Posted in Tools & Techniques

Frame Narrative in Roleplaying

I just finished playing the demo for Dragon Age II and I found it had an interesting take on storytelling. Gameplay was sometimes cut with scenes of a character, in the future, talking about the hero. It was interesting because a) the storyteller was alluding to events that had yet to unfold, and b) the storyteller sometimes lied. What was cool, though, was that you played those lies and then played the truth. This technique is a kind of frame narrative (a story within a story), and twists on storytelling like this can be interesting in pen and paper roleplaying games too.

Imagine playing (or GMing) your regular campaign and the GM cuts to a scene of a character talking about the PCs’ exploits. This in itself is cool, but what if the character was talking about the PCs and how they ruined his life? What if he considered them to be the villains of the piece? What do other people think of the PCs, in the time and place this flashforward is happening in? The PC don’t know, so it’s a subjective retelling of events. Will the PCs become bad guys, or is this just one man’s opinion? When and where is this happening? Why is he telling this story?

Questions like these will arise for the players and I feel that it would create a sense of intrigue. Cutting back to this character from time to time will let the players discover a few more pieces of the puzzle, showing where they are heading. However, there’s a fine line between alluding to events and railroading. If it’s a one-shot you’re playing, or if your players are comfortable with railroading, it’s not so much of a problem. But this is often not the case.

If you’re describing events that haven’t happened yet in an open-ended interactive story like a roleplaying game, you need to make sure you only allude to what has happened, not citing specifics until the PCs have experienced those events or just before. Imagine the look on your players faces when they successfully negotiate a trade deal with a powerful warlord only to have the GM cut to the future storyteller saying how badly that deal ended. What if they entered a deserted castle only to cut to a flashforward describing an ambush at that location.

As I mentioned, subtly is the key. Have the storyteller talk about how there was a massacre, not which side won and how many survived. Talk about a plan going horribly wrong, but not for who or how. Give the players a little hint at the future but make it vague. It might not be that the storyteller is trying to be vague to their audience; maybe they are many, many years in the future and the storyteller is a great bard telling the legend of the heroes, which would obviously have become embellished over time and with differing perspectives on events.

Every so often throw in something crazy like a pretty clear indication that one of the heroes will die. You can make this a lie from the storyteller, but that’s not a lot of fun. You could end up working with one of the PCs to fake their own death for story reasons, or maybe one of them will happen to die in an unfortunate roll of the dice. Another possibility is that someone else, an NPC, joins them and the storyteller doesn’t differentiate between this person and the PCs when he says that “one of the party was killed”. What if he said, “I can’t believe that the most clever of the group was killed”? Now the players wonder who the cleverest PC is and they probably hope it isn’t theirs!

Separation of player and character knowledge could be a problem with this technique, but even if the characters sort of act on this “knowledge” of the future that they don’t really have, it is vague and not enough to go on. It could even lead towards a self-fulfilling prophecy when they make that trade deal go sour as they needlessly investigate the honest warlord who finds out about their meddling and now distrusts them, ending the deal in bloody combat, thus fulfilling the PCs’ worries that the deal would go poorly.

I’ve seen this technique in media other than Dragon Age II. A similar device is used when your character dies in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the prince says things like “Wait… no, that’s not how it happened” and it jumps back to before you died. I think the Witcher 2 does something very similar to Dragon Age II, judging from one of the trailers. How I Met Your Mother is another great example of frame narrative. We know certain things about the future of the story, but not how events lead up to that future. It’s a powerful technique and if pulled off correctly, it could really add something to a campaign.

I actually used this technique once as a short side adventure. The PCs arrived in a ruined and devastated town finding only one resident alive. They asked him what had happened and he started with something like “It all started three days ago…”. I then handed the players some character sheets and they played some lowly commoners in this flashback. They knew that something bad was going to happen in the next few days and that they were going to not be present after those events. It was an exciting way to start off the short adventure and in the end the players had great fun being part of the havoc that destroyed the town.

If you do try this technique, I’d recommend a one-shot or a side-trek so that if it doesn’t work out you haven’t lost anything really and you can just keep going. And if your players like it you can bring it back as a recurring event in your ongoing campaign.