on storyspace

The bigger the storyspace the more stories you can tell within that space. This seems pretty obvious, isn’t it? But it doesn’t seem to be—revealed preference shows us that the majority of players (and all GMs, at root, are players) prefer to limit their storyspaces rather than expand them. If this weren’t the case, how is it that that we see the same much-lamented clichés over and over, edition through edition, game across game?

A storyspace is just the range of storytelling options in your game that don’t break plausibility; that is, things and actions that can be portrayed without blowing up your suspension of disbelief. On Krynn, for instance, elves can live in the woods, they can live in glittering cities, then can interbreed with humans. They can’t have obsidian skin, they can’t chomp cigars while driving tanks. On Toril, conversely, they can do all the former things, and they can also have obsidian skin and live in caves, but they still can’t fire the main gun. On Shadowrun’s Earth, they can do all of the above, except birth half-elves. If any of those proscribed things happened on one of those worlds, all involved would pause, blink, and question what game they were playing.

The bigger the storyspace, the more stories you can tell. You could drop a BattleMech into Mordor, but that doesn’t mean that you should. (Hey, if your players are up for it, go ahead.) And so we have a tension: how far can you loosen the rules of your world before it stops being your world anymore? Anyone who’s been around for more than a day has heard the fights between those who don’t mind firearms—primitive ones, at least—in their fantasy, and those for whom they are anathema. But at least it’s a reasonable expansion of setting—Golarion is still recognizably a fantasy setting. But put just one AK-47 into it, and your setting is fantastical, not fantasy.

But you don’t need the creativity of a Patrick Stuart or Zak S. to enlarge a storyspace. In fact, you don’t need to add anything at all—adding elements is often the road to bloat and incomprehensibility. More often the best results can come from removing elements. And by that I mean, take a hard look at what you can’t do in your setting and ask “why?”

If you can’t justify that limitation, try getting rid of it.

Some of the most memorable—whether you care for them or not—characters are those that play against type, that break in the individual instance the rules of how things are supposed to be done in that world. Drizzt is a drow who rejects his evil heritage and does good in the world. Frodo leaves the Shire to go on epic adventure. Lancelot is the most puissant of knights who betrays his king in the most personal way.

Drizzt is interesting in this way.1 Drow came about as an expansion of what it means to be an elf—previously noble, fair, and just creatures. That got boring. So now we have venal, dark, and wicked elves. But they were so popular that they became trite. So, almost closing the circle, we have a noble, virtuous drow. Where that goes next, who knows—but the as the attention span wanes, as we get sick of the overdone, the circle spins.

1 Yeah, I know many of us despise Drizzt because our angsty, dual-wielding, invincible friend is so overdone and hence, boring. But just try and tell me you didn’t think he was badass when you read that first novel.

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2 thoughts on “on storyspace

  1. It’s interesting how early D&D – and computer games based on D&D – was not nearly as concerned with setting consistency, and maintaining the “fantasy” tone. (See the Mars encounter subtable in oD&D, the X-wing fighter in Ultima I, or – arguably – Castle Greyhawk.)

    To be honest, most of the expansion and mold-breaking of my setting comes from my players; I wouldn’t have considered the family unit, the societal attitudes toward gay relationships (in my campaign setting), or even what lay down the other fork on the path if not for decisions made by my players about what their characters were doing.

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    • It’s true. I try to remember that in those days, it really was a crazy, wide-open place. I also try to remember that RPGs weren’t the institution they are now… you can get away with crashing spaceships on your fantasy world when there’s all of a couple thousand people in the world playing your genre of game.

      (Of course, misguided designers still crash spaceships into their settings—ahem, Paizo—and try to stick robotmen into what should be swords-and-sorcery.)

      I write mainly for GMs, but you’re absolutely right about players. Why leave a cool idea on the table? You’re creating a world for them, and if they want to take the left fork, well, it’s our job to show them what’s down there. Whether that be a left fork on the trail to your BBEG, or a left fork in the character arc they want to play through.

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