Casting a Mold for Empowerment
If you’ve read the previous entries here on the Story Board blog, you’ve already heard about empowerment, why and when it’s important, and even how to accomplish it. In this entry, we’re going to look into this last point in a little further detail: what goes into basic empowerment in our games? We consider here primarily your traditional empowering adventure story: when it comes to horror games, and some other kinds of advanced games, there may be other considerations, or empowerment itself may not be the central purpose, but for the straight adventure story and usual intro game, there are some important things to evaluate if you want to strengthen the impact of the game. To fit together every piece of a basic empowering adventure game, three layers have to be judged and designed: the challenges, the characters and the players.
Perhaps the simplest kind of empowerment is that of success. The simple feeling of accomplishment can have a hugely powerful impact. But, it’s not quite so simple as winning. Which sounds like a more impressive accomplishment: stabbing the world-dooming villain two dozen times, or traveling across the realm, collecting the six Crystals of Power from their ancient guardians, besting the trials of the Gates of Evil, completing the ritual to drain the villain of his incredible powers, and then stabbing the world-dooming villain two dozen times? The key to what makes a victory empowering isn’t always the significance of the problem you solve: often it’s the challenges you face to accomplish it. Even a small mundane task can feel huge, if it must be solved by hard and thorough effort. What makes a task challenging, then? Well, not so fast. A difficult challenge for one kind of character might be a flick of the wrist for another. What is challenging depends entirely on the characters’ abilities. But, there’s good news: you aren’t just writing challenges. You’re also defining the characters who will be completing them, and one cannot be considered without the other.
By building the challenges of your story and your characters together, you ensure that the two of them suit one another: the powers of the characters must be similar in scope to the requirements of the game, or the challenges may either be easy and uninteresting, or difficult enough that the PCs do not feel like it was their contribution which saved the day as much as it was the actions of an SPC or presence of a plot item.
Similarly, the challenges that the characters face must be the same kind of problem that they are prepared to complete. One of the most effective challenge-designing tools in our arsenal is narrowing who can solve it: If a character is one of very few people (or even the only person) able to complete a vital step in the story, no matter how small, then suddenly just picking a lock or relaying the message of a spirit can give a player a moment where they feel extremely important.
The Wayfinder Magic System is already designed with this kind of balance in mind. In addition to Rogues with lockpicking and Clerics with spirit magic, there are lots of other abilities that will allow one or a small group of PCs to serve as a vital hinge in the story, but only if the gamewriter sets things up for them: Rogues cure poison with their antidote; Artisans can remove hexes; Mages can Dispel Magic; and Clerics can speak with the dead. With a bit of creativity, almost any ability can be made into a vital tool to empower the small subset of PCs who selected it, such as a single Rogue with Escape Artist able to escape and free their friends when all of them are captured. Though don’t forget: if a vital plot point has a specific solution for a PC to provide, make sure you have an SPC able to solve the problem for those days when it happens that no PC takes the vital ability. (Remember, SPCs: always let the PCs solve a problem first!)
Let’s consider two perspectives of how one can build challenges to match characters, and characters to match challenges.
When it comes to game mechanics, Rogues’ array of abilities are such that they they almost always need challenges designed to their class abilities if they are going to feel useful or roguelike. On the small scale, this can be accomplished by something like a locked chest. On the large scale, the rogue-based challenge is a maze of traps, locks, and oblivious patrolling guards who must be snuck by, knocked out and trapped. In this particular case, it may be difficult to set aside the space and the flow such that only the right PCs are present to face the challenge, but when it can be done, it may make the most exciting heroics that one can set up for any Rogue PCs.
But this kind of challenge-to-character matching can extend beyond game mechanics and into story and background as well. When a group of heroes are said to be specially trained to fight a certain kind of monster that is widely known in the world, it doesn’t matter if their game mechanics and abilities are no different than anybody else’s: when they slay such a monster, they know in character that they were the ones with the training and skills to do it. Focusing this idea down to an even narrower point, you get the idea of a chosen one (or chosen few), making PCs fit the challenge not because they have the skills to fit the challenge, but simply because the story says they are destined to. This kind of challenge matching can be very effective and very simple, but one must be wary to keep the difficulty of tasks balanced: the use of story for this purpose runs the risk of an accomplishment being completed without a sense of effort (simply due to destiny), or even worse, of a character who is “meant” to accomplish a certain task actually being less effective at completing that task than other players in the game.
When it comes to presenting characters with challenges that suit their skills, it is possible to to push the bounds of the character’s expectations of themselves to make an empowering scene. While often it is frustrating and disappointing for a character to face a task which falls way outside their skill set, under some circumstances it can be emotionally intense and highly empowering instead. If a mousey, non-combative scholar is handed a weapon and told to go fight the dark lord’s armies, they may feel pushed around by the story, and forced to act against their character’s personality or abilities. But, if that same mousey non-combative scholar is presented with a situation where their loved ones are in danger, and they find themselves with the opportunity to take up a weapon to defend them, that moment of pushing beyond the character’s surface can make an incredible moment for the player. Pushing a characters’ boundaries is a tricky task to accomplish, which usually stems most effectively from a character having to decide for themselves to become something more, rather than a character being told to act differently by the story.
Throughout all of this construction of character and challenge co-design, we must remember that behind every collection of words, costuming and equipment is a player, and every player is different. To some extent, this is a problem of casting, not of gamewriting, to be addressed in the preparations for game and not the submission, but there are some things that are important to keep in mind even early on in the writing process.
Every player is different. Everybody has different interests, and different preferences, and everybody reacts to the weaving of the stories of games in different ways. If a game contains only one kind of challenge and empowerment, it might be very effective for some players, but not for many others. It is important to pick not just one venue of empowerment, but to consider several, and be prepared to cast players into the roles that they will get the most out of, not just in terms of personality-based interest in a character, but also in terms of the events that that character may go through over the course of game.
One example of this is spotlights. There is a difference between a character being important, and everybody else knowing that the character is important, and the latter isn’t always necessary to achieve empowerment. Sometimes being in the spotlight just makes players uncomfortable, and for some players just knowing that they were vital to solving the problem, even if others don’t realize it in game, is just as or even more empowering.
There are a lot of ways that peoples’ play styles can differ. Consulting your players, your surveys, and the counselors working the event can help you get a look at what kind of things you might want to consider modifying or expanding on in your story. In the end, this mostly means that you ought to include a variety of forms of empowerment in any game: it will strengthen the effect of the story for all of your players.
Gamewriting has lots of different elements, and empowerment, while very important, is still just one of them. If you picked any one post in this blog, and made it the centerpoint of everything you’re thinking about in your game submission, you would probably end up with a pretty lopsided game! This post, like most others, isn’t a list of hard and fast rules, but it is a collection of important ideas that you should definitely keep in mind when working on your story. What challenges will be faced in your story? How will your characters be prepared, or unprepared, to deal with them? And how does all of this suit the spread of players you’ll have lining up to be heroes and villains and everything in between?
Original Post 1/13/14
Written by guest writer Jeremy Gleick