Telling Stories: No repeats

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

There are times and places where repeats are perfectly fine.  A lot of radio stations in Connecticut seem to advertise “no repeats” as a badge of honor, which is slightly less than heartening when you realize that these stations have perhaps ten worthwhile songs in their rotations.  Nor do I expect most television shows to provide me with a constant drip of new entertainment year-round.  Heck, half of my knowledge of Law & Order comes from catching enough out-of-order repeats that I eventually began to piece together a coherent whole.

Roleplaying is not a medium which is kind to repeats, however.  I would go so far as to say that repeats are actively detrimental to roleplaying for a number of reasons.  They’re tempting, at times, but in a medium which relies upon your ability to craft an entertaining story with other people, handing over a story people have already seen just feels like going through the motions for no real benefit.

I still love this outfit.

Everything new is old again.

Obviously, roleplaying repeats aren’t like television repeats.  The seventh time that Paul’s character gets kidnapped by cultists is not going to play out exactly the same as the first six times.  Different people will be involved in the storyline, for example, and everyone will mention the last six times.  Heck, it might even be a different cult.  So they’re not repeats in the strictest sense – you don’t have the same thing happening on the same day as if no time has passed whatsoever.

A repeat, rather, is when you’re doing the same basic story with nothing changed but the set dressing.  Paul’s character has been kidnapped by culture six times before now, and each time it’s been the same course of events – first everyone finds out that he’s been kidnapped, then there’s a random demand, then everyone has to go rescue him and they find out that he holds some ancient cult artifact or another.  And then the character is safe until he gets captured a couple of months down the line, at which point it’ll be the same thing all over again.

There are advantages here.  You like how the event worked before, so there’s no reason not to recycle it.  It qualifies as a character theme, and there are probably people involved in this go-round that weren’t there for the last one.  So what’s the problem?

Well, for starters, it’s impossible to scare anyone with a story about Kryptonite now.

The first Superman stories that used Kryptonite introduced an unknown factor into the character’s universe.  Superman’s entire operating system was based around being super-strong, invulnerable, and so forth – but a rock could be used to negate all of that in seconds.  The first few times it showed up, it was cool.  But as it got used more and more often and showed up with greater frequency, it started to become boring.  Not because its power had decreased, but because if it hadn’t managed to do more than slow Superman down the last dozen times, there was no reason to assume it would this time.

Superhero stories frequently fall victim to this, with recycled villains and plotlines being an easy way to stretch out a monthly title, but they’re hardly the only ones.  Each Mass Effect game features a new group of enemies as the big villains of the piece, because simply recycling the last one isn’t convincing.  Of course the Collectors wouldn’t show up in Mass Effect 3, because even if enough of them lasted through the end of the last game, you already beat them.  What could they do to be a credible threat?  How would fighting them again be in doubt when they failed to stop Shepard the last time?

But probably not.

“But maybe the next animal onslaught will overwhelm him!”

Repeated roleplaying stories have the same fundamental issue.  Oh, sure, you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Paul’s character will be all right, but you can look back and see that he survived the past six kidnappings without a problem.  He’ll probably be fine.

No story carries the full weight of its predecessors.  I knew as I ran a story in Final Fantasy XIV with my character on death’s door that it meant never doing another story like that with her again, because it wouldn’t be possible to get back that tension and uncertainty.  Sure, it’s tempting, because you can doubtlessly think of lots of good plots revolving around the same basic premise.  But as long as the core remains identical, they’re going to be imitations.  Each drink from the well makes every drink seem less satisfying.

What you can do, however, is make use of those elements and try to craft something with a similar feel.

So Paul’s character has been captured by cultists before.  The interesting part of that story wasn’t the events, it was the sense of anxiety dealing with a group that was well-connected and could very easily do something worse than simply killing the character.  You can play with that, even while nodding at the first story.  Perhaps Paul’s character has to infiltrate a cult, trying to decipher a relic that he can’t understand without insights from the cult’s leadership.  Or he has to explicitly work with the same group that kidnapped him, one that wasn’t demolished – they claim that they’re done with him, but are they?  What do they actually want?

I can’t put my character on death’s doorstep again, or it’s going to feel cheap and repetitive.  But I can craft lots of other scenarios wherein the outcome is uncertain and she is forced to rely on others for help.  Nor does it even mean that I can’t kill her; it just can’t be a slow and lingering process.

As tempting as it can be, don’t try to repeat the stories you’ve already told.  But don’t shy away from re-using the feelings and the thematic parts that were engaging the first time around.  There are always new ways to put the pieces together; you need to make the effort.

Next time around, I want to talk about stepping into stories centered around another character gracefully rather than too timidly or too roughly.  After that, I want to focus on how gameplay can help smooth off the rough edges around a character concept.

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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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