The Game World and Story

Once you know what the player is going to do, you need to think about where he's going to do it. You should design the setting before the story. This advice is the opposite of that normally given to writers; the setting of a role-playing game is essentially a vast playground to adventure in. Decide what kind of environment is suitable for the sorts of activities you have in mind.


CRPG game worlds tend to be set in fantasy and science fiction universes because both offer players opportunities to do things that they can't do in real life: use magic in the former case and use advanced technology in the latter. They also make possible a huge variety of enemies, aliens, and monsters that don't exist in the real world. Finally, such settings make the unrealistic rate of growth that game characters experience more plausible. If you were to set a role-playing game in the present day with ordinary humans as characters, it would be difficult to believe that within a few weeks of game time they could become dozens of times stronger or more resistant to injury than they were at the beginning. Even if you're the strongest man on Earth, you can still be killed by a single bullet and everyone knows it. Fantasy and science fiction settings help players suspend their disbelief about these things.

This is not to say that you must choose only a science fiction or fantasy setting for your CRPG. You could, for example, create a role-playing game about a police offi­cer or a spy whose character grows by acquiring new skills such as forensic examination or using bugging devices rather than weapons and magic. In such a game, you could easily set your story in the present day or the near future.

No matter what setting you choose, however, you must spend a lot of time and effort making it appealing to explore. This is more true of CRPGs than any other genre except adventure games and action-adventure hybrids. In an action game, the player is often moving too fast to appreciate the landscape much; and in a strat­egy game, he's often too busy commanding his armies and building his defenses. A CRPG is a slower-paced game, so players have time to look around. Novel and dra­matic scenery is an important part of how these games entertain.

A recent trend with CRPGs, evidenced by Neverwinter Nights, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, is that an editor within the game lets more involved players create their own scripted adventures in the game world.

This is a trend to be encouraged because it extends the sales life of the game, which in turn increases sales. Neverwinter Nights takes this to the extreme, allowing play­ers to edit an adventure in real-time as other players journey through it.

Chapter 4, "Game Worlds," discusses the creative work you need to do to design your setting.


Once you have a setting, you need to decide what will happen there—the story of the game. A CRPG story is seldom simply a straightforward quest in the style of Lord of the Rings; it's also a mystery. It's a problem to be solved but also a riddle to be unraveled. The objective bring back the really valuable treasure is not sufficient to sustain player interest for long.

The story of a CRPG is far longer than a movie or short story; it's more like a novel, and a pretty big novel at that. Consequently, much of the advice about length and pacing of screenplays and stories for beginning writers doesn't apply to CRPGs. Furthermore, the player has the option to take (or to ignore!) numerous side quests, something that never happens in a movie.

Begin by deciding on the game's overall quest—that is, its ending. The player need not know exactly what this quest is until late in the game; usually the quest that he believes he's pursuing at the beginning is not the real quest. (To use an example from literature, The Maltese Falcon begins with Brigid O'Shaughnessy walking into detective Sam Spade's office and asking him for help in finding her sister. Later he discovers that there is no sister and she really wants him to help her find the Maltese Falcon.) You may want to have more than one possible ending to the overall quest (success, failure, or varying outcomes in between), but they should all be related.

Once you know the overall quest, then you have to decide how to get the player from wherever he starts to the end. Stories in CRPGs are typically presented as a journey through a landscape, with each episode of the story taking place in a dif­ferent region. Work out the details of this journey, episode by episode, and all the new things and people that the player will discover along the way. There should be a number of twists and turns in the story—complicating factors that give the player more things to think about and to do. Common plot elements include long-lost rel­atives appearing unexpectedly; enemies who turn out to be friends, and vice versa; clues that lead to dead ends (or to unexpected changes); lost treasures coming to light in unexpected places; hidden heirs to a kingdom; and so on. Most of these will seem like cliches if you do not carefully handle them, so if you use them, look for ways to make them fresh and new. Or create situations that are the opposite of what someone would ordinarily expect—the heir to a kingdom seeking not to obtain his crown but running away to avoid the onerous duties of monarchy, for example.

Once you have an overall story, complete with locations, adventures, and plot twists, then you can start adding side quests to give the player more experience. These should be shorter adventures that the player can accept, reject, or abandon without affecting the main storyline. However, they should still feel as if they're in keeping with the player's overall goals. One of the weaknesses of many CRPGs is that they start the player off on some vast life-or-death quest, then perpetually offer him opportunities to abandon it and just be a mercenary, treasure-hunter, or errand boy. Try to make your side quests feel as if they are helping the player achieve his overall goals, even if only indirectly. For instance, suppose the player needs a specific valuable object in order to get past the challenge at the end of an episode and the only way to get it is to buy it. If he then accepts a number of side quests to earn the money, the side quests are helping him to pursue his main goal even though their own content is unrelated.

You will probably need to do some noninteractive exposition to set the stage— either an opening movie, voiceover narrative, or scrolling text story. If the avatar character is partially predefined, you can include some of her history in the


opening exposition; if the avatar is defined entirely by the player, then the opening exposition cannot make reference to the avatar except in very general terms. You may want to have the opening exposition concentrate on the game world or the reason for the major quest in the game instead of the avatar.

You'll need to write the opening carefully to be mysterious yet enticing. The bal­ance between what you reveal and what you withhold has to be just right in order to induce the player to probe further. If you're too mysterious, the player will have no reason to investigate the game world because he won't know what he's supposed to be doing, or why. If you tell too much, however, the player will be irritated because he wants to get started playing.



Let's look at two examples of opening stories in CRPGs and mine them for the balance of what is told and what is withheld.

Planescape: Torment

You awaken, frigid and confused, and realize you're lying on a stone table. Scanning the room, you see only stone tables like yours and a sign that reads “The Mortuary.” You aren't dead, so why are you here and, more important, who are you? Your thoughts are interrupted by the approach of a floating skull that starts talking! It informs you that you just died again. What does it mean, again?

This opening is a particularly good example of minimizing exposition and maximizing mystery. Planescape: Torment is unusual in that the opening of the game presents only a mystery and not a quest. From the opening, the player can surmise that his avatar once had a normal life and that something strange has happened to cause him to become a cursed immortal. This is an interesting theme because of the inherent human fascination with mortality. Planescape poses the question: Who wouldn't want to be an immortal, no matter what the price? During play, the player discovers that sometimes the price of immortality is too high; the overall goal of the game is to undo the damage that caused the character to become immortal. The game also has several different endings based on decisions the player makes near the end, among which is to—intentionally—die.


The setting: A subterranean fallout shelter houses a thousand people after a nuclear holocaust. It's been nearly 80 years, and you still don't have any idea what's out there.

Sure you've sent out volunteer scouts, but none of them returned.

Now your water recycler has failed. Rationing has begun, but someone must leave the vault to get a replacement microchip for the water recycler and look for other survivors.

And you drew the short straw.

continues on next page

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