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Game Mastering
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December 20, 2008, 8:39 pm

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Roddenberry Writes I


In the World of Star Trek," authored by David Gerrold, Gene Roddenberry explains how a central character trying to solve one or more needs builds drama into any type of story.

Note: The Italics are my additions to make this more focused for gamers.

Roddenberry writes:

Every story, and every game, starts with a need.

A need for something to happen or something not to happen.

That need must be closely and deeply associated with the main character (or one of them in a game situation). Perhaps he needs a thousand dollars to pay off a gambling debt to keep the mob from killing him. Or perhaps he needs not to have himself placed in the electric chair tonight at 12:01 A.M. and the switch pulled which will execute him for a murder he never committed. Whatever need you propound for the character in your story, it is absolutely necessary that the need get more and more pressing, also more and more difficult to fulfill, as the story progresses. In a good story, you finally get the reader or viewer (or player) clawing at the pages or the screen or GM in his anxiety to get fulfillment since he has become the hero and feels all the jeopardy, frustration, and agony with is building and building towards the story climax. When the need is resolved in the climax, the reader or viewer or player feels fulfillment.

That is a great quote. It is something to remember. The author David Gerrold continues with:

Gene said that the need must be "closely and deeply associated with the main character." Just trapping a character in a situation does not mean that the reader or viewer (or game player) will automatically care about it "closely and deeply." By creating an artificial drama, you don’t create any real drama.

So let me pick up the ball.

And real drama is what we want in a game

GMs need to think about each player quest’s implications, working them out to towards their logical conclusions. Real drama requires that the hero/ character be forced to make a decision, an important decision.

Real drama does not happen in game session where players can kill of a gang of bad guys without any lasting consequences. It is just an exercise in die rolling.

As a GM, or player, you need to wonder, "Didn’t the bad guys have any friends, or family, or bosses that may seek revenge upon the players for killing his gang?" Even a truly evil overlord would feel bitter because of all the time, money, and effort it took to recruit, train, and give equipment to his minion, now completely lost to a "those meddling fools" (PCs)

If you think in those terms, the PCs now should think twice about killing anyone. Now their actions have repercussions. 

Real Drama happens when a character has a need or goal and things keep preventing them from reaching that goal. The events could be people, things, events, or even their own mental issues, that must be dealt with befor they can achieve the next (or final step). They need to be challanges that a character can overcome with their own skills or means. These obstacles needs to be challanges the character can negate, otherwise they generate frustration. (Thus you should foreshadow any "complicated solutions" earlier in the session). As they over come one obstacle, the player characters lurches towards their goal, only to discover their own actions have created the next obstacle (ideally, otherwise it is the next step in the logical chain of the plot).  As a GM, you need to keep a character going… to keep presenting steps towards the completion of the character’s needs/ goal.

In a game, every person needs something OR several somethings. Characters in novels/ stories/ movies need things as well. Why not your Player Characters? Are they not characters in a story that your group is mutually developing "in play"?

It all starts with a list of goals for each character. Every character should start with several needs/ goals. These are things the character should want, desire, be working towards. The player can even rate them from 1 to 5 lets say, in importance to the character. These ideas or goals are ll part of the character’s conception and backstory, as well as their developing character. The GM and the Player should both have a copy of this list (and the GM copy should get updated frequently as the player might add new goals or change importance for them.

The GM should then "plot out" the important events that should occur to get achieve these needs, adding any "interesting complications" that might impead the character’s quest to meet the need/ goal. These scenes can be sprinked through the campaign as common sense and the story line dictates.

Several of the characters needs should be associated with any "grand plots" or "meta story arcs" going on with the campaign. If there is a Great War raging, the player’s lives should be impacted by it… and their goals should relate to it. If there is a personal nemesis you have, he should be working for "The Big Bad" and so on. As the campaign proceeds, the GM has events and complications occur to keep the character driving towards their goal and advancing any "great plot" (which is pushed along by the players achieving their own linked personal goals - kind of a two for one).

Here is the kicker:

At any given time, any one character must be striving for a goal. If no one is, then the events should be narrated through.

This means at least some of your audience, i.e. your player, will be engaged in the eveents unfolding. The more that is important in a scene, the more the scene will interest people. Ideally you should be able to craft scenes that engage just about everyone involved in the game, but that is easier to do with fictional characters all under the authors control than a number of player characters. Still, when it happens, it is magic.

There will be some impromptu work involved here. You can set things up in a preliminary way, but not until your characters "move forward in time and space" to an appropriate place will that scene be "playable."

Players need to remember what are their character’s goals. The player needs to invest themselves in their character’s goals. (Good players and GMs make sure that the character’s goals mesh with what the player’s goals for fun are. If the character is looking for a political solution and the player is looking solely for combat to show off his nifty fighting skills, that disconnect will make either the player OR the GM unhappy). They should take steps to make sure they are doing things to meet their goals.

In addition to any normal advancement/ experience, a character should recieve a "little something extra" everytime they forward events towards meeting their own goal/ needs. This reward could be an ingame one (favors, perks, new toys) or a mechanical one (xp/ drama points). Of course the more they advance towards meeting that need or if they actually meet that need, they will get more bonus. This pavolovian bonus will help drive your players along their goals and keep them on the look out for new ones.

Take stock of the needs and goals of your Main NPCs and your characters. These are the directions your campaign should be going. By having needs and goal ("closely and deeply associated with the main characters") and making people "invested" in the resulting drama, you will create a game that people are more interested in. "Engaging the audience is the writer’s goal," said Roddenberry. 

It is a fine goal indeed. Engaging the audience, i.e. The players, is the GM’s goal. In fact, it should be considered the GM’s First Need.

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Comments ( 4 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Scrasamax
December 24, 2008, 14:29
In brief: Involve characters with drama, rather than arbitrary situations. Secondly consider that all actions have consequences.

I have a few complaints. Mainly, the article, informative as it is, is dry and the paragraph formatting is choppy and inconsistant. The Roddenberry quote is interesting, the italicised additions are not really necessary. The rest of the submission is IMHO rather basic information. I could be wrong on that account though.
Voted Chaosmark
January 18, 2009, 17:27
Honestly, I agree with Scras' comment, but not his vote. In the past, you've talked about PCs having goals and the GM including them in the game where appropriate, but this is the first time I think you've really gone in-depth on that. I rather enjoyed this one, even though it seemed a smidge dry. Basic isn't always a bad thing: we all need to go back to the basics sometimes, simply because we didn't pick it up the first time through, we're just now learning it, or because with more experience we can understand and apply it better.
Voted axlerowes
October 14, 2010, 15:18

You were not wrong Scrasamax

Voted valadaar
May 28, 2013, 11:44
Only voted

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