Monday, January 19, 2009

Story Gone Bad

In working up my thoughts on Sandbox versus Story, I got to thinking of some examples of Story-based adventures. There were quite a few very well-presented ones in the Star Wars game system, but there were also a couple stinkers. The one that really stands out as how NOT to do a story-based adventure is the whole 'DarkStryder' campaign. 

The presentation of the Darkstryder products is superb, as are the story lines and the idea of a 'Star Trek' type exploration campaign in the wilds of the Star Wars galaxy. And yet, as intended by the creators, the idea is (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed. First of all, there is the crew of the ship—pre-generated player characters designed to fill specific roles in the story. Pre-gen characters aren't necessarily a bad thing, if your players are willing. But the fact that the destinies of these characters are pre-ordained from the outset of the adventure leaves very little room for actual development by players. Simply put, these characters will live or die because of how the story is supposed to go, not because of any player actions. Or at least that is the stated intention of the authors.

The rigidity of the story line is the other killing aspect of this campaign. Like the players, certain events are just going to happen, no matter what the characters do. A little bit of inevitability is to be expected at times. If a GM needs an event to happen to start something off, then that even will happen. But to exclude the players from having any real impact throughout the course of an entire campaign? That is the epitome of bad story-adventuring. 

Perhaps it isn't surprising that things are so plotted out in Darkstryder—author Timothy Zahn was one of the creators of the campaign. The whole thing reads (complete with dialogue and cut-scenes) like a novel. It is an entertaining novel to be sure, but it serves as a showcase of what I dislike about certain story adventures. Players are completely along for the ride, watching from inside pre-generated characters as the story unfolds the way it was planned from the beginning.

In these ways, Darkstryder reminded me of the entire Dragonlance Saga from Dungeons & Dragons. Great presentation, great ideas—all stifled by a pre-determined outcome. Of course, any good GM could take either campaign and modify it to suit their needs. The source material is sound and thought-provoking, and the idea of letting players make their own saga is one that intrigues me. I've even made preparations to run both campaigns at one time or another, but...well, lack of time, lack of players—the demons of real life are hard to slay.

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