How to Survive

Some of you are brand new to the gaming group, and some of you are new enough that you’re still adjusting. I realize that the way I do things is quite different from the vast majority of other roleplaying games out there (actually my methods much more closely resemble films and proper fiction, by I’m getting ahead of myself); so I, your gracious Storyteller, have decided to help you out and write a little how-to guide in order to help smooth the transition.

So, without further ado, here are the Top 3 Rules for Survival in the Danverse.

Rule #1: Learn to Enjoy Failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Samuel Beckett

To start with, I’d like to walk you through a quick thought exercise. Think of one of your favorite movies or stories. Pick a specific one—it’s important.

I’ll wait.

Got it? Okay. Now I want you to think of the main character, or your favorite character, in that story you picked. And I want you to imagine an alternate version of that story in which nothing bad happens to that character, and he or she succeeds at everything he or she wants to do on the very first try. Really imagine it—I want it to sink in just how laughably boring your favorite story would be if you made that simple change to the script. The reason it would be laughably boring is that such a change would immediately dissolve all the dramatic tension; and dramatic tension is the element that makes stories good. This is true of films and novels, but it’s also very true in story-driven roleplaying games, too.

As a Storyteller, my absolute number one priority is to create a good story which, if you’ve been following, means creating a healthy amount of dramatic tension. What this means for you is that you can expect bad things to happen to your character. You can expect your character to fail. A lot. And I don’t just mean dice rolls (even though failed dice rolls do lead to interesting things). I mean that your character may actually fail to achieve an objective, permanently and with no second chance—and that however upset this may make your character, you as a player for the sake of a good story must be okay with it. Expect also to be treated in ways that appear to be extraordinarily unfair. Life is unfair, and a story which approximates life should be too. You can even expect, at times, your character to die, if that’s what is dramatically appropriate for the story at that time. (Think about how many good epic stories require the death of a hero, or even the main character—there are of course too many examples to list.)

Consequently, you can expect to encounter many situations, especially at the BEGINNING of a story arc, which are impossible to “win.” Again, think of great stories that you know: can you think of even a single one where an important antagonist is defeated the very first time he encounters the hero? Antagonists almost ALWAYS win the first time—often several times in a row. Maybe they get the jump on the hero, maybe they’ve done their homework—or maybe they’re just plain ahead of the power curve, and the hero needs to work to catch up.

Failure can be unpleasant and frustrating to deal with, but only if your top priority is on WINNING rather than on creating a GOOD STORY. So, to maximize your fun, take my advice: recognize that a good story is more important than winning. Learn to enjoy watching your character fail—or even deliberately letting him fail, for character reasons.

If you can get past those uncomfortable feelings, you’ll find a great deal of fun waiting for you on the other side.

Plus, it feels so much better to succeed—finally—at something when you’ve failed at it a bunch of times before.

Trust me, that’s an exhilaration no amount of instant wins can possibly replace.

Rule #2: Play Your Character, Not the Game

“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.”
- Chuck Palahinuk

To properly explain this, I need you guys to understand the most basic difficulty of Storytelling. As a Storyteller, you are tasked with creating a game world which is both 1) compelling, and 2) immersive. For a game world to be compelling, it must engage the player; for it to be immersive, it must feel realistic and alive. What this means is that there is a constant tug-of-war at play: the Storyteller must at all times ensure that the game world revolves around his players, while at the same time doing his very best to give the most convincing illusion possible that it doesn’t.

Of course, that’s the heart of it. Fundamentally, we are playing a game of pretend. And as anyone who plays pretend knows, the first step to playing pretend is to trick yourself into forgetting that it’s pretend.

Too often players in my games will assume that everything that occurs, everything that is said or described, is somehow a clue that is relevant to their quest. This kind of thinking would be fine in a video game, or even most tabletop roleplaying games, but if you behaved this way in real life you would be institutionalized.

So, to help my players play more immersive and compelling characters, I, as a Storyteller, will often quite deliberately include things which are specifically IRRELEVANT to the player-characters and their quest. I will include these useless details in the descriptions of settings and scenes, in the dialogue of NPCs, and more. I do this because it requires you—FORCES you—to exercise the same level of critical thinking that your character would have to exercise in that situation.

I also keep immersion of this sort firmly in mind when I design antagonists and obstacles to throw in my players’ path. I never design a set-piece with a single predefined solution; the “puzzles” in my game are almost never going to be set-ups specifically designed for your character to use the tools at their disposal in a pre-set combination to solve a problem. We are not playing The Legend of Zelda. Instead, your character is given a mixed bag of tools and thrown into a problem not specifically designed for their use. In those situations, you’ll need to figure out how to make your strengths work for you, how to rely on your friends in areas where you are weak, and how to improvise a new solution when all your usual strategies have failed.

And remember: no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

This also means that it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to try to game the system by trying to anticipate what you think I “want” you to do. Thinking like that will lead to success in my game just about never, because I don’t typically “want” you to do anything. I’m not a scientist with a maze that ends with a piece of cheese. I’m a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass just to see what they do.

Consequently, if you are feeling lost as to what to do in the game, the very best way to go about finding an answer is almost always to ask yourself, legitimately, what your character would do in that situation. Try to put aside all other considerations. Your character does not know he is in a game (and cannot, therefore, be looking to “win” it). He does not know his dice pools. He does not know that there is the watchful eye of a Storyteller guiding his destiny. Act accordingly—and with a healthy dose of Rule #1—and you’ll find the way.

Incidentally, one of the beauties of the Storytelling system is that it’s so damn flexible. If your character has comes up with some hare-brained idea that I never even considered when I designed the problem, I just might (if I think the idea is good) redesign the scenario on the spot to work around it. Of course, you won’t know that I did that, since I’ll pretend like it was my plan all along. Which brings me to my next rule…

*Rule #3: The Storyteller Is Full of Crap *

“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
― Albert Einstein

Let’s talk about NPCs in video games. When a seasoned gamer comes upon an NPC in a story-based video game, he or she will most assuredly do the following things purely out of compulsive habit, usually in this exact order:
1) Exhaust all information-gathering dialogue options.
2) Exhaust all non-essential dialogue options.
3) Complete story dialogue, receive quest objective, and move on.

That’s all well and good, because the NPCs in the video game were put there for the player’s use. The player (logically) assumes that the NPC must have information and quest objectives for them—and they’re right. But can you imagine what kind of extreme narcissist you’d have to be if you treated all your real-life conversations this way?

In games that I run, this kind of thinking is extremely flawed and will most likely lead to your character being mocked, shunned, or even attacked.

When I create NPCs, I do not create them specifically for my players. I create characters, just like you do. I make my characters as much like real people as I possibly can. I give them hopes, aspirations, dreams—personal goals which often have little or nothing to do with the player characters, and which are often closely-kept secrets. I also give them varying levels of knowledge about the world they inhabit, as well as, of course, wildly varying personalities.

Due to this, there are times when NPCs will behave in ways that you don’t understand. An NPC will suddenly have an unexpected reaction to something you say or do—maybe they’ll suddenly get angry at you, or suddenly be grateful to you, and you won’t know why. This is because there are things happening under the hood, so to speak, that you don’t know about; if and when you get to know that NPC better, you will understand why they behaved the way that they did. Real life is like this too—learn to be okay with it.

Another thing to consider is, when a player encounters an NPC in my game, he or she is not guaranteed to learn any accurate information, to receive useful advice, or indeed to be assisted in any way. Nor is the player going to be guaranteed to have something the NPC wants, services or otherwise. Sometimes an NPC will have no use for you, or no reason to want to help you. Sometimes they just won’t have the information that you want them to have. Sometimes they have it, but it’s incomplete, or they don’t want to give it to you. Sometimes they’ll just outright lie. So coming into an encounter with typical expectations is likely to lead to misinformation, or even hostility, especially if the NPC isn’t an established ally.

In the same vein, it needs to be stressed that I avoid as much as possible using my NPCs as hint-givers. Assuming that anything an NPC says to you is somehow an encoded message from the ST will more often hurt than help. The upside of this, of course, is that you are never expected to blindly follow what NPCs tell you. While many NPCs do often give good advice, they just as often don’t; choosing NOT to listen to an NPC, even an allied NPC, is often a valid course of action.

Basically, again: try to forget that you’re in a game. Try to treat NPCs as if they are unique people, rather than merely extensions of the Storyteller and/or the game itself.

That’s it. Follow those three rules and you’ll have a much easier time adjusting to the way I do things. Good luck!

How to Survive

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