Your Story Sucks

In industries that buy stories, 99% of the submissions are rejected. Sometimes the stories are good but don’t fit the buyer. Most of the time, the story is the problem.

Often, the first person to read a submitted story is the person on the bottom rung of the business. In the publishing world, these are interns or “assistants.”

In the film business they are called “readers.” The readers are given a pile of manuscripts and told to seek a gold nugget among the turds. Screenplays rarely get past the first ten pages before being rejected.

Even professionals turn out junk. If you didn’t watch the linked video, Daniel describes how most of the scripts he would reject were sent to his employers by agents and producers. These weren’t hopeful amateurs praying to break through. The screenplays were written by pros.

Studios spend millions of dollars making films that are garbage. Screenplays written by veteran writers with film degrees, who spent months getting the script just right. A string of readers, development executives, directors, producers read that script and decide it’s good enough to risk a huge pile of cash. Actors read the screenplay and decide its worth their time and reputation to appear in the film. Hundreds of professional storytellers working together to make a $100,000,000 pile of dooky.

What does this have to do with role-playing games?

If you think the game is about “your story”, then you are in trouble.

Why? Because “your story” is probably shit.

Creating good stories is hard. Good stories require a lot of time and effort.

Trained and experienced storytellers bleed for years to learn how to create great stories.

You, a game master who took an “introduction to the craft of fiction” as a freshman in college are likely to create a story that a fanzine editor wouldn’t read for more than two paragraphs before tossing it in the bin.

I have good news.

Role-playing games aren’t stories. They are games.

The events that take place in role-playing games can, and often do, create stories. Good stories, sometimes.

Stop trying to create a story. Create a situation with adversaries and obstacles the players need to overcome. Give the adversaries some resources, minions, advantages, weaknesses, personality flaws. Scribble out a few maps. That’s it.

Game masters can create context with stories. It is helpful to have a shadow of a story about what happened before the PC’s arrive on the scene but you don’t have to. A sentence or two to provide context is all that is necessary as long as you have interesting problems for the players to solve.

Even that isn’t necessary. You can have a great time with a random dungeon generator and zero context.

Stories have all kinds of complicated problems that can take months or years to work out. Theme, dialogue, scene sequences, five act structures, reversals and on and on.

When you play a tabletop role-playing game; treat it like a game and you might get a decent story.

If you try to make the game about “your” story, what you are likely to get is a bad game and a bad story.

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