Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Personalising Your Story

Apr 10

Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Personalising Your Story

There was a bit of a hullabaloo yesterday, so I didn’t get a chance to get this out as planned, so here we are.

Last time, we talked about adding elements from an MMO’s main story arc to your group’s story arc. This time, we’re going to discuss adding your players’ characters’ personal plots to your groups plot – personalising your stories. While it may sound easy, it can actually be quite daunting and often can get you calls of favouritism if you’re not careful with your execution. First, let’s take a look at the tools, and then let’s take a look at the execution.

One way of gathering information about your players’ characters is to simply observe and listen. Your players are going to want to talk about their characters, either amongst themselves, or directly to you. Standard information gathering skills like note taking can get you quite a bit of useable plot bits without ever having your players know what you are up to – even while you’re helping out someone with their character, you can be taking notes for plot, and they won’t be the wiser!

This method, however, is the slowest way to gather information on your players’ characters, and will take the most time to get anything really coherent enough to make a character plot arc out of. You might not even get enough to drop hints about a player character in your normal plot arc. It all depends on how chatty people are, and how open about their characters’ secrets they are OOCly.

The second method I use is the public character dossier. This is all the information that is publicly available…that not everyone is going to bother finding out about. You’d be surprised how few people bother reading through every character dossier on a group’s site, let alone deciding what information their character knows, and copying it down in their notes. For the storytellers, however, this can be a great method of letting public information slip out – especially if you have a rumours section in it like I do.

Since a lot of people don’t keep track of the dossiers, this is a great source of introductory information for a character plot arc, or the start of information to drop in general plot arcs if you don’t want to run character-focused plot arcs but want to personalise your normal arcs. It’s like the icing on the cake, the first thing people get to see and taste about the character in question.

I’ve had a sort of standard character dossier for the past few MMOs that can be viewed here. It may need to be slightly tweaked from setting to setting, but it generally gets the job done. I make header banners for each group I’m working with, but I left them as plain headers for this document. The dossier has had bits taken from dossiers like the one at the Raven, Mythic of EverQuest II fame, and the social section came from a posting at Aion Roleplayers, while other parts came from a Guild Wars 2 role play site.

The last tool I use is called the Advanced Character Worksheet, and it can be a beast of a project; I don’t suggest using it unless you have a lot of time or multiple people on your storyteller staff. The ACW allows a player to tell the storytellers all of the secrets about their character – written down, and if your site is up to it, in an editable, updateable format – for you to use in your plot arcs! This sheet is extensive and asks a lot of things that the player may not have thought to flesh out, as well as has a “Consent to Harm” section that will let you know exactly how much of a beating you can give each character.

This sheet was based off of a similar form the guild Magitech in Rift used, but has had additions made based on things from Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality & Background, and has been streamlined over several iterations; it is quite different from its forefather, with many questions changed and some removed and some added. While there are several questions that have to be tweaked depending upon your MMO setting, the vast majority of them are fairly generalised and work for all MMOs.

Again, this sheet is not posted somewhere the public can see it. For my Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Free Company, we have a forum that is set up so that each poster can only see their own post, aside from our storytelling staff, who can see every post in there. This way, the posters can update their ACWs whenever they need to and post a reply to let us know they were updated, while we can view their sheets in one spot. We have a separate forum that only the storytelling staff can see where we discuss the ACWs, picking out things that work for plot arcs from each one, and talking about when, where, and how to use them. Of course, you’ll have to decide how to set things up for your group, but we’ve found this to be the best way for us – if your forums can do the same thing, and you think this will work for you, great!

There is a copy of the current incarnation, as of this writing, of the Advanced Character Worksheet here; keep in mind it is tuned to Final Fantasy XIV, so you will need to make adjustments for your MMO. I also make fancy banners for each heading of the ACW, however I left them out for the template here. Feel free to use this tool for your own groups, and change it as you see fit – some people will want access to all of this information, others will see it as too much. It’s meant to be fluid, so edit away!

Once you’ve disseminated information, there are a couple of ways you can use it. You can run short, character centred plots in between your larger story arcs, or you can let the information slip out in your larger story arcs, or you can let random NCPs or forum posts leak information, and of course, you can do all the types of information leaks.

The anime Fairy Tail shows excellent examples of character centred story plots between larger, non-character centred plots. Throughout the course of the season available on Netflix, you learn about each of the main characters in small three to four episode (or so) plot arcs that focus on telling us about their pasts, showing us how they became who they are in current storyline. These arcs pepper the show while other Fairy Tail guild centred plots make up the rest of the show. We can learn from this by tailoring the information we’ve gathered into small episodic “end of season” or “start of season” events to break up our larger plot arcs, giving characters a chance to shine in the spotlight, rotating through members of the group and letting people learn about their fellows.

Secondly, rumour rapsheets, perhaps in the form of a gossip column an NPC keeps up, make for an interesting way of slipping out character information – whether from the dossiers or the ACW. These types of information seeding can also be plot triggers, as when people go to follow up on them, they find there’s more than just a rumour there. This works for both character arcs and your regular plot arcs, so don’t discount the power of the rumour monger.

Of course, you can also have NPCs directly give information about characters – and of course, other types of information – to the players during the course of your normal plot arcs. They can be forthcoming or vague, making the characters question their fellow for more information, which can lead them further into the main plot of your group or further into the character’s plot. A streak of character plot can push the main plot along for a moment without becoming a full on character story arc, making the characters and players more invested in the story than they were before.

These personalisations will draw your audience, the players, into your story and invest them in the progression of the plot. It will make them want to see it through to the end by involving them as more than just the random heroes who happened to be in the area when trouble started brewing. It makes them an integral part of the story, because suddenly it is about their characters in a meaningful way – it’s about more than finding the lost relic, or stopping some bad guys they have no connection to. Suddenly, there are connections everywhere, drawing them deeper and deeper into the story, turning it into a shared experience.

I strongly suggest trying out some of the tools I’ve provided, even if they seem a bit daunting at first. It takes time to get used to any toolset, any process, and any method, but the results are well worth it. When your players are excited and paying attention to your story because it’s about your ideas and theirs, you’ll be glad you did.


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