by Lisa Norman
A few years back, I found an online streaming group called the Streampunks. Much like the folks at Critical Role, these are a group of friends broadcasting their role-playing games live in real time (also available via replay on YouTube). This form of collaborative storytelling fascinated me immediately.
Imagine writing in front of a crowd and keeping the action moving. Imagine a writer improvising in front of an audience. Now imagine that the main characters are all actors with their own agency and agendas, assistant storytellers who occasionally go rogue, all in the name of creating a more interesting story. Eric Campbell, Game Master (GM) for the Streampunks, is a stunning storyteller.
Why did I fall in love with the Streampunks instead of Critical Role? It was all about the genre they played in. Mostly science fiction with the occasional cyberpunk story. They told stories I couldn't resist.
Each season, they pick a game setting to play in and create a world for the story. Often these are niche fandoms like Dr. Who and Star Trek. They know exactly what their fans love, and they create in these spaces.
Each game has a set of rules. Story mechanics like talents, weaknesses, superpowers, and, in some ways, pacing are driven by the rules and processes designed by game designers.
Does magic exist?
What is the cost of using a superpower?
They set and clarify the rules at the beginning of each game. Some games have elaborate rule books. When I hear writers talk about a story bible, I think about how visually beautiful some of these rule books are.
It is not unheard of for the game to stop, the actors to pull out the rule books, and then for our GM to decide how those rules will drive the story. Example: Yes, your character can fly, but you’re in space and you can’t breathe there. Also, you are floating. So unless you put on a space suit, you’re not going anywhere.
Each of the players creates a character at the beginning of the season. The GM also creates several random extra non-player characters (NPCs) that he can pull out as needed. Some of these will be villains, mighty opponents that they must defeat.
One of my favorite things about Eric’s extra characters is the diversity and respect he puts into even the most minor of characters. His villains are so nuanced that both the audience and some of the actors have become enamored with them. One of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen was after two deeply damaged characters were defeated, the crew then rescued them and rehabilitated them. They became heroes in their own side stories with depth and joy.
Each character has strengths and weaknesses, superpowers and fatal flaws. They are careful that no character is so over-powered (OP) they'll steal the story.
Each individual player has a list of things they will not do. Some like in-game romance. Some want to avoid it. Some have had traumatic events in real life (IRL) that they don’t want to explore in a game.
The storyteller (GM) moderates and protects the players to avoid putting those actors in those scenarios. Occasionally if a scene will have an issue, he’ll offer a trigger warning and protect the actors who have that trigger. (Cover your ears until I tell you it’s safe again!)
Everything else is fair game. Pushing the characters to deal with life situations that are challenging is considered game enhancing. It is beyond cathartic for the actors and for the audience.
Watching them deal with real emotions in the game world enhances the audience's involvement.
You see, these games are played with a live audience texting the characters and chatting throughout the entire game. More on that in a moment.
As one of the main characters once said, "Always do the bad thing." If there is a way to make the story more dire, a way to raise the stakes, that is the way that actor will choose to go. Why? Because it makes for much more interesting stories!
These games are played with dice and allow characters to make decisions the GM doesn't plan on ahead of time.
One time our intrepid GM accidentally killed a main character. The audience panicked. The other characters freaked out. We had to wait a week for the next episode to see if they could resuscitate her. That entire week, social media for the group was boiling with ideas.
Another time, the group rolled so high trying something silly that they succeeded. Suddenly, the entire plot of the story had to change. I think it is a mark of a pro that the GM took a breath and laughed it off. And then created a new plot spontaneously. And made it look easy.
Sometimes my characters go off the rails, too. But there's no space for writer’s block when hundreds of fans are waiting to see what you do next.
Which brings me back to that audience and something I think writers miss out on too often. These games are played with the audience in a live chat room.
The audience tries to guess what each character will do next. They talk about the emotions that come up. And they'll often be huddled together (virtually) hanging on every word, in fear for their favorite characters. Our storytellers have instant feedback from the fans.
Fans of the Streampunks call themselves the Aux Crew and are occasionally written into the stories. Those of us who pay money (Patreon subscribers) can create our own character and the GM may include them as an NPC to provide ambiance. Fans can also invest money to request special scenes. One time they included a requested wedding in the story to delight the audience.
There is nothing like the joy of a fan squealing "That's me!" in the chat. A lot of people give money to keep the Streampunks on the air. And we won't even talk about the $11 million that Critical Role raised in a Kickstarter.
These fans are literally invested.
Why are people so involved? Because the stories are packed with emotions. Powerful, heartwarming, visceral emotions that bring the stories and characters to life.
Fans care deeply about these characters and their life experiences. Often the fans write fan fiction or draw fan art and share them on social media. The actors and the GM will comment, share them around, and bring attention to these beautiful creations.
They even have a special area where fans can tell their own collaborative stories in their worlds whenever they want.
Feelings power these interactions.
Feelings in the stories, and the feelings that the characters and the fans share.
Eric Campbell is known for his masterful Campbell Cliffhangers. As it gets to be time for the session to end, chat gets nervous. Surely, he won’t do it to us again. The story arc is almost complete, right? But then he'll improvise the most amazing cliffhangers. I’m not talking about cliffhangers that feel fake or tacked on. They feel like this was the point the story was building to all along.
But now we must wait a week to find out what will happen! Argh! There will be panic in chat.
And then we'll head over to social media and private forums to debate what comes next.
As writers, I think we can learn a lot from these folks.
Have you ever played an RPG (role playing game)? Have you watched someone improvise a story like this in front of an audience? What can we as writers learn from this transmedia example? Do you think writers can find this same connection with their true fans? How?
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Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
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Gif animation of Aliza Pearl from the Streampunks.
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