Narrative Snippets: Parsimony

By Failbetter, August 16, 2012 · Tagged with ,

[This is part of the ongoing series on narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. These short articles (which are republished from our wiki) deal with keeping things simple and doing a lot with a little.]

Quality Parsimony

You can easily create new qualities for your world. It’s just a few clicks. But should you? Often, you shouldn’t. The best of all worlds is to keep the number of qualities low, and get a lot from each of them. That way both you and your players have an easier time of keeping track of things.

Sometimes you can only use a quality for one thing. If your quality controls progress along a particular story, you can’t much use it for other things. But you might have a quality that increases when you fail at various challenges across your whole world (like Nightmares in Fallen London) or a resource that can be picked up in many places and spent in just as many. Or a quality that recognises when the character has been thoughtful or ruthless. A small number of qualities can go a long way

Combinatorial Explosion

So, your supernatural underworld game is going great. Characters have an Origin quality, a Power Source quality, an Allegiance quality and a Nationality quality. You’ve spent a fortnight on the Scottish Criminal Mutant Werewolf content, and now you’re on to the Russian Criminal Mutant Werewolf content…

This is madness. This is one of the ways in which combinatorial explosion can creep in. Qualities necessarily control which parts of the content a character can see. That’s their job. But if you structure your world so that each bit of content can only be seen by a character with a specific arrangement of a large number of qualities, you’ll be writing that world forever. You’ll never get it finished and you’ll probably just give up.

So don’t do that. Make sure that most of the characters can see most of the content. The structure to adopt is that of a river rather than a tree. So, characters don’t each have to see all the same content, but they’re all basically going the same way and will most likely see most of it. You want any one character to see 90% of your content, not 50% or 10%.

Fires in the desert

This is Failbetter’s term for using underspecified narratives for effect. The idea is that the storylets a creator writes are the fires. But the paths between those stories are dark – they’re the player’s own.

What we mean by this is that you should let players fill in the blanks between your stories. If your story says ‘I was away for two weeks, and when I returned, I saw…’, there’s no need to specify what the character was doing in the time away. If they’re engaged, the player will most likely fill in the details with something that makes sense to them. Or if you describe a character saying, ‘Haven’t we met before?’ the player might mentally fill in whether that character is remembering correctly or mistaken. So, there’s no need to fill in every detail. The player’s imagination is your ally.


Leave a reply

The power of the well-chosen word « Fetch The Engines Jan 5, 3:26pm

[...] knew it was madness; firstly because I’d read this helpful blog post from FBG, but also because I intuitively saw that micro-managing so many different qualities [...]

Alexis Kennedy Aug 17, 3:13pm

As Lily. Yes. Everyone playing FL is seeing the same story (through different lenses and with distinct choices). Their personal interpretations and responses make for substantially different experiences, but it's fundamentally a story about a particular kind of ne'er-do-well having a particular kind of experience in a particular kind of city. This isn't something to apologise for. Planescape is not a story about the Nameless burning down the city in the first act, Deus Ex is not a story about JC fleeing to Mexico and discovering enlightenment through mescaline. In any realistic, let alone commercial, project, resources are limited and making 90% of the story different rather than 90% the same would be a shocking waste of resource. It's a temptation which destroys. However productive an author or a team, they won't be 10x productive. Very strongly procedural stories are different, but they have a different set of problems, and our particular approach is only very gently procedural. Crowdsourced content with an extraordinary number of creative brains turning out content aligned along (eg) agreements about specific qualities... that might be a different matter. Which is one reason we built StoryNexus. But that's the next level. tl:dr; Less than 10% of the ingredients in a dish are enough to make it very different. You don't need to offer your customers a choice between petrol and olive oil.

Lily Fox (@lilylayer4) Aug 17, 2:32am

Firstly, apologies in advance for what may be incomprehensible or rambling; I'm writing this at gone 3am. Sometimes I just can't help myself. "Aren't they all basically seeing the same story?" ... Well, yes, they are to a certain degree. The author has to set some boundaries at least. It's that 10-20% of variable content, and the memories that go along with them, that makes all the difference. The player agency comes from the choices - little and large - they make along the course of their story and in which order they pursue plotlines/side-quests. It is up to them how to go about achieving their goals. If properly constructed, a player will have the opportunity to dabble in multiple approaches and see the outcomes of each approach and their failures, all until it is time to make the crucial choice or final attempt. Other methods of providing an active experience I've seen are: offering unnecessary risks; mutually-exclusive alliances; the opportunity to move between locations/goals/plotlines; and choice between character ambitions. Even if every player follows the same story, offering a choice of sub-plots that twist through the main through-line can make it seem much more personal. This is especially powerful if players can see hints of what other storylines they are missing. For context, I'm a moderately dedicated player of Fallen London (Attributes all around 100 and beginning to see the decisive outcomes of my choices around the next corner) and a StoryNexus beta world author.

John Evans (@Chaoseed) Aug 16, 6:12pm

But if everyone sees 90% of the content, aren't they all basically seeing the same story? If they're seeing the same story, how do they affect the outcome? Aren't they just reading passively instead of playing a game?