Writing Adventures vs. Writing Stories

It’s been a while since I posted here. Mostly I don’t find this website the best tool for communication. But, I would probably find it more useful if I made it more useful.

Insert infinity symbol.

Today’s post started based off a Facebook remark by a friend of mine. His adventure idea for Call of Cthulhu struck me as an example of how old guard game writers… write.

Here’s the synopsis:

Cast against the backdrop of Cold War espionage, the story focuses on a spy who’s been corrupted by Mythos forces and is now returning home, intending to spread chaos and madness when he does.

Without any additional information, this is a great plot to start a story from. But, without a lot of work from the game writer, this will inevitably turn into another Scooby Doo Cthulhu session.

First of all, the best part of the story has already been told. The spy has been corrupted and is bringing his bag of mythos tricks back to the “real world.” I sense this character is complex, with multiple dimensions and a tragic past that is only going to get worse. A true horror story is about what we lose and — in the case of the Cthulhu Mythos — how small and insignificant that loss is.

Following this train of thought, the PCs are now in the middle of a story they must thwart. The story isn’t about them and without a good gamemaster (or plotline by the author), the PCs are thrust into stopping a great storyline from continuing. Who is this spy? What happened to him? What happens next?

Because of the nature of horror (with the exception of the Last Girl trope in slasher films), the villain is often the protagonist of the tale and the PCs are the antagonists. Their role is to stop the villain from getting what it wants.

Where does the story of the PCs start?

Now. One can easily kajigger this story to make the PCs important to solving it. But that’s not easy for the author to do. After all, she doesn’t know who the PCs are. Where in their campaign is this adventure taking place? Are they investigators, scientists, or soldiers? Why are they invested in the strange first clues inhabiting every Cthulhu story?

This plot is more akin to a novel than a gaming adventure. But that doesn’t stop game writers from conjuring up these plots time and time again. This is an earmark of the old guard who grew up on genre novels and whose background is infected with conflict-laden plots, devoid of resolution.

Fact: Game writers do not get to write the endings to their stories. As such, they aren’t good at it.

There’s hundreds of examples of pull-you-by-the nose adventures out there I could use to illustrate how these adventures start with strong plots and crumble apart once the gamemaster must apply the material — and this is just a plot idea from one friend of mine as an exercise (i.e. it is by no means the only example I could use). I trust that if she really wanted to explore the story from tips to tails, we’d see a much better adventure than I’m projecting. But this loose explanation is perfect for my point.

Gamemasters (generally) learn their trade through application and use. Few go to film school, or learn critical literary theory. Dissecting a story to find the character nodes and story hooks is not something a hobbyist is expected to do. Which is why adventures like this become Scooby Doo.

Let’s presume the adventure is written as a series of clues the PCs must track down, which leads them to some infected people who must be dealt with, then more clues, and then a final confrontation with the Mythos-warped spy.

That example isn’t ridiculous. We all know the format.

The PCs are doing two things. Firstly, they are following breadcrumbs. You already know this. But, secondly, and more importantly, they are living someone else’s story. This is a detail that is often forgotten in the hobby. Unless the gamemaster stops for moment and says, “Abe, you’re sensing something wrong here. There’s a memory in your head that isn’t right. You are having trouble reconciling it. Tell me what that memory is.” then the PC is just a bystander in the story.

Typically, Call of Cthulhu stories involve characters going mad. But madness that manifests is determined by an absolute gamemaster who writes the story for the PCs. “Abe goes mad, his brain tormented by the memory of his mother leaving him.” Unless Abe worked this out with the gamemaster ahead of time, the gamemaster is telling the PC who he is and what he was. And while hopelessness is a theme in Cthulhu, this is not a novel. This is a roleplaying game.

If this were a fantasy adventure about stopping a plague, the good part of the story still precedes the PCs. Their task is the same. In fact, move this story to any genre or veneer and the conclusion is the same. This story is about someone else.


Now. This doesn’t mean the original plot can’t be written well by the original author. But it does mean that years and years of poor training for gamemasters means the adventure is going to play out the way it always plays out. Clue. Clue. Fight. Club. Fight. Go insane. Finale.

I’ve talked numerous times about the game systems bad gamemasters gravitate to and how they bring all their bad habits to those systems. So regardless of intent, this plot is just a placeholder for the gamemaster to write three clues and two fight scenes. And while that sounds like a grim critique of the hobby, there are ways to correct this thinking.

One. The PCs come first. Even if the story is about the Beyonder™ eating the Earth and everyone dying, the PCs still come first. Their stories are at the heart of any adventure they go on. The things they see and do and feel are the point. If it’s not, then it’s a pulpy adventure like Indiana Jones stopping the bad guys from getting the mcguffin. Replace Indy with any other hero and the mcguffin still gets got. Some game systems are built around this with advantages, disadvantages, aspects, traits, talents, skills, and what have you.

Which leads to point two… spotlighting. If you’re writing a story and there’s a PC who is a forensic scientist, there better be a dead body to examine. Otherwise, where is the spotlight? The list of examples goes on, but the forementioned forensic scientist is drawn from an actual published module.

Everyone needs a moment to be a “hero” in the story. But that hero moment need not, in and of itself, be heroic. It could be a chance to spotlight who you are, even if that moment adds nothing to the “solution of the plot.” A character who visits her mother’s grave is writing as much of her story as someone who shoots Cthluhu in the face with a panther cannon. The key is to let characters define their spotlights.

But, adjudicating spotlight time isn’t easy. The gamemaster has to be fair in how time is divided up. A character need not be useful in combat, but if combat is 75% of the session, it’s hard to give non-combat characters a chance to shine. I make specifically “socialist” games for this reason, so people always get a chance to tell part of the story, even if their character isn’t particularly interesting or effective. Games with gamemasters can benefit from “spotlight points” which give PCs five-minutes of uninterrupted story, or the like.

These are just examples. I’m not trying to solve your gaming issues for you. This post is merely to illustrate how we get stuck in rhythms that perpetuate the same kind of gaming. Over and over again.

I hope this article helped. I was interrupted half-way through writing it. There might be a logic gap in there somewhere.