Beating the Story is my new book of practical storytelling techniques, now on pre-order from its publisher, Gameplaywright. It provides a system allowing you to, as its subtitle says, map, understand, and elevate any narrative. This approach breaks moments down into key types, the most important being dramatic beats of personal interaction and procedural beats in which characters overcome external obstacles. It lets you mark the flow of information with other beat types: pipe, question, and reveal. The system also encourages you to note the presence of oddball flourish beats, like strong spices, register most satisfyingly when used sparingly: commentary, bringdown, gratification, and anticipation.
(You may be familiar with these concepts from Hamlet’s Hit Points, which gears itself to the needs of roleplaying GMs and designers.)
Thanks to convenient timing, I happen to be working on a novel that I developed using the system shown in Beating the Story just as we are making the book available for pre-orders. This gives me the chance to discuss the translation of its tools and principles to an actual writing process.
The novel, called The Missing and the Lost, is part of the initial release of books for Pelgrane Press’ The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. We crowdfunded the project through a Kickstarter last summer and remain on track for our December 2018 release date. The novel features a character who first appeared in a short story in my original fiction collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign.
The first draft isn’t done yet, so it’s way too early to be giving away anything that might be construed as a spoiler. For both the examples given here and the above sample illustration, I’m either changing details or talking about them vaguely.
I’m now two-thirds of the way through the initial draft, give or take. At present the story map, as created on storybeats.io, consists of 159 beats. Twelve of them appear in the illustration here.
It also allows you to test the power and appropriateness of your shifts between scenes with transition icons, each with its own impact on pacing.
For this project I’ve been using the beat map as my only outline. This choice has given me the structure required for a genre novel in which several parallel threads eventually converge, and the flexibility to easily improve the interweaving while I write.
The graphic presentation, abetted by the ease of moving elements around with the storybeats.io tool, has enabled me to keep the various threads of the multi-threaded storyline active over the course of the narrative.
The map excerpt here shows the novel’s opening. The icons tell me that I’m hitting my desired mix of emotional and problem-solving moments.
This first-person novel follows a single viewpoint character throughout. The domino effect of scenes tumbling out of one another has yet to kick in, so the smaller transition icons you see are all Continuations—shifts featuring the same character but not in an Scene A causes Scene B sort of way. Later on Outgrowth transitions come to dominate.
During the draft process I’ve been revising the beat map continually. The writing of a scene may suggest more moments that rise toward hope or drop toward fear and ought to be included on the updated map. As characters flesh out on the page and become richer, I’ve discovered the need for additional dramatic moments in which they address obvious conflicts arising from my execution of particular sequences.
In a couple of instances I’ve spotted ways to stoke momentum by making previously disconnected scenes flow directly into one another, as marked by Continuation transitions.
In one instance the beat map allowed me to spot an opportunity to excitingly connect two previously disparate scenes by having a character in scene A provide a reason for the protagonist to initiate scene B with another supporting character.
Checking the overall narrative line with the web app, I can see that it fits the pattern of most satisfying narratives—a modulated but gradually downward line.
Overall the beat map process encourages you to think about key moments, their purpose in the story, the impact you intend them to have, and how they can best be threaded together.
Preorder Beating the Story today, get it in electronic form immediately, check it out, and then head over to storybeats.io to turn practical theory into creative action.
Robin D. Laws (born October 14, 1964 in Orillia, Ontario, Canada) is a Canadian writer and game designer who lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of a number of novels and role-playing games as well as an anthologist.
Robin D. Laws has been a professional game designer and an author since the early 1990s.
Robin D. Laws has been playing role-playing games since he was a teenager and has worked as a game designer since the early 1990s.John Nephew of Atlas Games convinced Jonathan Tweet to publish a game he had been writing about in Alarums & Excursions; Laws talked with Tweet about the game in A&E and contributed to the final product as well, the result of which was Over the Edge (1992).:253Daedalus Games began when Laws approached Jose Garcia in 1993 with an idea for a Hong Kong Action Cinema RPG; while Garcia liked the idea, his first priority was his own setting, Nexus: The Infinite City which was published in 1994 with Garcia as the main designer and developer, and Laws, Bruce Baugh, and Rob Heinsoo as additional authors.:256 Daedalus Games was incorporated as Daedalus Entertainment in preparation for publishing in the Hong Kong action setting Laws had designed, but beginning with a collectible-card game to take advantage of that then-booming market.;:256 Laws therefore designed the collectible card game Shadowfist (1995). Daedalus Entertainment subsequently published Laws' role-playing game Feng Shui (1996), which used a variant of the Nexus game system, and began to publish supplements.:256 However, Daedalus filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997; when the company sold off a few of its properties a few years later, Laws re-acquired "Feng Shui".:256 Nephew told Laws that he would be happy to bring Feng Shui back into print, so when Laws was able to free up the rights he brought it to Atlas Games, in a deal announced on March 22, 1999.:256
Meanwhile, Laws was active throughout the 1990s as a free-lance writer for games including GURPS, Underground, Talislanta, Earthdawn, and Vampire: The Dark Ages, and later for supplements to the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In 1998, Greg Stafford approached Laws to create a new game based on his world of Glorantha, which became known as Hero Wars, published in 2000 as the first fully professional product for Issaries, and later expanded and re-published in 2003 as HeroQuest.:361 A second edition was published in 2009;:354 Laws was then able to provide additional scaffolding for players to construct setting-appropriate narratives with the rules provided. At the same time, Laws was engaged in some more experimental RPG design. Hogshead Publishing published his Pantheon and Other Roleplaying Games (2000) as one of the company's "New Style" RPGs.,:306 while Atlas Games contracted Laws to write the Rune (2001) role-playing game, based on the computer game Rune.:257 Laws determined that for Rune, "the game would need to have a big point of difference to distinguish it from the many other fantasy games available"; in this case, the game would allow players to swap roles with the Game Master (GM): "You can win! And when you're not the GM, it's not boring because the GM can win!"
Pelgrane Press revealed on January 20, 2000 that Laws would be the core author of their upcoming roleplaying game based on the Jack Vance stories in the Dying Earth setting.:383 Laws was the senior designer for The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. As Pelgrane Press expanded, they launched the GUMSHOE system, designed by Laws based on the claim that investigative gaming had been introduced to RPGs under the mistaken assumption that acquiring clues should be treated as a contingent reward; the new system ensured that players would learn the clues needed in order to proceed with their investigations. Laws' The Esoterrorists (2006) was the first release with this system, supported by his sourcebook The Esoterror Factbook (2006); the next year, Pelgrane released Laws' Fear Itself (2007).:384 Laws has also contributed supplements to Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu line,:385 notably the aleatoric Armitage Files resource and the Dreamhounds of Paris campaign frame, in which players take on the roles of actual surrealist artists as they confront horror in the Dreamlands. Laws also designed Mutant City Blues (2009) and Ashen Stars (2011) as investigative games in superhero and space opera genres.:385 His RPG Skulduggery (2010) extrapolated the treatment of conflict, especially intrapersonal conflict, from the Dying Earth setting to a variety of other contexts, and the Gaean Reach RPG (2012) cross-fertilized Dying Earth and GUMSHOE rules in Vance's Science Fiction setting.
In 2012, Laws also ran a Kickstarter for his game Hillfolk, featuring his new Dramasystem. The goal was $3,000, but raised over $93,000, and it went on to win the 2014 Diana Jones award.. After another successful Kickstarter by Atlas Games, Laws released a second edition of Feng Shui twenty years after its original release, removing obstructive rules and marking a "critical shift" in the game's background. Laws has since published the specialized Cthulhu Confidential (2017), offering a modified GUMSHOE system for roleplaying with one player and the GM, and has begun work on the Yellow King RPG, also for Pelgrane Press.
Robin D. Laws' published his first novel Pierced Heart in 1996, set in the world of Over the Edge; it was released as an e-book in 2014. His subsequent novels included the original The Rough and the Smooth as well as novels set in the game settings of Warhammer RPG, City of Heroes and Pathfinder. Laws also had stories published in Synister Creative's pulp magazine, and in the fiction anthology The Book of All Flesh for the All Flesh Must Be Eaten RPG: "The first is a light-hearted adventure, and the other is really, really dark". Laws wrote Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering (2002) for Steve Jackson Games. and edited 40 Years of Gen Con (2007), a collection of interviews and photographs, published by Atlas.:260 Laws also wrote Hamlet's Hit Points (2010), published by small press company Gameplaywright,:260 and is currently working on a second volume applying the same approach to narrative structure with a focus on fiction and screenplay writing. Laws is also the editor of the Stone Skin Press fiction imprint from Pelgrane Press.:385
In other media, he contributed to the King of Dragon Pass computer game and wrote for Marvel's Iron Man with Mike Grell in 2003. He writes an irregular advice column for role-players called See Page XX, and releases a weekly podcast with Ken Hite for Pelgrane Press, Ken and Robin talk about stuff.
Robin Laws is frequently invited to be a guest speaker at conventions around the world, having made appearances at Gen Con Australia and Ropecon in Finland.
Laws attends Gen Con Indy and the Toronto International Film Festival every year. He has stated that he often cannot attend Fan Expo Canada because that convention often takes place too soon after Gen Con and too soon before TIFF, but he likes to attend it whenever he can. He was Fan Expo's gaming guest of honor in 2005 and 2010.
Since 2010, Laws has participated in Dragonmeet in London as a guest of Pelgrane Press.
A partial list of works by Robin D Laws:
Role-playing games and related supplements
For Deadlands: Hell on Earth
- Monsters, Muties and Misfits (et al.)
For Dungeons and Dragons:
For the Earthdawn RPG:
- Throal: The Dwarf Kingdom
- Denizens of Earthdawn (Volume 2)
- The Theran Empire
- Parlainth Adventures (et al.)
Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying
- Four Bastards
- Burning Shaolin
For the Firefly Role-Playing Game:
Gaean Reach RPG
For the Glorantha setting (Greg Stafford)
- Fantasy 2: Adventures in the Mad Lands
Jack Vance's The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
- Kaiin Player's Guide
- Turjan's Tome of Beauty and Horror (with Ian Thompson)
- Cugel's Compendium of Indispensable Advantages (et al.)
- The Excellent Prismatic Spray 2-5 (et al.)
Mutant City Blues
Nexus: The Infinite City (et al.)
OG: Unearthed Edition
For Over the Edge:
- Unauthorized Broadcast
- Weather the Cuckoo Likes
- Wildest Dreams
- Over the Edge, 2nd Edition (with Jonathan Tweet)
Pandemonium!: Adventures in Tabloid World (Contributor)
- Stranger Than Truth: Further Adventures in Tabloid World (Contributor)
Pantheon and Other Roleplaying Games
Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering (ISBN 1-55634-629-8)
Shadowfist Players' Guide (Volume 1) (with Rob Heinsoo)
Star Trek RPG (et al.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG (et al.)
- Raiders, Renegades, & Rogues (et al.)
For Trail of Cthulhu
- The Armitage Files
- Out of Space Scenario: Repairer of Reputations
- Stunning Eldritch Tales
- Dreamhounds of Paris
For the Underground RPG:
For Vampire: The Dark Ages:
For Vampire: the Masquerade:
- Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy
For Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
- Heart of Chaos (Doomstones Campaign Volume 3)
- Pierced Heart
- The Rough and the Smooth
- Honour of the Grave
- Sacred Flesh
- Liar's Peak
- Freedom Phalanx
- Pathfinder Tales: The Worldwound Gambit
- Pathfinder Tales: Blood of the City
- ^André Jarosch. "Interview with Robin D. Laws". ShattenSeiten der RuneQuest GesellSchaft. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- ^""Hillfolk"-Kickstarter: An interview with Robin D. Laws - obskures.de" (in German). 2012-10-30. Retrieved 2016-09-03.
- ^ abcdefghijklmnopqShannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.
- ^ abcdefRyan, Michael G. (January 2002). "Profiles: Robin D. Laws". Dragon. Renton, Washington: Wizards of the Coast (#291): 18.
- ^"Dying Earth News, June 2006". Retrieved May 17, 2017.
- ^"HillFolk Kickstarter". Retrieved Dec 4, 2012.
- ^"Pierced Heart". Goodreads. Retrieved 2016-09-03.
- ^Laws, Robin D. (2013-09-27). Pierced Heart. Atlas Games.
- ^"Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, March 31, 2017". Retrieved 2017-05-16.
- ^robin_d_laws (robin_d_laws) wrote, 2008-05-30 09:20:00 (2008-05-30). "robin_d_laws: Gen Con Australia". Robin-d-laws.livejournal.com. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
- ^"Robin D. Laws". Robin-d-laws.livejournal.com. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
- ^"Ropecon 2007". Ropecon.fi. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
- ^Interview on the DiceCast podcast