Storium Theory: Narration Styles: Rattannah

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 2nd, 2017.

Today on the ol’ blog, we’ve got something special: the first of a few interviews that I’ll be doing with some narrators from Storium games who I’ve found to have styles that are somewhat different from mine in various ways, but who have run some excellent games. I’ve written quite a bit on narration techniques on this blog, but I can really only discuss those from my perspective – and I’m well aware that my style is not the only style of narration. So, in an effort to provide some more models for people to have a look at, I’m going to be speaking with some other Storium narrators to let them talk about their personal narration styles.

First up is Rattannah. Rattannah, who I’ve referenced a few times before on this blog, is a fellow member of the Storium Arc podcast and narrator of many carefully-planned and well-organized games. I hope that you enjoy my interview with him and find things you can use to figure out your narrative style.

The interview follows below. It has been edited for clarity where necessary.

Robert: Thanks for talking with me today. I wanted to interview you because I’ve been interested in getting some different narrator “types,” as it were, displayed in more detail on the blog – people who narrate differently from me, but whose styles I’ve found have worked for some very fun games. I narrate in one particular style but that style may not work for everyone, so I wanted to do my best to highlight other narration styles to let people at least have a little more insight into those than I’m able to give myself. You sprang to mind pretty much immediately.

I did a writeup on narrator types on the blog before, and I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I kind of thought of what I’ve been able to see of your narration style when thinking about what I ended up calling the Director (notably, exhibiting the good traits of the director style): A narrator with a clear vision for his game who knows in general terms at least not just where the game is likely to end up, but also a good few of the events he’s aiming to bring in along the way.

But I wondered – does this fit your general style as a narrator in your eyes, or is there another way you’d characterize it, whether from another type on that list or in some other way?

Rattannah: I would have to say your definition of the director narrator fits me pretty well. I set up my games in a chapter set with a key event or set of events meant to be the focus of that point in the story before I begin. For example, I figured the mass riots in “The Cost of an Arm and a Leg” should happen at chapter 5. This does not mean that decisions the characters make don’t matter, but it does mean a lot of the skeleton of the story already exists at the beginning.

Robert: Right – so let’s talk about that, to start. You have some events in mind at the start of the story, but how much of the story are we talking about? How much do you know from the very beginning? Is it like a major event or focal point for each chapter, or just one or two key events in the story overall?

Rattannah: Generally the chapter events are loose. I do not plan every challenge by any stretch of the imagination except I often prepare for challenges that are necessary for the story, such as defeating Valeria or landing the Insight on Europa as in the story “Past the Asteroids and Under the Ice.” Even these are not completely set in stone and if the players seem to lean a certain way, the story is open to adjustment.

I also adjust based on what characters I have and what their individual stakes in the story are. To give a distinction, in “High-Flying Ransom” chapter 3 was about a failed rescue attempt and also the monastery with a magical artifact that the villains wanted to steal. What happened in the monastery though, was largely made up in reaction to player actions on the spot.

Robert: So you kind of have a general outline starting out – an idea that such-and-such an event will probably happen here, and such-and-such an event will happen there, but then based on what actually happens during the tale, you’ll adjust things to suit where it’s going.

How many events would you say you tend to have an idea of before you pick which player characters you are accepting, and how many afterwards? That is – do you tend to plan out your starting “idea” of the game’s general outline before you’ve chosen characters, or do things fall into place more afterwards? Or does that vary by game?

Rattannah: Generally, it can depend on the game and how interchangeable the characters are. In “Privileged by Prophecy” the setup works with pretty much any set of heroes that could have been created, while with an upcoming game “No Good Deed” much of the story can’t even be conceived until I know who is going to be there. Things like “The Cost of an Arm and a Leg” were somewhere in the middle, the World-scope events were predetermined, while some of the challenges such as the one where Jackie is tricked into a compromising situation with the murder of a friend of course had to be made after I had a solid idea of Jackie’s role in this world. “High-Flying Ransom” was largely set in stone except for tight details, but the exact roles the villainous crew members would play was largely player-determined, as well as a lot of the lab-work Blythe and Rodrigo do in the story.

Robert: So for some games, you might already have a pretty strong outline in mind, but for others, you might just have the general concept and wait to think about the specifics more after you choose your player characters?

Rattannah: That is correct, though even on my most structured games, I still try to tailor to players when I can.

Robert: Yeah – you’ll modify events as the game goes on to make it suit the characters or the way the story’s gone, as you’d said above.

So – would you be all right with taking us through what your “start of game” outline would’ve looked like for one of the games? I’m thinking “High-Flying Ransom” might be good. What would you have had in your head at the start of that game?

Rattannah: At the start of the game, as per my usual structure, I thought of six events or sections. In truth, in “High-Flying Ransom,” the chapters were more like episodes with a running arc between them. I largely made up the outdoor adventures away from the ship as I went with a couple exceptions. but here was the basic outline:

  1. Get together on the ship, possibly be deceived as to whether you know you are kidnapped or not
  2. First working towards escape, supposed to fail
  3. Failed rescue attempt, possible for bad guys to get something powerful,
  4. Continued work towards safety but with more scrutiny from the crew, upping the stakes.
  5. Button becomes ambitious and other events aboard the ship lead the players to know that they are approaching a crisis.
  6. Attack on London where the players would not just have to escape, but actually stop the crew’s attack and get themselves to safety.
    1. Epilogue scene to let players wrap things up.

Each of the first five chapters was to have a short away-from ship adventure though events caused me to take it out of chapter 4. These were the crew getting items they could use either for money or future crimes and let me explore the exotic locales aspect of the steampunk genre.

Robert: Thanks – and that’s right – that’s something we should mention. You really like using a six-chapter structure for your games, specifically, correct? I wondered if you might take us through that. What led to the idea of six chapters? You’ve seemed to use that pretty consistently in the games I’ve been in.

Rattannah: The 6-chapter structure is largely a relic from before Storium had game structure. To keep the events in the story organized, I broke them off into equally-sized bits and defined them as fundamental points in the story. I have found that either 5 or 6 seems to be the best amount. If you have fewer in my system, it is hard to tell an interesting story, if you have more, you risk trapping or boring the players as the story drags on.

I tend to think of it sort of in the same way Deborah Dadey (my kindergarten school librarian and later author of the Bailey School Kids books for children). Each chapter had a key event and there were always six of them. It seemed six major events was good to tell a good story, though of course my own games are more mature and have more going on, just the idea came from those books I read when I was young and how they worked.

I have become so used to the system that I can’t adjust to the new options.

Robert: It makes sense, and I find it interesting that you kind of came up with your own “story format” of sorts based around the major story events. Now, I know there’s been times in games when for one reason or another you cut or combined chapters, correct? What spurs that on? And have you ever found yourself going to a Chapter 7, conversely?

Rattannah: I’ve never gone onto a chapter 7 as of yet, but I have cut down to chapter 5. That usually results from stalling in games combined with a realization that what I planned to do could really be shaved and combined without losing its focus. In “Sorrow’s Shores,” the original chapter 5 was a long series of terrors as the creature began to mentally and emotionally break the players down and the 6th chapter was the chase and showdown with the monster. I decided upon getting close to original chapter 5 that that section was pointless suffering for you guys and was largely unnecessary, I made chapter 6 more sudden and largely what was happening in original chapter five happened in the first scene of the revised and combined chapter 5.

Robert: Chapter 5 definitely felt fast and furious!

So, you’ve said that you sometimes adjust the story midway – maybe making events based on characters, or maybe adjusting things based on how the story’s gone. What sort of things are you looking for that cause you to make those determinations? What makes you think the story path – or at least a part of the path – needs to change, or that something needs to be added?

Rattannah: The first answer to that is I still try to customize an experience for my players. An article in a Dungeons and Dragons Magazine talking about roleplaying mysteries said “Remember, it is mystery, not my story,” so customizing to the players is simply something all narrators should do, whether they have very strong ideas or are more loose.

The answer as to the story path changes, the general idea is to read your players. If they seem to be liking where the story is going, keep it going that way, if they seem to be struggling, it is best to change things. Also, I would have to say my stories are diamond-shaped and the ability to branch into different paths exists in how I run my challenges as is, with the biggest range happening from chapters 2-4 usually and admittedly very little by comparison in chapters 1 and 6.

Change can be facilitated by my frequent choices in outcome options on my cards.

Robert: So, let’s talk about challenges a bit. How do you go about setting up a challenge? What are your goals when setting up a challenge?

Rattannah: When I set up a challenge, I want a couple things to be clear in my mind, though a couple times the execution has been lacking. The first of these is that the challenge, no matter which way it goes, has to lead somewhere. The second is that the story must be a better story with the challenge than without it. The challenge ought to have stakes the characters can see and there ought to be real consequences in-world for taking the challenge or failing it.

Robert: One thing I hold dear in setting up challenges is that no result should ever feel like a brick wall – the story should always move forward in some way regardless of a challenge’s outcome.  It sounds like you have that philosophy as well.

Rattannah: That’s correct, because I have an epilogue scene at the end of my games, even the last challenge shouldn’t be an outcome the makes further writing impossible for the final scene.

Robert: So, let’s talk challenge philosophy a bit – what do you think matters to a good challenge setup? How do you go about setting up your challenges and making them useful to the story?

Rattannah: Because I have the story set out in basic events, I try to make each challenge lead to these events or be directly connected with them. Also, no outcome can be one that would sway the players sharply away from it, both strong and weak outcomes need to be compelling.

The challenge needs to be something the characters can or would approach or are forced into by circumstances, the challenges have to matter to the characters. In a normal city setting, not all characters would spontaneously go to fight a fire if they saw one if firefighters had shown up, so that’s a bad one unless the place on fire or those threatened by it has a personal appeal to one or more of the characters.

Robert: So, what do you consider a compelling outcome? For Strong? For Weak?

Rattannah: Ideally, some of the compelling aspects of Strong and Weak outcomes are the same. They both should be things characters could write on later. They also, in their connection to the story, need to be significant enough in their consequences that though players might be ambivalent, if the possible risks are apparent to the characters, they need to be big enough for the characters to want a Strong outcome and fear the Weak consequences, regardless of the player preference. With weak outcomes especially, the potential loss or failures involved should be such that a player can reflect, regret, or have the consequences with them down the line in their moves.

Robert: You’ve mentioned you like to use choice outcomes on your cards – can you talk about that a bit? How do you set those up?

Rattannah: I often find that if I only have one possible consequence or consequences for a challenge, I feel like I am constraining my players too much. On top of that, sometimes if you only have a specific option, it is particularly hard for players with maybe less-than-easily-accessible cards to work towards that one option. It gives the characters control, even in my rather structured games.

Frequently, I have a “X happens + either Y, Z or W.” I am more likely to have choices for Weak outcomes because although a lot of players like playing Weak at times, it is often best to let them control their characters’ sufferings somewhat to something they feel more comfortable writing. In key events of the story, such as those challenges I have to plan before the story even starts, this is sometimes not as possible, but I still try for it when I can manage to stick in the flexibility.

It is about the characters and their players, not just me laying something out.

Robert: I like using choice outcomes as well – I find they strike a pretty good balance for a lot of my players, and can get people interested in possibilities.

So, let’s switch things up a bit. Are there any challenging things you find about running games with your style? Things that you run up against?

Rattannah: Frequently. Among the hardest is filling in blanks. Sometimes I have trouble coming up with challenges to fit in certain parts of a story. “Red and Green” has proved particularly challenging for this and I feel a lot of my filler has been just that, filler.

Also sometimes it is hard to involve the players as much as one ought. This can happen from either accepting a character poorly suited to the story, (the pool of acceptable characters is smaller the more structure you add) or failing to tailor the challenges to your group properly. Though I say that I try to tailor the game to my characters, even as a Director narrator, you definitely have to to make the game even make sense in a literary sense.

Also, because you provide a lot of the structure, you have to do a lot more world-building yourself and have to give more lucid exposition.

Robert: What methods do you use to get a game back “on track” as it were if you find it’s starting to run into these sorts of problems?

Rattannah: In truth, I’m still working that out. Sometimes re-working the near future in your mind can correct the blanks problem or thinking up something cool surrounding the sub-plot or agendas of the characters outside of the main story.

Doing more world-building isn’t so much a problem as just something to be aware of. I like to world-build so that doesn’t bother me and I have a philosophy background so exposition in my case is usually a case of too much rather than too little.

Usually, you can’t run one game of my style with bad characters, but you can with mostly okay or good ones. I like to give a lot of people chances at my games, especially people I know, but my audition system usually ensures I get the best players I can.

As for keeping players involved, a friendly reminder, a one-month policy of forced retirement, and generally just being understanding and nice will generally keep them on track though games tend to slow as they go.

Offering to help players conceive moves such as with my “mind-meld” also can help players when they get stuck.

Robert: I can testify to the usefulness of the mind meld – it’s helped me out on more than one occasion. Can you speak to what you try to look at when you are helping a player determine how their cards could be used and get ideas for writing a post? You tend to come up with some very good uses of cards for inspiration that might not be immediately obvious – how do you think about the cards and their uses?

Rattannah: Well, it comes from my own play style on Storium. I do not select cards, I get them randomly by rolling dice. With this, I’ve had to prepare to make every one of my cards fit any challenge I am presented with. I try to get a feel for a player’s character beyond the cards and just as though I were playing them, I try to think of how their cards work.

Many cards have multiple meanings. For example Strong can mean either physical or mental strength, and there is nothing that says a character can’t possess both. Or strong can work in a social context by inspiring confidence in a listener because of obvious physique.

Other times, you have to remember that because of the way most cards work in Storium, at least the inherent character cards that every character always has available, these qualities or plots are with the character all the time. A character is not just strong when they have something to lift, even if we limit the meaning to physical strength. They are strong all the time and that part of it is always in my mind when I imagine their characters. Therefore, the named cards they have are at hand in my mind whenever someone needs help.

Robert: That multiple meanings point I think is something that could be very helpful for players to think about, yeah. It’s important not to let yourself get locked in to only one interpretation of a card, because if you do, you’ll end up locking possibilities out of your mind that could have turned out to be very useful. Are there times where you find yourself having trouble figuring out a use of a card in a situation? If so, what do you do to resolve it?

Rattannah: There have been a few times where that has proven difficult. In one scene, where socialization was important in “Sorrow’s Shores,” a player asked me for a mind-meld and I had to come up with something for a military ration pack to be used for. Usually when I come up to things like that I’ll say “build a scene around it” or “muse.”

For example, that MRE in such a situation, which was designed to last over a considerable period could involve a meal where characters talked to one another. When you come up with something mental, especially a weakness, where it is hard to apply, encourage a player to be distracted by thoughts or have thoughts surrounding the mental aspect coursing through their mind as they do whatever needs doing that the card can’t address directly. Even flashbacks can aid this.

Robert: Any message you’d like to give to people starting out narrating? What would you say to someone just getting started out in that?

Rattannah: Try to anticipate what your players are experiencing from the other end of the table. Make sure the picture, at least what they need to see, is as clear to the players as it is to you, or else, your game can become messy.

Even, so, mistakes do not equal failure, they’re just an opportunity to learn your craft.

Robert: Good message – especially about mistakes and opportunities. Thank you for talking with me about your narration style – it was enlightening.

Rattannah: It was my pleasure.

I hope that you have enjoyed this interview – it will be the first of a few that I am aiming to complete over the next month or two, so that I can cover a few narration styles. Rattannah’s narration techniques have led to some of my favorite stories that I have been in, and he always puts together nicely organized tales while still allowing for player influence – a difficult task at times! If this narration style sounds like what you are aiming for as a narrator, I hope that you have managed to glean some information from this and have found things you can use to make the process easier.