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All the World's a Stage: What's a good story?


You hear that a lot. "It was a good story." It's usually in conjunction with screwing someone over. It's like the period at the end of a sentence that really, really sucked, but it's totally okay because "it was a good story." And while it might sound like I'm being a little sarcastic, isn't it the whole point of roleplaying? We're trying to create and share good stories. The problem is, it's all relative. It's up to your personal tastes and styles to determine what's a good story, and what's not. But, let's frame this up a bit more, to make sure we're all on the same page.

Let's say you're playing with a moderated troupe. They're rare nowadays, but I do see them from time to time. A moderated troupe is when you trust one or more players to be Gamemasters, basically guiding the story along, portraying NPCs, and helping to decide what happens in the game. In the old pen-and-paper days, this person would have been called a game master.

During the course of your gnome's busy career, he found himself forced to help an undead warrior cross a river. Nothing big or fancy, but it was still something the gnome had to do. (I don't know how this situation could come about, but stay with me here.) Later, the gnome finds himself summoned before Varian Wrynn. Of course, the new king of Stormwind has more than a little angst about the horde, and decides your gnome should be executed. Is that a good story? Let's set up some criteria to determine it.

Does it relate to your character?

For better or for worse, we all play the game for our own enjoyment. Very few roleplayers are struggling through the game expressly for the benefit of someone else. (If you are, you might want to reevaluate how you're spending your time.) That means that your character and his story is the reason you're roleplaying.

If the episode or event in question is out of the blue ("rocks fall, everyone dies") and isn't intrinsically involved with your character's story, I'd argue that it is not a "good story." At least, not for you. Might be a great story for someone else. But for you, that's random, lame, and not much fun. I am not arguing here that the death or tragedy of your character is necessarily unfair; it could be completely within the rules determined by your game master. But fair isn't the same thing as good, and a "good story" that affects your character must actually involve and relate to your character in some way.

Was it relatively fair?

Like I said, "good story" is sometimes trotted out as an excuse when your character is negatively affected by something. You very rarely hear someone say "I gave you 30,000 gold pieces. It was a good story." It's always something like "I betrayed you to the Lich King; it was a great story!" So, for all intents and purposes, your character just got hit by an anvil. If we're talking about whether something is a "good story," then we need to evaluate how that anvil fell.

Again, since you're playing the game for your own enjoyment, then it sucks to simply have your character penalized or yoinked away without some mitigation. There should be a reason for it to happen, and one that makes sense in the realm of the story. When you're roleplaying through choices and actions, those actions must have consequences. And sometimes those consequences end up with penalties to your character. They should, however, be "fair."

"Fair" doesn't mean "you always win." However, when your character received that penalty, was it from a logical, non-arbitrary series of events? Is there something you did that led events to this conclusion? Could you have somehow escaped this fate? (And, if you could have escaped this terminal end, was that escape predictable, clear, and obvious?)

I know many folks think of "fair" as being "facing theoretically surmountable odds." In a player-versus-player roleplay environment, such as tabletop or LARP, I can see that being a feasible argument. However, this kind of definition doesn't really apply to online roleplay. You shouldn't really be capable of taking on the Lich King all by yourself - if you try, and you die, well then, that's your own darn fault.

Did you have any choice?

I'm a huge fan of choice in roleplay. (I blame Ghostcrawler's ongoing crusade to bring more choice into the game.) I often think of roleplay as being a series of choices. As I step up to each conflict ("Do I kiss her, or let her walk out of the bar?") , then I get to roll through my character's thoughts. The choice I make, therefore, expresses the story of my character.

When you consider a "good story," evaluate whether your character had any choices to be made. Waking up in the morning to find Sindragosa has swallowed you whole ... isn't really a choice. (I suppose "Do I scream or not?" is a sort of choice, but I think by the time you're being digested by an undead dragon, self-determination is no longer a factor.)

Again, admittedly, I'm talking mostly in terms of termination of a character. But when I hear of a character who's died, I try and figure out if the player had any choices to make. If not, then it's probably not a good story.

Did you get to experience it?

I used the example of a spontaneous dragon eating as a bad story. Why? Because there's not much chance for someone to actually roleplay that. You wake up, you're in a dragon. You... ponder the relative viscosity of dragon stomach acid. (Or perhaps, you ponder how something that appears to be nothing but bone could actually digest something in the first place... but maybe I'm thinking too much here.)

At least in part, roleplay is about going through the motions. Anyone can wake up and decide their character's married, has had a rough time, and is missing an eye. A roleplayer, by comparison,. will want to experience falling in love, getting married, seeing their homeland destroyed, and then having their eye poked out by the long-lost enemy of their dead father. Or whatever. It's kind of what we do.

So logging in one night and seeing a message from your Gamemaster saying "Your character's been eaten - sorry, dude," is about the worst thing that could happen - because you didn't get to experience it happening.

In conclusion

So, let's go back and reevaluate the death of the gnome. Did the execution relate to the gnome? Absolutely! It's the direct result of actions the gnome had taken. Did the character have choice? Again, yes. The gnome chose to help the forsaken character to start with, but the gnome also had the choice to ignore Varian's summons. Azeroth is a big place with entire continents in which to hide. The gnome walked into that trap. Did the gnome's player get to experience his death? I imagine so, since it'd be kind of lame to just tell him "Your character chose to show up in Wrynn's living room and got killed."

Was it fair? That's a tough call, and it's going to be something the gnome's player and his gamemaster would likely debate. I tend to think that it's relatively fair, since it's beyond a reasonable expectation that a single PC could take on and win against Varian and his guards. Additionally, it was completely reasonable for the gnome to never show up to the king's summons. Even with that being the case, it sucks to lose a character to an NPC. There's just no getting around that.

The point here is that I want to encourage folks to put some thought behind what's a "good story." We use the phrase all the time, and very rarely with any real evaluation. Considering how important it is to roleplayers to create a good story, you'd think we could agree about what even makes such a thing.

What are your thoughts? What criteria do you use to judge a good story?

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. You might wonder what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, or to totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying, or even how to RP on a non-RP server!

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