Designing Tension in Cyberpunk RED

Tales of the RED: Street Stories Cover Art

Heya choombas!

Wanted to share that my Cyberpunk RED adventures are titled “Bathed in RED” and “One RED Night.” While their stories can be told separately, I wrote them as two distinct parts of a larger narrative included in Tales of the RED: Street Stories.

One of the reasons why I wanted to write for Cyberpunk RED, is because I was keen on exploring narrative tension in Night City as you moved from scene to scene. My approach to introducing that tension is through the introduction of hard choices to shape your story and advance the plot. If you were reading a novel or comic book, those choices would be made by the protagonists. In a game, however, you are the protagonists actively contributing to the narrative fulfilling your own motivations and your group’s goals. Ultimately, it’s not my decision what happens next. It’s yours. My job is to present those gut-wrenching decisions that help you feel vested in the game.

I love presenting difficult choices, because they’re a great way to add depth to your story. To make them emotionally-compelling, I took the project’s guidelines to heart and made these choices personal. Smart technology, cool locations, even corporations aren’t enough of a story hook. They’re just props to interact with and cool set designs. What makes a story personal, are the characters you interact with during the game. In Cyberpunk RED, there are compelling challenges like that computer virus designed to wipe out your data. What I consider is who designed that virus and why they’re targeting you. Same thing with corporations, too. After all, a “greedy conglomerate” isn’t as interesting as a CEO who decides to cut your salary to give themselves a bigger bonus.

Characters also give you ways to interact with the story, learn more about the setting, and provide clues. That said, I didn’t design them according to their plot delivery function, because that wasn’t interesting enough to me. Instead, I prioritized “who” they were and “where” they were from before I worried about the plot. This approach allowed me to revel in what I enjoy writing—worldbuilding and characterization—even though I had some rules already in mind.

Though I had the basic idea for a mystery plot in the outline phase, I didn’t figure out the specifics right away. My breakthrough happened after I finished my first draft of both adventures. Oh, I remember that eureka moment very, very clearly—and not only because I had a wonderful Ah-hah! feeling. I was having so much fun writing in Night City, every character and cinematic scene I imagined flowed together as if I was watching a movie. I could even imagine this exact plot in a video game. That visualization is the moment I knew this story was cohesive and filled with jaw-dropping moments.

I’m extremely lucky to write for Cyberpunk RED, because Tales of the RED: Street Stories allowed me to explore new-and-existing aspects of Night City and its people. That said, this two-part story scales more toward cyberpunk thriller with horror elements than a straight-up adventure.

If you’re keen on learning more about game design so you can write your own adventures, I encourage you to sign up for my upcoming campaign planning class.

Thank you for listening!

[New Releases] Article, Cyberpunk RED supplement, and Class for GMs!

Tales of the RED: Street Stories Cover Art

Hello, hello!

Huge update today, so let me dive right in to a fancy-pants bulleted list. That’s right, dear reader. You get FIVE FANTASTIC THINGS.

  1. Thank You! Rickshaw Bags is awesome. I ordered some masks and was surprised with a quality pen case as a free gift. Now my pen stays warm and I’m less likely to lose it. Oh.
  2. Crunch is Cancelled. Crunch should be part of the discussion when we’re talking about the future of work. I write about crunch for Talenthouse’s Media Foundry.
  3. Ia! Ia! Okay, do you want a fun distraction? Think NeoPets but 8-bit Cthulhu Virtual. Cthulhu Pets 2 is out now!
  4. Sharpen your Campaigns. I’m teaching DMs how to plan a tabletop game on Saturday, August 20th. Scholarships and sign-ups are available through Academy Rambo! Yaaaay!
  5. Is your Cyberpunk RED? R Talsorian Games has posted a series of previews for Tales of the RED: Night City Stories. Read my Tales of the RED Twitter thread for previews!

Tales of the RED: Night City Stories is out in the world! You can get a copy from your friendly local game store or you can pick up a digital edition from DriveThruRPG.com.



Join me for SIRENS: Battle of the Bards on Kickstarter — FUNDED!

SIRENS: Battle of the Bards

Friends, I am so pleased to announce I’m writing for SIRENS: Battle of the Bards, a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign setting, featuring a stellar team of authors. I’ve been having so much fun I handed in my drafts a month ahead of schedule!

Do you love art? Satine Phoenix? Music? INTRIGUE? REBELLION? Then, the city of Salvata has something for you! I warmly invite you to check out SIRENS: Battle of the Bards on Kickstarter (which has already funded) and join Apotheosis Studios to celebrate this gorgeous game setting with fantastic art, music, prose — and so much more. Huzzah!

My 2019 List of Publications

Hello everyone! 2019 was quite the interesting year. Instead of waxing poetically about it for hours on end, I am summing it up with an image of a big fish. Said fish has eaten several other fishes, and is currently being skewered in the gut by a fisherman, whilst other fishermen, who are mere peasants enjoying the spoils of their own efforts, witness said undertaking in their tiny boat. The illustration is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and is literally called “Big Fishes Eat Little Fishes” (1556).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder | Big Fish Eat Little Fishes | 1556 C.E.

My list of publications is short this year. I published two stories, one of which included the backdrop for a solo card game–super fun! Plus, a fun character for charity-related purposes. Had a blast overall, especially with A. Happy Gnome!

Stories

“Arrows, Blood, and a Long Overdue Cat Nap”, TALES OF EXCELLENT CATS for Monarchies of Mau, 2019, Onyx Path Publishing/Pugsteady

“Only the Strongest has the Heart of a Wizened Queen”, PROVING GROUNDS card game, 2019, Renegade Games

Games

A HAPPY GNOME for ExtraLife Charity, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, 2019, DMsGuild.com

Thus far, it does look like I’ll be light on announcements through the end of 2020 as the calendar winds down. More news as winter ripens. Hope you had a fantastic year! And, if you didn’t, I hope you’ve retained your inner fire. We’ll all need it to get through the elections.

What I Mean When I Say 3-D Character Design

Yuna Final Fantasy X-2

Assume that the first 5,000 words of this post is a treatise on the use of propaganda to make it socially acceptable to attack opponents and commit horrific acts throughout history. I want to write it, but I have work to do and I’m grumpy(1)(2).

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t blogged about designing games or writing stories for a bit, and that’s something I definitely want to sprinkle in here and there. Often, the challenge for me is that I have my own lexicon(3) for creative elements. For example, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” with the fiery passion of a thousand red suns, because I feel those terms devalue both the necessary work that systems designers do and the talented efforts of setting designers. Instead, I call the systems the “engine” for a game, because that’s what makes a game go. The setting, then, is the “vehicle”. Combined, they make a game filled with passengers (e.g. the characters). Without the engine or the vehicle, you don’t have a game. You have a pile of rules or you have a bunch of descriptions. You definitely need both to play.

What about those passengers, though? Well, circling back to my goal to define what I mean when I say “3-D character design”, I envision all game’s characters to be a personality that lifts right off the page. Player-characters aren’t photographs, because they’re not static. They’re active, and their stories are shaped by a player sitting at the table. In many games, I also like to envision the GM’s characters to be the same way, because that offers more potential for conflict and interactions. Thus, three-dimensional characters are more life-like than 2D; they are full of desires, fears, and quirks–just like the people filling their shoes.

I’m of the mind that three-dimensional character portrayals actively support a better play experience(4), because we–the designers–are presenting characters for two reasons. First, the characters are there for the GM to narrate. The more characters there are, the easier it is to portray them as photographs because they’re elements needed to build a narrative. But, even tweaking those characters just a little bit makes them more fun to interact with and more emotionally compelling to rescue, fight, investigate, chase, etc.

Second, the characters we present are not only necessary for the players, they also underline the play experience; you typically can’t have a game without characters (or roles) of some sort unless it’s intentionally designed not to have them. Character depictions are also a strong indicator of what that vehicle (e.g. setting) is like for the game, and when these portrayals are flat it sends a strong message to the players at the table.

For example, many players internalize they are not welcome in a game if the art and text doesn’t not include their identities, because they don’t feel a connection and can’t see themselves playing the game. This happens on both a subconscious and conscious level, and it is tied to one of the reasons why people buy games in the first place. To have fun, people need to feel vested in a game, and that investment depends on any number of factors. I’ve found that one of the best and surest ways to increase a player’s interest, is to focus on three-dimensional characters that many different types of players would be attracted to.

Three-dimensional characters do take some work to create, but I personally feel having this as a design goal makes us better designers and writers. The identity portion of that is part and parcel to ensuring characters are handled appropriately, and to that end I’m teaching a class called Writing the Other: Writing RPGs Sans Fail with K. Tempest Bradford. Outside of the discussions to sensitively portraying different identities, there are tons of techniques you can employ to zero in on making better characters.

Now that I’ve defined what three-dimensional characters are, I’ll address tips for designing them in a later post.

(1) Politics and winter. I have a great life, but nothing sends me into a rage faster than attacking women’s rights and seeing a bunch of dudes be smug about it. And winter, because this season has been way too long for sure!

(2) Broke my pledge to check in less, but I’m glad I got that out of my system now.

(3) It has always been this way, ever since I was very little.

(4) The same is true in fiction. Flat characters are boring to read!



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