Designing stories in (roleplaying) games

Some time ago my friend Jhon and I spoke through WhatsApp after having spent an enjoyable evening in a café. There we dwelled on various topics including one of our favourites: Dungeons and Dragons, or more specifically: writing good stories for our roleplaying campaigns.

After we parted I recalled two techniques that I particularly like when crafting stories:

  1. The Snowflake Technique
  2. Replacing ‘and’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’

The Snowflake Technique

The Snowflake Technique, invented by Randy Ingermanson, is used when writing novels to quickly outline your story’s structure. The basic idea behind this is that you guard yourself against meandering in your storyline. And providing hooks and handles to write your story on through a concise outline.

For a detailed explanation on the Snowflake Technique, you can read more in this blog post: I will provide a summary so you can determine if it might suit you.

What you want to accomplish is to get a central idea or concept, that grows and branches as a snowflake does. You can follow these six steps to craft your outline:

  1. Write a one-sentence summary, this represents the big picture of your entire story summed up into a single sentence
  2. Expand the summary of your book into a paragraph containing three disasters and one ending. Good examples can be found on the back cover of many books.
  3. Develop your characters; where each main character needs a name, a summary of their storyline, their goal, their conflict, and their epiphany.
  4. In the paragraph you wrote in step 2, you had one sentence for each disaster and a sentence for the ending. Expand each sentence into a paragraph of their own.
  5. Expand each character with every bit of background you would like to give them.
  6. Expand the plot even further, take each paragraph you wrote in step 4 and expand that to fill a page. Here you start describing the scenes for each specific plot point.

 Once you have followed these steps you have 4 pages worth of scenes and major plot points. At this point, you can give those more body and write the events for your scenes. For help with this, check out our second technique.

Replacing ‘and’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’

I am not sure whether this technique has a formal name but I encountered it first in the Witcher 3’s side-quest plot structure; I later learned that the TV series South Park used the same technique first.

The premise of this technique is that as an author you run the risk of writing a story as a logical sequence of events. Events happen one after another and can result in a meandering experience for the reader, or player, as the story progresses steadily. Even if you write one interesting event after another, it is still emotionally linear if you can string all events together with the phrases: ‘and’ or ‘and then’.

Now, whenever you are inclined to write the phrase ‘and then’: replace it with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’ and follow that train of thought. What happens now is that with ‘therefore’ you are inclined to write a new event that is a logical consequence of the prior (instead of a continuation). With ‘but’, things become interesting because you introduce a downward beat or conflict.

Especially when you alternate the phrases ‘therefore’ and ‘but’, your scenes become more varied and complex because the emotional range is much wider. The up-beats are more rewarding as the reader is more engaged due to the variation.

I love both techniques and believe one complements the other perfectly. I will be experimenting more with these techniques in my D&D and digital stories I design. I hope you do too and find them equally fulfilling.