Tips for writing story-centric RPG scenarios

Inspired by similar articles I have read, I decided to give my two cents on writing scenarios for role-playing games. While I’m far from being an expert in the matter, let alone a half-decent writer, I have written several scenarios that seem to have clicked with some people. These are my principles when writing story-centric scenarios (beware spoilers of most of my scenarios, don’t read if you intend to play them!):

  1. Remember the story is not linear: don’t write as if you were writing a short story. In a way, writing a scenario is writing down your (obsessively detailed) research for a short story. Focus on the mood, possible scenes, characters, general plot, and clues, and improvise the story from there. Example: Gone Girls has a list of characters and possible scenes and locations, but no order is implied, or even that all scenes will happen. Characters are described with their goals and knowledge, and several possible endings are described for reference.

  2. Have a theme/topic for the story: something like family, prejudices, the cost of freedom, or loyalty. A story theme will help you focus while writing, and it will give the scenario a certain consistency. It will also give you ideas for possible scenes or for plot elements, when used literally or metaphorically. And don’t worry if you think the players won’t catch the metaphors: they still give the scenario a certain feel and focus. Example: Suffragettes is about class warfare from a feminist point of view. One of the metaphors is that the protagonists are fighting the patriarchy. And thus, the antagonists are middle- to high-class people who worship a deity they call “Father”, based on Father Dagon.

  3. Know the important NPCs well enough: you should know how your NPCs (non-player characters; anyone who isn’t the protagonists) will react to different situations. It helps to write down a couple of likely situations. Example: Suffragettes (page 5) has a relatively in-depth description of what Florence knows and how she will react in different situations.

  4. Make/get maps of the most important locations: they are handy for consistency, especially if it’s possible there will be an action scene in them. Example: The Cultists has a full map of the prison, even if the players are very unlikely to see it all.

  5. Make a timeline of events: if there are certain things that will happen regardless of what the characters do, make a timeline. Example: Gone Girls has a timeline of events both leading to the beginning of the story, and happening as the story develops.

  6. Treat the scenario as resources and ideas when improvising: in the end, you will have to make up a bunch of the stuff on the spot, and also it’s satisfying to change or make up new elements to adapt the story to whatever the players found interesting, or to incorporate ideas the players give you as the story develops. Example: once, when telling Gone Girls, the idea of making Edward Clarke invincible came up, along with the idea of making him being able to manipulate opponents to the extent of making them kill themselves. This was never part of the original story but made sense that one time and made the ending more dramatic.

  7. Show, don’t tell! Instead of telling the players about certain important things (eg. some character is a racist, some character is lazy, a room is a mess), setup a situation to make that point. Not only is more memorable, but it gives nuance and extra information. Saying “Tom is lazy” is generic and vague, but seeing how Tom still has boxes from when he moved in, a mess of cables all over the floor, and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, says just how lazy he is, and in which situations. Example: in Suffragettes (page 9), Elise Samson is not simply described as “poor” or “homeless”. Instead, there’s a short sequence in which this is explained through a situation.

And that’s it! I hope you find this list useful. As a bonus tip, if you are writing horror (interactive or not) I recommend you read my summary of the book “Writing Monsters”, and maybe read the actual book, too.