Soap Opera Storytelling: It Takes A Village

In the last post, I talked about the beginnings of making a community by focusing on the motivations of the people in that community. Without the collection of NPCs making up that community, the PCs would have no one to interact with, and since using the idea from Dogs in the Vineyard, we are working on the assumption that there are various events for the PCs to pick up on. Using ideas from a couple of other RPGs, we will come up with ways to make your community that much more interesting to get to know. To use an example of the sort of background stories, take a look at the Belle song from Beauty and the Beast Disney animated movie and you’ll see little cuts into different people’s lives and then never mentioned again.

A few examples include:

  • The butcher who is making eyes at a beautiful woman before his wife clocks him with a rolling pin
  • Mother with number of small children in hand trying to buy eggs, likely to feed said children
  • The bald woman trying on hats

There is even the section when Gaston is trying to catch Belle in the market that we hear a bunch of background talk of the merchants and customers:

Woman 3:
You call this bacon?
Woman 4:
What lovely grapes!
Man 1:
Some cheese
Woman 5:
Ten yards!
Man 1:
one pound
‘scuse me!
Cheese merchant:
I’ll get the knife
Please let me through!
Woman 6:
This bread –
Woman 7:
Those fish –
Woman 6:
it’s stale!
Woman 7:
they smell!
Madame’s mistaken.
Well, maybe so

If we follow the Chekhov’s Gun theory that something mentioned will later be important to the plot since the storyteller only has so much time to cover the story, then these people should be more important than just background fodder. I will admit that the establishment of the large size of the village helps when we get to the storming the castle moment to help portray that this ‘poor provincial town’ Belle is in does have a lot of people that could be part of this ragtag army to sack the Beast’s castle. That again ties us back to our purpose of coming up with ideas as to who is in the community and how they interact and what the PCs will be able to find.

The easiest way to figure out a complex system like a community is to break it into simple parts. The first part is figuring out the different NPCs. To make the job simple for the Gamemasters working on developing these communities, you probably only need a handful of minor characters and then the major characters represented. If we use that song as an example, we can see there are at least 7 women with lyrics in the song beyond Belle, and a handful of men. So, in creating the community you can develop about five to ten merchant types, assuming there are not many shops for the people to buy from at least in the immediate area. If we are using a fantasy environment, you will need at least:

  • One for each type of equipment chart, though some like armor and weapons could be combined to a general ‘Blacksmith’ for example.
  • One NPC for any factions that the group will deal with, though I suggest for any that are important enough positions that you add an assistant for the players to deal with from time to time while the bigwig is busy, since they will have various business work to do (as well as dirty secrets we will get into later).
  • A couple specialists in the various classes in case players want to seek out training or guilds or similar things comes in handy, though you don’t need more than just a general sense of stats for these NPCs so don’t worry about making detailed character sheets for them.
  • If it is a big city with a ruler, make the ruler’s family and close servants because the players may want to work with them in some way or you can have them appear in scenes, such as the food taster at a meal the ruler is having with the PCs as a thank you for some heroic deed. The cook may hire the PCs to get some rare food for a dinner the ruler is having, one of the servants may need help fixing a blunder to save their career such as recovering a lost item a thief stole.
  • A couple color characters, which would be a couple guards and a guard captain (which probably came up earlier), a couple of beggars or other random street characters for the ‘gritty, poor’ of your city, and a few children of different ages. These are the sort of characters you might use for background color, like a guard chasing a beggar from the market square or helping a young lost child. These will also give you NPCs that can stumble upon the characters if something is happening in an alleyway or other out of the way area.

Once you figure the key roles that will fill the roles you believe your players will encounter, you will then want to make a list of about twenty or more names and personalities that you can use to fill any curve balls the players throw. They may flag down a random passerby on the street and you need someone to fill that role without reusing an NPC they know. Having a name and a personality to draw will make the player’s immersion in your world that much deeper.

With the major players, it is now time to come up with how these players interact in the community. Different systems will give you different examples of how you could put this together. The first system is Diaspora, which has a system to make connections between star systems. If you focus on using it to design groups, it will give you connections that you can use to figure out how they would interact with each other. You can see an example way of making this work in this blog post from Blue Collar Space. It’s great for designing groups that will have reasons to work together, such as various political parties, major families or guilds, for example.

When you start looking at the smaller connections, those between the NPCs directly, you’ll likely be using a system like they use in the Smallville RPG based off the TV series of the same name. They develop what is called ‘Pathway Charts’ that will give you various benefits to your character because of how their system is designed, but the general idea can be borrowed to build any group or organization that you’ll be working this.  This process goes through stages.

  • Origin: Essentially your family (though in Smallville, it is also used to explain where your powers or abilities come from)
  • Youth: What you were when you were young, usually built on the type of origin you had (as it will open some doors for you)
  • Focus: What is the important thing for you to focus on (the system uses Money, Life, Status, Technology, Paranormal)
  • Road: The route to achieve your focus (system uses Risky, Straight & Narrow, Lofty, Underground, Ethical)
  • Life-Changing Event: That event that suddenly turned your world around (Advancement, Tragedy, Manifestation, First Contact, Destiny)
  • Priority: After the event, what you cling to to ground yourself (Friends &  Family, Work, Moving Forward, Looking Back, Performance)
  • Modus Operandi: Method you get things done (Reliability/Loyalty, Shady Business, Against the Grain, Outside Normal Channels, Special Gifts)
  • Motivation: Why you do what you do (Others, Self, The Cause, The Job, The World)
  • Identity: What role you play in the larger picture (Sidekick, Foil, Rebel, Specialist, Hero)

As they complete each level of this character generation the choices they make from the selectable options will make them start from a chart with just the player’s names connected to each other, and end up with a chart showing every element of the connected backstories these players come from with various NPCs and locations that have relevance to one or more PCs. This first image is the just after the sample character generation defined their Origin entry, and the second image is a completed chart through the sample, though has all the labels removed as they went over them step by step as they were chosen. Just by looking at this second picture, without any understanding of the idea of the system or what each line may represent, you can start to see connections forming among the various players through people or places. This is great for making use of the players history in the world, so they have ideas of the sort of connections and history their players have to build off of. However, as I have seen in some people’s reviews of the system, they dislike this idea and prefer to have the players generate that history by roleplaying it instead, which works as well. Especially if we are assuming the players are new to the community, as the trope of “wandering murderhobo” adventurers is usually pretty well deserved, as players go from town to town.

To quote part of a review on the game system, explaining why the idea of such a mapping system can help make sense in a narrative driven game, in case people are wondering why this may make sense when compared to other RPGs:

Perhaps a key to the show’s longevity has been its instinct to quickly abandon a series of independent “disasters of the week” episodes in favour of a more soap-operatic serial show. This is the new kind of soap opera, however, as seen in critical-darling shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood, where the main characters are often directly at odds and the villains get just as much spotlight (and dramatic depth and subtlety) as the heroes – assuming of course that you can tell one from the other. Power balances and negotiated deals see-saw back and forth and generally, nothing gets accomplished except adding to the angst and frustration. The cleverness of the show Smallville was taking an extremely well-known and populated mythos and refracting all its elements through this dramatic lens, making the old suddenly new again, in much the same way that Buffy took old vampire and Lovecraftian stories and refracted them into its own unique style. And the genius of the Smallville RPG is it focuses entirely on that refraction, and replicates it perfectly. Source: Review of Smallville Roleplaying Game Corebook

So, unlike a game of Dungeons and Dragons where the players work as a party and are usually all focused on similar goals, the Smallville RPG is focusing on the idea of a variety of interesting characters each with their own goals and desires and the idea is to watch the story to see who is going to get the advantage this week and how things will play out from there since everyone is roughly equal. Much like the show, it may not be for everyone, but the mechanic will be perfect for what we need in figuring out how the village has their connections.

By taking the idea of the map and populating it with the key NPCs we came up with earlier as well as positions that would be relevant to them. Some will share links to important places, like the palace staff will link to the palace along with the ruler and the council, merchants will all link to the market and so forth. These places are some key set pieces you can have prepared for your players when they come into the town and are looking to see what is going on in your community and you can start dropping little hints about things that are going on. People coming and going from different buildings, occasionally doing things which may be out of character for them, even just something as simple as the PCs seeing them somewhere and then the NPC denying it later.

If you want to work on exactly how the relationships between the various NPCs work and you can’t think of anything to immediately work, check out another game called Fiasco. It is a essentially a storytelling game “inspired by cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong—films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Way of the Gun, Burn After Reading, and A Simple Plan” where all of the players are connected in some way and they are acting out scenes in a caper film. Before the game starts, they roll dice and using the dice and a chart determine the various connections they have and how. To see an example of how it works, this is a 20 minute clip of the setup for the Tabletop episode of Fiasco, some people have come up with ways to make it work in D&D for the players like this chart if you want to see how to make it work in your game. You can also take a look at this blog post talking how to use Fiasco to help write your next novel.  You’ve already got most of the pre-work done, this is just to add some extra flavor to the connections.

This may seem like a lot of work for a community that your players may walk past and not have much interaction with, depending on the type of stories they want and the stories you give them. However, it does give you much more ammo to roleplay with them and also a lot of more options to give your players things to do. Rather than just playing a game like ‘Go to the nearest dungeon to explore, back to town, restock and then off to the tower ruins, back to town to restock and off to…’, you could occasionally throw some urban RP in, whether it is some small scale plots to help the baker do something for the butcher to profess his love or large scale like dealing with a spy in the kingdom or a coup in progress. Also, remember, anything you don’t use can be recycled if the characters come back to this town or used in another town with different names.