Moment-based Story Design

Moment-based Story Design

I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: ‘Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.’ I think she was right. And if you’re lucky enough to write a movie with half a dozen moments, make damn sure they belong to the star.William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, 1983

War Stories

Why are we in this business of creating stories for people to play? What do we, as creators, get out of the experience of running games? Why do we do it? I get a kick out of knowing that the players have gone through intense emotional experiences. How do I know whether we’ve achieved that? I use a simple measure. I listen to what I call war stories.[1]My brother, who works in TV and film, reminds me that these are known in TV as “watercooler moments” i.e. where, in the workplace, people will cluster around a watercooler discussing last night’s episode.

It’s something that’s obvious in hindsight. Every time you get a bunch of larpers together to socialise, out come the war stories; tales of things that happened at events to them, or to their friends, or at another event that they heard about once. “That bit when the demon appeared …” “And then, my God, I was running from that thing, I’ve never been so scared …” “The look on her face when she realised the truth!”

Most of those stories have been provoked by moments of intense experience, of intense emotion: fear, shock, hilarity, love, freezing cold weather, sleep deprivation, utter disbelief. These people have been put through the mill, and these stories are the resulting moments that stood out to them, memories that will live on in their heads forever, stories they want to share. And so they share them. Many become iconic, and are passed on second or third hand.

This isn’t solely restricted to larp, of course—it’s the sort of conversation that happens when film-lovers get together to discuss “the bit where Hulk punched Thor!” or “when Bruce Willis realises the truth!” These stories bind people together in pubs, or on forums, or at book clubs. A need to share the things that really affected them, that etched those experiences into their minds.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to the realisation that such froth[2]Used in UK larp circles to mean excessive outpourings of excited conversation about an event you’ve played, an event you’re going to, a game system, or really anything about larp at all. An umbrella is advised. is my primary measure of a successful game. But in starting to analyse the phenomenon, I realise that it’s how our team at Crooked House[3]A long-running UK larp organisation that runs high-budget one-off events with lots of special effects. has always approached shaping stories. We write larps by coming up with moments that we hope the players will talk about afterwards, and we’ve been doing that for years. It’s something we evolved entirely accidentally, with no in-depth analysis of what we were doing.

Background

Historically, the core of our team has been very focused on set-piece moments. This is because we have people who work in set design, stunts, pyrotechnics and props for films; we do our best to make best use of those talents. The art & stunt department always have gags they want to try, no matter the genre.

And we’ve always tackled games as an exercise in genre. When we ran a gore-based horror event, we did our best to push the boundaries of taste and decency and to cover a whole range of tropes that players would recognise, but would have never encountered before in larp. Similarly, on running a pulp action-adventure, we made certain to pack it full of red lines drawn across maps, tombs half-buried in sand, ridiculous accents, and traps involving lots of creepy-crawlies.

We write and run one-off events. We knew our pulp adventure was probably going to be the last one we’d ever run, so we packed it full of as much pulp as we could find, as we wouldn’t get another chance.

The Writing Process

So we get together with a rough idea of theme and setting, and a long list of experiences we’d like the players to have. These could be set piece stunts, gags, or special effects; atmospherics where we generate a certain mood; small interpersonal moments; several hours of continuous unrelenting horror. They could be ideas for rules. They could also be material for pre-event, to set the scene. At this point many of the ideas will be only partially formed. For example, our list might include “have to deal with a confined space,” “there should be a moment where all the lights go out,” “a scene where the antagonist lays bare every character’s deepest secret” or “we could do that trick with a Ouija board and magnets.”

Then, through brainstorming sessions, we identify a few key moments and solidify them, making them the tentpoles of our game timeline.

With our tent-pole moments in place, the shape of our event starts to emerge, as do the themes, and the story itself. This is the stage at which we may reject ideas from our list outright, as we find they don’t suit the story or the theme or the mood. Eventually we’ll have a firmed up set of key experiences and a rough idea of when they might happen.

If we were creating a story for a book or a film — and we’ve used this system for that — then the story would be essentially linear. One key moment would play out after another, and the viewer would have no options to change that, no choices to make. Our tent-pole moments would always happen in the same order.

With larp, we could run our games in that way, but there’s a danger of “railroading” the players—making them feel as if their actions have no effect on the story, as if it’s being told to them rather than as if they’re part of creating it.

Our games are somewhere between linear and totally free. We are certain of several fixed moments that will happen no matter what, and we know roughly when they’ll happen, but we leave a lot of space for flexibility with other moments and the order in which they might play out. This is critical not only for the dramatic flow of the story—for example, during these few hours the players shouldn’t be overly stressed or challenged, but right here we need a climax— but is also critical for the art department, so they know in what order they need to get sets built or rebuilt and stunts and effects rigged. We have a rough idea of the window of time in which a particular moment can be experienced.

Note that there’s no guarantee a moment will happen. We give the players the opportunity to take part in a particular scene, gag or event at specific points. All we’re doing is providing opportunity. Those opportunities may not be taken in the way we expect, or may not be taken at all. And, honestly, we cheat. In some cases we make the players believe they’ve made their own timeline choices, but we’ve secretly railroaded them. I give an example of that later on in this article.

We’ll do several brainstorming passes filling in the blanks. Normally I go away and write a treatment of the flow of the game as if it were a story, because this irons out inconsistencies and brings up all sorts of issues we haven’t thought of—it also shoots down ideas that we thought seemed amazing at 3am.

And then we’ll simply repeat, talking through the game again and again, picking apart each moment and polishing it until—hopefully—it shines, making sure the story is consistent, making sure our supporting cast fit in where they should, and layering theme and mood into everything we can. When we’re done, some of the things we’ve come up with will be concrete set-piece-like moments. Others will be ongoing opportunities for players to generate moments themselves. Both are equally important, and I’ll give examples of the design of each.

A Moment Design Example: The Jump

A 'moment' from God Rest Ye Merry (staged, Rachel Thomas).

A ‘moment’ from God Rest Ye Merry (staged, Rachel Thomas).

It’s 3am. You haven’t slept for two days now. There are strange things happening in this mansion. You’re upstairs in your bedroom, in bed with your partner, but the lights are on; you’re both too scared to turn them off.

There’s something about this room. When you came in, you noticed the wedding pictures of the young couple, and the photos of their baby daughter. You know it’s a daughter, because the crib is still here, beside the bed; the name Gwendolyn hangs on a wooden plaque at the end of it. You turned the photos face down, because you realised who they were; the young couple who died here years ago. You’ve read the newspaper reports, and heard the family stories. You’ve found letters: receipts, bills, final demands.

And you’ve heard things. A baby crying, although you couldn’t find the source. A man and a woman arguing, muffled, through the wall; something about money. And, twice now, a gunshot, somewhere outside through the corridor. You’ve never found where it came from… although there was blood on the bathroom floor.

And now, tonight, you hear the gunshot again. And the baby starts crying outside your door. A girl screams. And the door flies open. There stands the young mother, dressed in black, the baby bundled under her arm. She’s in tears, makeup running. In her right hand she brandishes a revolver. She runs into your room and turns around, frantically warning away her pursuers. Except there aren’t any pursuers; the doorway is empty—but she can clearly see them. She runs to the window, still waving the gun; opens the window; and throws the baby out.

At this point, you, the player—because you are a player, and this is a moment in a live-action game that you’ve been taking part in for the last few days, having taken on the role of a 1950s character— might realise something. If you’ve got enough detachment from the terror of the moment, if you can draw yourself back, you can think “Ah. I get it. I understand what’s going on. The baby’s clearly not real. it’s all fine. It’s just a play, a scene, a trick. I don’t need to panic.”

At which point the young woman jumps out of the window.

When you’ve recovered yourself enough to get to the window and look out, there’s nothing below; no baby, no woman, nothing at all.

We started this one with a simple request from our stunt team. “We want someone to jump out of a first floor window and disappear. And we don’t want the players to know how we did it.”

This was for our event God Rest Ye Merry (Thomas and Thomas et al., 2015), a Christmas ghost story set in the 1950s. The house, a rambling old mansion set on Dartmoor, was perfect for our needs, and on our site visit we scoped out the perfect window.

So, from a writing perspective, we knew that our stuntwoman Kiera Gould would be the one who jumped. And it made perfect sense that, for a ghost story, the disappearance would be due to ghostly goings-on. It follows, then, that this must have been how someone died. And that the players would see this as if it were a vision—it would be a haunting. To make it extra-scary, we would have them seeing it late at night.

The first concern came from the stunt team. The window Kiera would be jumping from was a bedroom window, and we expected two players to be in bed asleep. What was to stop the players leaping out of bed and interrupting the stunt, ruining the gag? We came to the conclusion that we’d put a barrier between the bed and the window, and settled on a baby’s crib, since there was one in a nearby room. We would fix it to the floor.

This immediately led to story. The woman who had died had a baby. So who was she, and what happened to the baby?

Someone came up with the genius idea that Kiera should come in, distraught, with the baby under her arm—a dummy, obviously—and should throw the baby out of the window first. Not only would it add to the horror, it would mean there would be a moment where the players thought that the baby-throwing was the whole gag, and, internally, they’d relax—just as Kiera jumped.

“Wait,” said the stunt team. “If there’s a baby involved now, they’ll work extra-hard to interrupt the stunt. Can we introduce some other barrier?”

So—why was the girl distraught? Well, we decided, she’d just shot her husband, and now, filled with regret, was going to commit suicide. So we would give her a revolver. The scene would start out in the corridor, with the sound of a revolver firing and a scream. Now, as the girl ran into the room, she would be brandishing the revolver, “accidentally” waving it towards the players—who she, being a ghost, couldn’t see. This acts as a psychological barrier to anyone wanting to get involved; a gun being waved in their face.

An interesting facet of our barriers—the crib and the gun and, in fact, the mood we’ve engendered up to this point— is that we’ve almost certainly shut down the player’s desire or ability to stop the girl jumping but, crucially, they think it’s their own choice. They will think they’re unable to act through their own fear, rather than through our railroading or design.

So there was the basis of the stunt. On top of that, we built up and layered story—the room was filled with mementos from the young couple’s marriage; elsewhere in the house you could find evidence of the husband’s debts and excessive gambling habit; newspaper clippings reported their deaths; family stories told of the tragedy; a wooden plaque on the crib named the baby Gwendolyn. And sometimes, if you listened carefully, you could hear a couple arguing, muffled, through the wall.

From a very basic moment idea, we now had a chunk of story, a very visceral moment, that was wound into the fabric of the house and the event and which fitted our themes. We knew roughly when it would happen—around 3am Saturday night.

Oh yes. The girl vanished completely, as did the baby, when you looked out the window. Despite the long drop below. How did we do that? We’ll leave that to your imagination.

A Moment Design Example: Pulp Languages

Now something from the other end of the spectrum—a rule specifically introduced to allow the players to spontaneously generate their own memorable moments.

For our 1930s pulp action adventure Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph (Thomas and Thomas et al., 2006), we’d decided that multiple languages would be a fun feature of the game, as we had an international cast of characters. However, very few of the players involved spoke multiple languages. How could we deal with this?

Well, we could adopt ridiculous accents. So if you spoke, say, with a French accent, it would be assumed you were speaking French. But if we did this, it meant that we wouldn’t be fitting into the pulp stereotype; in pulp, Germans need to sound stereotypically German, Americans need to sound stereotypically American and so on when speaking English.

So we dreamed up a very simple system. Any sentence that was supposed to represent French would be prefixed with the keywords “Zut alors!” Any sentence that was supposed to represent German would be prefixed with “Achtung!” “Effendi!” for Arabic. And so on. Terribly stereotypical, but pulp is stereotypical, and we were erring on the side of comedy.

Adding to that, we came up with a very simple system of written languages. Anything in red would be Arabic; green would be German; blue French and so forth.

This was introduced as a rule to our players. The key reason for including this was very simple—to allow them to create moments where the players OOC entirely understood what was going on, but, for comedy purposes, their characters would not. I call this sort of technique Seeding Opportunity—providing fertile ground for moments to happen in.

This would only work in this style of game. For a deeply serious game based on secrets and lies, the OOC/IC divide simply wouldn’t work. But for our purposes, it worked brilliantly.

Here I’ll cite an anecdote from one of our cast, Harry Harrold:

So when my bazaar salesman started a line with “Effendi”—the English-speaking customer couldn’t understand a word, but the spy who was posing as a translator could, and the conversation went something like:

Customer: “How much is this statuette? It looks jolly ancient”

Spy: “Effendi: How much for this?”

My salesman: “Effendi: I don’t know, my uncle’s mother in law’s family makes them by the dozen, how much will the idiot pay? Tell him it’s tenth dynasty … I’ll cut you in.”

Spy: “He says it’s very valuable. Tenth dynasty.”

Customer: “I say, marvellous …”

You see where it’s going. The customer’s player knowing exactly what I was saying, and the simple delight of three people performing their little hearts out to an audience of—oh, I dunno, maybe half a dozen at the time? It carried on for a while in the same vein. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told that story.
Harry Harrold, The Hole In My Tooth, 2016

Pay close attention to that last line. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told that story.” We’ve achieved our outcome—the desire to create a war story that players would tell and retell.

So, with our Jump stunt, we were introducing a specific moment. With this language rule, we were introducing the possibility for the players to create their own moments.[4]Okay, okay. Some moments we helped them create. For example, the minefield with a large sign—in greenreading “Achtung! Mines!” Which came into its own when it was crossed by a small group of players who could read it perfectly well, but none of their characters knew German… We’ve found the mix of these techniques extremely successful.

Other Media

I’ve talked solely about larp here. But since we started working this way, I’ve applied these techniques successfully to writing films, books, and in particular to computer games. Each medium has its own rules and styles, and by doing this you don’t need to eschew standard dramatic structure—but, in the same way as with larp, thinking about what your audience will take away is a great starting point for building your story.

Conclusion

It’s my contention—and experience—that if you work this way, if you concentrate on the highs and lows, on provoking war stories, you’ll have a memorable game.

It almost doesn’t matter what goes between those moments, so long as it makes some sort of sense. Honestly. I know that sounds crazy, but most people have terribly fuzzy memories and the bits they didn’t enjoy or found bland fade away, leaving the bits that excited them.

Sure, the quality of your whole piece will be vastly improved by good joining-of-thedots, but to turn it on its head, if you don’t have those memorable moments, you have nothing. I’ve lost count of the number of movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read that I can’t recall anything about a couple of months later. But people in pubs still talk about the time we had a WW1 tank, ten years later.[5]We didn’t. It was two sides of a tank faked up out of plywood + paint with a couple of pilots inside and some carefully positioned pyrotechnics, so that when a puff of smoke came out of the barrel, a piece of the ground exploded. But we still hear about “that game where they had a real tank.”

Bibliography

  • Goldman, William, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Warner Books. 1983

Ludography

  • Harry Harrold, The Hole In My Tooth. LarpX. 07/05-2016 https://larpx.com/2016/05/07/ the-hole-in-my-tooth/
  • Ian Thomas and Rachel Thomas et al. God Rest Ye Merry. United Kingdom: Crooked House. 2015
  • Ian Thomas and Rachel Thomas, Thomas, Brewis and Macmillan; Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph. United Kingdom: Crooked House. 2006

This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

Cover photo: The setting for the stunt “The Jump”, from God Rest Ye Merry (pre-game, Rachel Thomas).

References   [ + ]

1. My brother, who works in TV and film, reminds me that these are known in TV as “watercooler moments” i.e. where, in the workplace, people will cluster around a watercooler discussing last night’s episode.
2. Used in UK larp circles to mean excessive outpourings of excited conversation about an event you’ve played, an event you’re going to, a game system, or really anything about larp at all. An umbrella is advised.
3. A long-running UK larp organisation that runs high-budget one-off events with lots of special effects.
4. Okay, okay. Some moments we helped them create. For example, the minefield with a large sign—in greenreading “Achtung! Mines!” Which came into its own when it was crossed by a small group of players who could read it perfectly well, but none of their characters knew German…
5. We didn’t. It was two sides of a tank faked up out of plywood + paint with a couple of pilots inside and some carefully positioned pyrotechnics, so that when a puff of smoke came out of the barrel, a piece of the ground exploded. But we still hear about “that game where they had a real tank.”

Authors

Ian Thomas
Ian is a videogames writer, designer and coder. He's co-director of Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios with narrative. Ian started larping in 1990, and with his friends and partner runs ridiculously high-production-value events under the banner of Crooked House.
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