Recently, Emma Coats – a storyboard artist at Pixar – tweeted a bunch of tips for telling good narratives. They’ve gotten collected into a list of 22 story basics (she has more if you check out her twitter) and they’ve exploded all over the internet. kirkdent even suggested it over on our Suggestion Pot.

The tips are great for any type of narrative, and we’re all big fans of learning things about roleplaying from other mediums. So here is Emma’s list, with some analysis and lessons from Kurt and I. We’ve split this into 2 articles because the list and gnome comments got a wee bit lengthy. So check back tomorrow for part 2.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

    • John: When we look at this point with an eye to gaming, it says one big thing to me. Enable the things a player tries. Sure the idea may be stupid, and they probably won’t get a high enough roll to tame that dinosaur, hook the edge of the plane with their grappling hook, or grease the floor, slide past the guards, and shoot them in the back, but… why not? The fun of a game is increased if a player succeeds with a crazy idea. It doesn’t decrease with a failed roll, but it can sputter if there is no chance to attempt something awesome.
    • Kurt: Reward the character for their attempt, either by bonuses or some kind of in-game currency. Another option is to allow them limited success just for audacity purposes. “No, you didn’t catch the plane with your grappling hook, but it did knock out an engine or window.”

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

    • Kurt: Audience = Players; Writer = GM. They don’t care how elegant the religious structure of your campaign is, they just want to know how it will impact their access to healing and other boons.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

    • Kurt: Very few campaigns end as intended, so be willing to let go of that awesome finale if the players clearly aren’t headed that way. Be confident in your ability to tie it all up in a satisfying ending, if it doesn’t go as planned. (Because it won’t.)

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

    • John: All stories build from element A, which causes element B, which changes element C, etc. Gaming stories work even more in this way because they are alive and constantly changing. Don’t plan anything as static or set-in-stone. It encourages you to railroad if you do. Plan the framework, then react as the players kick your plan’s ass all over the place.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

    • John: The less encounters you have, the more they can feel special. The more unique an encounter is, the less you have to worry about making multiple encounters. Focus on just a few awesome elements to make one thing memorable.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

    • John: A player can get an incredible sense of achievement by defeating a problem with a skillset that isn’t made to defeat that problem. It rewards the player for creative thinking and good character building.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

    • Kurt: Sometimes, what works great in passive media (books, movies, etc) is useless or worse in cooperative situations. Sometimes, you just have to ignore what writers do, and be a GM.
    • John: Knowing your ending first can help the PCs have a clear path to pursue and enables them to be prepared for the BBEG instead of left guessing, but it can also lead to railroading them in.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

    • Kurt: Don’t feel like you have to tie up all of your loose ends at the adventure, plot arc, or campaign level. Loose ends can be used to make sequels…

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

    • John: Hmm. Making a list of what wouldn’t happen doesn’t feel quite right for gaming. Letting the material to unstick you show up feels awesome though. Players will come up with so many stupid awesome ideas. They come up against the security system but didn’t pick up on the plot hook about stealing the passkey while the CEO passed by? Whatever, ask them how they’re going to get in and decide if their plan works or not.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

    • John: Grab from other modules, rip them to pieces, and use the parts you like. Grab from old ideas, rip them to pieces, and use the parts you like. Grab from movies, rip them to pieces, and use the parts you like. Grab from…

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

  • John: While I will extoll the virtues of improv gaming until I’m blue in the face, prep cannot be ignored. Even the process of writing an idea down can change it. What feels awesome as you imagine it in your mind feels blah once it is down on paper. On paper is where you can whittle away at the idea and keep the core of it, improving on things and adding details at the correct pace.

    Part 2 (with 12 – 22) is coming tomorrow, but we’d love to hear your insights and takeaway gaming lessons from the Pixar 22 story basics list. What sort of things can you pull from this for gaming? What other narrative tips influence your gaming or what sources have you picked up lessons from?


12 replies
  1. Orikes
    Orikes says:

    I hadn’t seen the Pixar Story Basics yet, but this is such a cool idea. Ever since I started GMing, I’ve felt there were lots of similarities between GMing and other forms of storytelling. They both require many of the same skill sets, but its important to know where the differences are and what works for one but doesn’t work for another. (For example, my story’s characters don’t come up with nearly as crazy ideas as my players do…)

    Thanks for all the Pixar clips, by the way. All of them got me sniffly again, especially Up. 🙂

  2. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Orikes – Glad you like it. I’m always learning things up from video games, movies, and books that help me with my GMing. The pixar clips seemed the best, most legal way to illustrate things, plus they make me tear up a little too.

  3. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I’m glad to see an article about putting together a story, that always seems to be my biggest struggle with a campaign. Well, that, and being unable to fully polish the ideas I have to be something I would consider good enough to run a game with.

    I love number 10 in helping a GM in a new or unfamiliar genre. It can really help with a story, plot, or even single adventure.

    Also love number 4, next time I GM I want to try using that framework for the adventure.

  4. mcmanlypants
    mcmanlypants says:

    #10 and #11 are especially good. I have a non-gaming friend who has, nonetheless, read almost all the setting materials because he enjoys the background and setting information. I like to run plots past him for a sanity check before I run them and he’s good at asking questions about motivations and next steps for NPCs.

    Another very serious recommendation: watch some episodes of MST3K. As often as not the things they mock about the movies they watch are creative pitfalls to which any creator is prone in any medium: unlikable characters, inexplicable situations, resolutions out of nowhere and countless other things that drive our consumers (the players) crazy but that the creator might not notice if they’re rushed or if they never sit down and express it all outside their own head prior to trying to run it.

  5. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Razjah – The game part of it is always pretty easy, but story can definitely be hard. The first one on tomorrow’s half of the list is what really got me. There is a huge benefit in the way she phrases it.

    #12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

    @mcmanlypants – I’d never thought about MST3K that way, but that is an excellent point!

  6. kirkdent
    kirkdent says:

    Cool! Glad you guys were able to use my suggestion pot post for some articles! I look forward to part 2!

  7. clight101
    clight101 says:

    I really like all of these but I want to talk about #7 in specific. I think the advice in there is sound but instead of knowing your ending I would suggest knowing your BBEG’s end game.

    If you understand what the BBEG’s plan is and how it will play out if the PC’s never interfere then you can see places the PC’s can interfere. Also knowing the BBEG’s end game will help you react as the players create trouble for the BBEG.

  8. Miri
    Miri says:

    Ohmygod, putting it on paper DOES change everything. I once came up with what I thought was a really aweosme idea, with a capital I. I wrote it down. I realized it sucked. But then I sort of thought, “What if this guy was actually X?” and then “If he’s X, then that doesn’t make sence, but I can change it to Y…”

    Turned into some pretty awesome stuff. Now, if I can just get the lizardman barbarian to stop chopping his way through the clues…

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  1. […] some analysis of those tips with Kurt Schneider and they broke the article in to two parts – part 1 here and part 2 here. Tons of great food for thought in both articles that I know *I* will be coming […]

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  3. […] some analysis of those tips with Kurt Schneider and they broke the article in to two parts – part 1 here and part 2 here. Tons of great food for thought in both articles that I know *I* will be coming […]

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