Telling Stories: The opening still matters

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Endings are the part of a story that tends to get the most press as being complicated, and with good cause.  A bad ending makes you wonder why you wasted the time necessary to get to the ending, after all.  It’s as true with roleplaying as anywhere else, which is why I’ve had more than a few columns on making satisfying endings in a medium of ongoing roleplaying where nothing ever really ends so much as it sort of concludes.

But what gets skipped over a lot is that the beginning matters, too.  Maybe not as much as the conclusion, but in some ways it’s even harder to recover from a slipshod start.  A poor ending makes people roll their eyes as they walk away, but a poor start leads to walk-offs before you even get the chance to end.

So how do you make the beginning memorable, concise, and enjoyable?  How do you kick off a plot with all of the same panache you’d expect from a conclusion?  I’m glad you hypothetically asked.

Make it unexpected

Scheduling your roleplaying is often a good thing.  Not two weeks ago I talked about how important it is to schedule if your real-life schedule is a bit less than reliable, and I stand by that.  But really, if you want people to sit up and take notice, you want to kick off your roleplaying on an idle night when there are people around whom you know have a little time and do not have any expectation that things are about to get super serious.

Because roleplaying is constant, one of the ways to keep people engaged is to make them remember the time that an average night of whatever suddenly and without warning turned into a night of drama or humor or anything.  Yes, not everyone will be there, but that’s part of the mystique, the idea that things just suddenly happen and you can neither predict when that will take place nor control the ebb and flow around you.  That’s a good thing.  And people will remember both the event and pass it along to players who weren’t present, creating the feel of a world that keeps moving even if your characters aren’t around at a given time.

The downside is that you are going to run into the simple reality that people won’t necessarily be there in the same numbers if you started with a scheduled thing… assuming you consider it a downside.  I kind of don’t, simply because opening up your story and trying to bring everyone in makes it less important to the people who actually care.  Focus on a few people at first.

Well, I was, actually, but that's on a meta level.

I was not prepared for a place so cold.

Give people ownership

So you’ve started an arc in which your character is finally searching for his father’s killer.  Great.  And you want people to care.  That’s a little tricky, since by definition the killer probably didn’t orphan anyone else you’re roleplaying with.  The beginning is the point when this all kicks off, but how do you make other people care?

You give them ownership and motivation.  Sure, Sharon doesn’t have a personal stake in finding this guy… but she does have a personal stake in acquiring his weapons.  John was in love with your character, so he’s happy to lend his investigative talents to the operation.  Lucia’s old membership to a certain guild is a key point in the investigation.  And so on.

Part of what I mentioned when I discussed assembling tools and letting players build their own mazes was the simple reality that players will pick a hook to hang things upon, and it’s important to make that choice the right one.  Equally important, however, is making a player feel as if it’s really their own story, that the central theme is there half as a simple excuse for exploring an aspect of their own character.  Yes, this can allow for nested subdivisions wherein that hunt for a father’s killer leads to Luica beginning a wholly different plot exploring this old connection, which ties in other characters in odd ways… but that’s part of the design.  It’s a feature, not a bug.

Decently, but with a bit more jack-bootishness than you may want from the ostensible heroes.

This story only ends one way, in the final assessment.

Seed hints well beforehand

Subtlety can be key in making something as disconnected as roleplaying feel connected after all.  This is why I’ve been laying down the groundwork for a character arc for months now in Final Fantasy XIV despite knowing full well that it wasn’t going to come to fruition for quite some time.  They were hints dropped not to reveal tomorrow’s activities, but those months down the road.

It should be noted that what I’m talking about are not subtle hints, they are blatant ones that just don’t read as “hints” the first time.  They’re moments that make perfect sense in context anyway but are as subtle as a dropped brick with the benefit of hindsight.  Heck, some of them can even be OOC hints; saying in what appears to be a moment of exasperation that you’re going to have your character marry his sworn enemy and lose an arm seems like it’s a joke until months later when you do exactly that.

The technique is subtle, but the actual hints don’t have to be.  It’s better if they’re not, even.  The point is that they don’t read like hints, they just read like idle chatter or whatever.  When you put paid to all of those hints, though, it feels as if you’ve been making moves in this direction for a while.  It seems as if there’s an overall plan in place, something that always helps unify storytelling.  Even if there really never has been a plan, just aimless rambling.

All of this makes the beginning feel like something that’s worth remembering.  It won’t help ensure that everyone wants to follow the story, but it will make sure that they stick through the opening credits.

Next time around, I want to look at the drama of weddings and how that’s different from romance.  After that, let’s look at creating a sense of tension when you can always walk away.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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