Saturday, 25 July 2015

Developing Starfall: a story-first approach

Dominic Matte
When I work on a D&D game, I start with a core idea for a world or story (for example, what if dragons were secretly playing a game for the fate of the world and no one knew). Then I build the world in excessive detail, including history, politics, organizations, and characters. When I write in an event (or when the players do) I want to know how it'll affect the world, and for that I need to have the world ready in working detail. Once I'm satisfied with the expansive planning, I star play, adding more to the story and world on a session-by-session basis as the players explore and learn about what's going on.

At least, that's how I usually work on a D&D game. I've been slowly kicking out ideas for a campaign that I'm tentatively calling Starfall (after three or four rejected titles over the years), and I've been taking a different approach than I normally do. I may have mentioned it here before, earlier in the process. I've been building a framework of story in distinct arcs with specific themes around the core concept, adding and subtracting and re-organizing as I make progress.
This is new territory for me. I usually overprepare my worldbuilding so that no matter what the player characters do, I know how the world and NPCs will respond, and no matter where they go I'll know what they find. But with Starfall I'm looking at 30 pages of typed notes on the campaign's plot outline with zero worldbuilding on anything that's not directly relevant to the story.

Which is not to say that I'm planning a strict railroad. Starfall won't be as open-ended as the campaign I'm currently running (The Long Game), but each arc has at least two major decision points or significant forks for succeeding or failing particular challenges, and a key early player decision will be the basis for a huge amount of important stuff later on.

Anyway. I'm planning the game to take place over 1,500 years across eight "books", each divided into two or three chapters. Each chapter is its own smaller themed story that contributes to the book's arc, and each book will arm the players with more knowledge and resources to combat the growing threat. Book eight, the big finale, will be the culmination of everything the players have learned and experienced and accumulated as they face down the threat once and for all.

This structure and time span demanded that I work out all the major themes and ideas and arcs if I wanted to fit in everything I had in mind, and that wasn't easy since it's not what I'm used to. I didn't even start with that firm eight-book structure in mind, only that I wanted the campaign to take place over a long time.

The core idea I started with was of a young, pre-civilization world corrupted by something from the Far Realm (D&D's H.P. Lovecraft dimension) and that the players would take on the roles of various characters throughout history battling the corruption as it spread over a thousand years, with the final group of characters inheriting the knowledge and experience of those who came before. That makes for two easy starting points: a prologue set at the end of the world where the final characters begin to learn the world's history, and Book One chronicling the point of first contact and the initial response to the infection. It also created an easy finale: the do-or-die confrontation where the final characters attempt to purge the corruption once and for all.

With a beginning and end in mind, I started chipping away at the middle. I had a few ideas, such as the first organized attack that proves the corruption has an agenda of some kind, the emergence of psionics in response to the touch of the Far Realm, the emergence of a rival group to the PCs, and the point where the corruption becomes so expansive that it overwhelms the natural spirits of the world. This stage in planning got pretty chaotic as I fleshed out the particulars of these developments and shuffled them around when the order stopped making sense. Cuts and additions were made here and there, and I slowly firmed up the timeline as I considered which themes would be relevant to which events and in which order.

As I slowly plugged away at things over the years, the thought developed that maybe I didn't want to build this as a standard D&D world with elves and dwarves and halflings. I figured maybe I'd self-publish the campaign as a free ebook one day, and to do that I'd have to stay away from anything copyrighted (and for the biggest reach it would also help to make the campaign setting- and system-agnostic). The video game Dragon Age: Origins was also a big influence in that direction - I didn't like the game because I felt that the writing and worldbuilding tried to put their own unique spin on fantasy tropes and races but came off as lazy and uninspired (my reasoning is explained in more detail in my review of the game). I decided that I wouldn't use the standard D&D races or pantheon or cosmology. I'd make up my own deities and religions. All people would be human, though they'd have different physical characteristics and abilities determined by the magic of the world through the location of their birth.

This decision didn't actually have a huge influence on the game's development, not at first. At first it just meant that I removed references to non-human races and (temporarily) all traces of religion. I kept working on the game, mostly very slowly, adding something here and there when I had a neat idea but not actively developing.

The biggest change in direction, and a big help in focus, was when I read Jeff Vandermeer's novel Annihilation. It's sort of like a modern version of Lovecraft. The big thing that stuck out to me was that the otherworldly threat was not an elder evil as in Lovecraft's work, but rather something simply different from anything we can understand. Its behaviour and goals (if any) are incomprehensible, but not evil or malicious - it simply is, and does what it does.

Reading this novel convinced me to pull back on the sheer Lovecraftiness of the alien threat, and changing the influence from an evil inevitably spreading corruption to a neutral inevitably spreading change inspired me with new direction and focus. I had been slowly poking at this campaign over the years, but this was the kick in the pants to get serious about it. I went over everything I had written, reconsidering everything from that new perspective. 

This is where it pays to not get too attached to your drafts. With the new framework, a ton of stuff didn't really fit anymore (such as an army of corrupted creatures organizing an attack on a major city) so I did a lot of cutting and relocating and rewriting. But at the same time a lot of new territory opened up, allowing me to push more themes and ideas of confusion and dissension and incomprehensibility.

Then I read the Dresden Files novels by Jim Butcher and had a less dramatic but equally useful inspiration: don't let the players focus on just one thing. Always have at least two plots or themes running to keep them on their toes and off-balance. This doesn't apply to every D&D game, but in one built around an unknowable alien influence, it's perfect. So I went over everything again, adding subplots and parallel plots, and found that the skeleton was really fleshing out.

After three or four years of tinkering and four months of on-and-off but much more intensive writing, I'm finally happy with the overarching structure of the campaign. Everything now fits together well enough that I don't foresee any major cuts or additions or edits, just a lot more expansion and worldbuilding on the 30 typed pages I have now (already up two more pages since I wrote that last sentence).

Starting with story and theme has been a very different experience from the worldbuilding-first approach I usually take. For The Long Game I built the world and its history, worked hard with my players to integrate their characters and backstory and goals into the world, and then pretty much turned them loose. The story is what it is because of that collaboration and building on each others' ideas. It's not telling my story through the PCs, it's building their own story with them.

But I have a different set of goals with Starfall. I wanted to try something with clearer and more distinctive thematic elements in a particular order, and that requires slightly tighter control than "here's the world, have fun". But I think I'm striking the right balance between predetermined events and player choice to make the party feel like they're responsible for the outcome every step of the way, and the structure is set up to make them want to get involved - or feel that it's their responsibility to get involved - whenever something big happens.

Of course, I'm still not ready to start the game. It's in a state where the story is developed enough that I could start it now, expanding as I go, but it's missing the fine details and comprehensive worldbuilding I prefer - I'm not yet ready for anything the players might throw at me.

But it's been a different experience, one that's made me think about campaign planning in a different way than I usually do. I might do this again the next time I have a more focused story idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment