Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.20: Branching Narratives

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

How do you give players meaningful choices while still keeping the story within a reasonable set of boundaries? In this episode James and Cassandra lead us in a discussion of branching narratives, and the ways in which we as writers can create them.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: Dan mentioned this collection of “Choose your own adventure” plot maps.
Howard illustrated the concept of “narrative bumper pool” in Tracy Hickman’s X-TREME DUNGEON MASTERY

A branching path which begins at point A, and ends at either point X, Y, or Z.
Narrative Bumper Pool from X-TREME DUNGEON MASTERY, used with permission.

Homework: Write a short “choose-your-own-adventure” story.

Thing of the week: The Planet Mercenary RPG, created by Alan Bahr, Howard Tayler, and Sandra Tayler.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Branching is what separates role-playing games from traditional stories, by letting players make choices. Like choose-your-own-adventure games. It’s easy to let possibilities multiply out of control, so you need to plan the endings and the pruning. Make sure you know the intersections or checkpoints that keep the story on track. Let the players make meaningful choices. Tie the big beats (story, character, or whatever) to the checkpoints where the paths converge. If you put something important on one path, make sure other paths have something of equal value. How do you make branches fun? One trick is branches within branches. Another is responses by NPCs that help make them persons, not just information sources. Use conditionals and callbacks to show that choices make a difference, that they have consequences and ramifications. Avoid hat economies, choices need to matter. The best reward is consequences. Leave room for the players to make interpretations. Objectives or item collection can give an illusion of control, an apparent freedom of choice, while still pointing the players in the direction you want the story to go. Consider using access as a consequence to help control the direction of the narrative.

[Season 16, Episode 20]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[James] Branching Narratives.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Cassandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[James] I’m James.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Howard] And I want to go left.


[Dan] So, we’re talking about branching narratives this week, which is a big part of the player choice we were talking about last time. Cass, where do we start with branching narratives?

[Cassandra] Branching narratives is, I think, over the years something I’ve learned to see as both almost a poem and a puzzle. It needs to be this elegant, very spare thing, but there’s just so much thought that goes into it. It is really what differentiates a role-playing game from a traditional story, because branching allows the players to step into the narrative and make their own choices. Kind of like those old classic choose-your-own-adventure games. But every time you give a player a choice, you’re kind of splitting off into two different realities. On paper, this doesn’t sound too bad. Life is an infinite split of possibilities, after all, but if you’re writing a game, you will not have a life if you follow that momentum. So every turn and every binary decision, these can quickly multiply out of control. As such, you need to have certain things figured out. Such as the ending where you plan to have people go, any early failures, and you need to kind of prune it, to make sure it fits the kind of format that feels both dynamic and elegant, and is still leading a player towards the information you need them to go. But if you do too much of it, players will notice that they’re being… Well, you’re leading them along. Sorry. James?

[James] No, like, I’m with you. I think, like what you said about pruning branches, you always need to be bending those branches back toward the main story you want to tell. You want to have things divide, but you want to think of it like links in a chain potentially. Where characters make a choice, and their paths diverge, and you can totally see the hand gestures I’m making, because podcasts are a very visual medium…


[James] But you diverge and then you bend those choices so they come back towards an intersection that I think of as like checkpoints that let you keep the story on track. So, for instance, if you give the players the choice of talking to the witch or talking to the Dragon, they can head off in those different directions, but you know, as the writer, that whatever they do in those two interactions, they’re still going to get request to go find Bigfoot. So then both of those paths will converge again on Bigfoot’s lair. So now, suddenly, you’ve branched apart, people got to make a meaningful choice, but now they’re back headed towards the direction you want to tell.

[Howard] Yeah. For my own part, it’s been helpful… I love the term pruning that you used, Cass, because there are… At times, you have to prune and remove possible choices, just in order to keep yourself sane. Other times, what you are pruning is choices that are no longer available because of a choice that the player has made. Then there’s the decision, like with Bigfoot’s cave, this is the thing I’m not going to prune no matter what gets cut or chosen elsewhere, this piece of the tree remains because I need it. Often it’s helpful when outlining these things to make decisions ahead of time as to which pieces you just can’t prune and which pieces you will be removing, you’ll be swapping out, or, if they decided to kill off an NPC versus talking to them, you have the option to file the serial numbers off of that NPC and have them show up elsewhere, so the dialogue you’ve written, the clothing you’ve designed, whatever, those assets can be reused.

[Dan] One thing that I want to throw out really quick as a resource, if… It was very hard for me initially to get my head around how to write a branching narrative like this, and specifically how to outline one. Until I realized that there are several websites that have mapped the full flowchart of all of the original choose-your-own-adventure books. You can Google those…


[Dan] And they’re these beautiful little just kind of line drawing look like a subway map kind of things. They really help you to wrap your head around this idea of how the story can branch apart and then checkpoint back together. It kind of helps visualize it in a way that helped me a lot.

[Cassandra] I did not know that existed.

[Mary Robinette] I’m just like the effort it was taking me to not Google that right now is…


[Mary Robinette] I want you to appreciate that I am not going down that branching narrative path.

[Howard] Well, I did Google it because I’m going to be told to include it in the liner notes.

[James] Well, I think one trick that’s important to remember for that is to, in the story you’re telling, tie the big story beats or big character beats or whatever that you want to make sure are in there, you want to tie those to your checkpoints. So you want to make sure that if there’s a crucial piece of character development, it doesn’t happen on just one branch, because you want to make sure that… To tell a successful story, if you know you have to hit certain key plot points, you have to make sure that they’re at those points where all the paths sort of re-converge or else you need to do it separately in each of the paths. But doing it multiple times is expensive.

[Cassandra] I would also say that if you’re insistent on let’s say not sharing a narrative beat or like something important to the story at a certain checkpoint and, like, you want to keep it exclusive for one node, the other node should have information of equal value and consequence. Players don’t necessarily mind it if they miss something if they get something else in return.

[James] Yeah.

[Dan] Okay. Let’s pause here for our game of the week, which I believe is coming from Howard today.

[Howard] It is. Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to create a Schlock Mercenary role-playing game. It’s something that I’d been asked about for a decade and a half until that point. So I sat down with Alan Bahr and we created the Planet Mercenary role-playing game. We looked at the possibilities of licensing a game engine from someone else or homebrewing our own. Ended up going with homebrewing. Because one of the things that I wanted to be able to do is create game mechanics that gave characters… Gave characters? That gave players the tools they needed to tell a story in the spirit of the Schlock Mercenary comic space opera. I wanted it to be funny. So we created the Mayhem deck and a whole bunch of fun materials so that… Our goal was I want you to be able, with your friends, to play a Schlock Mercenary game and have it feel like I’m there telling jokes with you. That was a pretty high bar to clear. I feel like we cleared it. Of course, I’m the authoritative source here.


[Howard] Alan recently with… He went on to form Gallant Knight games and has done lots of role-playing game design since, has released the Tiny Planet Mercenary rules set which uses many of the same tools that we created, but is in the… It’s a much smaller format. So there’s Planet Mercenary and Tiny Planet Mercenary which are both tabletop role-playing games in the Schlock Mercenary setting.

[Mary Robinette] Isn’t it pronounced [squeaky voice] tiny planet mercenary?


[Howard] Now it is. I think Alan might request that soundbite from us.


[James] All right. Thanks, Howard. So, I want to know, Cass, how do you make these narrative chains fun? How do you make them fun and interesting?

[Cassandra] Oh, there are a lot of different techniques. You… Once you know the scope of what you’re working with and how much you can play around with those dimensions, there are a bunch of weird little tricks. The simplest one being having branches within branches. When you’re talking to the witch, who will eventually lead you on towards Bigfoot, there could be a whole subsection where you kind of coax her into discussing who she is, why is she there, and that can be a whole thing. Or… This is something that shows up in one of the games that I wrote that unfortunately fell through because AAA is full of games that die without anyone ever knowing its name.


[Cassondra] I had a character there with prosthetic limbs, and there was always this option where you could ask him, “Hey, why do you have a prosthetic limb?” And he would give you progressively sillier and sillier answers constantly. I think for about 50 or 60 loops. Finally, as you get to the end of it, he just goes, “Really, this is none of your business, snoop,” and just shuts off that entire dialogue chain, stopping you from repeating that whole thing again. Little tricks like that show up very often in video games to really build up a sense of this is a real person versus just an NPC that is regurgitating information for its use. Has anyone else seen like interesting things in branching narrative design?

[Mary Robinette] I have, but I actually wanted to pause to ask a question that I should have asked last episode. You used the phrase AAA games and I realized I have no… I can extrapolate what that means, but I don’t actually know.

[Cassandra] Oh, basically games by companies like Ubisoft, Warner Bros., Bioware, things that tend to involve 100, 200, 300, or, in Ubisoft case, several thousand people in its production. So, usually, really, really high budgets, of a number that absolutely terrifies the crap out of me.

[Mary Robinette] Great. So it’s a metaphor that is related to baseball, not to automobile repair?


[Cassandra] Yes?

[Or batteries]

[Dan] AAA games are the ones that can help you get your car off the highway.

[Howard] All games are physics simulations.

[James] So, having never worked on a AAA game, I want to throw out something that you can do that is cheap, and it doesn’t require a team of a thousand people, which is conditionals and callbacks can be a really great way to make things feel significant. What I mean by that is when the players make a choice, just putting some sort of little tag or reminder in their so that later on in the game, something can be different depending on their choice. So if you insult the witch and the first scene, when you took that branch, just having something towards the end of the game where you run into the witch again and she goes… She clearly dislikes you because she remembers that you said that thing. That can be one line of dialogue, but it suddenly makes the player feel like, “Oh, this is a real world with real consequences. Because a choice I made a long time ago is continuing to have ramifications.” It wasn’t superexpensive. It didn’t lead to a whole new branch. It was just one thing that was tweaked. Similarly, if somebody picks up a different item or gains a different ability or even just has like a shifted NPC attitude, anything you can do that calls back to a decision a player made earlier feels like a reward, even if they didn’t get anything. Because you’re reminding them, like, “Hey, we’re paying attention to what you’re doing. Your choices matter.”

[Howard] Yeah. One of the things that you see a lot in big MMORPG titles is what my friend Bob calls a hat economy. Which is, you can spend money to get hats, to get costumes, to get outfits, to get whatever. These have no bearing on the story. They’re just this is how I want my character to look, and I have spent the money, so now I have a new costume. When you present a choice to a character, what they get needs to be more than just a hat. It can’t just be, oh, I beat the game wearing red clothing. Oh, I beat the game wearing blue clothing. The choice has to matter.

[Cassandra] The best reward is always consequences. I am curious if anyone else has tips and tricks and things they’ve learned from writing branching narratives?

[Mary Robinette] When I was working on… I did the dialogue for Hidden Path, and it was a game called Brass Tactics which is in VR. The thing for me that was interesting about it, because it was really the first time that I had attempted to do this, was that I needed to be able to really create space for the player in that they could interpret one of the lines of dialogue that the NPC was delivering to them, that they could interpret it in multiple different ways depending on their own emotional state in that moment. Trying to figure out how to sculpt things that felt like they were… That inherently belonged to the character who was speaking them, knowing that an actor was going to imbue them with meaning, but also then leaving enough space. So, like, sometimes it would be something as simple as, “Oh, is that the choice you’re making?” That leaves room for the character… For the listener, for the player, to think, “Wait. Does that mean that I should make this choice? Or are they trying to fake me out?” It’s… That’s all about what the player is bringing to it. But whereas saying, “I wouldn’t make that choice if I were you,” that is not leaving space for the character… For the player to bring their own interpretation to it.

[James] Yeah. Going back to something that Dan had said in the previous episode about incentivizing players to sort of go the directions you want them to go. I think it’s important, you can use things like objectives or item collection or other requirements to kind of maintain control of the story while still allowing an apparent freedom of choice, that illusion of control. What I mean by that is, like, let’s say you got players that need to steal the crown jewels from a castle vault. You want to make sure, like, you detailed the whole castle. That’s the game. You want to make sure that people hit all those areas and don’t just bypass it. So you could force them to go linearly, where you say, “Okay. Well, they’ll go in through the tower window, the fight their way all the way down through the castle to the vault, and that way they’ll hit everything along the way.” But that’s a very linear, railroad-y sort of approach. A thing you could do instead is give them multiple options for how they break into the castle. Maybe they sneak in through the moat, maybe they sneak in through the gate, maybe they go in through the tower. But either way, if they somehow managed to get to the vault without going through all the castle stages, then when they get there, they discover, oh, you still need to get the key which is up in the Queen’s chamber. So they’re going to have to hit all those same encounters you designed, just from the other direction as they go back up to the top. So you still sort of force them to go through all the things that… The challenges that you designed, but you’ve done it in a way that made them feel like it was their choice.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I was thinking, as you were talking, that access as a consequence is a way of controlling the direction of the narrative. Shadow Point Observatory, which I’ll talk about later, is one of those where your reward for figuring something out is access to the next layer of the puzzle. It also feels like… They also managed to tie consequences to feeling, like, oh, no, I’m not going to get there. But you can… But there’s multiple paths to get to that access point.

[Dan] This has been a really wonderful discussion, but I’m going to cut it off here. Thank you so much. We have some homework now. I believe it is Cass.

[Cassandra] Yes. I would like everyone to write their choose-your-own-adventure story. You can use any of the multitude of pre-tools that are available on the Internet right now, including Twine, [Inkle?], and probably a whole number of things that I don’t know about, because there are a lot of indy engines out there. Just check out the websites and see what it’s like to make your own story.

[Dan] Great. That sounds good. All right. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.