So you want to create your own campaign for your players? You want to craft adventures with thrilling action, compelling characters, and rich plot hooks? With cliffhangers and twists, treachery and redemption, complexity and surprises around every corner? A living, breathing world to explore with your friends? We want to help you do just that.
We’ve looked at where ideas might come from. Now, it’s time to think about how to tell your story.
One of the terms that stuck in my head during college was “Dutch angle.” And if you’ve seen the movie 12 Monkeys, you already know what a Dutch angle looks like. James Cole (Bruce Willis) finds himself in a deeply unsettling situation, and the camerawork underscores that throughout the film by shooting with a visual field of view comparable to tilting your head to the side. You bust this out when you want to underscore that something isn’t right, to evoke a feeling of unease, and to play on the viewer’s suspicions. Like any element that you employ in visual media, of course, it can be overused or used inefficiently. In a homebrewed world, whenever the story at hand (your world, or the piece of it available right now in a game you run for players) turns to something that brings to mind thrillers, psychological dramas, intrigue or horror, a Dutch angle could help you out.
If you’ve ever given players handouts in your homebrew game, something as simple as a small artifact in a photo or a “throwaway line” in a briefing, you’ve covertly given them a Dutch angle to observe the world from, and that head tilt will stick with them, lodge in their mind. Something is wrong, their gut instinct says. But what is it? Are they reading into things, or did they pick up on something they weren’t supposed to know? Dutch angles tie a lot (to me) into the concept of unheimliche, which some reading will tell you is about the secret that should stay that way but didn’t, things that make “home” into something unfamiliar, these hidden things becoming known and seen.
The Deep Ones in H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shadow over Innsmouth are an uncanny thing that should be hidden but become known as the narrator learns about his true heritage. To the Deep Ones, Innsmouth is home, and it even has trappings of what we may call home. But for the narrator, the uncanniness of the situation starts outward (the town, the Deep Ones) and doesn’t stop when it gets to him (he will be as them, someday). There’d be some Dutch angles in that story if it played out as a movie.
But going back to earlier, Dutch angles don’t have to be restricted to horror. If you’re brewing a world where players will be spies, any revelations (or even hints) about their mission, agency, who or what the enemy is, the identity of a mole—when things catch on their gut instincts, you can give them that moment to tilt their head.
When it comes to pulling from literary tradition, hamartia could be a fertile narrative to pull from. In the writing of Aristotle, hamartia is a story we’re familiar with: a tragic flaw. As Aristotle describes this heroic figure, a man of distinction, wealth, nobility, we nod along. That guy sounds pretty cool. But his life soon takes a tragic turn—
All because of something he did.
Now, we lean forward. This impeccable figure has been brought low by a mistake. An error, one that he made. In your world, that could be a person. A deity. A country, an agency. Hamartia is potent, because a tragedy has been put in motion by someone’s own actions. Their mistakes (at least in Greek tragedy) have enormous and deadly consequences.
Going back to film, story boarding might be useful for you. When we write a novel, a short story, a comic book, linear narratives are common, containing a beginning, middle, and end. But you’re homebrewing a world, so the kind of outlining for linear story doesn’t work as well. Granted, movies can be linear too, but hear me out. A story board, even with the most basic of stick figures, adds a lot toward your sense of place and helps you decide—as a storyteller—on what’s visually important in this world. These snapshots you sketch out are a story you tell, but where it ends is the moment before your players enter. They’ll interact with the world in its present; their character backgrounds will spill into its past. Like a flood, their input will wash over and change it for the duration of their interaction with it. But the original world you brought into being, the one that holds its breath right before players enter, it’s still here, in amber, until the next time players enter it. As you open this world to other people, you may go back to that amber, reaching in to rearrange things. And that’s not a bad thing. As we work with our worlds, play with our worlds, put them into other people’s hands, we have chances to revisit our choices. If we make new ones, it just means we saw a frame that wasn’t visible in our story board and decided it was time to pull it into view.
Now that we’ve introduced some new tools, next time, we’ll keep diving into the possibilities of narrative.
TO BE CONTINUED…!
For even more insights on on how to run your game, check out the many wonderful voices in Kobold Guide to Gamemastering.