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!

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