From Game to Story

by David Meadows 9. November 2016 22:19

(Number 6 in an occasional series. See sidebar for the others.)

I've described how this story started life as a game, and the steps I went through to create that game. But how did the game then become a story?

The game generates a lot of paperwork. Everything I plan to happen has to be documented, and that then has to be re-written to reflect what actually happened after the plan meets the players. At some point, I thought it would be fun to re-write it in story form rather than a dry history of "X went to Y and met Z", and that's how this web site came into being.

There are a few problems in making a role-playing game session into a work of prose fiction. For a start, game sessions aren't neat and tidy the way stories are. Players don't always follow my plots, either through pig-headedness or because they've missed some vital clue that I thought would be more obvious than it was. They go in the wrong direction. They explore the wrong things, say stupid things to the wrong people, and generally just act like a force of choas blundering through my plots.

Fiction writers talk about things called "story beats", which are the key moments that logically advance the story: X happens then Y happens then Z happens ... if these things don't happen in the right order (and with the right amount of dramatic pacing between them) then the story either makes no sense or feels flat.

Naturally, players excel at doing X followed by P, Q, F, skipping Y entirely, and blundering on to Z. It's just ... not dramatically satisfying. Oh, it's satisfying to play, but that's because the players are actively invoved. It's terrible to read afterwards. Even if it makes sense, the pacing is terrible.

So when I write the story I ... "adapt" it. Think about a Hollywood movie "based on a true story". There's no way the true story was as neat as the story shown in the film, but the screenwriter has "tidied it up" to make it feel dramatic while (hopefully) keeping the key factual elements intact. That's exactly what I do in going from game to story.

Go right back to Chapter 1 of Strikeforce. The big fight at the Institute for Temporal Studies? Didn't happen quite like that. Oh, it happened mostly like that, but it wasn't as streamlined, it was more dragged out. Electron's player tried numerous futile tactics against Killervolt, for example, and I don't think there was a moment of epiphany when he and Avatar switched targets, he just won through a lucky dice roll. I took liberties to change the fight from a challenging game to an interesting story.

I am also writing scenes that never actually occurred during the game. In a gaming session, the only events we play out are the ones that players' characters directly interact with. So when Strikeforce chapter 9 opens with two pages of various villains and other non-player characters interacting in the ballroom of the Haley Hotel, none of that happened "in play". The gameplay started when Strikeforce heard of the raid and reacted to it. But in my plan for the game, I had the villains doing those things -- I had to plan their actions, even if the players wouldn't see those actions, because the players would see the results of those actions and it all needed to make sense for them. So I have all these extra non-game events documented because they are actually a vital part of the plot, and I am writing them out when I think they will make the story more clear or more interesting for the reader.

The other thing to bear in mind is that I'm writing Strikeforce chapters nearly 30 years after we played those game sessions. I have notes of what happened, but I didn't record what words the players put into the mouths of their characters (it would be an impossible task). Even if I had, players improvising dialogue on the spot will rarely come out with the sort of carefully-planned, polished prose that a novel needs to have.

So I am completely inventing the dialogue when I write the story now. But I'm inventing it based on years spent with those players and those characters. I know the characters so well, I know how they speak. The characters probably didn't say those specific words at those specific times, but they could have and probably should have. I am confident that everyone in my story is speaking "in character", as far as my writing skills allow. This also extends to characters' thoughts, which would almost never be expressed in a playing session but I can extrapolate from my knowledge of how a player portrays his character's personality and motivations. So where a character's thoughts would add to the story, I'll make them up.

So, that's it really. What you're reading is not a 100% accurate transcript of what actually happened in the game. You're reading a "dramatisation" based on a "true story". And I hope it's suitably entertaining. If it isn't, that's my failure as a writer, because I know the game sessions are entertaining. Well, if they weren't the players wouldn't have been coming back every week for 30 years.

Would they?

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Comments (6) -

Stuart Forster United Kingdom
11/9/2016 11:55:56 PM #

Was this explaination necessary because someone has been picky? Sorry.

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David Meadows United States
11/10/2016 9:23:26 AM #

No, I'd always planned this. The whole point of the blog was to talk about the process.

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Stuart Forster United Kingdom
11/10/2016 12:11:43 AM #

Most of the player's characters seem not to have had a strong tie to their 'native' 24th century. Was this the case or did the players adapt quickly to your plot twist trapping them in the 20th century?

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David Meadows United States
11/10/2016 9:35:40 AM #

Interesting point. All the players put a lot of thought into "origin stories", but not so much into what  the character's lives were like in the 24 century -- did they have families, and so on.

That might have been because we didn't stay there long enough to explore anything like that, or because I hadn't described the 24th-century world in enough depth to make it possible -- which was deliberate on my part, of course, because I knew we wouldn't be staying there.

Once we were in the 20th, that all changed, and players almost immediately started thinking about where they would live, what they would do in their civilian lives, and so on. I'm sure that if we had stayed in the 24th the same would have happened, though obviously different in detail.

In part the Golden Heroes rules prompted this with the way it uses DUPs and Campaign Ratings. But really it all came from the players, who started treating their characters like real people. I can't claim any credit for it at all Smile

We'll soon come to a storyline where Strikeforce have the chance to go back to the future, but the more I look at it from a narrative sense the more I wonder how to explain why they would want to... because I have a feeling they didn't really want to (as players), they already considered the 20th century "home".

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Stuart Forster United Kingdom
11/19/2016 11:05:50 PM #

Why are you American?

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David Meadows United States
11/20/2016 2:31:59 AM #

This comment has mystified me...

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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