Provide a means to ensure players always know what to do “right now.” Also, generate a story plot following appropriate genre conventions building up to an exciting climax.
A structured story is a plot that is broken down into a number of different phases, each of which has a separate purpose within the game. The formulaic process keeps players from wasting time wondering what it is that they should be doing or descending into trivialities. This helps eliminate boring stretches where players aimlessly debate with one another about the course of action they should take: “I’m going to sell my loot” … “Sell your loot? What about the axe-murderer wandering about? We need to track him down now.” “Well, yeah, but that would be easier if we had some cash…” Or, even worse: “So, what do you do?” “Ummm, I don’t know, what do you think we should do…?”
The Structured Story pattern accomplishes its goal in the simplest way imaginable: it tells the players exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing at every point in the game. Games using the pattern don’t tell players the specific actions they should have their characters perform, of course. Rather, they break stories up into sections that essentially say things like: “This is when you should equip your character for his upcoming tasks”; “This is when you should be out interviewing witnesses to the latest bank robbery”; “This is when the crew should plot their mutinee to seize the pirate’s treasure”; etc. The pattern does not constrain the players in how they go about these tasks, though. It merely avoids discussions concerning what it is that the players should, in general, be doing.
The Structured Story pattern can be used to structure a game on a session-by-session basis. However, this is not a requirement of the pattern. It can just as effectively be used on stories that span multiple sessions.
The pattern can also be quite useful in emphasizing a game’s genre conventions, especially those that re-play the same story concept time and again. Before you discard the pattern on the grounds that you don’t want players limited in the kinds of stories they play out with your game, consider that most games do this anyway:
Sound familiar? The Structured Story pattern merely makes explicit what many games do anyway.
Use the Structured Story pattern when
If you want your game sessions to have a free flowing unstructured feel to them, you should not use this pattern.
The Structured Story pattern accomplishes its primary goal of providing a simple framework to let players know what to do at any given time. However, it does this at the cost of imposing rigidity on the plot. Some players may find this inflexibility constraining and eventually tire of it.
The Structured Story pattern has little subtlety to it. It lays bare the game’s plot structure for all to see. So, you need to be very careful to make sure that the structure you impose strongly supports the genre of game you are designing rather than detract from it. Before deciding on what standard phases you are going to include in the plot structure, study the plots of several works (movies, short stories, and books) typical of the genre. Then boil the plot commonalities down to the bare essentials and use those as your story phases.
A game dealing with cops and robbers in a TV serial format might start each session with the discovery of a murder where the players are allowed to investigate the crime scene. After gathering clues and (possibly) discovering the identity of the victim, the session could then move to a phase where the detective characters interrogate various suspects. The questioning could lead to new clues and new crime scenes that, in turn, need investigation. Finally, when enough clues have been gathered to identify and/or locate the perpetrator, the game could proceed to a phase where the characters actually apprehend the suspect. This might involve a car chase or combat scenario. The story might end there. Or, if the game had a “Law and Order” style format, play might then proceed to sentencing and trial phases. Once all of this transpired, if the game encouraged “sequels” or a series of stories, the next story would start once again with the discovery of a new murder victim. The point is that the sessions have a specific structure so that the stories the players create fit the dramatic tone and pacing of the game's genre and the players are never at a loss about what to do next.
InSpectres models its stories after the “GhostBusters” movies. Play starts with the characters being “interviewed” for their jobs within an InSpectres franchise. This gives the players the opportunity to “get to know” the characters a little before proceeding. Each story is thereafter set up with similar phases:
My Life with Master models its stories after classic horror movies where evil masters command minions to perpetrate crimes against the local townsfolk for their own nefarious purposes. The players portray the minions and their goal is to eventually overthrow their master. The minions usually act alone, so scenes ordinarily involve a single minion and one or more non-player characters. Players act out scenes in a round- robin fashion. The Master will first order a minion to perform some evil deed, and the minion will go into town to carry out his orders. However, a player may request a scene with a “Connection” in town before he does Master’s bidding. A “Connection” is a non-player character to which the minion has a personal affinity and from which the minion acquires the “Love” he so desperately needs. So, scenes bounce from player to player with minions running around town either making overtures to connections or performing some evil act in servitude to Master. This flow of scenes is interrupted occasionally when triggered by various formulas provided in the game. One such scene is “The Horror Revealed,” where some horrible event transpires that is independent of the minions or the master. Another formula can trigger the “Endgame” (see the Endgame pattern), where a minion attempts to kill his Master.