Storium Theory: Postmortem: Twishted: Academia

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 16th, 2017.

This week, I’ve finished another narration, so it’s time for another postmortem article! Today’s game is Twishted: Academia, a spinoff of my original Twishted game with a drastically different setting and tone.

The original Twishted went for kind of a pulp adventure feel, such as I could manage, but the Academia spinoff was instead set around a group of normal people who worked or studied at a college. I figured the setting would be fertile ground for some interesting ambitions and conflicts, while still feeling more grounded than the original game had been (and, importantly, having a smaller scale that would be easier to keep focused).

I ran Twishted: Academia from November 11th, 2015 until February 14th, 2017, so for once I’m writing one of these articles basically at the end of the game, rather than waiting a long time.

As a reminder, these articles are about my self-evaluation as a narrator – not, largely, addressing the actions of players. I will take a moment, though, to note that I had a really, really good cast of players here. There are many good writers on Storium, but I think I got a particularly noteworthy crew this time.

Description

Twishted: Academia is the story of a group of college students and staff who accidentally end up having their heart’s desire granted, after a fashion, by an ancient spirit known as “The Giver.” As with the original game, these characters find that their desires have been granted, but in a way they never would have wanted, turning them into nightmares instead. The characters band together to try to find a way to return their lives to normal, while dealing with the consequences of their wishes.

Players:

Positives

I found a lot to like about how this game went.

First off, I’m going to take a moment to praise my players. Twishted: Academia is a game that could easily have felt silly if done in certain ways. It’s basically about a genie who screws things up, after all – it’s an easy tale to not take seriously. But take it seriously they did, and all involved did some very nice dramatic writing and pulled at my heartstrings. When you’re a narrator, your job is to make the player characters’ lives complicated and problematic and therefore interesting to the players and anyone who might be reading. Normally, I don’t feel outright bad about doing it! But in this game, my players really made me feel what was happening to their characters and what it did to them emotionally, and quite deeply. There’s some amazing writing here, and I’m very proud of them for it.

Particular mention has to go to Miriravan and Neverhall, who just did some incredible writing as Geri and Sam and made me feel those characters’ friendship – both in how they could support each other through the worst of times, and in how the misunderstandings brought by their twisted wishes could endanger their friendship. It’s probably the strongest character writing I’ve been able to witness in Storium, so I was thrilled to see it happen here.

I again found the idea of twisted wishes just plain fun to work with. There’s a lot you can do psychologically with a character by giving them what they want, but in a way that turns it into something they don’t want. I watched the Wishmaster films back in the day (…not sure I’d advise it, at least for the second through fourth, but they’re interesting ideas, anyway) and I always wanted to see more of a story from characters who had their wishes screwed up – to take a big, altered wish and see how it would play out. That’s what Twishted: Academia is about – digging into what happens when you get what you want and find out you don’t want it.

Taking a smaller, more focused setting really seemed to work. I was able to make a number of scenes focus specifically on what happened to the characters’ lives as a result of their twisted wishes, and as a result, provide more grounds for the players to have emotional investment in the tale. In the original Twishted, the focus of the story was on the adventure, and the wishes were just kind of…inconveniences the players would have to overcome during it. Here, I feel like the wishes became the focus instead. They’re more than just a starting point. They’re a constant presence and the source of most of the problems the characters encounter, whether they are creating direct obstacles or just presenting emotional conflicts for the player characters.

I never felt like the game really lost momentum – while play slowed down, as it does in Storium games, the story never felt like it got lost or became aimless. There was always a feeling that we were moving forward, that the player characters had a goal to accomplish and accomplishing that goal would lead them closer to what they wanted: meeting with the Giver a second time and knowing how to get their lives straightened out. There’s improvement to be had on that front, certainly, and I’ll talk about that below, but overall, I felt like every scene mattered and kept the characters moving towards something. New conflicts arose pretty logically from the tale, without anything feeling like it really came out of nowhere or sidetracked the story. That was a major problem in the original Twishted, and I think I managed things a lot better here.

I don’t have a scene in particular to call out this time, one that went better than the others…I think the game overall went pretty well as scenes went. The final scene is great for the players’ writing, but I’m going to refrain from a direct link to that to avoid spoilers if anyone wants to read through.

Negatives

So, even though I loved Twishted: Academia, there are a few negatives I have to mention.

First up…I again really didn’t have a villain for this game. I set up a character (Fitzroy, aka “The Jerk”) who I thought would be a real nemesis for the players, but the game didn’t quite end up going that route. That’s on me. He doesn’t end up working directly against them as much as I had thought – I made a few tentative steps that way, but it just didn’t end up happening. Instead, the wishes themselves are more the “bad guys” of the story, which works, but I feel like having a person actively working against the heroes might have made it even more focused and snappy. If I run another Twishted game in the future, I think I’m going to make a real effort at that – have someone who got his wish, fully, but whose wish is bad for the others, maybe. That would give him a reason to oppose the heroes entirely, where Fitzroy’s reasons were more based on misunderstandings.

I regret the “Understanding the Giver” challenge in Act II, Scene 5, as well – while Neverhall ended up using it brilliantly over the course of the game, and even making it part of Geraldine’s plot, I think I just defined too much about the Giver myself in the outcomes. I think it is an example of a challenge where I could have left things much more open to the players to write – to let them truly determine what the Giver was like and what its actions meant.

I also pretty much let one subplot, about the man who actually made a wish at the start of the game, Dr. Galland, drop. I kept thinking I would bring it back in at some point, but it became unimportant to the game’s story and where things went in the end. In retrospect, it feels like it gets too much focus in the early parts of the game considering it ends up dropping from the story entirely by the end. I should’ve either found ways to still involve it later, or found other ways to get across what I needed to get across earlier in the game. Galland is another character I thought would actually be more strongly involved, maybe as an aid to the player characters, but he just ended up being happy somewhere else. Good for him, I guess!

Finally, I have to talk about Act III, Scene 1. This scene was a tense and dangerous chase scene involving a crazed person with a knife and a lot of dark emotional imagery. I’m not going to go heavily into the details, but suffice to say, I later learned that some of my players were very uncomfortable with where the scene had gone, both in terms of events and in terms of the emotions inspired by those events.

One concern came up during the scene. I offered to change things if desired, but was told not to – that the player would go ahead, and find a way around things. I recognize now that I shouldn’t have been making the player make that choice. It was my responsibility as narrator to make the choice, not to put it back on the player who was uncomfortable. A player in that situation would choose what would lead to the least conflict…which would be to leave things in place and just try to muscle through. A narrator’s job is to prevent the player from having to make that choice. The moment the concern came up, I should have simply expressed my understanding and made the appropriate changes, not put the choice back on the player.

Later on, I discovered that another player had been uncomfortable with the scene’s overall premise and basically uncomfortable for the entire scene, and had not raised this with me at the time because, again, the player did not wish to cause any conflict. The remainder of the game played out fine, but I know that it will always hold a bad memory for that player. I’m very sorry about that – it hurts to think that someone had to participate in something that was making them uncomfortable or upset. I put a note on the scene in question, but…it’s still something that happened, you know?

So…those two things are things I’m really going to put thought into in the future.

We can debate what’s appropriate to have in stories. We can disagree on what’s right to have written, what should show up in books, all sorts of things. People have different feelings on that. The thing is, though, when you’re reading a book or watching a movie or something, you can put it down or turn it off if it’s something you don’t like. It’s a much harder ask for someone collaboratively writing with another person to say, “You know, I’d really rather this not be like this.” You feel like you’re inconveniencing people. And…it makes you feel the emotion much more deeply, as well. There’s a big difference between reading something that upsets you, and writing as part of something that upsets you. The latter makes you make yourself part of it.

So…we need to be sensitive as narrators to that. And as players. I need to be sensitive to that. I might be comfortable writing or reading things that someone else isn’t. And if I were writing a story on my own, that’d be fine. I can write what I want to write. But if we’re writing with a group, we need to make sure the group is comfortable. No one should have to put a part of themselves, a part of their writer’s soul, into something that brings them discomfort.

I’m going to make sure to make a statement to my players before the game even starts, now, that if they are uncomfortable with something I want them to come to me, so that I know, and so that I can change it. And I’m going to make sure, from now on, that I do change it – that I don’t ask them if they need it, that I just change it. I’m going to take it seriously. There are things I wouldn’t want to be involved in writing, and I want very much to ensure that I’m never making someone else be involved in something they don’t want to be writing either.

So, blanket statement: If you are in a game I’m narrating and you are uncomfortable with something in the story, please, please talk to me immediately. I will do what is necessary to change it. My goal as a narrator is to make sure you have fun writing collaboratively. That’s goal number one. You can’t have fun, you can’t have a good experience, if you are uncomfortable or upset with things going on…so it’s my job to make sure that you aren’t, and to correct anything like that that comes up.

Final Thoughts

Twishted: Academia was a fun game, with a great cast. It was a game that I very much looked forward to reading any time there was a new move – I knew it would be gold. I was happy to open it up every time, because I knew that the players were putting their all into their characters and really doing everything they could to drive an emotionally complex plot.

I think I did some things right with this game, but this is a game where I’ll one-hundred-percent say this is good because of the players, not because of me. They did a masterful job working with the scenario I’d set up, and getting through any flubs I made.

Overall…I am proud of this game. I think it was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed seeing how the setting and focus gave it a drastically different feel than the original Twishted. It was really one of my favorites to narrate, and I’m definitely going to miss it now that it is done. There are things about it that I regret…but overall, it’s a game I’m going to look back on fondly.