Monday, March 3, 2014

Improvisation in Storytelling: Keeping Track of your Players

One of the questions that usually comes up when discussing the subtle art of narrating RPGs, is where on the spectrum of improvisation and planning your games fall. Some people write down their whole campaign or session, whereas some prefer to go along with the flow, and create a story on the fly depending on what the characters decide.
While I've written about my love for games that approve some amount of improvisation before, I tend to use a mixture when running longer campaigns.
They say the more experienced players are, the less you have to plan and the more you can 'let them be', while newbie players are better handled when controled. That's why my first campaign was a Vampire: The Masquerade one, in which the prince had his Sheriff follow the players closely for the first games, so that they wouldn't start messing with the world and losing humanity, or my HOTB campaign takes place in a highly senate-influenced environment.
When you play with more seasoned people, they already know how to follow the hints of the narrator, and how to create an interesting background, which can be exploited for sake the story.
Lately I've been playing many oneshots, and what I've found is that you can base the entire campaign on the backgrounds of the players and their connections, without much need of actually planning your plot, as long as your improvisation is good enough (or encouraged by the system with Style points, FATE points and whatnot, which allow the players theirselves to add details to the plot and setting) and the players are well-defined.
So maybe it's not so much about planning the plot itself, as about planning the characters, the environment, and then let the players roam in a Sandbox way.
Another good tip I've gotten from many narrators is, always keep a surprise under your sleeve: for each character, have a plot twist ready, that can be adjusted as the story moves in the direction they choose. You can always use the soap-opera-ish 'all the players were related all along!' or maybe 'the bad guy was actually good and you killed him!', but having more personalized plot-twists, based on the character-backgrounds, makes for better surprises.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who carefully plan their plots, write scripts, or maybe just write down important speeches for some characters (the bad guy's 'evil speech' on the end? some politician's stand on a subject? a transcript of an old book?). On this kind of planning, I've found that the most fun stories come when you take the time to design many different endings, which the players will 'choose' among.

So, what about you? Do you prefer to plan your campaigns a lot, or you'd rather let your players take on and improvise along? Tell me in the comments!

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