Let’s See What Happens, Part Three: Sandboxes

So far in this series, I’ve given an overview of how I develop storylines out of a campaign, and I’ve talked about the Secrets Deck. Now, it’s time to discuss Sandboxes.

Sandbox is a term we use in games to indicate that the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything they like – they set the agenda, they choose the direction, and they go. This is a little bit ingenuous, though; they may get to go anywhere, but it’s anywhere on a list of places that exist in the game world. They can do anything they like, but in-game situations and out-of-game rules constrain those actions to a degree. Sandboxes aren’t completely player-driven, much as we may like to think they are. They’re a menu of options that the players can choose from.

That said, it’s important to have a wide range of options available if you don’t already have an idea for where the campaign is going. This will allow a broad spectrum of experiences for the players to choose from, and let you experiment with different tones, moods, themes, and techniques to find what works for the players ((I’ll talk about this in much more depth when we get to the Watch Their Eyes post.)), and what works for you. There’s an added advantage (to my mind) of having a wide array of things in your Sandbox – it makes the world feel bigger than the characters, and more alive.

So, how do you build a Sandbox game?

The Nature of the Sandbox

Two games that I’ve run that have had great success with Sandbox-style play are The Armitage Files and my Fearful Symmetries DFRPG campaign. The type of Sandbox in each campaign is structured differently, and you need to decide up front which kind of structure you’re going to use. In The Armitage Files, the Sandbox consists of a set of documents liberally sprinkled with references to people, items, events, and places that are not explained, but sound mysterious and intriguing. In Fearful Symmetries ((And any DFRPG game that goes through the setting-building section of the game.)), the Sandbox consists of a list of locations, threats, people, and themes.

Really, the type you choose is going to depend on – and determine – what type of campaign you’re playing. The default assumption in Cthulhu-based games is that the PCs are investigators seeking out mysteries, so it makes sense for the Sandbox to be constructed of rumours, clues, and hints. In DFRPG games, the default assumption is that the game takes place in a given city ((Though this is not necessary, and is addressed in the setting construction chapter.)) that the characters know fairly well, so it makes sense for the Sandbox to be constructed from people, places, and groups in that city.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, they can’t really be exclusive. You need some concrete things in a informational Sandbox to give the characters something to grab hold of in order to kick off an adventure. And you need informational things in a geographical Sandbox to let the characters know where the cool stuff is happening. But the balance between the two is important to consider.

Let’s take a look at a video game example to illustrate one end of the spectrum. Oblivion is very much a Sandbox game, with a strong geographic ((Most CRPGS work on a geographic slate. It’s certainly easiest to conceptualize in that medium, and allows the programmers to scale the difficulty of the opposition by geographic area.)) focus. Yeah, you get information to follow the main story along, but you also spend a fair bit of time just wandering around the countryside, stumbling across random dungeons ((Seriously, what’s with all the dungeons littering the countryside? Why does every little cleft in the rock open into a vast underground network of caves filled with monsters? Shouldn’t someone be doing something about that?)), and cleaning them out.

The Armitage Files highlights the opposite end. Aside from the assumption that the game is set in Arkham, Massachusetts, there is very little concrete or geographical structure to the Sandbox. The occasional reference to a specific place – Kingsport, Zurich – is still just an informational cue for the game. Most of the clues could lead the characters anywhere.

Most campaigns deal with going somewhere and doing something. If  your Sandbox is primarily geographic, then characters will be going somewhere to see what’s there. They will look at the map ((Or whatever equivalent you have in the game.)), and say, “We go to Bitter Creek. What do we find there?”

If it’s primarily informational, then characters will be going somewhere to do something specific. They will look at their information and say, “We head to Bitter Creek to find the missing prospectors.”

In either case, it could wind up with the same adventure – searching for missing prospectors – but the hook in is different.

Determining how much of the Sandbox is informational versus geographic will shape the ways the players interface with the game fiction, and say certain things about the campaign. So devote some thought to where you want to set that slider.

Putting in the Toys

When you have decided on the nature of Sandbox, you need to fill it. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Solo. This is the traditional way to design a campaign. You sit down with your blank Sandbox, and think up all the stuff that goes in it. Pros: You get to put in exactly what you want, the players don’t know any of the secrets. Cons: You are limited by your own creativity, you have to do all the work.
  • Collaboratively. This is the default in DFRPG. You and the players sit down and populate the Sandbox together. Pros: Less work for you, you get the advantage of everyone else’s creativity, players get invested in the game. Cons: You don’t have complete control of what goes in, the players know secrets, requires the players to agree to participate.

I have to say, I’ve become a huge fan of collaborative setting building, mainly because it gets the players excited about the world and it puts in things that I never would have considered ((Baba Yaga in the sewers of Dublin, for example.)). That said, it does require that the players be good about separating player and character knowledge.

Whichever way you do it, it is vitally important not to do too much detail work ((That way lies madness. No, really. Madness.)). You never know what is going to be important at this point, so you may wind up wasting hours – days, weeks – fleshing out things that never get touched in play ((I’ll talk about this more when I get to the Discard Liberally post.)). Not only will this frustrate you, spending the time will delay the start of the game. And if you’ve taken the collaborative approach, every day you spend tweaking the things the players helped you come up with, their attention and enthusiasm will wane just a little bit more.

So, go high-level. Add a city to the Sandbox? Write two or three sentences about what the city is and what it means to the game. If you’re using a Secrets Deck, make sure you come up with at least one secret for the thing. For example:

Belys is a prosperous city-state ruled by a collection of genasi noble houses. It evokes the Thousand and One Nights Baghdad feel crossed with Renaissance Venice, with wondrous magical devices for sale and convoluted politics and scheming behind the scenes. This is the foreign city that becomes the characters’ home base in the Paragon Tier.

Secret: The mystic power of Belys is based on an arcane machine that imprisons a legion of djinn and efreet, harnessing their energy for the use of the noble houses.

That’s more than enough to go on with. Now I know enough about Belys to seed some hints in the rest of the game, and to improvise if the players suddenly decide that they really need to go there now! 

If you’re putting lots of elements in your Sandbox – and that’s really kinda the point, after all – coming up with just this much for everything is going to be more than enough work. I recommend tossing in a few evocative references with nothing attached to them for developing later – the ruined tower of Asterys, Kraken Bay, the Rookery, whatever sounds cool and fits in the campaign. That way, if you have a good idea after the game starts, you have something to attach it to.

The nature of your Sandbox – it’s place on the geographic-informational continuum I made up in the topic above – will determine what sorts of elements you put in it. If the structure is primarily geographic, the elements are mainly going to be places, with some people and rumours thrown in. If it’s primarily informational, then you’re going to have a lot of clues, rumours, hints, and people with information, with a few places and items thrown in. Mix and match as required for your vision of the campaign.

Showing the Sandbox to the Players

Once the Sandbox has toys in it, you have to show it to the players. How you do that is going to depend on what sort of Sandbox it is, and the forms the toys take. If the game is primarily geographic, you may want to hand them a map with the various locations labeled on it. If it’s informational, you might, for example, hand them a mysterious document with a number of unexplained but intriguing references.

If you’ve done setting creation collaboratively, the players will already know a fair bit about the Sandbox. In these cases, I often just type up and flesh out the notes we came up with at the setting creation session and distribute that to the players ((Less any secrets I’ve thought up in the meantime. I mean, the players need some surprises, right?)) as the setting bible. It’s important at that point to have a discussion with the players about segregating player knowledge from character knowledge, but so far I’ve found with my players that their involvement has made the setting cool enough to them that they will happily ignore anything their characters shouldn’t know so as to have the fun of finding it out in play.

The point is, of course, to let the players see what options they have. You don’t have to give them a look at all the elements in the Sandbox, but they do need to see where a few things are, and get an idea of the scope and nature of the setting so that they can start making decisions. I mean, yeah, you can plop them down in the middle of nowhere with no map and say, “Where do you go from here?” But that initial decision, being pretty much totally random, is meaningless to the players, and to the characters ((Not to mention that it undermines the notion that they have free choice in the campaign, because they can’t see that their choice makes any difference.)). You need to give them some context and structure to complete the buy-in and make the game matter. You need to give them some sort of map, even if it’s just a blank sheet with a dot that says You Are Here, two dots marked Sweetwater Gulch and New Zion, and a line connecting the three points marked Road. Now they’ve got real, meaningful options.

Setting the Agenda in Play

Okay, so you’ve got your Sandbox all set up, and you’ve shown it to the players. What next?

Now, you have to start structuring the actual adventures. In a broad range of choices, it’s easy for the characters to become paralyzed with indecision about what to do next, so you have to point them subtly ((And sometimes not-so-subtly.)) towards the adventure. The best way to do this at the beginning is to constrain their choices.

Yeah, that sounds like a bit of hypocrisy after the whole bit about building in choices and making sure the choices are meaningful, but hear me out. Traditionally, RPG adventures initially place the characters in a reactive role: something happens, so the players have to respond. A stranger in a bar needs help, so he asks the PCs to go into the dungeon. A socialite is murdered, so the PCs have to find the killer. The supervillain is robbing a bank, so the PCs have to stop her.

It can take some training before players will actively set their own agendas and seek out adventures. They need to see that they have the power -  the agency – to set the agenda, and you may need to lead them to that realization gradually. So, start small, dropping pointed opportunities rather than outright adventure hooks: instead of the bartender telling them that some punks have stolen the bar sign and the PCs have to get it back, just have the whole bar be surly and upset, and let the characters figure out why that is and decide for themselves what to do about it. It’s a small step, but it will eventually lead to PCs telling you what they want to do in the next adventure ((While this may feel odd to you as a GM at first, embrace it. It lets you focus your creativity on what happens in the adventure, rather than on what the adventure is. Relax and let them boss you around.)).

Even if your characters are used to setting their own agenda in games, you still want the choices to be a little limited at the beginning, just to help them get into playing their characters and interfacing properly with the campaign and setting. Leave the big choices for later in the game.

Now, once the players start really taking the lead in setting the agenda, you will sometimes find they have a tendency to deliberately try to surprise you, or put one over on you, or fake you out. This is an artifact of the adversarial-GM fiction that I’ve talked about before – the players “know” the GM is out to get them, so they have to trick the GM in order to win, whatever winning means. How do you deal with that?

Easy. Ask them not to. Tell them that, while you’re totally cool with them setting the agenda, you need a little prep time to make sure you have interesting things for them to do. If you talk to them about it reasonably, and play fair with them ((This is, of course, an important point. Don’t screw them when they do what you ask them to.)), they will be more than willing to be honest and upfront with their plans, so you can make plans of your own.

Which brings me to…

Being Prepared

The beauty of the way Sandbox games are structured is that you don’t have to build in a lot of depth before you need it. You don’t have to have thirty fully prepared scenarios ready to go at a moment’s notice, just one. As long as it’s the right one. That’s no more than you need to prepare if you’re running a more traditional campaign, where you as GM set the agenda and dictate the adventures, but it has the added bonus of being something you know the players and characters are interested in because they chose it. They have choice, you get to flesh out that choice to make it cool, then they get to play through it and make the whole thing cooler.

Now, making sure you have the right adventure ready is very much a matter of communication with the players. For the first adventure, I talked about constraining the choices available to the characters, and I gave a couple of reasons. There are other reasons, having to do with preparation: if you limit their choices, you need to prepare less for that first adventure. I recommend building just one adventure, but have a couple of different ways into it. Yeah, this is a bit of a cheat ((I don’t like inflexible rules in anything, including running games. I will use any tool I need to in order to build a play experience the players enjoy, even if it means I have to lie, trick them, and cheat behind the scenes. I will do what I need to do to bring the cool.)), but it gets you playing and pulls the characters into the game. Then, at the end of that adventure, ask them what they want to do next.

Couple of important points about that:

  • Ask them at the END of the adventure. This gives you time to prep the next adventure based on what they want to do.
  • Force them to a decision. Don’t bully, but make them choose something specific so you have a starting point for your prep work.
  • Get them to commit. If you’ve put in a month’s work on an adventure that they’ve said they want, and they show up at the session, and say they’ve changed their minds, I think it’s allowable to strike them in the head with something heavy ((Disclaimer: Maybe I don’t really think this. But when it happens, I want to.)). Make it clear that their choice is binding, and if they come up with a better idea at the start of the session, defer it for a later adventure.
  • Make sure you accept their decision. Point out options, offer opinions, but don’t try and make them choose something they don’t want. Once they’ve chosen, don’t try and weasel the adventure around to something else. Don’t use the adventure to punish them for not going with your idea. Basically, don’t be a dick.

When they’ve told you what their plans are for the next step, prepare the adventure based on that. I don’t pretend to know what kind of prep work you need to do for your game – that varies from system to system, and from campaign to campaign, and from GM to GM – but spend that time trying to make the characters glad they chose the option they did. Pour coolness on the idea, throw in some neat twists and surprises ((But, as said before, don’t weasel it around to a different adventure.)), make the opposition interesting and engaging, and do what you need to do to make the adventure rock.

A crucial part of preparing for a Sandbox game is keeping track of what happens so it can inform the rest of the game. In a linear game, this is pretty straightforward, but it’s a little more complicated for Sandbox games. Take notes, and leaf through them when you’re prepping adventures to see if there’s anything interesting that you can call back up to add some continuity. Make sure you don’t lose the name of the NPC that you made up off the top of your head but has now become important. Keep track of any surviving villains and not-quite-extinct plots and conspiracies, and any extinct NPCs or cities or helpful organizations. This becomes invaluable when it comes time to start pulling the threads together for the emergent storyline that the campaign generates.

No matter how much you prepare, though, you’re going to wind up having to wing it from time to time, so make sure that you’re ready for that, too. Keep an encounter or two salted away for when you need to send in the ninjas ((Whatever the ninjas happen to be in your campaign.)), and try and tie these encounters into other aspects of the game. Using a system that is easy to improvise in – GUMSHOE and FATE, for example – means that you can get a lot of mileage out of a single encounter, while systems that aren’t quite as easy to improvise in – D&D, for example – may mean you need to have a couple encounters ready just in case. If nothing else, sending in the ninjas gives you a little bit of breathing room to cope with the unexpected player choice that prompted your little panic attack.

When you do improvise, it’s even more important to take notes to keep things straight. If you haven’t tied the improvised section into the main plot before, take a good postmortem look at the notes, and figure out how it’s related after the fact. It helps build verisimilitude. Not that it has to be tied to the current main plot; sometimes, it can be fun to throw in an alternate storyline to see if the characters ((And players – this can be very confusing for players, so be cautious.)) can figure out that there’s actually two different things going on at once. Or, it can be a hook into a new adventure, showing up a little early.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


That’s about all I have to say about Sandboxes. The next emergent storylines post will show up within the next couple of weeks, and I’ll talk about Watching Their Eyes.

Let’s See What Happens, Part Two: The Secrets Deck

A little over a week ago ((As I post this; it’s taken me a few days to write.)), I posted an outline of techniques I use to develop campaign storylines during play. Apparently, folks liked it, and I’m glad. But one person requested some more specific examples ((And if one person asked, then more wanted them but didn’t ask. Basic rules of customer service.)), so I’m going to do my best to illustrate some of the ideas with examples from actual campaigns I’ve run.

I was going to do everything in one post, but as I started writing it, it became painfully obvious that, if I did, it would be a terribly, terribly long post. So, I’m going to break it down into sections, each one dealing in some depth with the topics I’m discussing. I’m starting with the Secrets Deck.

Hope you find it useful.

My biggest success with the Secrets Deck was in my Broken Chains campaign, so I’m using that for the example, which means that we’re going to be talking about D&D-style fantasy tropes.. Now, in building this campaign, I had completely ignored the First Rule of Dungeoncraft, as stated by Ray Winninger, which was to not force yourself to create any more than you need to for your game as it stands. I created an entire setting bible – over 200 pages – covering the whole of the world, about 100,000 years of history, the entire religion, culture, and political structures. The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft states that, whenever you create something significant in your campaign, you create at least one secret about it. And then you write that secret on an index card to build your Secrets Deck.

Well, by the time I had finished the world document, I had a Secrets Deck with around 70 cards in it ((Really, this is too much. I made it work, but it was far more work than it was worth, and a lot of stuff never saw the light of day, so learn from my mistake. Rein it in. Seriously.)). Then, every adventure, I would shuffle the deck and draw a card, and see if I could work a hint about that secret into the scenario.

What’s a Secret

So, what do I mean by a secret? There were a couple of Dungeoncraft articles that explored this in some detail, but what it means for me is something that, if the characters knew it, would change the way the characters understand some part of the world. Ideally, this shift in understanding makes the aspect of the world more cool, and prompts the characters to action and adventure.

Secrets generally answer some questions for the characters, but tend to also give rise to other ones, peeling back layers in your standard onion-like analogy ((Problem for me with the onion analogy is that, with an onion, once you peel off the last layer of an onion, there’s nothing left. For a game, you need a core of pure cool to make sure that the players don’t feel the whole thing was a waste of time. Don’t ever waste your players’ time. Reward the effort they put into the story with cool. They will reward you right back.)). The questions reveal interesting things about the world, about the NPCs, about the bad guys, about whatever the secret is about, and will hopefully grab the characters’ interest, or at least draw their attention a little bit.

Let’s look at some examples. Say you create a pub that the characters are going to use as their home base in this town for the early part of the campaign. You write up a description of the building, some notes on the bartender and the serving girl and the cook, a quick list of regulars, maybe even a menu to lend it an easy touch of authenticity ((I’m always amazed how much authenticity you can throw into a game just by describing a few little touches of the mundane. In Broken Chains, I wrote up the contents of the three varieties of standard one-day ration packs that the characters’ military company used. Before long, characters had their favourites, would trade bits back and forth, and complain when I would arbitrarily tell them the quartermaster was out of a particular type. Don’t neglect these little details – five minutes thought can give you hours of great roleplaying.)). For a secret, you decide you want something big here, so you write down that the pub is on the site of an ancient underground prison where a demon has been sealed, and the bartender is actually the head of a secret order placed here to watch the prison and make sure nothing happens.

Now, of course, since you’ve made this a secret, something must happen eventually to start the prison opening. It’s a Chekov’s Gun thing. As play progresses, and more hints about this secret get into the characters’ hands, eventually they’re going to figure out the secret. And then they’ll look at their neighbourhood bar in a far different light. The discovery of the secret may also prompt them to take action – maybe go down into the dark to check on the prison, or go off to distant lands to get the Golden MacGuffin that can destroy the demon once and for all.

Not every secret needs to be earth-shattering, though. It’s just as good to have a small secret that the characters may uncover in short order. This gives them a more immediate reward for paying attention to the game world. In the example above, you could just as easily and profitably say that the secret is that the bartender is on the run from a criminal gang in the nearest big city for having refused the gang leader’s orders to kill a child in revenge for the child’s constable father undermining gang business ((I like The Replacement Killers. Do you like The Replacement Killers?)). It still changes the way the characters look at the bartender – he’s a former assassin, and he’s been handling their drinks – but it gives them a problem that they can help with at a lower level.

One important note about both of these examples is that they produce or increase emotional investment in whatever the secret is about. Usually, by the time the secret is revealed, characters will have been interacting with that element of the world long enough to already have some opinion of it, and the revelation of the secret will increase that dramatically ((Heh.)). It may also change the polarity of the emotion associated with the element: a villain turns out to be working to save the world, the friendly priest actually sacrifices children, whatever. Either way, if the secret is good, the cool is enhanced.

Some Secrets

I no longer have the Secrets Deck ((Or the setting document. Computer drive failure is vicious.)), but here are some examples of things that I can remember:

  1. The Mother and Father – the primary god and goddess in the cosmology of the world – had almost destroyed themselves working the magical cataclysm that destroyed the ancient Dragon King empire and freed the other sentient races from slavery. They have been slowly dying for the past 10,000 years or so.
  2. The Three Who Fled – Dragon Kings who had escaped the cataclysm by ascending to godhood as Lord Mourning, Lady Spite, and the Smiler ((Yeah, the naming and style are stolen directly from the Ten Who Were Taken in Glen Cook’s most excellent Black Company series.)) – had corrupted the current Primarchs of the church of the Mother and Father.
  3. Lady Elorewyr, ambassador for one of the kingdoms to the High Seat – essentially, this world’s United Nations – is actually a demon in disguise.
    The same kingdom, renowned for its harsh treatment witches (those with psionic power), was secretly run by a hidden cabal of witches serving as advisors to the noble families.
  4. The footprints of the saint of travel where he first set foot on the main continent had the power to transport any who stood in them anywhere they wished to go.
  5. A noble family in another kingdom were plotting to put their eldest son on the throne of the kingdom ((This one was especially fun, because said eldest son was one of the PCs, and we had some good times playing with his loyalty to family and nation. His duel to the death with his father is one of the highlights of the game.)).
  6. Four powerful oracles, the Weirds, were lost in the cataclysm, but could be found in hidden, remote locations, and would prophesy for those who brought them offerings.
  7. The ghost of a king who had gone mad and starved his capital city mostly to death was pinned to the mountainside where his rebelling citizens had crucified him, and was doomed to remain there until he had fulfilled a task set for him by the Mother and Father – delivering a message to the prophesied saviours of the world ((These were, of course, the PCs. Or rather, the PCs were in the running for this; I was playing with the idea of prophecy as a set of requirements, rather than a prediction.)).
  8. One Dragon King sought to aid the other sentient races in obtaining their freedom. Called the Turncoat, he prevented five other Dragon Kings from ascending as a five-part god capable of throwing down the Mother and Father, and has remained locked in battle with that creature in the 10,000 years since the cataclysm, at the heart of the blighted area in the centre of the continent.

Now, the first item and the last item on the list were the core of the overarching story of the campaign, as the characters slowly uncovered the secret of the dying god and goddess, and went to free the Turncoat from his eternal torment by defeating the Dragon King god. They don’t really illustrate the point of emergent storylines because of that, but still illustrate the use to which I put the Secrets Deck.

The Secrets Deck and Scenarios

So, armed with this deck, I would come up with a scenario, like going into the Blight – the area at the centre of the continent still stained by the magical cataclysm – to help a small group of settlers with their black dragon problem. Then I would pull a card, and maybe get secret #2, about the Primarchs of the Church being corrupted. I would then try to work in a hint about that.

How direct the hint would be was determined by how big the secret was, and how ready the characters were to do something about it. This one is a pretty big secret – the equivalent of the Pope and the Dalai Lama being revealed as satanists – and it’s not really a thread that the characters could pursue at the current level. In this case, perhaps the hint could be a village priest who is playing politics in the village, undermining the mayor and sheriff, playing up his status as the voice of the Church. This causes the characters to question the mandate of the Church, and they may do something to remove the priest. More importantly, it will sow a seed of doubt about the Church, and allow you to drop more clues that they will eventually assemble into a suspicion about the Church leadership, which will come into play at higher levels, when the characters may actually meet the Primarchs.

If, instead, I had pulled up secret #4, well, that’s something that I could be far more open about. Access to a great teleport point is a valuable thing to adventurers, but this is a stationary thing, so it’s not game-breakingly powerful. Still, I don’t just want to hand the secret to them. Maybe the hint in this case is a body dressed in the vestments of the travel saint’s order stuck in an old well in the ruins, skeletonized by scavengers, with a rotted, mangled book in his pack with a shredded page talking about him sneaking to use the footprints of the saint in order to follow up hints of a valuable treasure. Don’t say where the footprints are, so if the characters want to follow this up, they need to figure out who this priest is, where he’s from, and then go snooping for the footprints.

Now, it’s usually enough to drop in a single secret in a given adventure unless you’re trying to build connections between two secrets ((I’ll deal more with that in a later post.)). Too many unrelated secrets are distracting and misleading, causing players to make associations that don’t actually exist ((Although, they could, if they’re cool enough. I’ll talk about that in a different later post.)), and diverting them from the main goal of the scenario, whatever that is. If the adventure is really long, stretching over several sessions, you may want to pull another secret at the half-way point and lay in a hint about it in the last half of the adventure, when there’s sufficient separation from the first hint that it won’t confuse anything.

Other Uses of the Secrets Deck

Remember the original Keep on the Borderlands? Like many gamers my age, it was my first module. One of the things that really sparked my imagination was the table of rumours in it. There was a mechanic that could allow the players to know certain things about the hazards they would face in the adventure ((And some of them were wrong! THAT was sheer brilliance, in my opinion.)).

You can use your Secrets Deck either as a rumour table on the fly, or to pregenerate a rumour table that you can roll on when you want to, well, disseminate a rumour. Rumours work just like hints in scenarios, except they’re explicitly things that one person says to another, and they might be wrong. Even if they are wrong, they still draw attention to the element the secret is about, and that gives some information to the characters. It’s a subtle way of working in information, and some players really like the sense of accomplishment when they weed out inaccurate information from accurate information.

Now, rumours don’t just have to be things overheard in a bar or at the market. They can be legends, letters, ancient records, whatever. As long as it is information coming from one person to another (or many others). Patrick Rothfuss makes great use of legends about secrets in The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear, so take a look at those books for inspiration ((Actually, if you haven’t read those books, you should do so, whether you care about gaming or not. They’re great.)).

When I ran Broken Chains, I used the Secrets Deck to drop hints into the news stories in the campaign newsletter I sent out before each session, too. This plays into the idea of Sandboxes, which I’ll deal with in more detail in a future post, but mainly it was my way of accomplishing two things. First, it made me feel like I hadn’t wasted a whole lot of work ((Yes. Doing a whole lot of work on the newsletter was my way of feeling that I hadn’t wasted previous work I’d done. I don’t really know what the hell is wrong with me sometimes.)) coming up with all those secrets. Second, it helped me with one of the primary goals I have in any campaign, which is to make the world seem as if things keep happening even where the characters aren’t. I don’t really recommend doing a newsletter like I did – though it worked to great effect, it was a lot of effort – but if you’ve got a forum or wiki for your game, you could do worse than seed some news stories there, using the secret deck.

The Big Reveal

The revelation of a secret from the Secrets Deck should spur action by the characters. Which means, it should lead to an adventure that resolves the secret. The core of the secret should be cool enough, and compelling enough, that it motivates the characters to do something, and that something should be cool enough to merit the attention they’re paying to it.

For little secrets, like the former-assassin-bartender idea above, that can be pretty direct: go to the city, find the gang leader, and kill him. For big secrets, like the demon prison below the bar idea, it can be more involved: go down into the prison, find that the demon is stirring and has corrupted his jailer, so that the characters have to seek out other members of his order to get the information about the Golden MacGuffin, retrieve said MacGuffin from the Lair of Evil Badness, and bring it back to kill the demon and free the bartender.

Even little secrets, if the players are interested enough, can spawn involved adventures at their revelation. Instead of just killing the gang leader in the above example, maybe the characters have to dismantle his byzantine criminal network piece by piece, forming alliances with rival gangs and citizen groups to gather information and support for the final confrontation. If the players are extra-excited when they find out the secret, and immediately start putting together a lengthy and involved plan to deal with the revelation, sit back and let them plot, and savour that warm glow that you get when you create a moment in the game when the players care enough to go the extra mile. You’ve won roleplaying, at that point.

On the other hand, if they look at the revelation and go, “Crap. I guess we better take care of this before we get back to looting dungeons,” it’s time to hand them a simple adventure to resolve things. So maybe they just have to go down into the demon prison and defeat the Underdark invaders who are tampering with things, and then everything is fine again.


That’s about all I’ve got to say about the Secrets Deck. I’m off to GenCon next week. When I get back and get recovered, I’ll post about Sandboxes.

Meantime, you can look for some GenCon posts here starting on Wednesday when my friend Clint and I set off on our annual pilgrimage.

Let’s See What Happens: Emergent Campaign Storylines

Let me get this out up front: I like campaigns that tell a story.

When I create a campaign, I always try to have it tell a story ((Though, to be fair, it’s usually more like a series of books with a through-line of metaplot than like a single book, if you see what I mean.)). Sometimes, as with my Broken Chains campaign, I know what the end of the story is when I start the game, but sometimes, as with my Armitage Files campaign, I don’t.

But I need to.

Once upon a time, I ran an Unknown Armies campaign. It went very well, right up to the last few months, when it suddenly lost steam and petered out. In retrospect, I can see what the problem was: I had reached the end, but didn’t stop, and so the game lost power, motivation, and direction. I wasn’t able to provide a new direction because the story had been told, and I didn’t have another one to tell right then. I hadn’t recognized the end when it came up and bit me ((Really, I mean, I should have seen it. The PCs brave the mystic gates of Central Park to retrieve the gun that killed Dutch Schultz from the Lady in the Lake and deliver it to the True King of New York. Along the way, they face their deepest selves, and manage to destroy the doppelganger that had been haunting them since the first session. How did I not see that was the end of the story?)), and so the game died an ignominious death, rather than going out on a high note.

That’s why I need to have an end.

But what if I don’t have one when I start?

The Secrets Deck

Ray Winninger wrote a series of articles in Dragon magazine many years ago that should be required reading for anyone starting any kind of campaign. It was called Dungeoncraft ((I’m not going to include a link here, even though I think everyone should read it, because I’m not sure who owns the copyright to those articles. That said, thirty seconds worth of searching will find them on the web.)), and while it dealt mainly with D&D, there was a lot of great, solid advice in the series for anyone running any kind of campaign.

One of the best pieces of advice in those articles is the construction of a Secrets Deck. This is a simple idea: for each major thing that you create for your campaign world, come up with at least one secret about it, and write it down on an index card. Once you’ve done the initial brainstorming for your campaign, you should have a healthy little stack of cards. Then, when you come up with a scenario, give the cards a shuffle, draw one (or maybe two, if it’s going to be a big scenario) and work a clue about that secret into the adventure.

Now, how big a clue you work in will depend on how big and cool the secret is. If it’s something that affects the whole campaign, you’ll want to be subtle and careful with the clue, so that you don’t blow any big surprises. If it’s something that only affects a small portion of the campaign, it can be more blatant, and can lead to a short series of adventures as the characters follow it up.

I used the Secrets Deck extensively during Broken Chains, both working it into the adventures, and in the in-game newsletter that I distributed before every session ((This was called The Gazette, and had a number of news stories, a Q&A column, articles on history and legend, and a recap of the last session. Yeah, I made a new one before every session. I had a lot more time back then.)). It provided a number of side quests during the campaign, and helped me fill the time until the characters were tough enough to take on the big bad at the end of the story.


Providing lots of options is also important in developing the campaign storyline. The Armitage Files is a brilliant example of this, throwing mountains of unexplained clues at the party. City creation in The Dresden Files RPG does this in spades, and incorporates a heaping helping of the next couple of topics, as well. Now, on the surface, it seems kind of counter-intuitive to provide too many options when you don’t know where you’re going, but the reality is that it both reinforces the feeling that the world is bigger than the characters, and provides players with a sense of self-determination.

This latter bit is especially important as you start gearing up to a finale. If players can look back and see places where they could have made different choices, then they don’t feel railroaded into the climax ((This is true whether or not the choices would have made a difference or not. It’s all about the perception of free will. Which may be a topic for a future post.)). That, in turn, gives you player buy-in, and a much more satisfying finale.

Having lots of choices for players to explore also gives you plenty of places to seed in your secrets from the Secret Deck, which leads us to the next topic.

Watch Their Eyes

Once you’ve got your secrets and your sandbox set up, let the players loose, and pay attention to what catches their interest. See what clues they pick up on, and whether or not they want to follow up on them. After a few sessions, they should have enough hints that they start really paying attention to one or two specific threads that you can then flesh out, building them into more explicit ((Not that kind of explicit!)) scenarios. The smaller secrets may get resolved this way, and the bigger secrets can reveal more layers to themselves.

Don’t discard things that they didn’t pay attention to, though. Keep those in your back pocket for when you need them. There’s a special kind of GM glee that comes only when you trot out a plot development that you hinted at ten sessions ago, but no one paid any attention to ((Is this making any of my players nervous, yet?)).

It may seem obvious, but I better say it right out. If you collect the threads that your players like, you will have a collection of threads that your players like. Picking from these for the next step makes sure that you’ve got emotional investment in whatever your story turns out to be, because they’ve already bought into the constituent pieces.

Make Connections

Once you’ve got a good idea of which things your players are interested in, take a look at them for any common elements or themes. There’s usually one or two underlying similarities that can let you turn four separate mysteries into one grand conspiracy worthy of being the main storyline of the campaign. For example, in Broken Chains, I was able to tie corruption in the church, discrimination against psionics, and legends of an ancient kingdom into a single plot that had a demon backing a psionic clan secretly controlling a nation renowned for their tendency to burn psionic-using creatures at the stake. All of a sudden, three different problems came to a head in one vast conspiracy and a battle against a demon and her construct built of thousands of self-aware psi crystals ((Remember that one, guys? That was fun.)).

Once you’ve got an idea of what the main thread is, look at the other secrets – the ones the players didn’t pay attention to. See if any of them fit in, or could be made to fit in. Don’t go too far with this, though; it will start to strain verisimilitude if everything odd in the campaign traces back to one source. But look at rival factions, or themes that contrast nicely to accentuate the main theme. Look for something that you can tie retroactively into the main story, so that your players see that the threads reach all the way back to the beginning of the campaign.

Some themes are spelled out at the beginning of the game – DFRPG city building does this explicitly – while some emerge during play, like the ideas of higher dimensions and the nasty observer effect that’s coming up more and more in my Armitage Files game. Either way, you’ll see some commonalities coming up, so make note and use them. This lends your game consistency of theme, mood, and flavour ((Which is not to say you can’t break from these commonalities from time to time, but you’ll do it more deliberately, and everyone will recognize when you’re back on the main track.)).

Give Your Head a Shake

Once you’ve got that worked out, take a step back and look at your central story objectively. Does it work? Is it cool? Does it require stupidity on anyone’s part ((This is a surprisingly important question. Plots that require someone to be an idiot are bad plots. You will run up against players who will ask, “Yeah, but why don’t they just do X?” and all of a sudden you clever conspiracy is revealed to be completely hopeless. Rule of thumb: compare it to the Evil Overlord list, and look for similarities.)) ? Shore up the weak bits, add cool as needed, and pull out the stupid. Be ready to kill your darlings if they aren’t working, and always, always, always keep both the characters and your players in mind as you examine the idea for cracks.

I like to run through a few cycles of the Walt Disney Method with my fleshed out idea to make sure it’s workable and fun.

Discard Liberally

When you hit the play button, be ready to toss out a lot of what you’ve done. Players will, as players do, come at your story from an unexpected angle, with a strange plan, and completely unforeseen resources. They will bypass sidelines that would have given them fresh information, and run into areas that you haven’t planned, or even thought about.

If that’s the case, why do all the work? Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.” That pretty much applies here. With the planning you’ve done, you’ll have the foundation you need to adjust things on the fly, moving important elements into place for players to encounter them, and improvising with confidence when you get caught off-guard.

So, What Have We Got?

I find that, when I through the steps I’ve talked about above, I wind up with a campaign storyline that has emerged during play, and has the following advantages:

  • It fits the game that we’ve been playing. Because it’s come out of play, it’s got roots in the game, and everyone can see them. It also can look as if I had the whole thing planned all along, which just reinforces my sense of GM omniscience.
  • The players are invested in the story, because I’ve drawn it from the things that I’ve seen that they’re interested in during play.
  • There is less sense of railroading, because at least the early choices in the campaign were completely free. Characters remember that, and later constraints on their choices seem more like consequences of their actions, rather than GM fiat.
  • It’s flexible enough to handle what the character throw at it, because I’ve been paying attention to how the players play, and have a good enough idea of what’s going on that I can adapt it at need.

Last Words

Once you’ve got your storyline, that’s not the end of the job – it’s the beginning. The end comes when you and your collaboratively play through the story and find out what really happens.

Anyway, that’s my take on it, and what works for me. Anyone else have any tricks for pulling a throughline out of a campaign in a similar fashion? Let me know below.

Finding the Cool

I had the edges of this idea stuck in my head, and rather than lose it, I sent it out by Twitter:

Thought on #rpg – The game is not the story of my character. It is the story of our characters. We need to help each other find the cool.

A few people seemed to think that was interesting enough to retweet, so I kept mulling it over, trying to articulate exactly what I mean by that.

First of all, even though I haven’t stated it overtly ((At least, I don’t think I have.)), my view of roleplaying games is that they are vehicles for creating moments of coolness – cool characters, cool scenes, cool situations, cool adventures, cool villains, cool… whatever. They are cooperative tools for collectively evoking that coolness in play. They are the frameworks we use to construct fantasies that generate the kinds and flavours of cools we find most compelling.

This leads to the thought that we all have the same job in a roleplaying game: looking for, evoking, and highlighting the cool. Whether as players or GMs, we should be trying to add as much cool to the game as we can.

Now, this is all neatly sidestepping the question of what is and is not cool. That’s because the value of cool changes with each group, with each game, with each session, with each person. The functional value of cool is collectively determined through the process of play, and is not easily predicted or repeated. Indeed, repetition of a single cool thing often depletes the cool, devaluing it. Such is the nature of a subjective judgment.

But cool is like pornography: we all know it when we see it. So, if I don’t define what it is, exactly, I still have faith that you all know exactly what I’m talking about, even if your idea of it is completely different from mine.

Now, where the characters come in. I’ve been looking back over the course of my roleplaying career, and I’ve noticed an interesting progression in my play. This is highlighted by the fact that, in my extended gaming group, there are players at pretty much every stage of roleplaying experience, and I see some of the things I went through in their play ((I want to stress at this point that the things I’m seeing aren’t bad. They are legitimate ways of approaching and enjoying roleplaying games. I have just found other ways of approaching and enjoying games that I find work better for me.)). Couple that with the interesting way that games like Fiasco really sell story over character, and I’ve been doing some real thinking about how I play games.

One of the common approaches we take to games is that they are the story of the character we happen to be playing. And, to a degree, they are. And, just as in real life, we are the heroes of our own stories. So, we focus on how the situation affects our characters, and choose our reactions and options to reflect our characters’ objectives and desires. We make use of our time in the spotlight to push forward our characters’ narrative. And this pushes forward the group narrative, as well.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing the wonderful freedom that comes from playing a character that I’ve decided is a supporting character, rather than the main character. I know, it sounds like it runs counter to the entire point of playing in a roleplaying game, but it really doesn’t. In fact, I think it helps build more cool into the game.

In Fiasco, there usually comes a tipping point, where everyone figures out who the story is really about. I mean, sure, it’s an ensemble story, with everyone contributing to the overall plot, and everyone playing their character hard, going after what’s important, but one narrative thread usually presents itself as the most interesting and compelling out of the mess. When you spot that thread, the way to make Fiasco really work is to drive everything toward that thread and the characters it features. It makes the story cooler. When you don’t drive toward the obvious thread, when you instead keep pulling on your own character’s objectives without regard for that central emerging narrative, you wind up with several smaller, less cool stories.

Either way, Fiasco is fun, but one way produces a much cooler story than the other, and that produces more fun.

What this means in practice is that you sometimes must relegate your character to supporting character status if you want to bring out the coolest aspects of the game possible. So, for example, if it becomes clear that Frank, the dirty cop, is the main character, and the story becomes about his attempts to redeem himself, then I, playing his ex-wife Margaret, want to make that story as interesting, as cool as possible. That doesn’t mean that I play every scene with Frank, or always defer to him, or keep talking about him when he’s not there; but it does mean that, when my scene comes around, I want to do something that’s going to come up in the main storyline, something that will give Frank a little more to deal with, something that will give Frank an opportunity to do something cool. So, maybe I start dating the guy Frank just befriended.

See, that way, I’ve done something that fits with who Margaret is, and fits her narrative, but also adds a cool element to Frank’s narrative, because you know Frank’s going to find out and have to deal with it. The story becomes cooler for everyone ((And poor Margaret ends up with a broken heart and a black eye, while Frank winds up in the office of a movie producer with a gun.)).

But that’s Fiasco, right? It’s not like a normal roleplaying game ((Whatever those are.)). Sure, but does have a lot to teach us that is useful in a normal roleplaying game. Some big, valuable lessons about pacing, narrative control, scene structure, conflict, and dynamic tension.

And how to support another character’s storyline.

In a lot of roleplaying games, when it’s not your turn, or when the spotlight is firmly on someone else’s character, we tend to sit around, waiting for our turn. Sure, we pay attention, and maybe offer suggestions or commentary, and we enjoy the show, but really, we’re waiting for our moment to shine. When we come up to bat, it’s all about our character.

But it doesn’t have to be. Just because someone else has the spotlight doesn’t mean that we need to grab it back at the first opportunity. Or that we need to use it just to shine on us when we get it. We can take the opportunity to help another character be cool.

Because what I said earlier is true – the game is not the story of my character. Nor of yours. It is, collectively, the story of all our characters. In a good game, like in a good ensemble TV series ((Boston Legal was a great example of this, actually, and Leverage continues to be.)), each character is going to get some of the spotlight every session, but one or two – with their specific storyline(s) – are going to be singled out for the main focus. This allows each character to grow and develop as they move forward, and more to the point, allows the group as a whole to grow and develop. The dynamic and relationships will shift and change, deepening and broadening, making the entire thing feel more real. More cool.

See, this very interesting thing happened at the last New Centurions game. One of the players, introducing her character, told about how she was sent back to the past to help avoid a huge disaster. The disaster? Apparently, in her timeline, my character, a robot, fails catastrophically, blowing up Manhattan Island. Now, this was just something she had come up with, no input from me or the GM, and my initial reaction was… less than pleased ((I mean come on! She’s messing with my character!)).

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw what a gift she had given me ((So, thanks for that, Fera!)). I mean, she just added an entire layer of coolness to my character with that little idea. Suddenly, my character was not just an emergency rescue robot, he had this sword of Damocles hanging over him, and the relationship between our characters takes a strange turn into very complex – and interesting, and cool – territory.

It was part of her story, but it made her a strong supporting character in my story as well. It was something that she did that added to my cool.

So, I want to look for opportunities like that, now. In addition to focusing on my character’s story when I get my moments in the spotlight, I want to try and shine some of the spotlight on another player’s character, helping them to find something new and cool to add. I want to look for the cool in other PCs, in NPCs, in the situations and stories and environment ((Because GMs deserve some coolness, too.)). I’m not looking at turning my characters into incompetent fools just to make the other characters look good – I want to use the cool of my character to bolster the cool of others. Maybe this will mean some strange character choices – not always playing fully to my character’s strengths, giving in to my characters weaknesses a little more, maybe getting captured or hurt or whatever to give someone else a chance to be the hero – but I think it will allow more cool to be found in the story.

More to the point, I want to spend the time between my spotlight moments looking at ways that I can contribute to the cool things the other characters are doing, without stealing the spotlight from them. What support can I give that will make the other character cool? What can I say or do that will give them the opportunity or tools or ideas that let them take their characters to the next level of coolness?

Because the game is not the story of my character, although my character’s story is a part of it.

The game is the story of our characters.

And we all need to help each other find the cool.

Because wherever the cool is found, we all get to share in it.

STORY – Home Again

I made it home. Spent a lot of time sitting around the airport, thinking about writing. Spent a fair bit of time on the plane waiting on the tarmac, thinking about writing. Took a break during the flight to watch a couple of episodes of Carnivale on my iPod. Now, I’m home, doing my laundry, and thinking about writing.

Specifically, I’m thinking about my new novel.

I want to start fresh, after the seminar, and use the method and structure to see where they take me. To that end, I’m making notes about characters, scenes, the types of conflict, things like that. What I’m hoping to discover in the mess of ideas is what the story is about. Once I have that, I’ll have an idea about the antagonist (or forces of antagonism), and I’ll start to see the structure of the thing.

So, did I get what I wanted out of the seminar? Honestly, I dunno yet. I haven’t looked at the list, yet. Let’s do that now.

A better understanding of the underlying structures of story as put forth in the book. I primarily write short stories, with a single completed novel and half of another novel, and I find that thinking about things as Acts and Scenes and Beats doesn’t come naturally to me.

Check. His examples helped this sink home very nicely, and walking through Casablanca was very enlightening.

A better example of the way the elements discussed in the book work together to form the whole. There are tons of examples of each individual idea in the book, but they’re drawn from a number of different sources to illustrate individual points. The seminar features a stop-and-start viewing of Casablanca to analyze the movie scene-by-scene in light of the principles presented in class.

Check. Again, the viewing of Casablanca helped a lot, though there was a lot of time spent on the cinematic aspects of the movie. Fair enough; the seminar is primarily targeted at screenwriters, and I can see how useful and valuable that discussion would be. Some of it was interesting to me, some of it wasn’t. But the exercise gave some real insight into how everything fits together.

Discussion about the various points. Books are great, but a live tutorial session illuminates so many more elements of the material.

Check. Very much check. Several times during the session, I found myself thinking, “Oh, so that’s what the book meant!” Sometimes you just need to hear the right words the right way to really get it.

A renewed passion for writing. I’ve been a little bogged down, mentally, and really want this to recharge my batteries and get me excited about writing again.

Check, and check again. I really want to stay home from work tomorrow to get a full day’s work done on the new novel, but that ain’t gonna happen. Thank god for laptops and lunch hours.

Inspiration about the central conflict in a novel I’m working on. I’ve got a good idea for setting, some good characters, some interesting scenes, but no actual PLOT yet.

Kinda check. See, I don’t have the central conflict, yet, but I do have more confidence that it will emerge as I build and structure the novel using the method from the seminar.

See a little of Vancouver. I’ve got most of a day to walk around, and the hotel is near the waterfront, and Chinatown, and Gastown. I’ve never been to Vancouver, so I’ll be a bit of a tourist.

Check. I also got see one of the cruise ships pull into dock from the window of the seminar venue – it’s an experience I have to remember if I ever have to describe something huge and ponderous and building-sized moving. It was awe-inspiring.

Have dinner with my cousin. He lives there, and we’re going to a place called Sanafir. Once you get past the annoying (but pretty) intro, it looks like interesting food.

Check. Good food, good company.

So, that’s my trip. One last thing to tell you folks – on the taxi ride back to the Vancouver airport, I saw a sign that said, “Left turns restricted ahead. Use Hemlock.” I thought that was a little harsh*.

*I was tired and my head was full of literary thought. I make no apologies.

STORY – Day Three

So, it’s over.

Today was just as long as the previous two, but parts of it dragged more for me. This was simply because more of today’s topics dealt with things more specific to screenwriting than novel writing. Not that the ideas presented were not useful; they just really emphasized the screen over the page. Still, ideas about dramatizing exposition and events, minimizing and pacing dialogue, and developing subtext have real application in all storytelling.

But it was less directly applicable to me, and so seemed to go on longer.

Also, the food court at the venue was closed today, meaning the lunch break was a little more frantic, which meant it wasn’t as much of a break.

I sound like I’m complaining, don’t I? That’s not my intent. But three long days of lectures – even lectures on a subject you love by a fantastic speaker – are very tiring.

The viewing of Casablanca was everything I had hoped it to be. It illuminated a number of key concepts, and showed how the pieces fit together. 

It also highlighted what a deep, rich movie it is.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at my list of what I wanted out of the seminar and see if I got everything – tonight, I’m still a little to close to it. And tired.

I do want to say three last things.

First, what Robert McKee teaches is not difficult on a conceptual level. Learning the form and structure and techniques he teaches isn’t hard. But it opens up a whole depth and breadth of possibility and complexity – once the basics are down, you’ve got a lifetime ahead of you of working to master the form.

Second, Mr. McKee’s seminar (and book) will not fix your writing. It won’t fix anything. But it gives you a set of tools that you can use to fix your writing. It’s not magic. It’s a recipe for hard work to get better. Work that you have to do yourself.

And by you, I mean me.

Third, I shook Mr. McKee’s hand and thanked him for the seminar, and told him how much I enjoyed it. And he said to me, “Do something great with it.”

So, y’know, no pressure.

STORY – Day Two

Another very full day, and my head is buzzing.

The group seems to be relaxing a little more in the seminars; there’s more response to Mr. McKee’s jokes and questions, a little more conversation among attendees at the breaks, and just generally a looser feeling.

The subject matter is tightening up, though, getting into more specifics of the craft of building stories. Three-act structure, building mystery and suspense and dramatic irony, the principle of antagonism, handling exposition, stuff like that.

I don’t know how the man does it. My energy is flagging by the end of the day, and all I’m doing is sitting, listening, and taking notes*. He’s lecturing the entire time I’m sitting in the seats, and he’s still lively and energetic and interesting at the end of the day. A testimony to his stamina and the passion he has for the subject**.

The passion’s contagious. I’ve got a number of new ideas for my writing projects from the seminar, and I’m so eager to use them that I spent last evening, and plan to spend this evening, putting some of what I’ve learned into practice.

A friend of mine once told me that he tries to pick the moment in a seminar or session when he’s got his money’s worth. Sometimes it comes early, sometimes it comes late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. It’s a way to evaluate, on the fly, how much value the seminar has for you.

My moment came today, during the afternoon, when it finally clicked for me why the novel and a half that I’ve written so far weren’t working the way I wanted them to. I know how to fix it, too. I’m just not sure it’s worth the time to go back to that when I have a couple new ideas that I could start fresh with, and avoid those mistakes.

Anyway, one day to go, and half of that is going to be watching Casablanca, which I’m really looking forward to. Seeing all the pieces laid out on the workbench is no substitute for seeing how it all fits together in a working movie.



*Not as many notes as I had feared; I’ve got the book, and that covers a bunch of stuff. And a lot of the lecture is paraphrasing basic principles to make sure the point sinks home. And there are a lot of examples to illuminate the principles, and stories to keep everyone’s interest up. 


**I’ve used the word “passion” a coupe of times talking about Robert Mckee. Maybe it sounds melodramatic, but that’s one of is defining characteristics, at least during the seminar.

STORY – Day One

Wow.  That’s a long day.

Got to the venue just after 7:30 and registered. That was pretty early, so I got to hang out in the lobby for a while before finding a seat in the auditorium. And the session went a little long, so I was over there for about 13 hours in all. 

A long day.

And how was it?

I liked it. 

Robert McKee is intensely passionate about story as an art form. His love of it comes out in his presentation, as he swings from topic to topic and anecdote to anecdote. He is, by turns, gleeful and wrathful, frank and teasing. He draws you in and invites you to share his love of story.

He can be a real martinet about anything that disrupts the flow of his lectures – tardiness, cell phones, talking. His explanation is simple and harsh: he doesn’t want some attendees wasting the time of the other attendees. A laudable goal, in my opinion.

There’s a lot of material, and some real depth to the subject, and he’s got it all at his fingertips. He’s obviously been delivering this seminar long enough that he’s got most of it memorized, and needs to check his notes mainly to pull back to the main point when he follows a tangent or anecdote a little far afield. In short, he displays a complete mastery of the subject matter.

And what did we cover today? The basics. Things like discussing definitions so that we were all working from a shared vocabulary, and talking about what story is, what it isn’t, why there isn’t enough good story around, how story relates to the setting and characters and meaning and audience, and how to write from inside your characters.

Interspersed with this was a wide range of social and philosophical and political commentary, along with stories from the world of screenwriting. These are interesting and entertaining. In fact, his presentation reminds me of video I’ve seen of Richard Bandler, one of the developers of NLP, giving a seminar – he wove in stories and jokes and digressions until he had the right comfort level instilled in the audience, then moved on to the subject matter at hand.

And there’s a fair bit of profanity woven into the presentation. He explains that away by saying that there’s a part of him who is still a twelve-year-old boy that enjoys talking dirty in public.

One day in, and I’ve already got a number of ideas about how to move ahead on some of my writing projects. And the desire to do so. I’m going to try and make a start tonight, but I don’t know that I’ll get much done.

As I said, it was a long day.

Back in the saddle tomorrow.

STORY – Travel Day

Got up early today to catch the plane to Vancouver.  I realized yesterday that it had been a long, long time – better than ten years – since I had flown. This was brought home to me when people at work started asking me if I had stocked up on little bottles for my shampoo, etc.

Y’know, it’s a good thing that it was people at work telling me these things. If it had been my friends, they would have taken terrible advantage of my ignorance.

That said, the flight was pretty routine. Security took a little time to get through, and they swabbed my computer to test for “bad chemicals,” and the airline didn’t have any free food or drinks, but I got a window seat and I spent the flight listening to Night and Day by Robert B. Parker on my iPod. It was good.

And wow, was it something of a challenge to find my way out of the Vancouver airport. But I did. And then got a ride in a cab to the hotel, along with an earful about how much the Olympics are costing the taxpayers, and how expensive it is to operate a cab.

At the hotel, my room wasn’t ready. I hadn’t expected it to be, as it was only 10:00 a.m. and check-in time was 3:00 p.m. I really just wanted to drop my suitcase off and take a walk around the downtown. Still, they were very apologetic, and I wound up (when I returned from the walk), upgraded to an executive room, free of charge. Nice folks here at the Ramada. They also loaded me up with a tourist map and pointed out some things I should see.

And then on to my walk. I first scouted the venue for the seminar, to make sure I know where I’m going tomorrow. It’s about a three-minute walk from the door of the hotel, and looks pretty nice, though the actual auditorium was closed and I couldn’t check it out. I like being that close to it.

So, then on to a walk. I saw Chinatown, and the Steam Clock in Gastown, and the waterfront, and lots of the downtown area of the city. On the way in from the airport, I had been surprised at how much greenery there was everywhere. Less of that in the downtown area, but still some nice little parks*. The streets seem more claustrophobic than Winnipeg, mainly because there’s more tall buildings and hills.

Oy, the hills. Living in a city that’s flat as a table doesn’t prepare you for walking the streets of Vancouver. And it’s pretty hot here, today – it was about 28 C around noon. That made me pretty happy when I got back to the hotel and found out about the upgrade, which includes free water in the room.

So, now I’ve been resting up before meeting my cousin for dinner. Apparently the restaurant is about seven blocks away, which is a pretty nice walk. I’m meeting him at 6:30, so I’m gonna jump in the shower now and head out at 6:00.

And then back to the hotel to bed. Another early morning tomorrow.


Just got back from Sanafir. Three things to know:

  1. My brain keeps wanting to call it Sarafin, blending seraphim and paraffin into some sort of wax angel in my head.
  2. Tough to find. I walked past it three times, and finally had to ask someone. No real outside signage.
  3. The food and the service are both amazingly good. Heartily recommended.


*I almost got high on the pot smoke coming off Victory Park as I walked by.

STORY – Expectations and Objectives

I leave tomorrow morning at 8:00 local time for Vancouver, and the STORY seminar. I’m really looking forward to it.

Something I like to do with seminars of this nature is to set out what I want out of the event; that way, I know if I’m getting what I want, and I can determine if it was worth the time, effort, and expense.

So, what do I want out of this trip?

  • A better understanding of the underlying structures of story as put forth in the book. I primarily write short stories, with a single completed novel and half of another novel, and I find that thinking about things as Acts and Scenes and Beats doesn’t come naturally to me.
  • A better example of the way the elements discussed in the book work together to form the whole. There are tons of examples of each individual idea in the book, but they’re drawn from a number of different sources to illustrate individual points. The seminar features a stop-and-start viewing of Casablanca to analyze the movie scene-by-scene in light of the principles presented in class.
  • Discussion about the various points. Books are great, but a live tutorial session illuminates so many more elements of the material.
  • A renewed passion for writing. I’ve been a little bogged down, mentally, and really want this to recharge my batteries and get me excited about writing again.
  • Inspiration about the central conflict in a novel I’m working on. I’ve got a good idea for setting, some good characters, some interesting scenes, but no actual PLOT yet.
  • See a little of Vancouver. I’ve got most of a day to walk around, and the hotel is near the waterfront, and Chinatown, and Gastown. I’ve never been to Vancouver, so I’ll be a bit of a tourist.
  • Have dinner with my cousin. He lives there, and we’re going to a place called Sanafir. Once you get past the annoying (but pretty) intro, it looks like interesting food.

And for those who care about these things, I settled on two spiral-bound notebooks and a set of gel pens.