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Some tips on writing a RPG scenario?

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by AndrewGrayGames, Feb 25, 2015.

  1. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    For my current project, an Eastern RPG called "Sara the Shieldmage", I'm in a bit of a storytelling funk, to be honest.

    What I'm going for is a cut-down, short ERPG, but with some influences from the west (in the form of a semi-open world with a reasonable amount of sidequests, given that this is a "short", and a limited amount of customization of playstyles, for some characters.) The thing that sets my scenario apart is the main protagonist - Sara, the titular shieldmage - being the Mysterious Waif who has a mystical pendant that will help save the world. Like any good ERPG, I've settled on a few requisite plot points that are generally expected from the genre:
    1. There is a Big Bad, whose Evil Plan must be thwarted in order to Save the World (in a ERPG, anything less than the stake of the world is an unacceptable story hook, after all.)
    2. Part of the impetus for Sara's quest against the Big Bad, involves the fact that he personally wrecked her Doomed Hometown; as a result she's been "conveniently" absolved of any obligations, familial or otherwise, that would prevent her from being able to travel the world and find companions to band together with.
    3. Said Big Bad has three Co-Dragons who are furthering his plans, but turn their attention to the protagonist(s) as soon as they prove they're capable of becoming a threat to their boss/their own plans/whatever.
    4. Three Plot Coupons - each somehow guarded by one of said Co-Dragons - that are used to build the "Sword" (it's really a shield, and Sara's ultimate weapon) of Plot Advancement, so as to prevent a would-be hero from getting them and stopping the Big Bad's plans.
    I want to focus primarily on gameplay; part of why I started this project was to improve my storytelling, because I know from my last project that storytelling for me is an underdeveloped skill. My understanding of the 'priorities' that tend to lead to good gameplay, though, are:

    Player Doing [something] > Player being Shown [something] > Player being Told [something]

    I can create what I at least would consider reasonable gameplay (my posts in the WIP thread have confirmed my premise is still solid, with some execution that I'm attending to over the next couple of weeks), and I've got a visual style that makes the 'show' part of the game relatively easy to pull off, despite my limited resources. The telling is difficult for me, though, and something that I'm nearly paralyzed with insecurity with (in short, yes, this is a design problem, but there's a human aspect to it too.)

    I've been thinking over what would inspire me to overcome this block, and what I came up with is simply to ask for some suggestions from my fellow developers, particularly those who've worked on RPGs of their own. It's not that I'm incapable of writing, it's just that, as I haven't had to use the skill in some years, my skill has atrophied. I could use some pointers on ways to convey some of these broad strokes more effectively.

    What are some things I should consider in using the game's story to justify, and motivate, my players in completing Sara's quest to save the world?
     
  2. GarBenjamin

    GarBenjamin

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    What exactly are you struggling with... the details/events of the story itself or simply getting it out of your head? Do you have it all "living" inside your mind in vivid detail or do you only have vague disconnected major points of the story?
     
  3. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    I have the concept in my mind, but it's the telling it that's tough. Particularly the start of the story - leading into this is hard.

    I know what's motivating Sara - revenge. This is in stark contrast to her Order's motive to protect. Her arc in the whole thing is overcoming her drive for revenge and re-learning to fight for the "right" reason.

    On top of that, she's also seen as this mysterious chick with a pendant by everyone (Mysterious Waif).

    Davis is sort of my deconstruction of the standard JRPG protagonist - a kleptomaniac "blood knight" who is convinced he's the one who'll save the world, and that Sara will fall in love with him because he's good with a sword (no double entendre intended.) She and him do get together in the end, but only after he deflates his head a little and lets his good qualities show.

    Veronica is the typical "rebellious princess" (but not a princess) who learns that rules aren't just an inconvenience, but mechanically is a sort of 'wildcard' who, thanks to her magic, can load herself with the right spells for whatever situation.

    Wulfgar the barbarian shares an identical arc to Sara - learning to fight for the right reasons - but instead serves as a foil to Sara and Davis, while mechanically filling the role of a glass cannon. Wulfgar is a sidecharacter who says little, but his mere presence reinforces Sara and Davis - the two core protagonists' - struggles, and helps them to reaffirm their choices, because of his culture's customs.

    Jack the Thief learns that self-gain isn't the only reason to act. He never stops being a scoundrel (which, Veronica likes, because she's not entirely a saint herself.) His mechanical role is a weird sort of buffer/debuffer - being a master thief he can steal everything not nailed down and on fire. This includes attributes like speed, strength, and magical prowess. Don't ask how he does it. It hurts his elbow.

    Finally, there's Shaina, the "Team Mom", who's a priestess of the Goddess. Her role in the story is not to change; she's an ascetic who would rather ponder great truths in a non-violent way, than quest around the world to stop a madman who thinks he's the Goddess' avatar (well, he's half right, but not in the way you'd expect.) She's there to question the quest itself - is fighting the correct answer to Rosflugel's scheme at all? In fact, is talking? Most interestingly, is this actually the will of the Goddess? Pretty much the Goddess has to come to her and say, "Yes, all part of the plan. Stick with the party." Mechanically, she's a healer.

    Rosflugel, our villain, is intentionally ambiguous. He is an avatar of the Goddess' aspect of destruction (the "Red Wing".) However, he's still a person, and isn't entirely behind the 'destroy the world to renew it' idea, but also can't really disobey the goddess because he is part of her. His solution? Do her will, but create a doomsday cult to draw people away from the Goddess to undermine her and - hopefully - reduce her power to the point where it will make her big bang go off with something more like a barely-survivable whimper. However, being a fallible man, and an avatar of part of the Goddess he fails to understand that there's another side to the Goddess that wants humanity to survive, and overcome this challenge, but is curious to see how that will happen...if it does. His methods are as flawed as his understanding; as a result he's easily the most desperate character in the game.

    The generals are there to be obstacles. Thanatos the Death Knight was picked for his ability to cause mayhem; he's a psychopath, pure and simple. He works alone, he seeks destruction. When he needs help, he uses local doomsday cultists to do something, but usually in a way that gets them all killed. His style is decidedly hands-on, despite knowing how to be subtle. Sophia, the Propagandist is again different - you do not fight her in a boss fight. The entire continent she's on is subject to a "politics" mechanic, where by making dialogue choices and completing quests, you can seduce the nations' Senate away from her influence, and ultimately get them to turn on her. At the end of that continent, the guards she assigned to guard the Ancile shard will be assigned to give it to you, with no fight, and she ends up having to figure out a change of careers and life priorities (given the manipulations she's pulled off, that's charitable.) Finally, the last general is up to the player. He's generally sympathetic to what the party is trying to do, but is just as adamant about releasing the Goddess' stranglehold on the world, and knows exactly what's going on, having been both a Priest as well as the person who grew up with Rosflugel. You can challenge him to a duel after defeating a coup, or you can talk him down over the course of a few events.

    The middle and end aren't the problem, because I'm letting the player do most of the heavy lifting - the NPCs merely flesh out the background, and enable the player to act. Getting the player started and invested enough to care beyond the first few minutes is what's really troubling me.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2015
  4. infinitypbr

    infinitypbr

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    I don't know too much about anything, really.

    But from what I've learned in regards to film making and photo taking: Less is more. Less information is more. A good photo asks questions that don't get answered. A good scene in a film keeps motivations and information hidden, allowing the audience to both learn with the characters, but also constantly wonder.

    Never forget the Heroes Journey. It's kind of amazing, if nothing else, as a blueprint: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth
     
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  5. infinitypbr

    infinitypbr

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    OH! Also, and I have no idea if this fits with eastern RPGs, but I've often felt that there are no real bad guys in the world -- everyone we think is bad thinks they're doing the right thing.

    An interesting conflict occurs when the audience can see how the bad guy may actually be doing something right, but is still bad. Even more interesting is when the protagonist also realizes this and doesn't know if they should "save" the bad guy or not.
     
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  6. JoeStrout

    JoeStrout

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    @Asvarduil, it looks to me like you've got things pretty well mapped out. You have all the needed supporting characters, without which it's very hard to tell a story, particularly in RPG form (where you don't generally get to have a narrator).

    So, I have two thoughts for how to get things going.

    1. Forget about the beginning for now. Jump into the middle. Just sketch out what must have happened up to that point (who the player has met, what they know at this point, etc.), and take it from there. Get your game playable and fun, write all the witty banter and villainous monologues for the middle and endgame, and then go back and write the beginning. You'll find it's considerably easier to write a strong beginning at that point, because you know the characters better and you know exactly where the story is going.

    Or...

    2. Focus on how all these players meet. What brings them together, and what are their initial reactions to each other? Then set up the necessary encounters and minor plot hooks to make sure that happens.

    But I realize neither of these are really addressing the I-have-five-minutes-to-hook-the-player question you're asking.

    You need some initial event that immediately gives the player something exciting to do, and then when they survive it, leaves them with more questions than answers. Make it something urgent: an attack on the town, a child carried off by a monster, whatever — something the player can't ignore. Use this event as an opportunity to teach the player the basics of the game, and also introduce a major plot hook at the same time.

    HTH,
    - Joe
     
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  7. hopeful

    hopeful

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    I'm not entirely sure I understand where the sense of "problem" is coming from, but here's my take on it. And maybe my view is too simple, but ...

    Not only is there art, but there is craft in storytelling. You've got the imaginative story, which is basically the art. Now, as you compose the game, you engage in the telling, which is the craft.

    Rely on suspense - where the players may guess but not exactly know what will happen next - as the thing that will keep your players "turning the page" on your story.

    Don't deliver your story in a lump. Let it come out in bits and pieces, not necessarily in temporal order. Structure it so the player tries to fill in the blanks in their mind, developing suspicions about this and that. Then as events occur and motivations are revealed, they see whether they got it right or if they are surprised.
     
  8. RockoDyne

    RockoDyne

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    Kind of sounds like you're thinking too much about the plot in terms of what the player is supposed to do, which, come writing time, ends up with you basically telling the player what to do.
    This sort of stuff in particular is more useful in hindsight then to work from.

    The best idea would probably be to think from a different perspective. Maybe look at the story in terms of conflicts. How does one conflict lead into another (if they do at all). Think about how FF tends to chain conflicts together, while DQ tends to have new conflicts pushed and popped from a stack by a village elder.

    Early on in the game, you don't need a lot of details and back story. In two minutes of hitting new game, you learn that Cloud is here to blow up a reactor with a bunch of eco-terrorist and he's getting paid for it. All other details about being a Sephiroth wannabe can go to hell for about five hours. At that point, both the player and the protagonist have about the same amount of interest in the conflict (basically none) and their isn't any point in explaining things further. It also helps that it starts very in media res, so you have much more to be concerned about than politics. There is no build up to conflict, because the conflict is already there.

    From the sounds of your plot, it seems like you've got yourself stuck doing 'the long introduction' without any real capacity to shrink it down to "I kill things, you kill things, we all kill things, so let's go kill things." With the premise you're using, you will have to be pretty damn creative to not be stale (the catch 22 there is if you where being more creative, you probably would have spent that creativity on the plot). The cast seems decent, although eclectic enough that figuring out how they come together will likely be a kludge. Either you'll figure out how to present the story properly, or toss out the story for something more presentable.
     
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  9. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    Good point. I've been letting this story percolate over the past two months as I've beaten out the technical aspect of the game, so I have a strong vision of what this game is. The player's first five minutes will consist of figuring out what's going on. If the player sees all of this upfront, there's no reason to continue playing; there's no mystery to resolve in addition to thwarting Big Bad's Evil Plan. "Less is more," indeed.

    I think I'm going to have to take option #1, for certain. I can't keep churning on the concept for the early content; shipping is a feature my game must have, and my mid/end-game is significantly clearer than the start-game. What's more, my game is organized as a bunch of parallel threads, that the player can take any combination of at a time. The start of the game should allow the player to experience why Sara wants to shove her shield up one of Rosflugel's orifices, but then inform the player that the most efficient way to do that is to rebuild the Ancile, an ancient magical artifact that was broken millenia ago for reasons no one clearly remembers, because it was freakin' millenia ago. Have fun rebuilding it (I'm sort of repeating you, but it brings me closer to the answer. That's something!)

    Option #2, though, will help me design the quests to get, and improve, the other characters, and the result to not suck. As Sara is the prototypical, but playable, mysterious waif, I already have a somewhat novel perspective for a well-established ERPG convention. I think if I can flesh out what brings the characters together, the character quests will write themselves, practically.

    Those are some really going points. I appreciate those. I think, though, that I need to go back into my library of beaten JRPGs and remind myself of how the stories work.

    You're right too. Maybe I've paid too much attention to the tropes, which are an analysis of patterns in existing works, and not on necessarily the art itself. While the audience is going to expect the tropes to some extent or another, I've probably leaned too heavily on them. That was some good criticism I feel I needed to hear. I appreciate it.

    I lol'd. I'm going to make sure, if nothing else, that line gets in the game. Davis is probably going to spout it. It sounds like what he would say.

    You're right, big time on this point.

    One of the reasons I like my premise is I haven't actually played many - if any - games where the "Mysterious Waif" is the main character (Bravely Default comes close, but Agnes Oblige is hardly mysterious, and while she's resolute, I feel her character is a bit shallow.)

    I also want to deconstruct the typical ERPG hero - thus Davis. I really want to examine what happens A) a different reaction to a bloodthirsty kleptomaniac with a heart of gold other than "OMG DUUUDE UR SO AWESOME BRAH!!!", and B) how such a character fits into a world becoming more modern.

    I didn't spit it out in the big "what I'm thinking" dump above, but the general environment of the game is close to that at the beginning of the Renaissance - the merchant class has significantly reduced the influence of nobility, the Church, and the magical orders (including Sara's own, the Order of the Luminescent Shield), the more moderate voices in Rosflugel's cult have accurately challenged the Church and found some of their doctrines wanting, and both printed books and gunpowder is slowly becoming a thing; within a couple of decades after this game is over, the armies of this world will be equipped with crude arquebuses as a matter of course, and each continent will be pioneering precalculus mathematics in addition to other pursuits we recognize in our world. The old feudal structures - that barbarian clans like the one Wulfgar belongs to made necessary - are pretty much no longer a thing; this is actually a reason why Wulfgar is acting out in the first place - he doesn't want his warrior culture to die with a whimper, so he decides he'll take it with a bang.

    All that said (emphasis on all...sorry for the big brick text wall), I don't want to take my story too far to left field, either. I want this game to be recognizable as a ERPG and judged in that context. That means, I do trade some of the creativity for established plot points. I don't feel that's a bad thing - in part it gave me some places to anchor most of the stuff I've written in this topic. It gave me decision points to either stick with, out-and-out defy, or subvert. It cut some of the choices I had to make, which helps me because I don't have A) that kind of talent, or B) that kind of time. Shipping is a feature that has to make it in the game.

    But your criticism stands; this is an early, crappy draft of the game, too. There is such a thing as being too derivative, and your meaning is clear - don't be so unoriginal (one of the thing I did do in The Hero's Journey, just in the worst possible way.) I could do with a couple more monkey wrenches in this ERPG plot, provided I execute them well.
     
  10. RockoDyne

    RockoDyne

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    So the setting is basically Maoyuu Maou Yuusha (a light novel with an anime and a dozen different manga adaptations)? Might actually want to watch that since it spins a lot of jRPG tropes on their head. To roughly sum up the first chapter/episode, the hero goes to fight the demon queen, but she seduces the hero with economic theory so that they can cooperate and make a peaceful world. It's cute when it's not going full Keynesian.
     
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  11. Kiwasi

    Kiwasi

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    This sounds like what I was going to say.

    I was trying to be a novelist once. I found that the most interesting place to start was the scene I had in my head, the one I wanted to write. Start the story there and put it on paper. That will suggest another interesting point. Do that. Don't ever write the boring bits. If you find them boring your readers will find them boring.

    I'm pretty sure most of this applies to games. Don't bother starting with the boring beginning bits. Start wherever you find it natural and interesting to start. And if you never fill in the gaps, so what?
     
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  12. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    I can see it now...

    Rosflugel: "Sara...want to see my 5% increased national GDP?"*

    Still, I'll take a look at that. What you said only confirms that you'd like to see more JRPG cliches subverted, and that can be done.

    *: That's only the worst, and most boring, pickup phrase in the history of humanity. And, it's your fault.
     
  13. RockoDyne

    RockoDyne

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    It does help to subvert some stuff just on the basis that you have to reassess the rest of the story and see what should really belong in it. It's too easy to play things straight and not figure out how everything is supposed to be related. The more generic "defeat the big bad" stories are hard to play straight and require more lateral thinking in it's presentation to deliver the story meaningfully. Avatar: the last airbender is a good example where as much as the story has the fight with the fire lord as a goal, the actual conflict of the story is really Aang fulfilling his destiny and becoming who he was meant to be.

    I would say most of what I like subverts and plays straight in equal measure. Most of the reason is probably because you end up with clear and definite reasoning why every part is there.
     
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  14. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    Jumping into the middle is great advice. It keeps feature development going and lets you explore the story further to see what ideas open up.

    At the same time, consider devoting some time now to nail the beginning. My ex-wife, a traditional fiction and interactive fiction author, finally got me to see the light: Revenge is a very difficult motivation for interactive fiction. In static fiction like movies and books, revenge is easy because the protagonist is clearly separate from the reader.

    In interactive fiction, it's almost impossible to make the player care about revenge at the beginning of the story. Can you save the revenge angle until halfway through the game? Perhaps at the beginning Sara is simply living with the fact of her Doomed Hometown, keeping mind that the player won't care at this point. During a significant chunk of the game, you can work to get the player to care about the hometown. At this point, and no earlier, Sara can learn that the Big Bad is responsible for its doom. But even at this point she still needs prior tension with the Big Bad for it to have real impact on the player.

    So this means two things:

    1. You may need to restructure your story. "Writing is rewriting," "you must kill your babies,", and all the other writing advice cliches. :)

    2. You need a different motivation at the beginning. Otherwise your players won't get past the 5-minute mark, and they'll never get to the point where they experience the story you envision.
     
  15. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    I think you're right on this. The biggest thing I had with the whole revenge arc was how to start it. Pretty much, the only way to sell the revenge arc that I can see - and, that is completely fallible because it's been done to hell and back already - is to have the Standard JRPG Hometown Doom sequence, with Rosflugel marching into town and being a dick to rival Dickson from Xenoblade (spoiler alert, by the way.)

    Really, though, that's been the problem with Sara as a character. As someone who is really non-aggressive by nature - and, further, in an Order whose ethics are primarily about working passively - getting Sara out of her local Order Hall is really, really tough. There's other starting hooks, of course - she could be kidnapped (I'm thinking about this one seriously now,) she could be sent on a mission by a superior of some kind, she could be set up as a scapegoat for something really bad to the point where she gets exiled for it.

    @TonyLi, you just made me think a little...and maybe figure out the answer to this. This character, and this story, needs a little more breaking with tradition. Maybe "Doomed Hometown" is not the answer to the question of starting this story. I'll do some more thinking.
     
  16. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    There's an article on Kotaku, "How the New Wolfenstein Nailed Character Motivation". It might be worth reading. They took big risks to motivate the player's desire for revenge by taking away the player's agency, at one point making the protagonist paralyzed, at another point forced to march in a line, etc. I don't think they could've gotten away with it were it not for the big budget features and the Wolfenstein name. Even so, invested a lot of time into cultivating the revenge, and did it throughout the game rather than at the beginning.
     
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  17. sicga123

    sicga123

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    Spin it around. Sara is going to be the victim in someone else's revenge. But no need to lay out everything. Start the game with a a face saying, 'Run child, they've come for you."

    The game starts there. Then bring in the other characters and the story as the need arises.
     
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  18. CDMcGwire

    CDMcGwire

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    I'd say, try writing your story in 500 words or less, and keep rewriting until it's interesting. Then take that and expound upon it, then tell it through your characters. Writing it as short as you can will help you nail down what really is important to your story and how to best present it. Presentation is key to player interest, and your characters will be the part that sucks people in, not a long winded group of paragraphs. Avoid heavy exposition and try to write natural sounding sentences (say it out loud when you write it, if you need to). Only use long monologues a handful of times depending on the length of the game and number of climactic peaks.

    Generally speaking, try to keep the story feeling like it moves along quickly. ERPGs tend to be slower paced games. Clumsy narrative delivery is amplified. Walls of Text will drive the player away. It's not about trying to pander to the short attention span, it's about creating a flow and sweeping the player along.

    One more thing; treat it like Classical Music. It's not a steady climb in intensity straight to the climax, it's a series of highs and lows.
     
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  19. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    I certainly won't argue against exploring alternatives. Immediate revenge can work in some scenarios. Although a lot of people didn't like the "From Ashes" Super Bowl trailer for Ascension, I'm super-sentimental, and it got me. In under two minutes, I was ready to help Kratos exact vengeance on all his enemies. :) But it fits a hot-headed warrior in an over-the-top action game. It sounds like Sara, on the other hand, is more contemplative. When/if she arrives at revenge, it will be more thoughtful.
     
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  20. khanstruct

    khanstruct

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    I've actually written a novel (and a novella), and I've spent the last couple of years swimming in the writing circles. There's a lot of pretty solid advice here, but I'll just throw in a couple of thoughts.

    First, the folks from Pixar had a pretty spectacular seminar once in which the described the story process. Summed up, it's "each scene is caused by the events of the previous scene"
    1: There once was a ______
    2: Every day (s)he ______
    3: Until one day _______
    4: Because of that ______
    5: Because of that ______
    etc, etc, etc.
    6: And ever since then _______

    This also emphasizes another important aspect. Every chapter of a story is its own mini-story, so too must your scenes be their own mini stories. There must be some sense of tension or objective, even if its something as simple as "are Sara's pancakes going to burn before she can shoo away the door to door salesman?"

    Another concept was already touched on by someone here. Develop your villain. Don't make them evil for the sake of being evil. Give them goals and motivations. Focus on the bad guy and your hero will react heroically by themselves.

    And finally, give yourself permission to suck. Get your scenes in place, even if they're contrived, boring and just plain terrible. You have to fill up your sandbox before you can make something great. Just get the ideas in place.

    Here's a fun little tool for you to check out as well! Articy Draft!

    Good luck!

    P.S. Read my novella prequel book ;)
     
  21. Abelabumba

    Abelabumba

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    If I made a game where the protagonist's motivation is revenge, I'd give them multiple, (escalating?) reasons for it over time instead of one "bad guy destroys home town" at the start which sparks an eternal flame of hatred in our hero's heart.

    That way you can show some progression from stoicism all the way to full on genocidal insanity / rage (or however far you want to take it) and then back again instead of having a "REVENGA" switch turned on suddenly in someone who's life has been about protection etc so far.

    Some ideas:

    - destroying a whole town is obviously cool, there is no reason why it can't happen multiple times in a game - the first time it's the home town we've hardly ever interacted with, but the second time around it's the "base camp" town we've returned to for supplies, quests and so on multiple times already

    - Villain could kill a party member ala ff7, or maybe a cute pet dog/dragon/whatever that followed us for some time (something the player cares about, not that he's being told that the hero cares about, like her lover)

    - if you have a world map, destroying something on it so that it's visible a lot of the time to remind / annoy the player, like a bridge so they now have to go a longer / dangerous way to x

    - taking away a shiny skill/item that we've learned to care about for a couple of fights

    and so on, basically keep giving new reasons to rekindle the want for revenge instead of relying on the fainting memory / knowledge of the villain being really bad to us once.
     
  22. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    I think I need to give that pattern a try, too.

    Nice plug.
     
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