Being a Better Writer: Writing for Interactive Stories

Welcome back readers! It’s going to be a great week here on the site. More stuff coming, as usual. Follow-ups to prior posts, feedback … Basically, there’s a lot going on at the moment, so expect to see quite a bit of that on display here as the days come along!

Okay, rather than spend a few paragraphs on news or teasers, I’d really rather just jump into today’s topic. This one is, as many of you probably already know, a request topic. And you know that because you were one of the many readers that requested it, and you let out a satisfied “finally” the moment you saw this post’s title.

But yes, we’re talking about writing for interactive stories: Choose-your-own-adventure-style works, tabletop campaigns, or any other sort of story where you give your audience the means to pick their own fate.

Now, this is one of those posts that I’m going to lead with a disclaimer. A stronger one than the normal “everyone’s experience is going to be a little different.” And that disclaimer is: I am not an expert at this. While I’ve been playing tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons for a few years now, and have been running my own custom campaign now for over six months, I would still acknowledge that I’m a novice of sorts and tend to make a lot of mistakes. Crud, last week I made a pretty lousy one and did something that would have worked for a normal book … but instead flubbed pretty bad because it wasn’t a book, it was an interactive story.

In other words, what I offer today is only going to be scratching the surface. I’m not a master-class writer at doing interactive stories and running tabletop games. I’ve never once written a Choose-your-own-adventure story, though I did read a number of them growing up. What I offer are some of the basic lessons I’ve learned that can hopefully help get you started. From there, I would hope that if you find the topic interesting, you would go to someplace like Youtube or Google and start searching for advice from dedicated Game/Dungeon Masters who have run professional games and have for decades. Yes, such advice does exist, and in fact I watched quite a bit of it before starting my own campaign in January.

Also, a bit of a warning: We’re going to bounce a bit today. Mostly because running a tabletop campaign story is still a bit different from a CYOA-style story. Plus, since I have more experience with the former, the advice I share here today will be more tailored to what I have done for that and would I would do for the other.

Right, disclaimers and notifications out of the way, let’s get this post underway! So … you want to run an interactive story.

Okay, first things first, I want to draw  a very important distinction here. This post, as requested, is going to talk interactive stories in two different forms. The first is tabletop games, where one “storyteller” serves as a central “narrative” that the group “follows,” while the second is the more familiar form of “interactive fiction” … which is really just a branching story that keeps all its branches in the same book, allowing the reader to choose from a set of options to move the story forward.

Here’s the thing: while both of these types of stories do share a similarity in that the audience gets to make a choice, there’s a radical difference between them that really does make them very different projects once you reach execution. That difference?

Choice.

Let’s start with tabletop games (again, like Dungeons and Dragons) to demonstrate the point. If you’re not familiar with tabletop games, they’re quite fun. Think of them as an unscripted board game, in which the players decide what to do, what the win condition is, and even what sort of “game” the game is. Effectively, tabletop games are a giant framework or framing device that give the players a bunch of “rules” for rolling dice to succeed or fail. That’s incredibly basic, but not wrong. One player acts as the “game master” or “dungeon master”, keeping track of everyone and everything that isn’t a player character: the world, the setting, other characters not played by players, etc. And the players?

Well … the players do what they want. And that’s where things get tricky.

So, a noob mistake often made by new GM/DMs is that they can show up to the game with a grand story planned, a big villain, a cool path for the players to follow … and minus one or two “side quests” the players will just go along with it.

This is not what happens. Instead, the DM opens their game by saying to the party “You arrive on the outskirts of a small town—” and almost immediately the party begins … well, to be a party.

“I go to the bar.”

“I look for someone wealthy to rob.”

“I look for someone who desires aid!”

“I strip my shirt off and run down the main street clucking like a chicken!”

Etc, etc. Repeat as the new DM frantically tries to shove the players back to “their” vision. To which the players simply try all the harder to run off-course.

See, I wasn’t mistaken above when I said that the players are the ones that decide what the win condition and objective of the game are. Or that they’re the ones that decide how to play. Because a tabletop game is all about their characters making choices. And those choices they make may not be at all what the DM wanted to do. The DM wants a classic “heroes rise and defeat the villain?” story? The “heroes” just might decide to become cattle barons instead.

No joke, a DM story of much hilarity I read online actually had this happen. A DM with a meticulously crafted world and a big warlord villain found to his complete surprise that the players got sidetracked in the second session by saving a cattle farm from bankruptcy. But rather than leave and continue along their journey, the party decided that running the ranch sounded fun. So they pooled their funds and favors and bought the place.

What did the DM do? He went home and spent the next week researching period-appropriate cattle-ranching and building up additional framework in the game universe. And when the players assembled for the next session, he had a whole bunch of stuff ready for them.

So they played. Rather than slay orcs, they rescued cattle from bandits. They dealt with stampedes. Floods. Finances. Lawyers.

And, while all of this was happening? The story that he’d built originally with the warlord continued forward in the background of the world. And eventually this warlord raised his army and became a giant threat, one that the players knew would affect their cattle empire. So what did they do?

They sent out ambassadors, found that the warlord wanted great wealth (something to do with his backstory) and paid them off.

After that, all they had to do was make sure the massive payment didn’t sink their business, and retire. Campaign over.

Okay, so I share this story for two reasons. The first is to show how the players are the ones that set the “win condition” and determine the course of the game.  In this case, the players found themselves far more interested in running a cattle ranch than being the usual wandering heroes, and decided to pursue that. They made the choice of where the story was going to go.

The second reason is to illustrate a clever and well-seasoned DM. Rather than try and force the players back to their version of what the story was ‘meant to be’,  the DM instead let them make their own choices and adjusted the entire narrative in response to it. They were flexible and used what they’d created as the world, rather than the story.

This is one of the hardest parts about “writing a story,” I think, for a tabletop game. Unless you get a party that goes along perfectly with your plans, or that you force and railroad onto your plot, you can expect that the first thing players do is start to build their story.

Which again, is why I bring up what that DM did: He had a world. And when the players ventured off into an unexpected corner (cattle ranching), he went and built up those parts so that there was the world and framework there, and then let the stuff he’d already planned for happen in the background, interacting with the characters where appropriate. Instead of building a walkway, the DM built a setting.

For traditional writers, this can make DMing a real challenge, because they can get lost in thinking it’s their story and that the players are along for the ride, when in fact it’s the other way around. It’s the players story. The DM just provides the world.

Okay, and some hooks. And here’s where the “creation” part comes in. A DM’s job, as I’ve learned, is to give the players options. So, for example, the players in my current game have a giant world map of places they can go to. And when they go to those places, I try to give them a variety of options to chose from. Each one is something I’ve prepared in advance, like a pumphouse that’s been shut down, or a camp of people that wants to trade for food. There are usually options and different things the players can do at their own discretion.

Sometimes they pick none of them and try something entirely new. Sometimes I have to think on my feet. And sometimes, here and there, I’ve poked them back into something planned because I really don’t have any other ideas. I’m not a stellar DM, mind, I’m still new. But that’s the challenge of creating an interactive story, especially for a bunch of players with their own ideas: you have to build a wide, open setting with options, because they want choice. And even if you don’t give them obvious options, you need to build a setting that’s both flexible and allows for players to make their own choices.

Of course, too much freedom and you’ll really need to think on your feet. It’s a tough balance.

But basically, what this means is that running a Tabletop game is, in my experience, a large part of worldbuilding and giving players choices, and then reacting to those choices with real-time storybuilding, letting the players make choices that drive things forward.

Effectively, as a DM (in my experience, mind) you’re caught between two sorts of storytelling. The first is “prepatory,” which is all the world-building and planning you make for options leading up to the actual session, while the second is “reactionary,” which is you presenting the material and then moving along with the characters as they explore it and make their own decisions.

Now, does this mean you can’t have an overarching plot? Of course not. You can still have elements happening in the world that can come to affect the players, whether they like it or not. As a consequence of the players becoming ranchers in the example from earlier, for example, the warlord had a lot of their plans succeed, which meant that they would affect the players eventually and be an even bigger threat.

Basically, if your characters are ignoring the plot, that doesn’t mean the plot has to ignore them. Your characters can go about whatever adventure they’ve chosen … and find that whatever foe or crisis they would face eventually comes whether they want it to or not.

In other words, you can have your original plans draw them in. Sands, sometimes players will stumble into them while doing their own thing to begin with. Or they can, with a little nudging from the DM.

Let’s back up, then. What does it take to write a good, interactive story for a tabletop? A lot of framework and a lot of flexibility. You need to build a world deep and wide enough that players can make their own choices, and then calculate those choices forward … often while giving them even more choices. You have an endgoal in mind … but that endgoal can change based on the players. Or twist.

And you can’t forget that the players need choices. Options. They want to have the freedom to let their characters do things like side with the bad guy, then backstab them. Or side with a third-party. Or maybe become the bigger bad guy. Or just become tailors. Who knows?

Now, some of these (like the whole party becoming villains) you can make basic rules about … but you don’t have to. Ever written a story where the characters have their own minds? That’s DnD. Except they really have minds of their own, and if you don’t let them act on them … then there won’t be much of a story.

As I said when I started this post, I’m still a noob. What I’m saying is basically a primer, something to get you started. And again, I encourage you to look up youtube sources and other places online where far better DMs than I talk about running a campaign. But for me, the best I can offer is this idea that you’re there to run the world, not the players, and give them options inside the framework you create.

Got it? Okay, let’s move on to something a little less nebulous: the interactive story.

So, to start with, an interactive story is really nothing more than a branching narrative. Hence the title “Choose your own adventure.” Often written in second-person (but not always), an interactive story will follow a format of “something happens” followed by a selection of choices. So, for example, if the setting of the story were a gem heist, the opening page (or pages) could start with the character arriving at the scene beforehand to case it out … and then give the reader two or three options for how to do said casing out and what to look at. A prompt would then tell the reader ‘for this choice, turn to this page. For this choice, turn to this one” (or just have hyperlinks for digital stories). And so on and so forth until an “ending” is reached. Some would end with failure, others with differing successes. Some might even not be gem heists at all, but become completely different stories.

So, got that? Good, because writing these is actually pretty simple. Start a story, and when you reach a point where a character would make an important choice, give that choice to the reader and create a set of branching options. Then extrapolate each choice forward and follow the story based on that choice. When another decision arrives? Do the same thing! Write, following this pattern, until you’ve reached endings for each of these stories.

Now, if you’re finding this difficult, it may help to create a chart that follows each branch. One line for the start, and then a branching point with lines going out for each decision. Note what the decision was and where it leads. Repeat from each new decision.

Now, last note on these? Keep them fun. Audiences of these books want variety. One branch can have entirely different characters, or different sides of the same character. Play around with things. Will one path reveal completely different characters? Or different sides of the same character? Or maybe it’ll be a mystery where only by following several different paths can the reader gather enough sides of the story to determine who the real culprit was?

Point being, there are a lot of options, but unlike a tabletop game, you’re in full control of them. In one branch, the fleeing protagonist runs to their right down the hall, another to their left. But in both instances, each lead to something new and interesting, along with more choices.

And that’s pretty much it. Like I said, this area isn’t one I’m an expert on, and I recommend digging further and seeking other advice if these kinds of stories interest you.

But hopefully what I’ve shared today has helped, especially for those who asked after this topic.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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