14 January 2016

Storytelling with Dice

…Or, Stupid Dice Tricks

The following is a long-long post about how I roll dice to come up with stories.  There may be some good ideas buried somewhere in here but you'll have to wade through my philosophizing.  Here goes...

What are role-playing games if not story-telling?  I think that's why I always loved being the GM; directing the game meant I was weaving the story.  I haven't played an RPG proper in nearly two decades but I have tried a couple of solo-RPG game master emulator products, such as the Mythic GME and the Conjectural Roleplaying Gamemaster Emulator (CRGE).

The Mythic GME was my gateway-drug into the world of solo-RPGing and works pretty well.  The creator of the CRGE made a few revolutionary observations in designing his game however.  First, he approached the whole GM-emulation thing as formal story-telling, i.e. using the three act structure.  Second, and far more important, CRGE ditches the whole assign-a-likelihood aspect of Mythic.  The author of CRGE believes that if the unresolved story question isn't truly at chance odds (50/50) then the story-teller already knows the answer without consulting dice.  I agree and that's the one thing I've taken from the CRGE for my own story-dice methods.

Speaking of story-dice, this is how I do it.  For most of my homebrew games I use a "rank-order" system meaning I roll a bunch of dice simultaneously and then order them in ascending order with the lowest die score being rank ONE.  In order to not confuse the rank order of a die with the individual die score, I will put spell out the rank in bold italics and highlighted blue, like in the previous sentence.  Rank ordering allows one to manipulate the probabilities without having to reference a bunch of charts and add/subtract modifiers.

OK, so back to story-dice.  Let's assume I have a premise for my story and it's going somewhere but I come to a logical fork-in-the-road and the story can go either way.  I'll roll 5d6 for any questions in each act in the story and rank order the five dice, using only one result, the Rank THREE die score.  What does that do for me?  Well, it ensures the results tend to cluster around the central die scores.  In fact, here are the rank ordered results from five million (simulated) 5d6 rolls.  As you can see, using Rank THREE gives a nice symmetrical curve with about 58% of the results clustered around the central two die scores.

Die Score
Number of Occurrences (by Rank Order)

…that last number is 117.  Unfortunately the Blogger formatting is not cooperating.

I translate the die score into an answer to my question.  Exactly what each die score means depends on where I'm at in the story.  If I'm still defining the story and the protagonist, the conflict, and the (apparent) path to resolution of the conflict have not all been discovered yet, then the following scale is used (sorry for the wonky alignments; again with the unpredictable Blogger formatting):

Die ScoreAnswer

6Yes, But…
5Yes, And…
2No, And…
1No, But…

If the protagonist, the conflict, and the (apparent) path to resolution are all defined and now the protagonist is facing obstacles on this path to resolution, I'll use this scale.

Die Score Answer

6 Yes, And…
5 Yes, But…
4 Yes
3 No
2 No, But…
1 No, And…

If the story gets into a "war-gamey"/RPG type situation, such as where two characters are opposing each other and perhaps each have different applicable skills, then I'll use this scale:

Die ScoreAnswer

6Yes, And…
4Yes, But…
3No, But…
1No, And…

What about twists?  Well, whenever I throw 5d6 to resolve a question, I ensure three of the dice are one color (usually white) and the remaining two dice share another darker color.  If the darker dice are both same number on a roll, then this indicates a story twist.  The original question can still be resolved normally regardless if the dark dice come up doubles but with an unexpected turn.

If a twist is indicated, I roll 5d6 and rank order them again.  Only one die score is used again but the rank order is not automatically Rank THREE as when answering a question.  Instead, at the beginning of each story segment, the "twist-rank" starts at Rank FIVE  and decreases as the segment progresses.  I track the Twist-Rank with a different color/size/type die.  This ensures a lot of loose ends get generated at the beginning which hopefully point toward a coherent story as the segment continues.  The following table explains how to read the die score if a twist roll is made:

Die Score   Result

6                 Fade Out
5                 Suddenly! (New Character[s])
4                 Suddenly! (New Character[s])
3                 Suddenly! (Conflict)
2                 Suddenly! (Existing Character[s])
1                 Back to Our Story

Here's what these mean…

Fade Out: Immediately decrease the Twist Rank by one (minimum Rank ONE).  The current scene is suspended and a new one is started.  This new scene is either concurrent (Meanwhile…) or in the past (Flashback!).  Another 5d6 roll on a new table is necessary to determine the new scene type (see below).

Suddenly!: Immediately decrease the Twist Rank by one (minimum Rank ONE).  Something immediately changes or is revealed in the scene and the focus of the change/revelation is indicated in the parenthesis.  

Back to Our Story:  The Twist-Rank remains the same.  No changes otherwise affect the scene and the story can continue to progress.

So at the beginning of the story segment the tale will likely go spinning off into flashbacks or concurrent actions happening elsewhere.  Then, as the story progresses new characters will likely be introduced.  Then details of the conflict and existing characters are revealed by the twists.  Finally, everything should calm down to allow the story-teller to wrap the story segment up to a logical conclusion.

I mentioned the Fade Out result required another 5d6 roll.  This roll uses the Twist-Rank as well; here's how I define the results of that roll. 

Die Score   Result

6                 Meanwhile...
5                 Flashback!
4                 Meanwhile...
3                 Meanwhile...
2                 Flashback!
1                 Meanwhile…

As a side-note, once the story goes into an alternate scene (Fade Out result on a twist roll), it stays in that scene until returning to the Main Story.  There are two differences however.  First, when in an alternate scene, the Twist-Rank is always Rank FIVE.  Second, if a Fade Out result is scored when making a twist roll in the alternate scene, the narrative immediately returns to the Main Story.  This makes these alternate scenes short, chaotic scenes which serve to amplify the main story and not supplant it.

OK, so there are alternate scenes and changes to scenes with the twist rolls.  In order to spur my mind into a direction that explains these plot-twists, I use random words.  Originally I used the 200 or so random words that came with the Mythic GME.  Recently however I have created an Excel VBA file that generates a list of about 100 words from a list of the 35,000 most common English words.  I've set up the file to allow me to reject words that are useless (proper names, abbreviations, "the", "a", etc.) and the macro will then eliminate that word from future consideration.