Let’s See What Happens, Part Six: Give Your Head A Shake

It’s been a long wait, but we’re getting close to the end of this series. After this article, I’ve got one more to write on the subject of emergent campaign storylines.

So far ((You’ve probably figured this out by now, but I use this stock sentence to link back to the rest of the series.)), I’ve given an overview of my method, and I’ve talked about the Secrets Deck, sandboxes, watching your players’ eyes, and making connections. Now, it’s time to give your head a shake.

What I’m talking about here is looking at what you’ve done with a critical eye. Really, you should be doing this all throughout the process ((And I hit it pretty heavy in the Making Connections post)), but I also find it useful to build in a step where you explicitly evaluate the storyline and what you’ve done with it.

The Walt Disney Method

I mentioned back in the overview that I use something called the Walt Disney Method ((Those of you in the corporate world my find this method very similar to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method. As far as I can tell, de Bono basically took the Walt Disney Method and expanded and tweaked it specifically for use in corporations. I find the extra hats/phases to be just so much clutter, and prefer the simpler, cleaner Walt Disney Method.)) for this stage. I notice that the site I linked to that explains the method is no longer there, so I’m going to explain it a little bit here, and then I’m going to talk about how I’ve tweaked it specifically for use in designing game storylines.

The method is named after Walt Disney ((No, really?)), who reputedly used it as a way to design his rides and theme parks, as well as for his cartoons. It’s composed of three different phases, each of which tackles a very specific part of the design and implementation process. In practice, Disney is said to have had different offices for each phase, and would work exclusively on that phase in the appropriate office.

Now, the key here is that, when working on one phase, you work only on that phase, and you work through them in order. You may go through several cycles, but don’t backtrack or skip a phase. Just work through to the end and then jump back to the beginning.

Phase One: The Dreamer

The Dreamer is the finder-of-the-cool, the haver-of-ideas. In this phase, you dream big, looking for the coolest ideas you can come up with. This phase usually happens in the stages where you’re just beginning to pull ideas together and decide where things are going to go. It’s a brainstorming phase, so there are no judgements or evaluations made just yet. You want to envision something awesome – ideally, several awesome things – and you’ll worry about how to make them fit and work later.

Take notes here. Write down your ideas, and put them aside. Keep going until you’ve got enough great ideas, or until it’s not fun anymore.

Phase Two: The Engineer

The Engineer is the practical one, the rules-monkey of the gaming circle. In this phase, you look at the ideas you generated in the previous phase, and you figure out how you would make them work.

Look at that sentence again, because it’s the key to this stage. You figure out how you would make them work. Not if you can make them work. Look at each idea, and come up with a method that will work.

This is another brainstorming phase, albeit a more focused one, so again it’s important not to judge what you come up with ((Beyond the necessary evaluation of whether or not the method meets the minimum criteria of making the idea work, that is.)), and it’s vitally important not to toss out any ideas yet. We’re generating ideas, here, not discarding them.

Phase Three: The Critic

The Critic is a fun-killing bastard, but an absolutely vital one. This is the phase where you look at what you’ve produced in the previous phases and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?”

There are some questions you need to ask yourself when designing a campaign arc:

  1. Does this arc make sense? Does it follow logically from the actions of the characters? Does it fit into the world? Are there any breaks in the logic that need to be spackled over?
  2. Does any of this require the antagonists to be idiots? Would it pass the Evil Overlord List test? Are the flaws of the NPCs realistic, consistent flaws? Are there any NPCs who don’t fit the needs of the arc properly?
  3. If I were playing this arc, how would I short circuit it? Is there a spell/tech toy/superpower/lucky charm that would inviolate the whole thing? Are the challenges suitable to the PCs’ abilities? Are there any points along the way where a clever player could jump right to the endgame? Do I mind that happening?
  4. Can the characters succeed? Are the clues clear enough? Do they have – or can they get – the tools they need to win? Am I willing to give them the victory? ((This is an important, and easy to overlook question. Sometimes, we just fall in love with our NPCs or plots or monsters or whatever. You gotta be ready to let your characters win, even if that means the end of your favourite creation of the game. Just make sure they earn it, and make it a cool event.)) Will they feel like they’ve won? ((Another important and often overlooked question. Sure, twist endings can be fun, but there needs to be a sense of victory, otherwise it’s just a hose-job. You never want to end a storyline with a hose-job; start with the hose-job, and the characters will be invested in getting the guys who hosed them. But end with the hose-job, and all you get is a group of people wondering why they wasted their time.))
  5. Is this going to be fun? Will the players enjoy it? Will you enjoy it? Does it go on too long? Not long enough? Are there any dead beats in it, or is every situation geared to produce something interesting and fun?

This is the phase where you ask those questions. You’re looking for problems, here, so be honest about what you see. You don’t need to solve the problems right here – that’s what the next cycle through the method is for – but you need to see where they are.

This is also the phase where you might discard some ((Maybe all. Hopefully not. But maybe.)) of the ideas from the previous phases. If an idea has so many problems with it that it needs to be tossed, here’s where you do it. You may also see that one of the ideas you’re working on here is so much more solid than the rest that you decide to discard the others. That’s fine, too, though you may want to see if you can find a way to fit them together.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Once you’ve finished with the Critic phase, start again at the Dreamer phase. This time, focus on fixing the problems you marked in the Critic phase. Dreamer comes up with a cool idea that would fix the problem, Engineer figures out how to do it, and Critic evaluates the result. Round again. It’s an iterative process, with each pass through the method building on and refining the stuff that’s come before. Continue doing this until your idea is polished and flawless ((Well, that’s the idea, anyway.)).

When Do I Do This?

When you get some practice with this method, you’ll find your creativity starting to fall into the pattern fairly quickly – idea, execution, evaluation, idea, execution, evaluation, etc. What starts as a very rigid, formalized structure can become the default and unconscious method of processing ideas.

What I’m trying to say is that this method is useful throughout the entire process I’ve outlined for emergent campaign storylines. It really shines in the Making Connections phase, but I use it anywhere I’m trying to come up with something interesting and fun. And with practice, it comes very quickly, cycling through Dreamer, Engineer, and Critic in the space of a single, musing moment.

So pick a point in your process and apply this method. Do it a few times, trying it out in different places, and get comfortable with it. You’ll find it reinforces itself, getting faster and easier all the time, and producing improved results.

I Thought This Post Was About Critical Thinking

Okay. Yeah. For a post about critical evaluation of your campaign arc, I spend a lot of time talking about coming up with ideas and elaborating on them, and only a little bit about assessing your story arc with a critical eye. Of the method I’m proposing, only one phase in three is that critical thinking bit, and the other two phases are things that people tend to do very naturally.

See, spotting problems is not difficult ((If you need proof of this, read comments on the Internet.)). We do it very readily. Just not with our own ideas. What this method does is two-fold: first, it builds in a step when you do that critical assessment after coming up with the ideas; second, it gives you the means to address those problems in a useful way.

Without the Critic phase, this process doesn’t do anything more than you would get just brainstorming and statting up your ideas. So, you evaluate and spot the problems. Then – and this is vital – you use the same brainstorming and statting skills to address the problems. And then you look for more problems.

Critical evaluation of your ideas doesn’t help you on its own. You need to do something about it. That’s why the iterative nature of the Walt Disney Method is important. All the components work together in a cyclical, iterative process to produce, refine, and stress-test your ideas, leading to solid campaign arcs that work.

That’s the magic of Walt Disney.


It’s been a long haul on this series, but there’s only one more post to go. I hope to have that up within the month. In the meantime, give the Walt Disney Method a try. I think you’ll be surprised at how it opens up productive creativity in your game. I know it’s really helped mine.


Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Let’s See What Happens, Part Six: Give Your Head A Shake

  1. Mr Sleep says:

    I’ve finally got a Dresden game up and running and I have to tell you these posts have been invaluable in the process. Honestly the Secrets Deck alone has added an ocean’s worth of depth to the potential.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Glad to hear you’re finding these useful. And very glad to hear you’re finally getting a chance to play Dresden Files! Hope you have fun with your campaign!

  3. evileeyore says:

    “It’s been a long haul on this series, but there’s only one more post to go. I hope to have that up within the month.”

    It’s been two years.. any chance for part 7?

    (If it’s later in your archive – this is as far as I’ve gotten so far – then ignore me)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *