In my first article I hit the high points of how the BBC tells stories and how you can appropriate that for your games. In this article I’ll touch on how you can build up the material you need for a single session of play, and how your needs will differ depending on where you are in your game.
Building a single session
What you need are elements. What are elements? They’re the building blocks you assemble so you can either build your session before play starts or improvise your session during play. So what are these mystical elements? Let’s get a list going:
- A problem to solve.
- Setting to interact with.
- The tone you’re looking to make happen during play.
- Your Genre conventions.
- Your story arc questions you want to highlight.
- Any mechanics you need to help facilitate your session’s ideas.
- Any other things you might need to help you run the game.
A Problem to Solve
You need something for the PCs to deal with. Back to the Doctor – in The Eleventh Hour, capturing prisoner zero is the problem to solve with a scorched earth being the stakes the Doctor is dealing with.
Setting to Interact With
The small English village of Leadworth is where the The Eleventh Hour takes place, but it’s the people, Amy and Rory, the numerous forms that prisoner zero has taken on, and the Atraxi that the Doctor interacts with. So the setting consists of your people, places, and things. The important thing is to make sure you hit your themes and tones for your sessions using your people, places, and things which leads us to…
The Tone and Genre
Doctor Who has always been adventure fiction that mashes up or changes genres as it will, but this has always led to an underlying tone of fanciful whimsy. I find it best to pick a genre and tone I want to go with and collect my genre conventions, or tropes, and learn what I can about the tone I’m interested in so I can present those ideas to the players before play to help get them on board, and during play to help get them steeped in those ideas. The Eleventh Hour is an adventure romp all the way, touching on a number of Doctor Who tropes and hitting fanciful whimsy all the way through. Here is a website with a number of Tones you can choose to try and hit in your games.
Your Story Arc Questions
Pick a couple of story arc questions you’d like to highlight. How you’re using them will depend on where you’re at in your story arc, which I’ll talk about in the back half of this article.
If you’re going to have a timed scenario, such as the Atraxi are going to burn the Earth unless you capture prisoner zero, then you should probably have mechanics to help ratchet up the tension of the Earth possibly being burned to death. Inventing them can feel difficult, but just remember to keep it simple and you can adjust it on the fly if need be.
Other Things to Help You Run the Game
Maybe you’re playing a dungeon crawl series that hits a floor a week and tells the story of adventurer’s delving deep to retrieve something. That means you’ll need a map, possibly some stat blocks of monsters, devilish traps too overcome, etc. If it’s Doctor Who maybe you just want a list of things about the time and place the game will go to so you can drop in setting appropriate details. Maybe it’s a name list so you don’t have to have terrible names. It’s whatever else you need to be comfortable to run the session.
So those are the general items you need for a session. Now let’s chat about how your needs might change from early sessions of the story arc to your season or story arc finales.
In the first couple of sessions, try and get the story arc questions you’re most interested to see answered out there so the players can start thinking about them. Here are a few ways you can do this:
- The mystery of the unknown.
- The tension of a secret that could come to light.
- Something that appears over and over again.
There are others but these three are very effective. Now let’s go back to our Doctor Who example from part 1. In episode one there is a crack in the wall that is actually a crack to another dimension. It’s a pretty strange oddity but the Doctor deals with the crack by opening and closing it to seal it. If we are the GM of this game, we know the cracks are spread throughout space and time so it’s ok to have a simple solution to our secondary problem of this session, and more importantly we’ve introduced the idea of the cracks in the universe. Next time we have another one show up the PCs know something more is at work and maybe they start looking harder at the cracks in the wall. This hits the mystery of the unknown and something that appears over and over again.
Towards the end of the first episode, prisoner zero tells the Doctor the universe is cracked, the Pandorica will open, silence will fall. Once again hitting the mystery of the unknown and something that will appear over and over again.
At the very end of the episode the Doctor comes back to get Amy and she asks if they can be back on the same day. When the Doctor questions her she says she needs to be back in time for stuff. We find out that stuff is her wedding. That’s our second moment, a secret that creates tension that could be revealed. Amy also questions why the Doctor has chosen her. The Doctor counters by telling her he’s lonely but really it’s about the cracks in the universe and the role Amy might play in that. This is another secret that could be revealed.
This means at the end of one episode, or one session of play, we’ve introduced the story arcs of the cracks in the universe, Amy’s strangeness, and Amy running away from her wedding while seeding story arc questions using the three methods.
The middle sessions of a story arc are about information distribution, as far as the story arc questions are concerned. There is also a way to throw a curve ball at the PCs. Twist or complicate the story arc question.
So there’s a term called meta-plot that gets thrown around with shows like Buffy, Doctor Who, and the CW superhero shows. What they’re talking about is the story arcs of those shows. One of the story beats that happens often in these shows is there is some bit of information that is gained by the protagonists. That information turns into leads the protagonists follow while dealing with the problem of the week, which may or may not be related to the leads they’re following. This information can form a trail of clues which will lead to the resolution of the story arc.
This could also be a puzzle piece mystery that the PCs could figure out through leaps of logic. Maybe you have a timer going on in the background that the antagonists are working on. That way if the PCs figure out the mystery before the antagonists complete their plans you can reward them. Just look at your timeline, figure out how it benefits the PCs or thwarts the antagonists, and proceed forward. If you’re more improvisational just take a moment to think about what your antagonists were up to at that point, what advantages the PCs should get from getting to the conclusion early, and move forward.
The twist is a moment that changes the perceptions of a story arc and gives everyone pause. These twist moments complicate the story arc questions and create difficult choices and situations for the PCs. For instance, in our Doctor Who example, during the 7th episode the Doctor pulls out a piece of the destroyed TARDIS from one of the cracks in the universe. It’s a clue and part of the mystery of the cracks in the universe, but it’s also a revelation that’s very personal to the Doctor. To add another twist to this episode Rory is killed and then erased from existence by the crack in the universe. This completely changes one of Amy’s story arc’s that has arisen concerning who is more important to her, the Doctor or Rory.
Our final sessions of the story arc need to resolve our story arc questions. So this means if the PCs haven’t figured out the mysteries you’ve been putting before them or they’re just missing a piece or two of information so they can know who to put the beat down on or where to go to deal with their issues, it’s time to give it to them. It’s time to be a little more blunt or obvious and give those final answers.
For example, in the last episode of the Doctor Who season I’ve been referring to, River Song finds the painting of the TARDIS being destroyed and learns it’s connected to Stonehenge in some way and basically puts up a billboard in time to tell the Doctor to come find her there. The Doctor arrives and they find the Pandorica, he gets locked inside the Pandorica, and the TARDIS blows up.
Now here’s the thing. The Doctor never figures out why the TARDIS blows up. The Silence would have won if not for a whole lot of wibbly wobbly time manipulation and very special Doctor Who writing but if this was a game, then the GMs timer would have run out and the GM would have enacted their end game plan as prescribed above. So while it’s a story arc it doesn’t mean the outcome is predicted or assured. If this was an RPG the PCs might have discovered who the Silence were or how they planned on destroying the TARDIS and avoided it and thwarted them. Just another thing to keep in mind. Have an end goal and allow it to happen if it gets there, but never dictate the ending.
Issues that Arise
I’m going to pause here for a moment because I asked myself and feel like some of you other readers are also asking yourself a possible question. How do you keep the PCs from just barreling after the story arc questions? I like to keep the pressure on the PCs. They’ll want to pursue a story arc issue they know about and I’ll just drop in another problem that is more immediate and in some way personal or relevant to one of the characters. Now they can still pursue the story arc issue if they want, but they need to deal with the consequences of not handling the immediate problem. This is my preference for putting tough choices on the PCs.
If you don’t like putting those choices on the PCs then it’s about information distribution. When the PCs pursue the story arc problem you just need to keep feeding them bits of information while putting problems in the way of getting the information, or story arc questions that are personal to the PCs along with getting those bits of information. Those bits of information lead to the next bits of information. This is a trail of clues or trail of information as prescribed by GUMSHOE. You can even combine that into what I like to call a puzzle piece mystery where you keep distributing these bits of information and the PCs will eventually put the pieces together. If they make some logic leaps and figure out what’s going on early, then they gain some advantage going towards the story arc finale.
Time Keeps on Slipping…
So that’s part 2 and probably the last part of the BBC method of storytelling. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for how to make the ideas within better, please let me know. I’d love to hear them and thank you for reading.