Working Backwards

I’ve written before about how we use something called moment-based design. The idea is that you have a set of things that you want to happen, moments that you feel are critical to your story or to your game. And you lay them out as sticky notes— these days we tend to do it virtually using Miro.

We have a set process for this, working as a group to start laying these moments out in a structure. The patterns in that structure start to become obvious, once everyone on the team has an in-depth knowledge of what each moment actually represents — you slot these moments in along a timeline, and start to tell the story to each other until it makes sense, and the motivations emerge.

A part of that process is the concept of working backwards. (I’ve written about a similar technique before when working backwards from a physical stunt to create a story, but the intention here is rather different.)

So, while structuring our note-based design, when we’ve got the basic shape laid out — beginning, middle, end, some major moments — we do at least one pass where we start at the end of the story. We look at each major event — revelation, turning point, major encounter, anything that makes a big shift in the narrative — and we ask ourselves “what is the minimum that the player needs to know at this point for this moment to make sense and have an impact?”

None of these moments stand alone. All of them need some setup. A character’s betrayal won’t really work if you don’t trust the character to start with. A cunning plan to defeat the bad guy will feel shoehorned in unless you’ve already seen the elements that make up that plan and understand how they might work together.

And the player needs to know the stakes. The villain is threatening to press the Big Red Button? It’s useless if during the scene they explain “This Big Red Button will destroy the world!” It’s much, much more powerful if the player has already completely understood what the Big Red Button does and how it works. Preferably by personal experience of it, perhaps at a smaller scale.

So we work backwards like this, and for each event we consider what setup is needed, and we place those bits of setup on the board as earlier moments that we should incorporate. When should the player first see the Big Red Button? How do they learn what it does? Where should they meet the Traitor, and where can we show them that the Traitor is a really nice person who can definitely be trusted?

We can also put in bits of foreshadowing, reversal, irony; connecting later pieces of the story to earlier pieces in a way that makes everything feel more coherent and satisfying.

This is pretty simple stuff, but can radically affect the overall narrative, and generate a lot of small side-moments that build up to big payoffs.



Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He co-founded Talespinners, and has worked on over 100 titles.

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Ian Thomas

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He co-founded Talespinners, and has worked on over 100 titles.