Story Design by Layer I

in Tutorials

Ask a dozen RPG fans what the most important part of an RPG is and eleven of them will probably respond with the same thing: Story. That’s not to say that you can skimp on the other portions of the game, but it does mean story should be a major concern.

What is a Story?

When discussing the story of an RPG, I think the first thing to do is define what we mean by story. The definition I play to use for this tutorial is this: Story is the combination of the setting, characters, and plot, and how they interact with each other. While the individual parts are important, the most important portion is the interaction. How does the setting affect the plot? How does the plot affect the characters? How do the characters affect the setting?

What is Design by Layer?

There are many ways to write a story, but the way I’ve personally found to be most successful for me is what I call Design by Layer. A lot of people attempt to write their story in a linear fashion, from beginning to end, adding their details as they go. While it is possible to write a story this way, I find it can lead to some loss in direction.

In Design by Layer, instead of fully fleshing out every detail as you go through your plot, you start with the broadest strokes of the entire story, then go through it over and over adding more and more detail.

The First Layer: Theme and Style

This should always, in my opinion, be the first thing you think about when writing any story, and one of the first mistakes I see a lot of people in the RPG Maker communities make. The theme of a story is, in the broadest sense, what the story is actually trying to say. A story can have multiple themes (and sometimes a character can have a theme of their own, but we will get to that later).

For a good example lets look at the popular video game Metal Gear Solid. While the game itself is about Solid Snake, infiltration expert and all around ridiculously skilled soldier, being dragged out of retirement by the US government to deal with a hostage situation in an Alaskan nuclear disarmament facility (which of course turns out to be much more than that), that isn’t really the theme of the story.

Metal Gear Solid has two major obvious themes. The first is the anti-nuke/anti-war message. This is apparent from beginning to end, especially with the stories told by the individual bosses after they are defeated. The second is overcoming your genetic legacy. This is illustrated with the characters of Solid and Liquid Snake, as they both attempt to overcome their relation to their “father” Big Boss.

Selecting a starting theme should inform nearly every further decision you make in the game. Themes can be very simple, to very complex (complex in exploration, they should still be explainable in a single sentence).

Example themes:

  • Power of Friendship (Yugi-oh!, Pokemon)
  • Class Inequality and Abuse of Authority (Final Fantasy Tactics)
  • Learning to Trust and Accept Other People (The World Ends With You)

Style is a bit simpler. Here you want to ask what approach the story will take. Is the story meant to be comedic? dramatic? hopeful? tragic?. Having a cohesive style will make your game flow much better. While you can mix styles to a degree, you still will want to pick a major style to work with. It isn’t uncommon to see a touch of comedy in a dramatic story, but if you are getting slapstick regularly it will distract from the drama you are hoping to bring to the player.

The Second Layer: Framework

Now that you know what your story is about, lets figure out what the story is.

Some people will write their setting or characters first, then begin working on the plot. This is another place where designing by layer differs. When I write a story, all of these are written at the same time.

So what is the goal of the framework layer? I tend to try and accomplish three things during the framework layer:

  • Establish the broad strokes of the setting.
  • Establish the main plot points.
  • Establish the main protagonists and antagonists.

While establishing these things you will probably finding yourself jumping back and forth between the three aspects. This is a great thing. It means you are focusing on how they all interact.

!ALERT! Remember to keep your theme and style in mind as you work through this layer !ALERT!

Setting broad strokes consist of things like technology level, magic level, and major locations, powers, and important aspects of the world. Don’t get too detailed during the Framework Layer. We will be adding more details in later layers.

Using the game of Final Fantasy VII as an example I would write the setting broad strokes like this:

  • Technology: modern to near future
  • Magic Level: High
  • Major Locations: Midgar (Near Future/Industrial style metropolis), Nibelheim (location of experiments), “Promised Land” (location of high mako concetration)
  • Major Powers: Shinra (Antagonists, Power company/military, corrupt), Sephiroth/Jenova (Antagonists, E.T. plus super soldier experiment), Avalanche (Protagonists: Terrorist organization opposing Shinra)
  • Major Aspects: World runs on Mako, an energy based on the world’s life force.

Main plot points are the biggest events in the game. Don’t bother trying to explain the exact details of how the players get from point A to point B, just put them in a coherent order and worry about connecting the dots later. You want to add triumphs and failures into this. Adversity causes character growth, while never winning encourages players to walk away.

Main protagonists and antagonists are the bare minimum needed for the story. Don’t add ancillary characters at this point, only write down characters that are needed for the main plot points you have written. Write a short, two to three sentence explanation of who each character is, their basic personality, and their role in the story. Once again, don’t get too detailed. You want the very basics of what make the character.

Keeping all of these things as basic as possible at this point gives you plenty of opportunities to make connections and interactions between aspects. Maybe Character A is wary of strangers due to Plot event B, or Plot event B is caused by the way magic works in the setting. Connections and interactions are the keys to everything.

Bonus Game Design Tip: I’m pulling this aside and making it very visible because it is something you should keep in mind in every step of in video game story design. Keep your gameplay in mind when you make every story decision. In the best video games, story informs gameplay and gameplay informs story. For a simple example, standard JRPGs require multiple party members, an action RPG you would generally only have one.

Hopefully, this tutorial has gotten you started thinking on how to design a story. In the next tutorial, we will continue to add details to flesh out the game. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section below!

14 comments… add one

  • Fish-with-Feathers January 24, 2012, 6:36 am

    Thanks for this, it was really helpful and got me thinking about the story for the game I’m currently trying to make.

    Please post more soon!

    • Nick Palmer January 24, 2012, 7:09 am

      I’m probably going to have the next one up on the next Monday/Tuesday. I have no idea how many of these it will take to finish honestly. It was originally going to be one tutorial, but there is just SO MUCH information I have to cover.

      Thanks for the kind words, too. I really enjoy talking about stuff like this and its great that people are interested in it.

  • Cyarm January 24, 2012, 9:16 am

    Well I feel good about my writing ability then. I tend to do most of this stuff naturally when writing. Good article though, you’ve made a reader out of me.

  • Theophony January 24, 2012, 2:31 pm

    Thanks for posting :) It’s always nice to learn more about how others approach storytelling. Looking forward to the next blog!

  • Yung January 25, 2012, 4:01 pm

    I make youtube action videos, and I must say that this really helps me a lot as I don’t have any training in writing or anything like that…

    MUCH THANKS~!! can’t wait to see more

  • Paul Walker January 25, 2012, 8:11 pm

    Very well written, this has a lot of helpful information. I’ve found that the process for designing a story for an RPG is similar to designing a story to a novel, as you’ve said, theme and style are the main focus, and everything flows from there with the Theme being the main focus and the spine for which your story to be built upon.

    Hope to see more!

    • Nick Palmer January 25, 2012, 8:20 pm

      Yeah, there is a lot of similarities to other forms of fiction writing. There is a lot of stuff you have to keep the medium in mind for though, and I’ll be covering that a lot more in the next tutorial when more layers get added.

  • Andre Guerreiro Neto January 27, 2012, 2:28 am

    Loved the tutorial. Please keep them coming!

  • Robin Porter January 31, 2012, 10:18 pm

    It is nice to read other’s processes. Curious how you handle character development and story arcs.

    • Nick Palmer January 31, 2012, 11:35 pm

      Haha, well, I’m hoping to have the second part of this up by this weekend in which I’ll be touching on character development.

      • Robin Porter February 1, 2012, 1:38 am

        If interested, I can write some of my stuff down for you to read.

        Curious, though, you played the Ar Tonelico series?

        • Nick Palmer February 1, 2012, 1:45 am

          I’ve never played any of the Ar Tonelico games, though I’ve played a few of the other games by Gust (Atelier Annie, and Mana Khemia for the PSP I can remember off the top of my head)

          • Robin Porter February 1, 2012, 6:44 am

            good games. I also own every game released (in english) of both of those series. Ar Tonelico also pokes fun at the Altier games.

  • Brandon September 11, 2013, 8:50 pm

    Very nice tutorial. Helped me get started and accomplish more in the story department than I did on my own in weeks.

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