What D&D can tell us about Transmedia (Part 4)

So far, I've looked at the similarities between Dungeons & Dragons and a transmedia property, the creation of a rich storyworld, and engaging your audience. Today, something of a larger topic in both D&D and transmedia discussions: the audience interaction and the relationship between DM and players. In a game of D&D, the actions of the players drive the story. The DM might have a general narrative in mind, they might have a whole plot, but the story of the game itself is, necessarily, centred on the players and what they do.

This isn't the case with all transmedia stories -- in many, the actions of the audience matter only in determining how that audience discovers the story, not what actually happens in it. For the purposes of this part of the series, I'm going to assume we're talking about the kind where the actions of the audience can -- won't always, but can -- affect the storyline. This could be especially within the ARG model of transmedia, but it doesn't have to be.

In extended discussions with my gaming peers, I've come up with two basic models of storytelling in D&D.

The DM's Plot

In this model of a story in D&D, the Dungeon Master creates a plotline to place the characters in, and they follow that storyline much like a player might a video game. A series of events draw the characters from one plot point to the next, and they slowly uncover the story.

Within that structure, the players act as they will to move the story forward, reacting to events and taking action as the opportunities allow.

The players should never be forced into action, but there may be a suggested course, or general path, implied by the story. In this structure, the players trust the direction the DM is taking them, trust the flow of the story. In return, the DM should allow the players some freedom within the story, and especially the opportunity to explore their own character arcs if they want to.

Character as Narrative

In this story structure, the DM puts the power of story in the hands of the players. "Story" doesn't signify a plot the DM has constructed and put the players in, but the narrative as experienced by the players as they act in the world and events take place around them.

It's a little like the narrative theory employed by the browser game Echo Bazaar, Implicit Storytelling:

All the funky structures above give the player a sense of a complex and fairly coherent narrative, but when it comes right down to it, the way they actually approach that story is up to them. Metaphor time: imagine a desert, seen from above. There are many branching paths leading to many villages. When travellers cross the desert, you can clearly see the route they take, where they stop off, and so on. But what if night has fallen? Then, all you can see are the little fires in the villages. Occasionally, travellers emerge from the darkness and sit by the fires for a while, and then move on. But the routes they take between those fires belong to them alone. All of which is a fancy way of saying that, while we control the actual chunks of the story, the paths between them belong to the player alone, and that’s a big deal. Just as in a film the story is told through the edit, in Echo Bazaar, the story is told through the darkened paths between the fires. In cinematic terms, it’s a montage: we provide the shots, the player does the arrangement. --Paul Arendt, Betterblog

The DM's role in this structure is to create as living a world as possible around the players such that no matter where they go or what they do, there's something there for them. Plots may be introduced as hooks, as things happening around the player characters, but it's entirely up to the players whether or not they follow that plot.

Different Needs, Different Structure

There's a feeling among some RPG players that one method or structure of play is inherently superior to the other -- usually suggesting that the superior method is the latter. Certainly I've argued with people over that -- because I think both are equally viable, equally "good" as structures, and it just depends on the preferences of the DM and players.

authorvsaudience

Transmedia properties could be anywhere between these two structures (or far outside them). I'd hazard to say most ARG-type projects fall closer to the DM's Plot structure, with an overall story arc the athors want to tell, but some could be more like sandbox video games in their freedom to players/audience. (The above chart is just a crude representation; I'd love a discussion on the finer points.)

I'm going to take a closer look at the issues inherent in the DM's Plot structure.

Railroading

It comes up again and again in RPG discussions. Railroading is when it is apparent to players that the DM is forcing them along one path. It's seen as inherently evil, the DM who employs it by nature a Bad DM, one who adheres too strongly to the Forbidden DM's Plot Structure.

In my mind, it's not so black and white an issue. If the DM is explicitly forcing a group along one path, then it's absolutely a problem and will inspire backlash from the players.

Player: We want to talk to the ambassador. DM: You can't. He won't accept an appointment with you. Player: We try to Bluff our way in. DM: It doesn't work. Player: We break into his room at night. DM: He, uh, magically seals his room. Player: He's not a spellcaster. DM: Maybe he hired someone. Player: We dispel it. DM: Someone really high level. Player: This is dumb.

If you're the DM, maybe you really don't want the players talking to the ambassador, because he has some pretty big secrets you don't want the players to know yet. This is not itself inherently bad. The trick is to find a way to deal with it that preserves the Illusion of Player Freedom. Maybe it makes sense that the ambassador refuses to talk to them. If they break into his room, maybe he's just not there -- because the story suggests he's having a secret meeting elsewhere. Scrying fails to find him, but it does suggest that he's protected himself from scrying, which implies that he has something to hide.

The players failed to talk to the ambassador, but they weren't directly blocked from trying to, say, break into his room, and as a result of their attempts, they did learn something useful. Maybe they even got to rob his rooms.

In this way, the players are succeeding. They have the freedom to do what they want to do -- it doesn't always work out for them in exactly the way they hoped, but nothing ever does.

But there's another way to deal with this problem, and that's to seriously consider what would happen if they did talk to the ambassador? Clearly you planned them not to, but you didn't, in your planning, foresee that they'd want to so badly. Railroading might be your instinctive reaction because you have nothing planned, but what if you stop and think about it?

If they talked to the ambassador, he could just refuse to give them information, possibly call the guards on them. If they took him captive, perhaps the authorities track him down and rescue him. If it makes sense for the character, maybe he has a panic button, a contingency plan in case he's kidnapped -- he's a government official, after all.

Just like the previous example, if the characters are trying hard enough, let them succeed to some degree. Let hem get something out of the ambassador before he's rescued. (Also, make sure there are consequences if they kidnapped him or something...)

Adaptation

The trick here is to adapt. And that's what you're constantly doing when you're running a D&D game, no matter what storytelling structure you prefer. You can never anticipate everything your players are going to do.

You may have a general plotline you want them to follow, but if they're not interested, you can't force it on them. Instead of trying, let them lead you for a bit, and then introduce a new hook into your plotline. Introduce elements that make them interested. Alter your plans a bit to make it work.

In a transmedia property, you might have a bit more freedom as creator. If part of the audience isn't interested, tries to go somewhere your story doesn't, they might just lose the story and leave your property -- if you have other audience, then it may have just not been the story for them, and there's nothing you can do and maybe you shouldn't worry. But if you can figure out where those members of the audience wanted to go, maybe you can still adapt to their story desires and both keep a larger audience and enrich your story that much more.

It's a constant complaint/joke among DMs that the players never do what they expect (or want). The trick is how you deal with that.

The Folly

I come at this issue from a fairly personal place, because it's one I've struggled with. I ran a game a couple years ago that was very plot-driven. I created an encounter where the players were trying to stop a secret agent type character from escaping. I set them up for failure -- I planned that if they did well enough, they might learn something and avoid a battle, but that no matter how well they did, the agent would escape.

Then I ran into a problem. They had resources at their disposal I didn't count on. They were very imaginative and were able to stop the agent from escaping.

In a moment of failure as a DM, I made up some bad excuses as to how he could escape anyway. Understandably, my players were pissed off.

Over the next little while I have it a lot of thought, and considered what could have happened if they had succeeded in capturing the agent. And it occured to me that it wouldn't have changed much. The agent was an elite spy, he wouldn't have given much away. The players' superiors would quickly have come in and taken custody of the spy. Then some behind-the-scenes prisoner exchange would have taken place, and the spy would  be back home as planned.

The players might have learned a bit more than otherwise. But the actual state of things in the storyline wouldn't have really changed. I'd panicked for nothing and ruined a good opportunity for the players to feel good about themselves.

The Contract

But I think a lot of these problems can be alleviated if there is an understanding between the DM and the players. If the DM makes clear that his game will be a plot-driven one, and the players accept that, things will likely go much more smoothely.

The game I'm running currently is another plot-driven one, but my players (mostly new to the game when we started) are perfectly happy to follow my storyline. After a few months, I polled them on what they liked and didn't, if they wanted more freedom in what they could do, and the overwhelming response was that they liked my story and were happy to follow it.

Conversely, in a game I'm a player in, I've been perfectly happy to follow events as the DM lays them out -- but recently learned that he's been expecting us to take more initiative within the story, and do our own thing. The structure of the game so far (we're slaves and gladiators, forced to fight and generally dragged around wherever our owners want) by its very nature implies that we don't have control, so that's what I assumed was the structure the DM was going for. From my point of view, the contract between DM and players was not clear.

This is very important for a transmedia property as well. When an audience engages with a story, they have to understand what their role in this story is going to be, and they have to have that understanding as quickly as possible. If they're expected to participate, to drive the story, they need to know so that they can do it -- and so that, if that's not the kind of property they want to engage with, they can find one they do.

Ideally, this should be clear by the very form of the property, the media it uses. A property with a movie as the driving platform clearly tells the audience that their role will be more passive; whereas a video game skews more active, and an ARG even more so -- the latter makes the audience work to uncover the story, so they immediately are interacting with it and understand that that's what they have to do for the plot to unfold.

If the audience doesn't understand what's expected of them, they won't engage. If they don't understand that they're supposed to phone that phone number, they won't do it, and they'll lose the story.

Final Thoughts

You may have an idea as to where your property falls on the scale of author control to player control -- make sure your audience knows as well. But also listen to your audience -- if they're craving more control, perhaps there's a way you can give that to them. Doing so will make your audience that much more engaged, more attached to your property.

Last time I discussed finding the things the audience is most interested in and focusing on those -- this goes for interacting with the story, too. If the players really want to talk to the ambassador, maybe you should up the ambassador's role in the story.

You can (and perhaps should) have a general path you want your audience to follow, but don't force them on that path. Listen to what they want, watch how they act, go with the flow, and adapt. Plan your world and story, but don't be afraid to change that plan if you have to.

Next time: what we can't learn. (The whole series: Part 1 - D&D = Transmedia; Part 2 - Storyworld; Part 3 - Engagement; Part 4 - Interaction; Part 5 - Differences; Part 6 - Resources)