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Storytelling in multiple media

I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.

My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.

Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.

Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.

I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.

Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.

Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.

There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.

But that is a story for my next post.

2 replies on “Storytelling in multiple media”

1) Night Vale is awesome. I love it a lot for how powerful the storytelling is within it. Cecil is phenomenal in this respect.

2) Storytelling within a tabletop game is one of the trickier things, I think. You can create adventure relatively easily, and danger and fun. But creating a story that the players care about more than a method to gain xp and loot and have fun doing it is something else.

I’ve been working on that a lot, and I ran a campaign a few years ago based on Pokemon (it was awesome) which I think is the best I’ve managed with story telling.

I set it in Kanto, the continent for Red and Blue, so the geography was already set. Then I made the party be peripheral to a grand story arc. I had a timeline, and a definite set of events that were to occur. The party could get as much or as little involved with the main plot as they liked – I had plenty of room for sidequests, and they couldn’t actually be in every place that was plot critical at the right times, so they’d hear about events every so often that they had missed.

It turned out really well, because they got to know the NPCs as more than just ‘that whats-his-name the shopkeeper’, but as actual characters, partly because they knew many of the names already from the Pokemon universe and also because they had causes to stand behind. The party ended up dividing in two over a decision that was made, and I had to run two separate sessions for a while, and ultimately they changed the course of the world in a way I totally didn’t expect.

I guess my lesson from that was you can put people in an open world and give them power to shape things and they don’t know what to do, like staring at a blank paper. Put them in the middle of a story but not much power to shape it and they just feel railroaded. Put them in an open world but have a major story happening simultaneously, and they can see what they can do to shape the world.

Storytelling in games is, as you may have noticed, something I have also thought about a bit…

That’s a really cool idea to put them on the side of major events! That has the opportunity to both put your own story into action while also granting your players the freedom to interact with it or not. Having life continue without them is a great way to add richness to the world as well. That one campaign I tried really hard to do world building with ended up being a mess because I was trying to keep the combinatorial possibilities straight in all of the interactions in the rest of the world. Leaning more heavily an overarching story arc probably would have worked better.

Do you still do any writing or put any session notes anywhere online?

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