Telling Stories: Why aren’t people getting into this?

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.The worst possible thing to feel when you’re lining up roleplaying is to have a big pitch all ready to go, plenty of planning on deck, and when the big day arrives… nobody cares.

It’s true online or in tabletop form.  I’ve run tabletop campaigns wherein I had really cool ideas for a plot and characters custom-made by players to fit within those fields, but when push came to shove it turned out that no one was actually on board with the unfolding story.  I’ve organized what seemed like really spiffy events to me that turned out just one or two people (which, in this case, was less than I wanted).  I’ve been ready to go and gotten sort of left to one side.

So why aren’t people engaging?  Why can you have an event or a story ready and then find no one willing to actually engage with what you’re doing?  There are lots of reasons, some of which are more common than others, but there are a few questions that can help you at least fix the problem in the future, even if you can’t salvage what’s already gone south.

I feel I should note those are leggings under her robe.

Adding in more duskwights wouldn’t go amiss, but it very rarely does.

Does this engage the characters at all?

With tabletop games, you have control over the characters that your players make to an extent, but not total control.  In an online setting, you don’t really get many more filters beyond what sort of group you’ve gathered.  But it’s still possible to have a group that should be fascinated by something that doesn’t turn out to be engaged, and a lot of that comes down to what the players and the characters actually find interesting.

Part of it is a matter of the person behind the story, naturally.  If you’re trying to write a story for a group of engineers without actually being an engineer, you’re going to run into some issues and might not be familiar with the sort of sweeping mechanical problems that can interest an engineer.  But more than that, it’s quite possible that your group of engineers is not all focused upon exploring an engineering problem.  All your characters might have a shared background, but those characters (and the players behind those characters) might not actually want to run a storyline centered around figuring out how to fix a machine.

Most characters, like most people, are more fixated on their own drama than something external.  If you’re trying to get them to put equal weight on an external problem that doesn’t actually tie into what they’re doing in their personal lives, you’re going to wind up with no one paying much attention.

What are the outcomes?

Some stories, I feel, fail simply because the tangible outcomes they ought to promise aren’t there.

Let’s say you’re roleplaying in Star Wars: The Old Republic on the Empire side.  You want to start a plot wherein one of your characters figures out a plan to push the Republic off of a planet permanently.  But no one’s getting involved with your plan to win the hearts and minds of Voss forever through dark manipulation.  Why is that?

Well, because it’s not actually going to happen, is it?  There will still be Republic players and representatives and the like on the planet.  It’s inevitable.  It’s the rule of the game.  So either your plot will fail like a Saturday morning villain at the last minute, which is disappointing, or you’ll just have to pretend it happened when it clearly didn’t.  Neither one is very satisfying; both are just variants on getting the football pulled away at the last second, which seems like something you could avoid by just never trying to kick the football when the same girl holds it.

Even if the story engages the characters, no one is going to fall out of their seats to take part in a plot that’s writing checks it can’t cash.  That’s just boring, and it means you know the outcome (nothing really changes) from the start.  Figuring out how to make sure that your storylines feel consequential, especially online, is an ongoing discussion that I’ve had before and will have again, but increasing consequences that won’t happen is less interesting than lower-stakes events that can.

Cuddles, maybe.

“So what’s my motivation, exactly?”

Are people unclear?

One of my favorite reviews of a Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook included a concept that many players, designers, and organizers tend to miss: players do not necessarily know how to get engaged with something.  The specific example was a vampire controlling a business or organization.  You know it happens, you see it happen, but tell the players to take control and they’ll often be completely unclear on how to do so or what it entails.  And, far too often, the person running the game doesn’t have a clear picture of it, either.

The same thing applies on a smaller level.  If you tell your roleplaying group that you’re going to be researching something in-character, people might not get engaged simply because they’re unsure what form that research should take, or whether or not they can just make things up or if you have a central idea in place.  They aren’t sure how to engage, and thus they hang back out of fear of ruining things.  Which means that no one takes part and the whole thing falls apart.

I harp on OOC communication a lot, and for good reason, but this is a place where it becomes even more important, because the people you’re playing with need to know what you want, what you have in mind, and what sounds good to you.  If people aren’t sure what to do in order to get involved, all of the engagement and good wishes in the world won’t help.  Provide them wit the tools, and you’ll be able to see whether or not they want to take part.

Next week, I want to start chattering about things like in-character blogs, twitters, and so forth – how you can make them work, how much effort they take, and what you can realistically get out of those efforts before you start putting the time in.  The week after that, I want to talk about sexuality in roleplaying and making your character not be gross, intentionally or otherwise.

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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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