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.

8 thoughts on “Your Story Sucks

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  2. Tyler Hanson

    I just discovered your blog, and I’m enjoying it!

    I don’t exactly disagree with this, but I think it creates a strange message. Sure, most people are going to write bad stories, but most people are ALSO going to write bad games.

    Being bad at something isn’t a good enough reason by itself not to do it.

    Like

    1. Hi Tyler! Thanks for reading my blog. I appreciate it and I appreciate that you took the time to comment.

      I completely agree that being bad at something isn’t a good enough reason not to do it. The only way you go progress from Shit to Suck is to practice the thing you are bad at. I have some more to say about that in one of my recent essays that I wrote for email list subscribers. If you’d like to read it you can get access by signing up for my newsletter. Link in the sidebar. The specific essay is called _Talent, Skill, and Success_.

      Where I disagree is your assertion that most people are also going to write bad games. Specifically, bad campaigns and adventures. Adventures and campaigns are MUCH easier to create than a story. The game, that is the mechanics and the settings (implied or built in depending on the game) provide the structure of the adventure scenario and campaign.

      The game master needs to provide 1) A Goal 2) An Obstacle 3) Interesting Decisions for the Players to Make. Then respond to the players decisions based on the characteristics of the NPCs, Monsters and the setting. And that is it. Super simple really. It does require a lot effort and time but it isn’t nearly as complicated and difficult as writing a story. Game designers and adventure scenario publishers like to make it seem harder than it is.

      What I am getting at is… If a game master tries to write a story rather than treating the game like a game; They will almost always get a bad adventure scenario/campaign and a bad story. Even experienced game masters will create a bad adventures/campaigns this way.

      If instead, they treat the game as a game, Then they are exponentially more likely to create a good (even if only satisfactory) game experience that produces stories that emerge from the experience of play. It is a weird paradox but good play produces good stories and good play is much easier to achieve than a good story if that is what you set out to produce in the beginning.

      Thanks again for reading. I’m glad you enjoy it and I hope you get some useful ideas.

      Like

      1. Tyler Hanson

        Well, it’s nice to have a discussion, and I appreciate that we just might not see eye to eye on this. It’s good food for thought. I’m going to give one more stab at explaining my perspective.

        We agree on the process of creating a good game: build an adventure or level or map or situation for players to play a game in. Stories are for reading or listening to!

        However, I don’t think people are naturally better at creating game levels than creating stories. We learn to craft stories from a young age, and it’s an integral part of our social interactions and some of our academics. While we do craft game adventures as we develop, it’s much less of a focus, and there is often little guidance.

        This is why people default to trying to create stories! It’s so much more natural. GM’s struggle to create non-story adventures and seek tons of help to find a way to make it easier. This is true in lots of games, not just rpg’s. You can see an overwhelming amount of badly designed levels for the video games that enable design and sharing within the game.

        My point is just that the reason stories are bad for adventure design is not because of a certain writing skill level. They’re bad because they aren’t functional, even when they are excellent!

        Liked by 1 person

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