Story Sparks — A Way To Improv Better
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1135
Ever make a fire from scratch, without matches or gasoline?
Every material has an ignition temperature where a spark lights it up.
The shirt you’re wearing probably ignites around 267°C or 513°F.
Wood is about 300°C / 572°F.
And what about our encounters? What ignites them? More on that in a sec.
To start a fire from scratch, you need two things.
First is material that ignites at the lowest possible temperature.
Thin wood shavings and paper-like bark work great. They need less heat before they autoignite.
Second is a source of heat.
Grab a piece of wood and a stick. Rub the stick with your hands so it twists very fast, like you’re trying to drill into the wood.
At point of contact there, the faster the stick point twists back and forth against the wood, the higher temperature you achieve.
You eventually get temperature up to the point where a spark appears to ignite your combustable material.
Then comes the critical step.
You blow on the spark and fan it so it gets hotter, spreads, and causes flames to erupt.
But you can’t blow too hard or the spark dies.
And blow too little or from too far away, and the heat dissipates and your spark winks out.
The Agile Game Master understands this dynamic.
They use it to create great gameplay out of tiny moments.
Rub two game elements together to generate heat.
Get enough heat to produce a Story Spark.
Fan the Story Spark just enough until flame appears and your gameplay bonfire erupts.
Now we’re cooking!
Three Steps to Cooking Encounters
So how do we do this?
It’s not something we can entirely control. We can bring the ingredients together. But players are one such critical element, and we don’t control them.
It’s not something we want to leave to chance, either. We want to produce many such awesome gaming moments.
So we must follow three steps to accomplish this:
- Gather Materials
- Spot a Story Spark
- Increase the Heat
Our strategy here is to create more situations. We create the potential for a bonfire — a killer story moment — over and over again.
And when we see things heating up, we double down. We wait until we see a Story Spark, and then we work it and work it until we have our bonfire.
This is much easier and far less stressful than trying to make everything a big story. We force the game too much and suffer.
It’s far better to play the Infinite Game and set numerous scenes — which is in our control — and then pounce when we spot a Story Spark.
A flame needs fuel. For our Story Sparks we need the fuel of characters, challenges, and rewards.
Characters with personality, motivations, and a bit of backstory or setting context give you more material to work with, but these things aren’t essential.
Challenges from foes, dilemmas, and physical obstacles.
Rewards as treasure, plot progression, and character development.
Essentially, the stuff we use to make encounters.
And that’s part of our strategy.
If we have one encounter in a session, chances of a spark appearing are low. It’s pure luck at this point.
But with Agile GMing, Faster Combat, Missions, and other approaches, we get more encounters out of a session. And therefore more chances at Story Sparks happening.
We won’t produce much heat without conflicts and stakes. So aim to have more great encounters per session as your goal.
Spot a Story Spark
With encounters firing, we wait.
Gameplay proceeds as normal.
Your plot progresses, regresses, and recesses.
And we keep our GM spidey senses open, questing for Story Sparks.
By Story Spark, I mean a side plot, an encounter plot, or even just a round or turn plot.
We’re not talking your main campaign or adventure arc. We’re much more deliberate about those things.
Rather, we look for micro-stories, as I think of them, that we can tell many times a session.
It’s telling these micro-stories that takes your storytelling to a new level.
Imagine a combat. PCs win.
Then a puzzle. Players solve it.
Then a dilemma. Players make a decision.
Not much drama there.
What’s missing is story. What’s the meaning of the encounter to players? What’s entertaining to the group? What’s valuable to the characters?
If we can turn regular gameplay, where big (macro) stories matter more at a session level, into cool micro-stories that infuse gameplay at the encounter level, then we’re injecting a lot more fun into each moment.
Consider it like a form of density. Story density. We want more of that each session, each hour, each minute.
So we gather our materials, see what happens, and observe gameplay for Story Sparks.
Increase the Heat
Good news is this is a skill. We can learn it, get better at it, and master it.
Soon you’ll be spotting Story Sparks all the time.
Great interviewers have this skill. Think of your favourite podcasts that have guest formats.
The host chats up their guests with small talk. But then the guest reveals something, perhaps in answer to a question, and the interviewer seizes upon that and runs with it.
The host asks questions, goes deeper, establishes characters, context, and timeline. And they turn something small — a spark — into a really cool story.
We’re doing the exact same thing here.
Here’s a perfect example from last night’s Terror in the Badlands game. Alas, I’d rate myself a 5/10 on execution. But I’ll aim to do better next time.
We start the session teasing the cleric. Party members are constantly dropping in combats. But healing is sometimes tough to come by. So we tease the cleric’s player.
Then a Stage Boss battle erupts. It’s save the world from the white dragon and its 40 kobold followers.
The PCs start losing. The rogue dies from dragon breath. Then the warlock goes down. Followed by fighter, druid, and monk.
I tell the players that the dragon is sorely wounded. Whoever hits next wins.
The dragon looks around and spots the cleric. The cleric plays dead. Rolls a 21 Perform check. The dragon shambles away, taking two PCs with it for a later meal.
The cleric then jumps up and attacks the dragon.
The dragon falls. And the party cheers.
From bum to hero in one encounter. What a great story.
When the cleric got teased about his healing prowess, I saw a spark. I joined in the teasing and kept the heat up.
Luck was with me. But luck was just one factor. Other factors:
- The dragon targeted other PCs first most of the time
- The call for a Performance check was a GM decision
- Rolls were all made in the open, but the dragon’s tactics and decisions were all intentional
There’s no guarantee a Story Spark you spot will work out. That’s part of the fun!
But moment to moment, any story you’ve got going that’s relevant right now, will enhance gameplay.
So when you spot a Story Spark, start asking what you can do to increase the heat:
- Spotlight the object of the story
- Orient challenges to the story
- Have NPCs interact with and affect the story
- Bring awareness of the story-in-progress with your descriptions
Call attention to your Story Spark so your group spots it too.
Then build gameplay up around it so the heat rises and rises until flames ignite.
Spark Your Stories
Stories can last moments, such as during some roleplay with the bartender, or longer with the possibility of turning into full side plots.
The more imminent and relevant a story, the more its presence gets felt.
Spark your stories so you always have a few going following different spans of time.
Keep the short ones coming for great gameplay right now. Keep the longer ones going to provide bigger contexts and epic moments.
Try to trigger more encounters per session so you get more gameplay to increase the chances of a Story Spark flashing.
Learn to spot sparks and agitate and fan them until things become hot enough to burn. Then get your hotdogs and marshmallows out and enjoy the bonfire.