objectives to drive for. Attempts at sandboxing have… worked poorly.

        More to the point of the current article, however, I think the Shakespearean arc structure might serve to give me a clearer outline structure to keep the “radio silence” incidents in a game to a minimum. The 3 act structure continually proves insufficient to the task – I think the transitions are too abrupt, perhaps. Sometimes I find myself having to either basically put a sign out saying “plot this way, stop standing around waiting” or “no more plot here, seriously, look around some.” Not a flaw in the structure, necessarily, just my use thereof. The players never seem to mind, but it drives me nuts.

      • “The players never seem to mind, but it drives me nuts.”

        Sounds like a familiar lament to me! I spend all this time obsessing about theme, tone, narrative structure (and then executing it less well than I theorize about it) and half the time no one picks up on it.

        (That said, I think this type of thinking does improve enjoyment of the game, even if players can’t or don’t pinpoint why exactly.)

        I’ll definitely do an article on sandboxing as well – we’ve had some very successful sandbox games (My main playgroup over the years leans quite hard in a sandboxy direction) and a some not so successful, so that’s a thing I think I can talk about with some actual advice!

        And thanks for the comments Josh, your feedback always helps me figure out next week’s article!

        (Maybe I should rename the column “Letters to Joshua” 😛 )

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