07 November, 2016

The Story Inherent in the Story Game

When I think of a story game, I tend to think of a game that produces a specific type of story. It may be a war story, from the perspective of children forced to confront horrors that they reall shouldn’t be emotionally able to handle (Grey Ranks), it could be a ritualised fantasy (Polaris), a tale of confronting one’s identity as a servant to a monster (literally or figuratively) (My Life with Master), a teen metaphysical angst drama thinly veiled by supernatural stereotypes (Monsterhearts). Each type of story game weaves a specific type of narrative consistently. Usually I prefer to mix things up in my campaign games, so I’ve found most games of this nature don’t hold my attention for long… “we’ve already told variations of that story a half dozen times, can’t we do something else now?”

The kinds of stories I’d be interested in revisiting time and again don’t necessarily work well with this type of game…actually, in all honesty, there might be some awesome games out there that fit my criteria, and I’m just not aware of them… I’m looking at heist games. I’m aware of the “Leverage” RPG, but haven’t played it. Unlike that game, I’m actually think more along the lines of replicating an early Tarantino or Guy Ritchie movie (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or Snatch). The use of twisting temporal narrative means elements of the magic system in Mage, such as the spheres Entropy and Time, become far more interesting and fun to play with.

I’m thinking of setting up a basic timeline where a week worth of scenes are played out in a non-linear order…but an order that builds up conflict and craziness as the session unfolds, before a final round of scenes either collapses everything into a coherent narrative or wipes everything out in a tidal wave of paradox.

Instead of a single mark that needs to be taken down, the game would revolve around a number of macguffins highly desired by various factions within the setting, where the characters may work with one another to keep them out of the hand of one group or another, but more likely the characters will be in a state of flux with regard to their allegiances to one another and to the outside forces in the setting. It’s the way most of my games tend to turn out anyway.

I’d foresee a game campaign beginning with every character choosing a faction to whom they vaguely ally themselves, and another faction with whom they do not get along. In addition to these, every mage would be assumed to ally with the tradition/convention/craft from whom their mystic knowledge is studied. The two factions might be written down secretly, as the GM writes two more factions of their own. The GM would quickly look at all of the notes written, and any appearing more than once would be definite fodder for the game.  Perhaps a setting might be collaboratively developed first, ending up with a number of prominent factions (natural and supernatural), this might then produce a checklist that players can choose their ally and enemy from. For these groups I’d look to inspiration from noteworthy gangs, clique-driven subcultures, religious groups, subtypes of supernatural creatures (specific vampire clans, werewolf tribes, etc.), or politically minded business affiliated groups. It all depends on the specific tale being told, and as certain groups are eliminated during a session, l others might rise up to take their place in future sessions while the majority of groups remain unchanged. The beginning power of a group might be directly linked to how many players have indicated an alliance or enmity towards it.

During the game, players take turns where their character is the dominant one in a scene (while other characters may be supporting roles for that scene). The objective of the scene will be one of the macguffins, either being stolen from one group, traded to another group, or somehow being manipulated. Gradually over the course of the game, the events of the week are revealed. One group might prove to have “macguffin B” on the Thursday, but it might be revealed during a later scene that their “macguffin B” was actually a fake because it had been switched out for a counterfeit on the Tuesday. If it is revealed during the course of play that a certain group had “macguffin D” on Wednesday, and another group had “macguffin D” on Friday, then the group might need to play a Thursday scene to show how the macguffin changed hands, how a counterfeit was made, or how it was revealed that “macguffin D” was actually “macguffin B” in disguise all the way along.

The catch here is to make a coherent timeline, tracking what we as the audience “know” about the Macguffins, and things like injuries that might linger from one day to the next. Perhaps players might earn some kind of narrative bonus points if they begin a scene with some kind of penalty which can be explained in a later scene (which occurred chronologically earlier), like a limp, a concussion, a vehicle that should be a part of their equipment damaged or stolen, it could be anything…conversely, they could spend narrative points to begin scenes with some kind of advantage that will need to be explained in a later scene.

I’m not sure of the best way to handle this. I know in my head how I’d like it to play out, but trying to get a formula for play down on paper is tricky.

I guess one of the good things about Mage is the fact that anything that doesn’t work out can always be explained away through paradox, but that just feels like a cop out. Magic can also be used to overcome non-aggravated injuries pretty easily, so it could be feasible for a character to start a scene uninjured, only to play the immediately preceding scene later and reveal they should have been injured in that later scene (perhaps they’ll need to call in outside favours to be repaid at a later date if this ever occurs).

If this is confusing now, don’t worry. I’m expecting the middle of these games to get as confusing as hell, but hoping that the latter half of the games will pull things back into line as the full timeline is populated with events. Similarly, I’m hoping that my next few posts will help clarify things.
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