Narrative Snippets: Parsimony
[This is part of the ongoing series on narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. These short articles (which are republished from our wiki) deal with keeping things simple and doing a lot with a little.]
You can easily create new qualities for your world. It’s just a few clicks. But should you? Often, you shouldn’t. The best of all worlds is to keep the number of qualities low, and get a lot from each of them. That way both you and your players have an easier time of keeping track of things.
Sometimes you can only use a quality for one thing. If your quality controls progress along a particular story, you can’t much use it for other things. But you might have a quality that increases when you fail at various challenges across your whole world (like Nightmares in Fallen London) or a resource that can be picked up in many places and spent in just as many. Or a quality that recognises when the character has been thoughtful or ruthless. A small number of qualities can go a long way
So, your supernatural underworld game is going great. Characters have an Origin quality, a Power Source quality, an Allegiance quality and a Nationality quality. You’ve spent a fortnight on the Scottish Criminal Mutant Werewolf content, and now you’re on to the Russian Criminal Mutant Werewolf content…
This is madness. This is one of the ways in which combinatorial explosion can creep in. Qualities necessarily control which parts of the content a character can see. That’s their job. But if you structure your world so that each bit of content can only be seen by a character with a specific arrangement of a large number of qualities, you’ll be writing that world forever. You’ll never get it finished and you’ll probably just give up.
So don’t do that. Make sure that most of the characters can see most of the content. The structure to adopt is that of a river rather than a tree. So, characters don’t each have to see all the same content, but they’re all basically going the same way and will most likely see most of it. You want any one character to see 90% of your content, not 50% or 10%.
Fires in the desert
This is Failbetter’s term for using underspecified narratives for effect. The idea is that the storylets a creator writes are the fires. But the paths between those stories are dark – they’re the player’s own.
What we mean by this is that you should let players fill in the blanks between your stories. If your story says ‘I was away for two weeks, and when I returned, I saw…’, there’s no need to specify what the character was doing in the time away. If they’re engaged, the player will most likely fill in the details with something that makes sense to them. Or if you describe a character saying, ‘Haven’t we met before?’ the player might mentally fill in whether that character is remembering correctly or mistaken. So, there’s no need to fill in every detail. The player’s imagination is your ally.