Writing Excuses 12.42: Adapting Your Stories for Game Play, with Alan Bahr
Key Points: Turning a story into a game? First, understand the tactile feel, the idea of the story. What is the experience of the reader? The game should feel like your story when someone plays it. What is that feeling? Games are 2nd person narratives with the player as protagonist. Don’t break the player’s self-image! RPGs use emergent narrative, with a story emerging from the players. To encourage this, use mechanics, such as plot points, and social manipulation, with the game master and other players comments and questions. Avoid putting the player on rails, where the narrative is not influenced by the players, but just marches along. Let the game and the narrative evolve through actions and consequences.
[Mary and Beth may be switched in some of the following, because when there’s overlapped voices, it can be hard to tell who is talking. Apologies for any misidentification.]
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 42.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Adapting Story for Game, with Alan Bahr.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Beth] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Beth] I’m Beth.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And joining us is one of my very favorite game designers, and when I say one of, I mean very, Alan Bahr. Alan, tell us a bit about yourself.
[Alan] Hey. Yeah, so I make games of the tabletop variety. Role-playing games, board games, and card games. I wrote the rules for Planet Mercenary, which is probably why Howard likes me.
[Alan] I’ve done other games including adaptations of the Powder Mage novels, as well as my own.
[Howard] Outstanding. Well, what we’re going to talk about here is the process by which a licensed property or a story that may be your own so that you’re not licensing it, gets turned into something that is a story that players can tell. A game that players can participate in. How does this process work, where do we start?
[Alan] Well, you have to start with the idea of the story, I guess. Or what you’re working with, right? So, easiest example, we’ll use Planet Mercenary. Howard said, “Hey, I have this web comic some people read, and I would like to make it a game.” I’d actually read the web comic, so that made it a little easier on me. But then we said, “All right…” So you have to analyze the story and what you’re working with, right? So every story has a… What I call a tactile feel to it, one you experience. So, for example, if you read Schlock Mercenary, the experience is comedy punched with drama and excessive violence at times. If you read a Brandon Sanderson novel… Sorry to mention Brandon again…
[Beth] No, it’s fine.
[Howard] We never get tired of it.
[Alan] But there’s a very different tactile experience in reading the Stormlight Archives and reading a three panel web comic that comes out daily, right? So, the goal of a game set in an existing universe or your own story is that it should feel like your story when somebody sits down to play. That’s the first thing you have to figure out, is what is that feeling.
[Dan] So, can you give us a specific example of something you did with Planet Mercenary to make it feel like a Schlock comic?
[Alan] Sure. So, in the comic, there is a somewhat high mortality rate at times.
[Alan] So we, and this is my favorite part of the rules, frankly. We created a mechanic that when your character dies horribly, because they’re going to, you get to promote a grunt and make them a new character you play. So it’s promotion through the ranks, but the way the game works, you’re playing an officer and you’re running around, doing your mercenary thing, shooting people, and you have a little team of grunts that follows you. If you get shot, you can make them jump in the way. So they have to take the hit for you. But every time they survive, they get better and they learn. They’re like, “Oh, this guy’s a jerk.”
[Alan] So when you die, they get promoted, and based on how many times they’ve been shot protecting you, they’re better. So you sort of build your character before they’re played, and they come in with a back story.
[Beth] Do they ever turn on you?
[Alan] If your Game Chief is a jerk, they do.
[Howard] My favorite part of this mechanic, we wanted… We didn’t want the redshirt mechanic. We didn’t want to just be throwing people into the meatgrinder. When you say that a member of your fire team is going to take this hit for you, the Game Chief says, “Okay. Take out an index card, tell me what their name is, tell me three things about them, and hand the card to me.” Then the Game Chief flips a coin, and depending on the coin toss, they may or may not tear that card up before your eyes, and that person took the hit for you and is now gone.
[Alan] So you have to name your grunt and then name three things about them, their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
[Dan] So you feel it when they die.
[Alan] There’s a 50-50 chance I’m going to tear that card in front of your face…
[Alan] And say, “Look, you just killed Steve.”
[Mary] Poor Steve.
[Howard] It’s really kind of delightful. The…
[Mary] And that’s why it’s a Schlock Mercenary game.
[Howard] Yup. One of the things that I set out to do… I brought this up with Alan at the time, I said, “I want people to be able to have the comedy experience of reading Schlock Mercenary, without me needing to be there. I want there to be punchlines, I want there to be these unexpected funny things.” We came up with the Mayhem mechanic, which I think is brilliant, and I gotta give you credit for it.
[Alan] Well, thanks. I’m pretty sure it was your idea, but I will take the credit anyway.
[Dan] It was my idea.
[Beth] It was my idea.
[Alan] Well, we all share it. Great.
[Mary] It’s like a writers room.
[Dan] I have a question. So, one of the games that I wrote some stuff for you was Tiny Frontiers, which is also space-based, like Planet Mercenary. What did you do as the designer to make sure that those two games had a different tactile feel?
[Alan] So, the difference is Planet Mercenary was built to tell one particular story. We are telling the Schlock Mercenary-style story with this game. That’s it. It doesn’t… It’s not built to do anything else. If you try to make it tell a superhero story, it’s probably not going to work super well. Because superheroes shouldn’t be killing their friends.
[Howard] It would get weird fast.
[Alan] It would get really bizarre really fast.
[Dan] Batman does all the time.
[Alan] Yeah, well, Batman’s not a superhero. But we can have a different conversation about that.
[Alan] So with Tiny Frontiers, the goal was to provide a generic rule set, so we actually weren’t going for a feel. We had to strip out anything that made it feel like a particular story, and leave it as this empty hollow shell that we ask people to give us money for.
[I’d like to ask…]
[Howard] No, wait, that brings us to our book of the week.
[Mary] Which is, in fact, Tiny Frontiers. That’s a great pitch. Do you want to try that again?
[Alan] Sure. So, Tiny Frontiers is what we call a minimalist role-playing game. The rules are really simple. They’re really light. You can make a character in under a minute. Even if you don’t know the game. It plays on four basic mechanics. It’s a great little game. We make it really easy to play, because we got a bunch of authors and game writers to write a bunch of little high-level settings to plan. So you have everything from Firefly to Star Trek to He Man inside this game and you can just play it.
[Dan] One of my favorite parts about that game is all the micro settings, like he said. All these different authors and game writers got together, and more than half the book is these little things. You know how the game works because the mechanics are so simple, now here’s a bazillion different cool ideas you can use. The scenario I wrote for it was a gray goo nano tech thing.
[Alan] Apocalypse thing.
[Dan] Which was really fun to do.
[Mary] That’s fantastic. So one of the things… I did some game writing, just a little bit, for a videogame. One of the things that helped me wrap my head kind of around how to construct a narrative was realizing that in a lot of ways, it’s a second person narrative with the player being the hero. I think that some of the games that I’ve seen that have failed, or that have gotten people annoyed… The name of the game just went out of my head. It’s the one videogame and you’re… There’s… Oh, never mind. But your child…
[Dan] We don’t want to bash on them, anyway.
[Mary] Your child has been kidnapped and you’re trying to rescue your child and you have to go through all of these adventures and then at the end…
[Howard] Is it Heavy Rain?
[Mary] Is it Heavy Rain? I don’t think so.
[Mary] Anyway. It’s a well-known one. No, it’s not Heavy Rain. Anyway… It’s a very well-known game.
[Dan] Is it The Last of Us?
[Dan] No. Okay. Anyway…
[Mary] Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
[Howard] It might show up in the liner notes.
[Howard] We might just be apologizing in the liner notes.
[Dan] We can spend the next 10 minutes guessing.
[Mary] The point being… The problem with that was that you knew didn’t have a kid, and all of your efforts were going into trying to deal with this post-apocalyptic world that you were in. So by the time you finally got back around to your kid again, you’re like, “Wait? Who?” There was no emotional connection because it was denying a truth that you lived in, which is where second person narratives break apart.
[Howard] Oh, Fallout 4.
[Mary] It’s Fallout 4. Thank you.
[Howard] I’ve played that. I was like, “Oh. So my child’s all grown up.” Spoiler!
[Mary] But because it denies the truth of that second person narrative, which is where… In fiction, in prose, second person breaks down is if you’re denying a truth that the… If you’re breaking the reader’s understanding of self. So does that fit with the kind of games that you do, thinking about the player as the protagonist?
[Alan] Oh, entirely. I mean, going back to tabletop role-playing games, the core focus of the story is always on the players playing their characters. They are… They might not be the heroes of the story, but they’re definitely the protagonists. Usually, they’re not heroes, frankly.
[Alan] People who play role-playing games do terrible, terrible things in the fictional world.
[Dan] But I can think of some examples, and I don’t want to name them, of big, published role-playing scenarios and events that didn’t allow the players to be the centerpiece. That is completely opposed to the purpose.
[Mary] When I started to realize this, one of my favorite games actually is Zombies, Run!, which is… It helps you run. It’s great, because you are the centerpiece of that. Then, they did another one called The Walk. At the beginning of it, you are still the centerpiece. But then they keep adding more and more characters, to the point that you’re like, “Why is my character… Why am I still here? Why am I walking instead of just handing this package off to someone else?”
[Beth] I got very bored with it. But I do Zombies, Run!.
[Howard] There’s this idea of emergent narrative, which is that the story that is being told in a role-playing game emerges from the players. How do you… Not everybody sits down to tell a story, knowing that that’s what they’re going to do. What do you do, Alan, to encourage people to tell stories in these settings you create?
[Alan] Sure. So, there’s two types of ways to “encourage”… I’m making quotes here because really it’s like forcing, or pulling teeth…
[Alan] But encourage players to tell a story. There’s mechanical, which is the game rules push something. A lot of games will do things like you have plot points. If you spend a plot point, you have to narrate why it matters or why do you have plot armor in this scene or whatever. That’s a very common… I guess, trope, actually at this point in role-playing games. Then there’s the social manipulation a game master does to push players to tell stories. Saying things like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” And asking really loaded questions like, “You know, that’s a burning orphanage over there, but you’re chasing that bag of gold. Are you sure that’s the way a paladin’s going to go?” There’s sort of a social guidance aspect to playing these games, in a sense. I use the term manipulation lighthearted, but it’s actually kind of what it is.
[Mary] That’s what all fiction is.
[Alan] It’s emotional manipulation.
[Howard] I’m glad we came clean about that.
[Howard] I’m glad we came clean about that.
[Mary] What’s the third one? I thought you said there were three.
[Alan] I think two.
[Alan] Mechanical and narrative. Oh, mechanical and social. Then there’s narrative. A good game master will set up a story that draws you in, and that’s where a lot of, as Dan brought up, the adventures that, in game terms, they call it putting you on rails because you’re locked in on like a train track. That’s where that struggle is, on rails you don’t have any emotional connection to the narrative because it’s just going to happen. Right? You’re going to go in the dungeon, there’s going to be an orc in the room. It doesn’t matter. When you open that door, there’s always an orc in that room.
[Alan] It’s true. Like a lot of games do that. A good narrative will draw the players in, because it’s not just going to be the same orc in the same room every time they open that door. You’re going to go you killed the orc last time. Now there’s a swarm of rats. For now the orc’s bigger, angrier brother is in the room. So it’s a bigger orc.
[Dan] The orc’s orphaned children.
[Alan] There’s a well… If you want to try an RPG to get the hang of that, there’s a well-known RPG. I say well-known. It’s probably not well known outside of game designers. But it’s called The Orc, The Pie, And the Room, I believe. It’s a one page RPG where there’s an orc in a room between you and a pie.
[Alan] You need to get him to give you the pie. That can be through talking, that can be through violence, that can be through… But it’s a little like imagination exercise to push you to consider the way the room and the game and the narrative are going to evolve based on actions and consequences.
[Howard] Not only do I now want that game, I now want pie.
[Howard] We are out of time. Who’s got our writing prompt?
[Alan] That would be me. I would… So my writing prompt this week… As a game designer, I don’t write a lot of fiction or prose, but I consider narrative and approach to narrative a lot in how I design things. So my writing prompt to you is to write down three rules about your world or your story or your game that are unbreakable, and then find ways to break them without actually legally breaking them. Try to circumvent your own rules inside the rules that you’ve created.
[Howard] Outstanding. Sorry. Sitting here with my mind blown, wondering how my players are going to try and break the rules of the game that we created. I’m sure they already have. Fair listener, this has been Writing Excuses, you are out of excuses. Now go write.