Writing Excuses 12.21: Narrative Bumper Pool, with Bill Fawcett and Carrie Patel
Key points: Writing for games, interactive storytelling. Narrative bumper pool — choices, but constrained. Branches and funneling. Vines! Different choices, but similar results — every choice leads to the valley. Wide range of choices, different interactions, but common outcomes. No binary choices — not yes or not, but do you want this sandwich cut into squares or triangles? Consider your verbs — what are the ways the player interacts with the game? Don’t forget the rewards! Story events, boondoggles, and a compelling reason to go where you want them to go. Lots of rewards. Being able to make your mark on the story world. Make the player actions move the plot forward, discovering, conquering, doing things. Rebuilding! Beware ephemeral mayfly questing.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 21.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Narrative Bumper Pool, with Bill Fawcett and Carrie Patel.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And with us we have Carrie Patel and Bill Fawcett. Say hello.
[Carrie] Hello. Great to be here.
[Dan] Awesome. You can probably tell which is which from their voices, but…
[Bill] She’s taller.
[Dan] We’ll give them a second. Carrie, start with you. Tell us about yourself.
[Carrie] So, my name is Carrie Patel. I’m a narrative designer and writer at Obsidian Entertainment, which is a game development studio. We’re known primarily for our RPG’s. Most recently, I worked on Pillars of Eternity, which is an old-school style, top-down, isometric tactical RPG. Wrote for that, as well as the expansions, the White March part one and two. I’m also a novelist. I’ve written The Buried Life and Cities and Thrones for Angry Robots. I’m really excited to be here.
[Dan] Awesome. We’re really excited to have you. Bill, tell us about yourself.
[Bill] I’m a game designer. I founded Mayfair Games. I worked for TSR before that. I am an author. I a lot of fiction books. I do a large number of nonfiction books about the great mistakes in history. I’m also a book reviewer.
[Dan] Bill is the kind whose resume outweighs all the rest of the three of us combined. So… Our resumes, and, I guess, our actual corporeal forms.
[Bill] Uh, yes.
[Dan] He’s done everything.
[Bill] This is a function of age, not accomplishment, my friends.
[Dan] So I’m very excited to have the two of you together because one thing that we haven’t had a lot of chance to talk about on the podcast before is writing for games and… Specifically, what interests me about that is a form of interactive storytelling. When you are trying to write a story such that someone else will be able to tell part of it. Whether that is a role playing game, or a computer game, or whatever the medium may be. Howard, where did narrative bumper pool come from?
[Howard] Tracy Hickman, who worked for TSR… Did you and Tracy work together at TSR?
[Bill] No, I knew Tracy… I worked for the Dragon.
[Howard] Anyway, he was… He wrote a book called XDM, Extreme Dungeon Mastery, where he talked about story design for dungeon masters. The idea was if your players make decisions that take them so far outside of what you’ve written that you need to begin writing on the fly and creating more world as you go, it starts to drag. So he encouraged us to build things using what he called narrative bumper pool, where you start at point A and you can decide either point B or point C. From those edges, you can’t go further out. You get reflected in. From the top down, it looks a little bit like a Christmas tree. Where you start at the star, and there’s decision points as ornaments. But you can’t get off the tree, and when you get to the bottom, you are at one of several points along the bottom, based on the decisions you’ve made. The thing that fascinated me… I illustrated the book for Tracy. It was the whole reason I got to come to GenCon back in 09. The thing that fascinated me about this is that you could look at those endings and write some very, very different endings, but in terms of the narrative structure, they were adjacent. Does that make sense? There’s a sense of adjacency. But it never felt like linear. It didn’t feel like you’re being railroaded through the story. When I saw that from Tracy, I looked at some of the video games I’d been playing and realized, “Oh, my gosh. Tracy has named a concept that appears to already be in use.”
[Dan] Let’s ask. So, Carrie, you work in video games. Is this a concept that you use when you’re structuring a story?
[Carrie] I haven’t heard the concept by that name. But one thing that we do have to be aware of is when you’re presenting the player with a quest or a bit of content, especially for an RPG where the player is expressing themselves by creating a character and playing the way they want, what are the things the player is reasonably going to want to do and what does our game engine, what do our mechanics, allow them to do? The kind of thing you described, Howard, in video games, the complexity and the expense sort of gets multiplied because each of those endings is something that you have to script, you have to create content, write dialogue, maybe record dialogue, do cut scenes, and then also account for it in the reactivity that comes along after the quest. So I think we look for ways to branch, but we look for ways to branch smartly and intelligently, and to funnel. To kind of get the player to a number of endpoints that will feel good, feel like we’re anticipating the reasonable things they might want to do, without just letting it go all over the place.
[Howard] Now, when you say funnel, you’re talking about they’ve reached the edge case, and you’re finding a way to bring them back in, back towards where you’ve coded something and scripted something and recorded something that will describe what’s going to happen next?
[Bill] It’s limited choices. You limit your choices. This goes back… Back in the age of dinosaurs that I’m referring to in my career, to the Chosen Path books that were effectively role-playing games before we had computers. You chose five or six different choices, but you constrained the choices. You described it as a tree, which is really an illusion. Because what Carrie and I do is we create a vine. You are traveling along a parallel vine to reach a number of parallel but very closely related final end results which allows us to manage graphics, text, and also the situation the character is in so that you can write the next one. Because you’ve only got a limited number of opportunities. But you’ve got to put in enough choices that are distinct enough to feel like you have the illusion of making a wide range of choices, when, in reality, you’re moving down a fairly narrow pathway of parallel things.
[Dan] That is fascinating to me. There are elements of this kind of storytelling that I know in the past I must have used, because I’ve been the GM for my game group forever. But apparently, I wasn’t using them well enough to know what you’re talking about. What are some of the things then that people can do, if they want to start creating stories for games or for any kind of interactive format? What are some things they can do to create that vine and to lead people that way? While still giving players the choice?
[Bill] Perhaps the best insight, and I think Carrie uses this in some of what she’s done that I’ve seen in some of these things, is that you can give choices that are very different as long as they end up eventually at similar results. You can go up the mountain, you can go under the plateau, you can go in the cave, you can swim the river, all of you end up within a series of one valley that’s on the far side. So you bring it back in. So if you’re going to design a role-play for your D&D group or you’re doing a game or you’re doing an interactive book or you’re doing a LARP, which is the same effect. When I helped work with one of those, you design it so that there are a wide range of choices that can have different interactions in them. I can have to deal with one thing here in one thing there. When I get to the end, I’m basically in the same place.
[Dan] What this is reminding me of, more than anything else, is actually some really good parenting advice that I got. I have six children. One of the things that I learned early on is that I don’t present them with binary choices. You don’t say, “Do you want a sandwich?” You say, “Do you want this sandwich cut into squares or triangles?” Then the child doesn’t really have the chance to say, “No. I don’t want a sandwich. I want spaghetti.” “Well, I didn’t make spaghetti, you’re getting a sandwich!”
[Howard] I can cut it into really, really thin pieces and you can pretend it’s spaghetti.
[Howard] But I’m not going to. Squares or triangles?
[Dan] So, just because of the kinds of decisions… You say, “Here, players, there’s a city. Do you want to go to it or not?” And they say, “No.” Then you’re like, “Well, that F’s up three weeks of work. What am I going to do now?” So, Carrie, what about you? What are some of the things that you used to help provide both choice and direction at the same time?
[Bill] How do you compel them?
[Carrie] Huh. Isn’t that the question? Well, so I think one question you have to ask yourself at the beginning is what are the verbs of my game? Like, what are the key ways that the player interacts with this game? Do you explore? Do you shoot? Do you sneak? Do you talk your way through problems? You try and design solutions that let the player experience a variety of those verbs in any given batch of content. That give the player different ways to move through it, using those core fundamental elements of your game play. Sometimes I think that when you’re designing a game, as much as anything, you’re designing sort of the world and the environment. Like you’re working on the negative space as much as the positive space. So you’re saying, “This is the world you exist in. These are the problems it has. These are the ways that you have to interact with it.” Now we’re just going to give you… We’re going to give you different things to do, and it’s up to you to sort of decide how you want to tackle them.
[Bill] So, the secret is to equip your characters with enough to make or facilitate a range of choices. It’s your vine with many routes. If you only give them one choice, shooting, it’s a straight line, and it’s a shooter. The only choices you have are what direction to shoot and where to move. Whereas you get a game like Carrie’s or like say the old New World Xeen games that we worked on, and in those games, you gave them seven or eight options of the kind of thing they could do, or 4 or 5 depending on your graphics budget, and then you put the choices to let them use those in various ways that will again get them to that valley on the other side of the mountain.
[Howard] One of the things that… I think it’s important to recognize that if the character… He could go over the mountain and end up at the valley. He could go under the mountain and end up at the valley. He could go around the mountain, end up at the valley. It’s always the same valley. The character will feel cheated unless they went around the mountain and they got boondoggle A, they go over the mountain, they get MacGuffin B, they go under the mountain, they get eaten by a grue and they show up dead in the valley as a ghost. When you define these points of confluence, not just as locations where story events will take place, but as locations where based on how we got here, there can be… I assume it’s… In videogames this is done just by objects in the character database somewhere. What has the character become on the way here, and how is this going to inform this scene? You pare that back to… Again, I’m making assumptions… As few lines of recorded dialogue as possible, because that’s incredibly expensive. As few new pieces of art as possible, because that’s really expensive.
[Dan] I think key to making all of those various choices work, if they’re all going to end in the valley, then there needs to be… Like Bill said, you have to compel them. There needs to be a compelling reason that they want to get to that valley. Because otherwise, well, why couldn’t I choose to go somewhere other than the valley? You need to be leading them along with some kind of cool carrot.
[Bill] A game that doesn’t feel good, not like she does. But a game that doesn’t feel good only lets you go to the valley because you’re constrained to what you can get to next. Those old directed games… We’re talking the 80s here now, when we were very, very limited. Those old directed games had a very artificial feel to them. Now to answer your question, and how we do it on budget is if I go through the water, I get the blue armor with the special effect. Now none of these special effects are important enough to affect the overall gameplay of the game. Just help me in individual encounters. If I go over the mountain, I get the silver. If I went through the valley, I get the gold. Therefore, I reward them in different ways because as Carrie knows, we want to reward you whatever choice you make. We want to make it a positive experience to have reached this valley. We want to have shown that you have moved ahead and benefited, just like in a novel or in a story, we want the character to have progressed with each chapter.
[Dan] All right. We’re going to pause right here. We actually are long past the point where we should have paused for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is The Buried Life by Carrie Patel. Tell us about it.
[Carrie] So, The Buried Life is a murder mystery set in an underground city where the study of history is forbidden. It’s gaslight, shadows, intrigue, and lots and lots of surprises. It follows Inspector Malone, who is a detective living and working in this city, and Jane Lin, who is a maid who serves many of the social and political elites of the city. When some of those people start dying, Malone is investigating, and Jane is also trying to figure out who’s going to be next. She stumbles upon the scene of a murder, and is trying to survive kind of these dangerous political games that are unfolding around her.
[Dan] Awesome. That is The Buried Life by Carrie Patel. You can get it wherever fine books are sold.
[Dan] Awesome. Now I want to talk about, and we only have a couple of minutes left, but I want… One big thing for me, where I have seen games fall down in the past, and it’s always kind of bothered me. There is a difference between players having choices and players having choices that matter. There’s been some video games and some kind of large-scale gaming events that I’ve been a part of where yes, I was free to do whatever I wanted, but in the end, it didn’t really affect anything. We get to the climax of the story, and it either feels like a railroad or it feels like some other character is the main character. How do you make… How do you give that sense of impact? That the characters and the players are the ones who are really the heroes and the stars of the story?
[Bill] You have to build multiple rewards that read to the end. I can’t… You feel constrained that you’ve been shoehorned into that situation because you were shoehorned. It was a single push. If there are 50 layers, and 30 of them are needed to get to the end and succeed, but you have 50 options at it, you can screw up 50 times and still succeed and you can find all this and you can become a character powerful enough to accomplish the goal or you can put enough of the items together to build a device that banishes the demon or whatever it is, if you do that with lots of little rewards, then you’re never going to feel like I forced you to do it. You’re going to feel like I rewarded you to do it and it felt good and you want to do it some more. That’s the difference. It goes back all… Well, the example I use is Sid Meier’s Civilization game. Every action you take is rewarded eventually in that game. An award appears about every minute and a half. That’s my ideal model. World of Warcraft started that way, it’s drifted off. But it’s my ideal model on an appealing game. When Carrie does a game… You want to talk about rewarding your players?
[Carrie] Sure. I mean, one of the biggest rewards, which I think is maybe what you’re talking about, is seeing your choices and your actions reflected and sort of shown back to you in the game that you’re playing. There’s a very interesting construct, I think it’s OCEAN. It’s sort of the different reasons that… The different kinds of satisfaction that people find. One of these is in seeing their mark made somewhere. So when you’re playing a game, you want to see your mark left in that world. On a practical level, what this means is that you have to be very deliberate about the story you’re building, the choices you’re giving the player, the promises you’re making to the player, and how you’re going to make good on those by giving the player different reactions as different paths at the end. I think from a craft perspective, you have to realize that not everything that is fun to read would be fun to play. So creating a story where it really is the player’s actions that move the plot forward, whether it’s the player discovering things, the player conquering things, the player doing things, rather than just observing things. That’s what’s going to help a player feel like it is their presence and their action in the game that moves the story forward and that got them to the end.
[Howard] One of my favorite examples of this is there’s a mechanic in Witcher 3 where you can go to a location, a ruined village, and fight monsters. It’s a terrible battle. When it’s over, the people who used to live here come back. You have a location that now has a shop. It’s now a place where you can get things that you didn’t used to be able to get. That’s part of the reward. But for me, part of the reward was seeing Geralt stand there smiling and nodding as the villagers come back in and start rebuilding their homes. I got chills the first time it happened. Oh, my gosh, I can rebuild this world. So yeah, that reward, making my mark, that’s the whole reason I kept playing. Well, that and… Gwent.
[Bill] Which is actually the downfall of massive multiplayer games, because you can’t make permanent changes in the world. It’s why they have such a turnover of players and they have to emphasize the social. Because the actual questing in it is an ephemeral mayfly type of activity.
[Howard] It’s a loot quest.
[Dan] How many times have we killed the great Elder Dragon, again?
[Dan] All right. So we’re out of time, unfortunately. But we have time just for a quick bit of homework from Bill.
[Bill] All right. My next book is 101 Stumbles in the March of History. Where I and a few of my friends like Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint, Chuck Gannon, Mike Resnick write about great mistakes and how it changed history that they did it wrong, and then speculate what would the world be like if that mistake had not been made. Anything from Columbus’s math error to Stalin training the German army, which, by the way, he did. He provided both equipment…
[Howard] What a terrible idea.
[Bill] And places, when the Treaty of Versailles prevented it. So I would encourage all of you to go out there and think of a mistake that’s been made somewhere in history. I don’t care if it’s last month or Napoleon or Caesar, and how you would have prevented that mistake, and then think about what your life would be like today if it hadn’t been made.
[Dan] Cool. All right. So, lots of research and some cool stuff to do. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you very much to Carrie and Bill. You’re wonderful. You are out of excuses. Now go write.