ST 257: Maintaining Continuity in Your Game

We’ve all seen it happen: a movie clearly shows our plucky hero’s rear windshield being shot out by the evil henchmen, but when he arrives at the home of his romantic interest, the glass is pristine. Most of the time, we don’t really notice this happening all that much. But, occasionally, this creates a moment where we say “hey, wait a second.” Suddenly, all of our suspension of disbelief is destroyed by something practically inconsequential. If it’s glaring, it can ruin the entire story, all because a director missed a tiny detail while shooting sequences out of order. By the time somebody spots the problem, there’s a debate of whether or not it’s worth it to re-shoot the entire scene.

In our role-playing games, these sorts of continuity errors are more glaring, and as a result, create a bigger break in suspension of disbelief. And, what’s worse, they’re terrifyingly simple mistakes to make. Between a staff of multiple storytellers and some on-the-spot decisions, a continuity error can derail a night of gaming in a heartbeat. Suddenly, a scene planned to run the course of fifteen or twenty minutes winds up occupying the rest of the night with a storyteller who seems to know less about a scene than the players involved in it do. In the end, the storyteller is frazzled and the players are frustrated.

The good news is that there are ways to fight this seeming eventuality.

How To Story Bible

When writers start putting together stories—particularly very complicated stories with a lot of things happening behind the scenes—they keep track of ever-changing details in what’s sometimes called a “story bible.” The purpose of this is so that they can glance through and check details of a particular character or location before showing them again. And if something about those things changes during the course of the story, they update their notes. This is even more critical for an environment where there are multiple storytellers who all need to keep their collective story straight.

A storyteller can implement this by keeping simple notes on their locations and their NPC’s. This should be shared among all of the storytellers, so that each can refer to and update details regarding the game. Make sure that these updates are concise so that they’re easy to remember, but try to avoid removing older notes. It helps to know what about a character or location has changed in the past. If any of these changes are major enough so that a new character would notice them right away, then these are also things you’ll want to keep updated in your VSS (See: ST 223: Reviewing and Updating a VSS). That way, they’re readily visible to any player reading up on what they should expect from your game.

The perfect time to update these notes is either the night of the game or the day after. Too long, and those little details begin to fade from memory. Again, the key idea here is to be concise. Paragraphs of an NPC’s introspection regarding the reasons why they have a grudge against John Q. Character are unnecessary when one or two sentences—”NPC wants to severely inconvenience J.Q. Character for calling his mother ‘a mewling quim'”—will do just fine. Saying too much about it only makes it harder to remember and longer to read.

When tracking emails, downtime reports and proxies, it helps to have an ST mailbox with set labels for each character. This can be passed on to another ST when there is a change in the position as well, making the transition smoother.

Storyteller Communication

Of course, in order to make all of this work, regular and clear updates are necessary. Multiple storytellers who are each running their own plots within a single game need to actively communicate with one another to make sure that they’re not contradicting each other’s details. One way they can accomplish this is to make sure that there’s a healthy bit of margin between the active plots.

Sometimes, this sort of crossover is unavoidable. After all, the one story element common to any large plot happening in a game is the characters who are involved. But the story elements that remain under the storytellers’ control must be carefully maintained. Any time there’s obvious crossover, storytellers should make sure that they’ve adequately compared their notes so that their depictions are consistent with each other. Keep track of active story elements by addressing them in meetings, and any time there’s going to be any crossover during the same game session, have a quick pre-game meeting to make sure all of your storytellers are on the same page.

This sort of crossover can also be a powerful and intentional application of story. Having two assistant storytellers build plots that have common elements can point the characters towards a larger, slower, much more subtle plot arc being run by a higher storyteller. This sort of discovery on the part of the characters can be very satisfying, both on the part of the characters for having drawn the connections and for the storytellers who managed to cooperate enough to make it happen.

Implied Detail

The human eye has a blind spot, but we rarely notice it’s there; that’s because our brains use a combination of memory and visible surroundings to fill in the gaps. And that’s not the only place where we make unconscious assumptions. It’s a survival technique we’ve developed over the ages, so that we can make quick assessments of potentially life-or-death situations. We as storytellers can embrace this instinct through the use of implied detail.

Consider a dark abandoned warehouse. It’s a staple of our storytelling genre: mysterious, ominous, yet conveniently obscured. The mere mention of this setting creates quite a few implied details. When you envision it, you can almost see the high-bay racks, truck docks, huge ventilation fans, and maybe even a derelict pallet or two. The storyteller trick here is that any detail which is inconsequential to the story can be implied. The details aren’t only implied to the players, they’re implied to other storytellers as well.

Any detail you don’t explicitly mention doesn’t have to be recorded in your story bible. Using implied detail not only helps build a consistent environment, but makes it so that you don’t have to keep track of each and every little thing. On the other hand, if you specifically call out a detail, you’re going to invoke a storytelling principle called “Chekhov’s Gun.” The principle states that if a gun sits over the mantle, it’s eventually going to be fired. So, if you go around calling out details, they’d better come up later.

This works in reverse. If you intend to have your NPC suddenly reveal their hidden ninja skills later in the course of your story, somebody should probably mention that the guy has a sword or maybe a few kanji banners hanging on his wall. This is the sort of detail which has bearing on your story, and should be mentioned in the story bible on this particular NPC. Feel free to gloss over the details that don’t really matter, but make sure the ones that do are clear, present, and consistent.

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Eventually, even the best storytellers are going to make a continuity error. The trick to handling this is to keep focus on the story at hand and not let an inconsistent detail or two completely derail things. Suppose our ninja-NPC drops out of the blackness to sneak-attack characters with his prized family sword.

“But I stole that sword,” a player says, holding up an item card. A hundred things can cross your mind in that moment, and the longer it takes you to recover from it, the more upsetting the problem is. But the important detail isn’t that it was the family sword, it’s the fact that there’s a black-masked NPC there to julienne a bunch of characters.

“How naive for you to think that there was only one!” you say, making a mental note to update the NPC after you finish running the scene, and then remind the ST that ran the NPC last time to update the story bible. Instantly, you’re back on track, and the players are going to be too worried about the human blender set to puree to get hung up on the missed detail.

Hopefully, when this happens to you, you’ll be armed with a story bible which has been faithfully updated by all of your storytellers. You’ll have some room to shoot from the hip because you have a healthy margin between concurrent plots and you’re careful not to call attention to inconsequential details. In the end, maintaining continuity is a vital element to a providing a truly engrossing and enjoyable game.