A New Dawn: storytelling variations

dice-and-chipI am still running A New Dawn, the superhumans game I started with my roleplaying group in June. It’s just restarted after a couple of months’ hiatus, and I wanted to talk about a couple of novel elements in the most recent session.

Presenting A Prologue

“Show don’t tell” is some of the most repeated advice for writers. It captures the balance to be struck between exposition and demonstration: telling the reader what is happening, or showing the reader what the effect is.

The parallel in roleplaying is the choice between narration and playing it out. The narration can be player-guided or not, but if you have story happening which is not on stage then that’s narration – it doesn’t engage the players as much because they’re not as invested in the outcome, but it also moves the story on a lot faster. Roleplaying everything out takes a long time.

The way the story has developed in A New Dawn led to an interesting situation. One of the PCs had separated himself from the group and gone off investigating on his own – without telling anyone where he was going. Sanity being a fragile thing, this PC entered into a mental twilight upon exposure to unexpected horrors.

So we had a character captured by the bad guys, and no one in-game knowing where he was.

Playing out the scene didn’t seem very likely since insane characters are hard to play, and there wasn’t really a lot that the PC could actually do: he was physically out-matched, and his captors were… well, let’s just say unsympathetic.

On the other hand, resolving the situation just through narration seemed unsatisfactory. Something more engaging was required.

The approach I took was to use narration, but narration in which the captured character’s player could participate: I wrote a short scripted episode, with me playing the bad guys and the player reading his own character’s words. The scene faded to black, and the story picked up when the group next met.

I’ve used this scripted scene approach before, of course, with the Animal Agents stories I’ve been running for my kids. This was a different situation, but at least allowed the story to move on (or accrete more mystery…) without taking an hour of solo roleplaying to resolve.

A Chance To Be Heroes

A pretty common structure in roleplaying games (and TV shows) is Monster of the Week – the PCs get something to fight to resolve the situation.

The setting we’re playing is not quite as straightforward as that: the bad guys hide in the shadows, and they have already learned the lesson that direct confrontation between them and the PCs tend to end badly.

The PCs had agreed to a meeting in downtown Portland (yes, the game is set in Portland – I am that lazy) and it seemed that giving the PCs a chance to demonstrate their heroism would be useful.

In the game, Pioneer Courthouse Square was hosting the Beach In The City* event when the PCs were there. The square was crowded. The PCs met at Starbucks and tried to sort through what they knew. The PC who had been captured had been released but his memory interfered with, so he at least was interested in finding out what exactly had happened.

That was when the beach event display systems were hijacked to display a disturbing and threatening piece of computer animation. Once that had run its course, a billboard started to fall, followed by radio aerials and other high structures which would severely damage anyone they happened to land on.

The PCs swung into action, looking in vain for an opponent to chastise for this outrage, but none could be found – because there wasn’t one. The structures were all set to drop using carefully placed explosives and remote detonators. All the PCs could do was to mitigate the collapse, and shepherd the crowd from the square – a task which the group accomplished handily.

But there was no villain on-scene – no one to thump. This idea of protecting the populace from something which cannot be stopped is something that turns up in superhero comics and science fiction quite regularly but it’s not something I’ve played through very often. I thought it was an interesting way to have the characters act, and for me it was also a nice change to not have to think tactically in a combat situation.

Are there any unusual narrative techniques you’ve used in your games?

[*] modelled on a real event where there are mounds of sand sculpted into various elaborate dioramas. It’s pretty cool.

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