Recently, Emma Coats — a storyboard artist at Pixar — tweeted a bunch of tips for telling good narratives. They’ve gotten collected into a list of 22 story basics (she has more if you check out her twitter) and they’ve exploded all over the internet. kirkdent even suggested it over on our Suggestion Pot.
The tips are great for any type of narrative, and we’re all big fans of learning things about roleplaying from other mediums. So here is Emma’s list, with some analysis and lessons from Kurt and I. We’ve split this into 2 articles because the list and gnome comments got a wee bit lengthy. You can find part 1 here.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- John: Electricity, water, and ideas flow down the path of least resistance. If you think you can do better than the first idea that pops in your head for an encounter, you probably can. Princess gets captured, PCs sent to find her… Princess runs away, PCs sent to find her… Princess is in love with a monster race, PCs encounter them running from guards in a madcap chase through the city, but the peasants stop the guards and the PCs are caught up in the conflict.
- Kurt: The players will probably have the exact same ‘first thing come to mind’ as you often do, so skip ahead a few jumps and make things really unique.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- John: The more defined and unique your NPCs are, the more memorable they are. Even if they seem too crazy and out there, the players will remember them.
- Kurt: NPCs are people, too! Give them likes, dislikes, desires, fears, and dreams. (Shameless Plug)
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- John: Your story should be important to you – important enough to run it, important enough to want to put it before people, important enough to let those people wreck it to shreds in front of you.
- Kurt: I’d try to avoid looking at the campaign arc as your story; the players have a claim on it as well. But a campaign arc or setting that you really care about will keep you working on it and polishing it until it gleams.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- Kurt: This bit of advice is great for the players, but remember that NPCs have internal motivations, and don’t just help the party because it moves the plot along. If the NPCs are acting in ways consistent to their motivations, things feel more believable.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- Kurt: Give the group something to fight for. Make it visceral. A horde of goblins is boring, but what if it’s a horde of baby-stealing goblins about to attack the orphanage your party founded (or grew up in). Throw in the fact that the city guard is busy at the city walls, and you’ve got buy-in.
- John:You’ve got to evoke feeling in the situations you are setting up. If there aren’t enough reasons for the PCs to care about the situation, it becomes just another spate of rolling the dice to succeed against an obstacle. Like Kurt said, if you make them care by raising the stakes… Just imagine the reaction to describing a hungry goblin looming over a child, while a blood spattered goblin is gnawing the last meat of the bone of a 3 year old…. Wow, watch the PCs jump in to start kicking ass.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- Kurt: ‘Nuff said! If some element (NPC, critter, plot, encounter, location, etc) doesn’t fit, you don’t have to throw it away. Recycle that sucker; the players won’t know that you came up with it last year.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Kurt: This isn’t a direct correlation, because gaming is not exactly storytelling. Is all that time you’re spending on polishing the descriptive text (or whatever prep you’re doing) better spent elsewhere? Are you writing it because it’s more fun than grinding out stats? Is that little nagging plot hole bothering you? You know, the one that the players will probably never see, and will ignore if they do?
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Kurt: This was my best take-away from the entire series. Players will ignore the most improbable coincidences when it comes to setting the stage. But nothing rips the soul out of a game like a deus ex machina moment.
- John: I’m a big fan of this one as well. Players will grab any hook you throw them and ignore the obviousness of it as a hook to progress the story. They don’t want to be pulled from the danger though. They want to fight their way out. Even if you have to provide help to them, make sure it is in a way that lets them know THEY are responsible for the victory.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- Kurt: Even the worst story has something good in it. Challenge yourself to find that good.
- John:Borrow From other places. Even the games you don’t like to play have something to teach you. I dislike playing under the auspices of the old WOD metaplot, but there are some brilliant things there to learn about storytelling and world building. Trying to wrap your head around why someone that you don’t get works for someone else will broaden your horizons and help you appeal to players who don’t share your same tastes in gaming.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
- Kurt: In gaming, we don’t get to dictate how the player characters act, but we can certainly appeal to their motivations. Know your players, their characters, and you’re halfway to leading them towards the plot.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
- John: To me, storytelling in gaming is collaborative. The Game Master builds the core and helps mold it, but so many of the details come from the players. Prep core elements, add relevant details, and change things based on player cues. You need to know the essence of your game, but you can let the details change as it goes along.
- Kurt:Apply this to descriptive text, if nothing else. Don’t get lost in the cool details, describe what’s important, and go from there. In campaign design, make sure every encounter and scene has something to do with the campaign arc, even if it’s just local color in order to show the players that the locals are real people worth saving.
Final note: One of the biggest things I took away from the original list is that there are multiple ways to tell stories. What works in one scenario or for one group won’t work at a different time. There is no one right path to follow, but knowing elements of many paths helps you to decide what to do at any given moment.
We’d love to hear your insights and takeaway gaming lessons from the Pixar 22 story basics list. What sort of things can you pull from this for gaming? What other narrative tips influence your gaming or what sources have you picked up lessons from?