Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Creating random stories

Reading various pen & paper roleplaying blogs and sites, I've recently came across several means of randomly creating stories or story elements. There are the Story Forge Cards, and there are Story Cubes, apparently also available as an iOS app. The basic principle is using a random generator to produce story elements, which are sufficiently vague to fit everywhere. Thus if for example you need character traits for an NPC in the adventure you are writing, you draw some cards, or roll some dice, and use whatever comes up as a starting point.

For example you want to have a description of a city guard, and draw "Corruption: Power is misused, or someone is corrupted by power" from Story Forge Cards, that is bound to give you a good idea on how to play that character. While if you used Story Cubes and rolled a turtle, you'll play him very differently. In absence of these more specialized products, you could use a standard Tarot deck for the same purpose. In fact it could be said that "Tarot reading" is very much the ability of inventing a story from random cards with powerful images.

The main advantage I see is overcoming stereotypes, where every innkeeper appears the same to the players, because you have some image of a typical innkeeper in your mind from films or books, and just play all of them like that. The disadvantage I see is that the products I mentioned aren't necessarily made for fantasy roleplaying games; writing a novel is not quite the same as writing a pen & paper RPG adventure, and some of the cards or dice might not be appropriate for you story or setting. But then you can always draw again or reroll.

I've seen Story Cubes been recommended for DMs to come up with things on the fly. I'm not convinced, rolling dice in front of the players sends a strong message of randomness, and immediately tells them that this character isn't central to the story. Maybe with the iPhone app hidden behind the DM screen, but I'd rather use the cards or dice for preparation, and just produce some extra characters or plot elements in case the players send the story in a direction I didn't predict.

It appears as if the Story Forge Cards aren't easily available in Europe, I'd have to import them. I think I'll try out the cheap digital version of the Story Cubes first and see if they can help me write adventures. And I'm sure I still have a Tarot deck from a previous role-playing game somewhere.

Now that's intensely curious... I'm focused right now on 'story machines', such as settings that lend themselves to generating lots of story ideas. This is a cool extra layer to provide richer context on occasion.

I've seen stereotypes (such as the inkeeper you describe) in the campaigns I've been in, and I like this idea. Thanks for posting these resources, It's something I'd love to try in my own campaigns.
There are some pretty good card based games which are about players chipping in with random stories.

Look up 'Once Upon a Time' or "Baron Munchausen"

I am also sure I remember at least one RPG where there was some randomly generated phrases and players got extra xp if they could somehow work them into a RPed conversation. (I think it was Dying Earth.)
It seems best to create lots of extra NPCs ahead of time with that randomization. Then, simply use them as needed during play sessions. So you'd want to keep a certain "buffer" for each session, say 20 NPCs just in case. In between sessions you would create more as needed.
What I didn't like in Tarot and Story Cubes is that interpretations are world-independent. There are some themes that designers put in, and you'll find the same amount of them in every corner of every game world.

I want each event to resonate with the game's theme and mood, and, more importantly, ask the questions central to the game, not just random "oh, we've got a story about revenge, but why don't we also take on corruption". There should be a system to generate just the right stories.

I've tried to tackle this in 24 hour rpg design compo:
Maybe you'll find my entry interesting.

On an unrelated note, I'm sure you'll find the other entries interesting, there was some fantastic stuff from really talented folks.
Sorry if I already mentioned it.
Hah that's a new one to me! Thanks for letting me learn something new today! :)
I'm not sure I understand how you have previously said you want to avoid "railroading" in your games, but now say you want to avoid randomness. Is the possibility of going outside of your intended story good or bad?
Yes, I want my players to have the option to go outside the scripted story. But no, I don't want them to know if they are outside, because they would conclude that this wasn't the way to the objective or treasure. Thus a random NPC can't be called "Random Guy 1" and the players can't see me hastily rolling up the character behind the DM screen.
Not exactly a novel idea, if my memory is right. The original Rolemaster book included cards which could be used to randomly generate story elements or mob encounters.
I absolutely cannot remember the name of those cards, and I'm 1Mm away from them, so I can't check.
Tobold, for adventure creation, check out Mythic GM Emulator. It follows and expands on a simple idea in order to generate unexpected results. I found it to be too generic, but the idea can be focused to a particular setting, too.

Here's a simple random generator I sometimes use: Make three columns. To the first column write adjectives, like big, small, sleepy, etc. Tothe next column, write your npc', something like, bandit, wolf, guard, that could show up in your adventure or setting. To the third column, write verbs, for example running, flying, fighting, falling, hiding, sneaking. Make the lists as short or as long as you want, but try to match then to some die. Then just roll a die for each column and get the result.

For example: 1,1,1 --> big bandit runnning, 3,3,2 --> sleepy guard flying

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