The Agony of an Invisible Audience

Werewolf: The Apocalypse

Let’s put something out on the table. A little confession, if you will.

The SAS is the hardest thing I have ever written.

I’m not saying this to complain, mind. A challenge is a good thing. It makes you fiercer. But of all the things I’ve ever written, writing a story that someone else is intended to run, for a group of players that are not my own, is far and away the trickiest. I honestly think I would have an easier time writing a sex scene that I knew my mother was going to read. (I’m not in any rush to prove this, but I suspect it all the same.)

This is, I suspect, something of a failing for someone who considers himself a good Storyteller. It seems particularly bizarre when you consider that I don’t really run packaged stories, ever. Every session is either a plot of my own devising (and by “plot” I should stress that I mean “scheme” and not “script”), or just me having the world react to whatever insanity my players get up to. I should, theoretically, have a lot of practice.

But it doesn’t work like that. Because I have the luxury, when running my own games, of knowing my players. I know what they find interesting. I trust them not to behave spectacularly out of character in the interest of just livening things up. I know they’re not going to be disruptive, and I know we’re all at the table because we enjoy the same things.

When writing for an invisible audience, that is much more difficult. There’s no way I can anticipate all of your player characters. I don’t know what power levels you’re at, whether you favor the struggles of low Rank or the epic conflicts of playing elders. I don’t know how much you favor combat, or politics, or just sitting around drinking booze and swapping war stories. I don’t know who the important Storyteller characters are in your chronicles — who to threaten, kill off, or grant an opportunity to that would most quickly mobilize your characters into action. The most glorious thing about roleplaying games — the way that each chronicle is customized to its group — also makes an SAS that’s meant to be useful to you pretty hard to write!

That’s why some of this word count goes to concerns like that. Scaling the foes. Substituting scenes. Accounting for whether or not you’ve actually experienced some of the events I reference. I could almost fill half the word count with the various customization ideas that might be useful, but that would certainly be at the expense of the story itself.

But that said, I really like the SAS format. I like that it’s modular: you might want to use three-quarters of the provided scenes, ditch the rest, and have them occur in some order I hadn’t foreseen. Players may skip around some, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s been said before that to write a really good play session, you don’t want to start with a script: you want to start with a situation. This is what has been happening. This is what the antagonists plan to do, if you don’t get involved. And here are some stat blocks and challenges that you can use along the way.

And ultimately, as much as it’d be so much easier if I knew I was writing this thing for a specific group of specific characters with specific social ties and backstories… situations are delightfully agnostic. Customizing them is detail work. The situation itself is something that could perhaps happen at any sept.

So when the situation is that the body of a Garou of your sept has been found dead, and that the killer flayed the corpse and carried away the skin… well, I may not be able to anticipate what your player characters will do next. But I can help a Storyteller prepare for that. I can especially help them with preparing for what happens if your player characters do nothing.

Hint: You probably don’t want to do nothing. It rarely works out.

  8 comments for “The Agony of an Invisible Audience

  1. September 5, 2012 at 4:06 am

    Keep your heart open and listen to Gaia’s words. Let them guide you…

    That or read your email and let Rich be your guide. Which ever works out best for you.


    I look forward to facing off against the Skinner once again (now that he is powered down and back where he was meant to be).

  2. September 5, 2012 at 5:42 am

    I am almost very happy to read these words from you, Ethan (the only reason I’m at all not happy is because I can sense your pain in the issue.)

    Our group is much the same way; we don’t run pre-generated modules because in the few instances that we’ve tried, they’ve often been so linear and unadaptable/unprepared to our group’s style of play that we’ve become frustrated. Now, some of that may lay on the writer of the module, and some of that may lay on the Storyteller/GM/DM who is trying to play by the book presented and not adapting it well.

    We have literally broken modules before by using the items presented to us, the mechanics of the system, and a reaction that wasn’t foreseen to stop the antagonist from even getting his plan going because we stopped it before it could even get going. We have also “ruined” the module by playing types of characters that did not have the motivations to become involved in the story (When the module is based on “getting paid for the job” and the story so far has been characters getting paid more for other jobs, or relying on altruistic characters, but the ones we’ve been playing aren’t motivated by doing “the Good thing”).

    I have a theory that there are “Module-Players” and “Freeform Players” out there too. Module Players are folks who want to be a part of the story, but want to explore that story that someone else has written, following the clues and fall into all of the little traps and learn “the big reveal” and come to the conclusion presented by the story. It’s like playing an RPG video game that 2 million other people have played through, and though everyone might have some slight differences based on their actions, everyone still has most of the same situations, goes through the same story, and is entertained because “they were a part of it.” For them, the engine of the game is the Storyteller… who is literally telling the story and they are adding the flavor and that is their enjoyment.

    And then you have the Freeform players, who are literally there to just go by the seat of their pants, to be the driving force of the story, The ST might have an epic story to tell, but the players know when they’re being shoe-horned into something and are uncomfortable when any choice they’ve made would have resulted in the same situation–they feel like even though they’re acting/reacting to the story, it’s all just an illusion of choice because it’s all going to turn out the same regardless and they feel cheated of the “true roleplaying opportunity” where their choices are the engine that make the game go.

    Of course, there’s groups a bit in between the two, but usually heavily leaning either way, from what I’ve experienced at least.

    My friend recently ran a module/scenario for a company at Gen Con, written by a professional module writer, and afterwards was asked to give some feedback. Several other GMs gave back “It was a fun plot. The players liked beating up the bad guys.” and that, but my friend gave a full page (if not more) of feedback, including that he had re-arranged encounters, altered some of the antagonist’s actions, and the actions of other NPCs because in the scheme of things they just didn’t make sense from a “realistic” action/reaction/timeline sense. (Super-über bad guy who’s a master thief and magical fellow who’s trying to end the World can’t sneak into a study because there are servants milling about and it requires a basic key to get into and needs the PCs he’s never met to get something for in there? Once he releases the Über Demon why would he care who caught him?) So while most of the PCs may be wrapped up in the story and just enjoy the story as it’s presented and not think too deeply, there’s likely to be plenty who will either A) just read through the module and discect it, or B) are VERY detail-oriented and see the issues and feel somehow restricted because there are some details that don’t add up to them–of course in this case they will often just assume there was more to it that they just never saw and won’t care until they ask the ST and he goes “Uh, nope. I guess he could have just gone in there and gotten it himself.”) So, I guess all I’m saying with this is that if you have the opportunity, have some other STs and character writers read it through and give you feedback if it’s something you’re interested in (I’m sure you will anyways, in one way or another.) 🙂

    I know that you’re not soliciting for feedback/ideas, but I thought I’d just give a few thoughts nonetheless (because, well, that’s what I do. Sorry about this.)

    1) Please highly suggest character types/motives for characters participating in the game. This way you can incorporate handles in the plots that fit with the motivations of characters better. A couple of dead Garou that were skinned? You don’t want someone who’s concept gives them reason to derail him from the story right off the bat and then, as the ST, have to spend extra time trying to convince him to follow the lead/group’s interest. If you suggest some general starting themes (Altruistic, Glory-bound, Curious, Darkly Intrigued, Honor-driven, etc.) for the groups, if not individuals, then I can see more ease coming from both STs and Players who don’t feel forced into actions they wouldn’t otherwise take. (“I’m seeking Glory and so far I see I could get more from fighting cockroaches in a schooner! I’m out of here.”)

    2) The game of Werewolf: the Apocalypse is about The Pack. Start the game off with characters already packmates, and maybe one of the skinned is a packmate? It leads to instant group-dynamics, cohesion, and interest in the “whodunnit” and revenge.

    3) Our group tends to work well in games where “the world is still running even when you’re taking a break.” Not necessarily a countdown clock (unless it’s an End of the World scenario), but if the players think that “I can take 3 days to think this out and the bad guy’s not going to go anywhere”, it makes the world seem a bit more shallow. But if one of the options for the ST is basically a chronological list of “what happens beyond the PCs vision” with the events that are happening at any point away from them (so that if they happen to wait, the ST knows what’s still going on), rather than a point-to-point situation where part C doesn’t activate in the plot until the characters run up to it.

    I really do like that you’re trying to make the SAS available for different group styles. Even by admitting that you’re trying to incorporate different play styles and taking so many different angles into consideration, I think you’ll have won more fans over with it. 🙂 From what Richard said, you’ve had a GREAT idea that he’s trusted you with… anyone else and he probably wouldn’t have even acknowledged Sam in W20 canon.
    And since it’s going to be run by The Wrecking Crew at Atlanta by Night, I highly suggest that you take some feedback (on a Blog here, your own blog, on the forums, etc.) from both the STs and the players since you’ll likely have PLENTY of time before the final file has to be finished for publishing. 😉

    Good luck to you and I look forward to the results of your hard work. 🙂

  3. S Moore
    September 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I’ve been running games on the fly for a group of guys some of whom have been gaming for 30+ years. Seat of the pants GMing becomes the norm with these kind of vets so toolbox/sandbox style stories with a strong and cohesive theme are much appreciated.

  4. Fernando
    September 5, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    I know this isn’t the best time or place, but… when is W20 coming out in Spanish? Do I get to order it from WW with the others?
    I’m sorry for my English, and where I’m posting this, but i just can’t get a hold of anybody who can give my a straigth answer…
    I´ve been playing W:tA since 2001, in Argentina, we depend on the spanish publication (and very often theirs sad, sad translation), and I would realy prefer to get it from you or somewere like méxico or even closer to my country (idealy form here, but you know…). The game it’s probably one of the best out there, and I want it NOW! and with all the extras, but the uncertainty of been able to get any of it in the next 3 years it´s getting to my nervs… please, please help me!!!

    • September 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      Perhaps a KickStarter for funding a decent translation?

      • Fernando
        September 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm

        That may be a solution, but I doubt the reach of a project like that (although I would definitely contribute).
        I´ve almost give up on hope about the spanish edition, but would like to know if you have any kind of control in the end products (in other languages, at least) or if you are only responsable in the development process (I´m writing like Tarzan… Sorry for the rusty English).
        The thing is, I´ve been reading this blog and you speak of words, wording space and else… And then the translators don´t give a damn, and you end up with a mediocre text (but if you take the job of transating it back textualy and then figure out what the autor means, everything becomes clear)… BUT I WANT EVERYBODY WHOM I SHOW MY BOOK TO APRECIATE IT AS I DO, NO TO HAVE TO NERDILY (AND BORINGLY) EXPLAIN IT TO THEM!!!! Again, sorry, I havn’t write in English for about 10 years… It´s coming back to me REALY SLOWLY…

  5. September 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Oddly enough when I read through Chaos Factor it appears that the only sure fire way to both survive and ensure that Sam bites it in the end is to do exactly nothing.

    Don’t follow him, don’t chase him, don’t try to stop him and certainly don’t get in his way.

    There might be some sideline/cleanup stuff that can be done but really it’s an adventure intended to showcase the futile nature of opposing the superpowers of the WOD

  6. Blue Fox
    September 6, 2012 at 9:39 am

    A simple and clear time-line for the off-screen events is a really handy tool for ST running any chronicle.
    A solid time table for good/bad events which are not really dependant on player action/inaction makes the world feel alive and not just some cardboard theatre set where nothing happens outside the stage and script, this also includes stuff like cops showing up for players wrecking havoc in public, getting a recognition fro their deeds etc. which should happen but not right away.

    I’d also like to have a few “after the show”-scenarios presented which could be used to tie the events into other published material and premade cronicles/SAS in oWoD.

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