Turning Your Tabletop RPG Into a Coherent Story
My process in writing an actual play blog documenting my tabletop RPG exploits involves the process of storifying my session notes and rearranging events, including dropping certain (hopefully) inconsequential details for readability. The Actual Play Blog, in context to tabletop RPG gaming, is as Let’s Play Videos are to video gaming.
However, the hard part is reading your own notes and then transliterating them into a coherent story. The main advantage of a blog is that if you have a modicum of writing skill, you can produce one by translating your gaming notes into a story-like form to entertain your readers.
An Actual Play Blog is a blog entry that records the occurrence of and information produced during single or multiple tabletop-gaming sessions. They can focus on what is happening solely in the game world, around the table in real-life, or switch between the two with equal or unequal focus.
Essentially, they involve the textual recording of actual play sessions, sometimes tracing a storyline or multiple threads that exist within the game. There are three important ideas when dealing with blogging an actual play. These are in-game (diegetic), out-of-game (metagaming), and narrative.
The Vital Points
- In Game (diegetic) refers to what happens within the game world. It is what exists for the characters inside of the game, adding to and concerning their world, the world of the game setting. This type of content results from the exchange of information between the players via their characters and the Game Master during play within the framework of the rules. It is world-building, which occurs when details accrue, and it is from this sediment that the game world emerges. Reoccurring details (as do the framework of rules and GM consistency) provide stability to this game reality. It is from this material that you will harvest the majority of your story.
- Out-Of-Game/OOG (metagaming) material is the polar opposite of in-game material. This part of gaming is inextricable from the diegetic portions, although frowned upon in some circles. The metagame is everything that happens outside of the game ranging from table chatter to Players having their characters operate on information that only the player could know (a plot hole in the world of cinema).
Of course, the latter action is discouraged though at one time or another; most, if not all, players have done this sometimes unintentionally. This includes the rules that govern the game reality as well. This part of the game also includes agreements of behavior, including how players should treat each other’s characters in game and the limits of tolerated character and player conduct. This is where the real world and the game world collide and/or coexist.
- The Narrative content of a session concerns the element of storytelling that is within the game. This includes characterization and evolution that occurs during play based on player choices and actions. Obviously, this also includes the main drive of the campaign and/or adventure and involves the game master’s writing and/or published material. Note that not all narratives will follow a strict traditional structure where roleplaying games are concerned. Sometimes the narrative ends abruptly, leaving behind unresolved elements as well as some narrative threads not followed up by the players, leading to a dead-end, or those simply forgotten in the shuffle. This narrative content will give your blog direction and form its primary story elements.
In this context, the beginning and ending of a blog entry should be hooks that get the reader into and out of the entry with a sentence or two or a short paragraph.
Pulling the Narrative
There are, of course, the obvious story threads running through a game, such as quests, drives to achieve certain goals, and trying to obtain the McGuffin from which you can draw. However, also pay attention to singular character goals and if the Player Character (PC) evolves via experience or a change in the way the Player plays them. You can even use a Non-Player Character (NPC) based story if it makes a compelling read.
Try to pull a narrative from the session, no matter how thin, which may include a narrative that is character-centric. Unlike an actual gaming session, you can shift the focus of the narrative to a single character while the rest are off doing something else. Always follow the interesting and important threads.
An example of this from my own blog is The Day the Music Died from the Dragonslayers II campaign. Here I focused on the bard character named Jesae as that character’s story not only feels like a complete story, if a bit tragic, contained in a single entry, but it’s more interesting than recording the others’ planning. The group plan is an essential component of the overall narrative though, so I was able to relay that information in a sentence to the reader as Jesae walks into it. The story of Jesae the bard has a beginning; he wakes up and walks to the tavern; in the middle, he encounters the street thugs, engages in a couple of fights, and accompanies his companions into the wilderness. In the end, the battle with the trolls.
The beginning, middle, and ending structure is simple but effective. The beginning and ending need not be an actual beginning, as the entry is most likely a smaller segment of a larger story. This larger story can be the overall campaign or a subplot. In this context, the beginning and end of a blog entry should be hooks that get the reader into and out of the entry with a sentence or two or a short paragraph. Sandwiched between the beginning hook and the ending is the core of this simple story structure: the Central Event.
The beginning and ending help to bookend the Central Event. This gives you a beginning, middle, and ending for each entry creating an episode. Note that the metagaming angle can intrude upon the narrative to provide a necessary laugh, player reactions, an interesting juxtaposition, and/or important information needed of the story as well as to cover over a time-lapse. It can also help fill in a diegetic dead patch. The metagame can also serve as the beginning and ending hooks in a pinch.
Deriving the narrative from session notes with some cleanup and applying the simple beginning-middle-ending structure to the text is what I like to call storifying or storification. This also involves adding in extra descriptions, adding in some side story or explanation that clues in the audience but the Players and their characters had been oblivious to during play in order to fill out the story and keep the interest of the reader. This process turns dry and often dense session notes into an entertaining story.
The process of storification involves translating the components of narrative from your notes in order to construct an episode that you later shape up for a pleasurable reading experience. You need to excise the beginning and ending points from your notes and then figure out the main content, the middle, and the core of your entry, which is the Central Event. The first step in this process is to recognize the Central Event in your notes.
Feature lesser events less prominently than the main by using less direct imagery, atmosphere, etc.
The Central Event
The central event is a single major event that takes place in the entry that progresses the main campaign thread or that plays to one or more of the player characters, thus progressing or evolving their characters. An event that helped them level up or that solidified a strategy used by a character that they then in turn rely upon later are examples.
The core event in the previously mentioned blog entry, The Day the Music Died, is not (spoilers) the death of Jesae the bard but the fight with the whole group versus Arvor Bloodspear and his gang of pole-fighters and thugs with the less eventful battle with the mercenaries following it as a lesser event. The death of the POV bard served as a surprise moment sort of presaged by his player’s panicked comments throughout the session within the frame of the metagame.
The idea of a central event is to wrap each single blog entry around a single set-piece event or campaign/adventure-centric occurrence. When you have more than one event in a blog, always try to emphasize the events by the level of importance. Make those events important to the overall campaign narrative of the central event. Feature lesser events less prominently than the main ones by using less direct imagery, atmosphere, etc.
These other lesser events would be isolated adventures, lesser plot points, and character-centric bits as well as random encounters with little later consequence. Each of these can become a central event in the absence of their superiors, but in the presence of a central campaign storyline, they are cast to the wayside.
A Central Event should have a build-up that dominates the piece. An example would be using Chekov’s Gun trope. This type of structuring requires an introduction to a specific item, then a reminder about halfway through, and then the payoff involving the item. Here, as a central event, the payoff would be where the item proves to be the solution to a problem present in the entry that could be carried from another previous entry. Tease the main event near the beginning, carry it out near the middle or near the end if it is a climactic sort of thing, and try to drum up tension, drama, or fear on your way to the main event.
You can do this by using and magnifying what is already there, such as using OOG quotes by players that emphasize this point or lines from characters, even NPCs, particularly the lines delivered to the players. In the entry itself, you can center more attention on these by focusing on them when you need to build anticipation or expectation in the reader.
Be careful not to overhype it and keep in mind the scope as compared to those that will follow, although having a smaller event after a big event can be a great juxtaposition. An even better one is to focus on a lighthearted part of the next event or the relief of the players that the big one is over, quoted from around the table. Do not be afraid to dice up or disentangle threads that are produced during play to make them easier to read and follow for those that were not there. This allows you to pull out useful story bits, as mentioned previously, as well as discard dead-ends or storylines that the Players simply ignored or abandoned.
Even so, there will be times when the material is scant, the main event is underwhelming no matter how you cut it, or you have an in-between episode that consists entirely of connective tissue. Normally you might be able to drop these or condense their information into a short paragraph to gloss over it. Sometimes, however, you may not be able to just drop it for whatever reason, so you have to pull out all of the tricks to keep your readers interested.
Tricks to keep your audience's eyes consuming your story are often necessary, especially in those episodes that may only serve connective or expository purposes. Note that these tricks also help to enhance the average episode and serve as tools for emphasis or as an exclamation point. Sometimes you need to play up the more maudlin aspects of the story to keep readers entertained. These tricks include detailing the gore and/or violence, applying atmosphere heavily, adding in some purple verse (but not too much, this could backfire and become a slog to read), and magnifying any tension between players and/or the NPCs/PCs. This can also fill in for a weak central event building up some interest around it as well as it at its center. Although this strategy should not be overused, its techniques can emphasize specific story beats.
My example blog entry, The Day the Music Died, also serves as an example of a weak Central Event but that which also serves mostly as connective tissue for the overall campaign. The episode lacks a good central event (the street battle) but has the player group embarking on a journey important to the overall campaign to defeat the Troll King’s forces and retrieve their hard-earned dragon treasure. Compensating for the weak central event, I picked up the bard’s character thread: switching the POV to the bard and his eventful day ending with his sudden death at the beginning of the actual journey. I ended it on a diegetic quip, which in metagame terms comes off as humorous though delivered semi-seriously in game and serves as a possible hook for those wishing to see how the group delivers the bad news of the bard’s demise to his family. The final scene after the bard’s gruesome demise and after the battle with the trolls I do dwell on the wreckage afterwards.
The first and easiest cheap trick is to use gratuitous gore and violence, which can add some grit but become overtly cartoonish especially if overused or overplayed. Descriptions of splashing and gushing blood, the crack of bones or the thud of blunt objects into flesh adds to the gore and violence levels of a game and can help to keep the reader’s attention but should be a high point or an aftermath to elevate the violence or the action of a scene. Also, using short descriptions of how physically painful or tortuous battle can be can help the gritty element making a fight that much more intense without betraying the actual in-game action and may serve to explain or compensate for the quirks and eccentricities of RPG rule systems in a narrative sense.
The second trick is atmosphere and its details. Atmosphere should already be an element in place, environment, and room descriptions. Therefore, this should translate directly over although exchanging certain words or phrases to heighten the experience for the reader are fine as long as it stays true to what actually occurred in game. Phrasing should match or enhance the mood of the moment as well. Atmosphere can help to immerse players during play and can do the same for readers. This technique adds to place and enemy descriptions, enhancing drama and increasing reader anticipation as well as the tension of the piece. Essentially use descriptive text selectively to enhance the atmosphere, mood, and pace of your piece. Along this same line, a well-placed line of purple prose or the altering of the current mood makes all the difference.
A bit of wordy or intense prose can quickly establish or alter mood although it will be grossly obvious to the reader. However, Purple Prose is fine when using it to accentuate atmosphere or characterize descriptions, but try to stay true to the course the game-play actually ran. Elevated prose or out-right maudlin text can help to accentuate what you want the audience to pay closer attention to especially if the PCs picked something out in game from the Game-Master’s descriptions. Of course, in this case you can simply quote characters and describe their player’s expressions whether in game or as their characters whichever elicits the reader response you desire.
The last discount toy in the RPG actual play blog writer’s bag is High Tension. Try to keep up a certain level of suspense, tension, and/or mystery. Tension can occur between characters including between Player Characters (PCs) in game and easily translates for readers. This is especially effective when a PC has it out for an NPC (Non-Player Character) for whatever reason, and they had made the effort to pursue them creating a character-centric story thread. Suspense is inspired by the anticipation of something and the want to engage in a certain activity such as hunting down a monster or a villain for the character and the desire to see this play out in a certain way by the reader.
This can also generate frustration translating it from the PC who is frustrated to the reader providing some suspense: will the character succeed in their endeavor? Suspense also springs from the fear for one’s character losing either a valued item or their lives in game. You should take advantage of this angle by playing it up to the reader at certain points. It is a roleplaying game after all, success is not guaranteed. Lingering mysteries can also help to keep things tense or at least interesting just remember eventually these need to be revealed or at least the thread severed with a quip or epilogue when appropriate.
Dead-end or snipped threads can also make great gotcha moments for the ending or can explain some element that in hindsight does not make any sense story wise even though it was fine in-play.
Hooking the Audience
When writing your blog entries, try to end with something catchy or on a hook or uncertainty to bring the readers back. Always try to end on a hook, a laugh, or a shocker. A dangling ending needs to be an end in its own way to not be frustrating for the reader but still invite them back or pique their curiosity to drag them back by the nose. Ending on a joke or a humorous incident whether it is diegetic or OOG (out-of-game), is fine but having a loose end or question begging an answer put somewhere just before is better.
Continuing threads are ideal if they hang from the central event, but any loose threads running from an adventure or character level are also good just be careful as to how many are dangling per individual blog entry. Any threads that get dropped in the course of the campaign (ideally you should wait a few months between actual play and transliteration) if they are never to be revisited or picked back up then you can sow it up as a purely story element that does not crossover with or tie to any other threads. You can also simply drop them if they truly go nowhere or leave no mark on the characters or their further adventures. If a character has obtained a special item that comes in handy later from one of these types of threads then mention it in a sentence when the item becomes relevant or just before use.
However, if they cannot simply be dropped they can be ended with a single sentence or simple paragraph. Dead-end or snipped threads can also make great gotcha moments for the ending or can explain some element that in hindsight does not make any sense story-wise even though it was fine in-play. This occurs when something is rooted in a dropped thread, such as the obtaining of a certain item, which becomes important later on while the characters are following another storyline, as mentioned previously. This cross-over point serves essentially as a termination point for one thread and serves as an explanation as to where that item came from in the first place.
Storifying your entries steps a little further into the realm of fiction but makes your actual play blog more accessible to casual readers and an all-around more entertaining read for everyone. Translating your game sessions into blog entries is a fun and deeply exploratory method of both sharing your and your players’ stories with the world but also honing the complementary skills of Game-Master and writer. However, by no means is this limited to only GMs, their Players may also choose to share the exploits of their characters with the world as well.
The general emergent text of a single blogged session is typically between 1 and 2 entries long varying from around 1,000 to 3,000 words. In addition, you should check out the other apparent metagame patterns that appear arising from the systematized elements of play, particularly those of combat sequences. It is interesting to see a visual representation of the rule systems at work in the structure of your text. Note however, that this pattern may be obscured or hidden by the Flesch Reading Score and SEO limitations when edited to comply with them.
Don’t be afraid to keep in the strange, stupid, hilarious, and utterly unpredictable things Players and their characters do and say even when they can turn the story or mood on its head, after all isn’t that a part of why we play RPGs in the first place?
© 2018 Robert A Neri Jr