After a little conversation on Twitter, I wanted to talk about creating stories in games. Specifically, these are techniques I've used and tested personally, not just theory.
When I think about stories in games, I generally divide it up into three types: the railroad, the setup, and improv.
When a GM in a tabletop game forced us to follow their story precisely, we called it "railroading". Most games are like this - a set of rails. Even games where you choose A or B, it's just a switch on the rails. The advantage of rails is that you can craft them really carefully. You can create a story that makes sense, is themed reliably, and is paced reasonably well.
I don't really like that method too much, though, because I'm more interested in watching players invent interesting things.
So most of my tabletop games use a "setup".
A setup is when you create a bunch of situations, characters, and setpieces which work in specific ways, but you let the players figure out how they want to proceed and what they want to do.
If it's a tabletop game, the GM can easily pull in these pieces whenever it seems like a good idea, so even a clumsy or pressured GM can generally come up with something interesting. Since all the pieces are created during downtime, they can be carefully themed and each can have a different kind of thing they want to contribute.
You can do this through world design. In my Amber games, I would design packs of places and characters on flash cards. These would give me concrete things to show the players (he looks like THIS and you are HERE), but it also gave me concrete things to hold onto as a GM. The themes and characteristics were written on the backs of the cards, so I could keep everything straight and plan for a cast which would stress the themes of the setting even as the players were free to adventure on their own.
You can do this through "breadcrumbs". In a kung-fu card game I made, I gave each player three fragments of knowledge - things like "you saw a man with red hair in May". If you fought with someone and won, you could see one of their fragments and, if you put them together, the story unfolded. Although the story itself was prewritten, the way the players engaged with it was completely up to them.
The nature of the game also allowed for a lot of improv, as players naturally attached meaning to their fights. In the end, the players actually banded together to protect the bosses in order to prolong the game long enough to figure out the details of the story.
Even though the backstory was prewritten and the bosses were instructed to behave in specific ways, the players still created their own story.
You can do story setup through "rule weighting". In my Star Wars tabletops, I made light side and dark side considerably more complex than just a point system. There were a number of emotional scales - for example, "humility vs arrogance". If you used an emotion on one side of the scale, you got a boost based on how far along the scale you were, and you had a chance to move further along the scale. Since it required role play of that emotion, this quickly got the players used to role playing emotions. The themes native to Star Wars came through quite clearly as the players moved through the rule set, without any need for me to design a detailed plot at all.
Of course, you should also allow improv, which is when the players (and GM, if one exists) are free to inject their own stories into the world.
The problem with improv is that it's under a lot of time pressure, and the participants are very close to the situation so it's hard to see very far. In general, improv veers off-course too easily, and that can definitely sabotage the game.
The key to enjoyable improv is to keep directing it back into the themes of the setting.
For example, in the Star Wars tabletops I ran, the emotional rules naturally created opportunities to improv. You could improv off of something you did while feeling an emotion, or move from an emotional improv back into the rules of the game really easily. Because the rules created so many opportunities, the improv stayed inspired by the rules, and therefore stayed close to the themes of the game.
Similarly, I had a tabletop board game about psychics, but the players' psychic powers could only be charged by specific kinds of interplayer interaction. For example, doing someone a favor, or getting complimented, or making someone laugh. These are thematic rules which naturally create opportunities for improv while also keeping improv near to the themes of the game.
Another option is to make things a bit more concrete. If you play the card game Fairy Tale, you have a hand full of pieces of fairy tales. A genie in a lamp. A poisoned apple. Imprisoned in a tall tower. The game is improv - everyone tells a piece of the story, with the intent to hit one of their topics and play the card.
In a short game like that, it's enjoyable chaos. But it works fine in longer games as well, if you have more concrete threads. For example, in Nobilis, the players are gods of a given theme and each has their own mystical home. A GM that thinks ahead can make sure the pieces fit together. That is, if any given god starts to use their power, it naturally causes opportunities for the other gods to use their powers or their homes. This kind of resonance makes Nobilis worth playing, especially if you can interpret the domains as being thematically linked.
For example, if you have a god of hunger and a god of beauty, in any situation where one arises, the other can often find a place. Multiply this with three other players, and give each of those players a secondary power in the form of a realm, and now you have a game where the players can play off each other in a very natural, organic way while automatically maintaining the themes of the game.
It's also worth considering that there are multiple kinds of improv, and it's a mistake to have all the players operating on the same "level".
For example, in my kung-fu card game, there were players that really just enjoyed making beautiful kung-fu cards. There's nothing wrong with that at all. It's another kind of improv, and they really fired up the rest of the players. As you might notice, their improv was something that another player could easily grasp and work with.
And that's the key to multiplayer improv: shape it so that the players naturally improv fuel for the other players, all while staying close to the themes of the game.
Anyway, this was fun to revisit. I've written a lot about this stuff in the past, but it was waaaay in the past. I got embarrassed reading my old stuff, so I wrote this. ... very quickly. Sorry about the pacing.