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Tales of the Extra-Ordinary

We’ve talked before about how gamemasters and narrators can use details to build story. But these details don’t always need to be part of the plot, and are often as much about the worlds the characters occupy as they are the events they’re taking part in. And while we all draw inspiration from our own out-of-game experiences, aren’t people playing games and engaging with stories to get away from everything they have to deal with in the “real world” (such as it is)? What kind of “slice of life” details to build the setting and atmosphere, and what risks bogging things down? And, in collaborative forms of narrative like tabletop roleplaying games, how do we encourage others to share the details of their own characters’ lives in a way that grows the story for everyone? - B

B: As I’m sure our readers are no doubt aware, my favorite tabletop game, and the one I have the most experience running, is Paranoia, a game which is as much setting as it is system. Games like this can be something of a mixed blessing, as it requires that everyone have some degree of “buy-in” for the game’s world, even if it’s their first time playing. Thankfully, Paranoia doesn’t take things very seriously (unlike the Computer and its servants), so the details players add or modify don’t tend to throw things off, even when they require a little bit of GM finesse. The result is both increased player involvement and a version of the game that works better for them than the “stock” version might.This is why I’ve taken to starting every game with a quick rundown of things going on in Alpha Complex from the latest Funball results to the recent disappearance of entire sectors… then I pass it to the players for a moment, so they can say what they see their characters doing at the moment the story starts. I’ll generally start with one familiar with the process so that newbies have an idea of what’s going on, and they generally have something interesting when their turn comes around, whether it be what TV they’ve been watching, what they’re shopping for, or what they do at their day job and how they feel about that.

The main thing, of course, is that none of this involves the main storyline (or whatever passes for one in Paranoia) - it’s all what game designers refer to as “flavor text.” Which is selling it all rather short, I think, as these are the kinds of details that make collaborative storytelling unique - we’re all picturing our own versions of what we’re describing, and when we add something influenced from our own experiences, everyone matches it in their minds to their own equivalent. Paranoia is a satire, though, and a lot of the fun is coming up with fun and crazy ways to deal with the bureaucratic frustrations of everyday life. The same might not be said for a game requiring a different kind of disbelief suspension. In those circumstances, though, the bits of daily life might be even more important, giving participants something familiar to latch onto and keeping the setting from feeling artificial and unreal.

A: While flavor text is something I quite enjoy seeing and hearing in my games, I think I’ll take a slightly different approach to the extra details we include in our stories. Something that's fantastic to include in your games are character quirks. If you’re the one running the sessions, you likely have a large amount of NPCs you can add these to. There might be a clerk at the city gate who's always smudging their work or doodling in the corners. Perhaps the innkeeper will only sell oat-based food and drink. Maybe there's a shopkeeper who always wears different shades of the same color. As a player, too, it can be very rewarding to include these details. Your next character might have a habit of always having bran muffins for breakfast to stay regular. (How could today be a good day to die when you aren’t moving just right.) A word of caution about being too particular though. Try to pick quirks that won’t slow the gameplay down at all. Meticulously counting all of your arrows at the start of a day in game could start to get on everyone else’s nerves. If you do pick something like that, keep it short. Touch on the aspect, but move on.

You can also pull details into a bigger scope. Part of a daily or weekly habit in real life might be taking packages down to the postal office. You can easily see how that could be interpreted as a delivery or fetch quest in a gaming world. Just running simple errands might inspire a merchant escort mission. Doing the laundry…is probably still just doing the laundry, not everything needs to become a quest or inspiration for your games. Generally though, if the players enjoy a particular task in real life, you may want to consider how that might translate to your tabletop game worlds. Taking from your everyday life is a great way to get some low-level quests. Combined with some player characters and NPCs that have detailed quirks, and your world will start to feel both vibrant and lived-in.

B: As always, you need to keep tone in mind - it can be hard to take your Big Bad seriously if he's doing "mere mortal" stuff like running off to he bathroom or having to leave the Evil Planning Session early to go pick up his kids from daycare. (Although, if you're going for a satirical feel, these would be great ways to break the "All-Powerful Villain" trope.) On the other hand, giving them specific interests or activities that align with their personality and the way they're being presented can make them feel more like characters and less like plot elements. A recent popular example would be Senator Armstrong from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and his love of football. It's not sarcastic or comic relief, but a genuine love that also reflects of his fascistic, ultra-masculine views. It also reminds us that, giant robots and cyborg swordfights aside, this world is descended from out own, and things that we recognize are still present within it. If you're presenting a more fantastical setting, it's still a good idea to have an idea of the basic elements of people's lives: what they eat, where they sleep, how do they get their clothes. And there's nothing wrong with incorporating your own interests and expertise into these details - as long as you can tie them into their experience, having specifics about architecture, political and economic systems, or even plumbing can make life there feel a little more real. As with many other things in tabletop gaming, it's not a bad idea to keep these in reserve, so that when a player adds a detail of their own (as mentioned above), you'll have something ready to follow it up. And they can riff on that, themselves, and bounce the whole thing around until, together, you've taken backgrounds and generalities to turn a setting into a place.

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