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Thinking Virtually

#27: Episodic Plots, Part Four: MRPGs

by Shannon Appelcline
October 1, 2001  

"Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life."
--One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

"We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
--The White Album, Jane Didion

Welcome, one and all, to the breathtaking conclusion of Thinking Virtually's mid-season arc on episodic plots. You wowed to the exploits of Babylon Five and The X-Files. You refused to admit that you read The X-Men or The Sandman. You strolled through the familiar lands of RuneQuest and Dragonlance. All in preparation for this week's column!

Missed one of the previous episodes? Have no fear, the great Tivo-in-the-sky that we call RPGnet has permanently etched them into its ROM:

And now, it all ends here! Will our brave columnist manage to gather together a month of columns into a cohesive whole, explaining how to use episodic plots in Multiplayer Computer RolePlaying Games (MCRPGs)? Will he remember to mention a few other episodic mediums first? Will he he also talk a little bit about singular plots in MCRPGs too?

Read on, fearless reader ...

Playing the Field: Other Serials

I selected three mediums when I initially decided to talk about episodic plots: television, comic books, and RPGs. I happen to think that those mediums provide some of the best examples of episodic plots, but I was also somewhat self-serving in my choices: I knew what I was talking about.

There are other episodic mediums, beyond those that I've discussed at length, and before I close things up I'd like to briefly mention them.

Mythology.I think you'll find the oldest episodic medium in the form of mythology--stories, sagas, poems, and plays all centering around the exploits of ancient gods and heroes. I really realized how much interconnection there was in mythology pretty recently, when reading a new comic book series called Age of Bronze. It tells the story of the Trojan War, and it collects together an amazing amount of different material to do so--from Homer to Shakespeare.

You're familiar with The Iliad and The Odyssey, no doubt, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. A ten-part play called Tantalus ran in Colorado last year, purporting to tell the whole story of the Trojan War. The Aeniad was actually written by a Roman, and it told another story of what came after the assault on Troy. Last year the Berkeley Rep Theatre produced the three-part Oresteia, telling the story of the War's repercussions on the House of Atreus. And the Shotgun Players produced Iphigenia in Aulis, the story of the sacrifice which set the war into motion.

And that's to say nothing of the mythological stories that surround the Trojan War at a greater distant. Remember the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur? Or Jason and the Argonauts? Precursors to the Trojan War by a generation or less. And how about King Arthur and his Round Table? Geoffrey of Monmouth ultimately traces Arthur's kingship back to the Trojan War too, in his History of the Kings of Britain.

Mythology is exciting because it offers us a totally different type of episodic story than what we've seen before. A wide variety of artists work on the same tapestry, telling stories with faint and delicate connections, that all work together because the artists are all working from the same master plan.

The "True" Serials. When talking about serials a lot of people think of those little ten or fifteen minute bits that used to show before the movies down at your local theatre. Or else radio serials like The Shadow or The Green Hornet.

As it happens, I can't say much about either medium. They were both before my time. From my impression of them, serials were basically long stories, broken by a cliffhanger at the end of every episode. Outside of individual long stories you might have some continuing characters and some returning villains, but beyond that continuity was pretty scarce.

Comic Strips. The continuing comic strips that you can read in your daily newspaper are pretty similar in form to radio and movie serials. I'm talking about Mary Worth, Dick Tracy, The Amazing Spiderman, and Prince Valiant--that type of thing.

Overall, I think continuing comic strips represent a medium so bound up in a tight structure that their stories are barely able to breathe. Somewhere I read an explanation of plotting for the continuing comic strip medium that went something like this:

In a daily strip you have three panels to tell your story, but in actuality the first panel has to repeat the cliffhanger from the previous strip and the last panel has to offer a new cliffhanger, so you really only have one panel a day to tell your story. And, since some readers only read the Sunday paper, you have to repeat everything again there.

I've enjoyed continuing comic strips, but very few of them manage to be very substantial because of these strict rules on plotting. A notable exception is Prince Valiant which manages to avoid the medium's limitations by only publishing on Sundays and by offering a textual description of what has gone before rather than wasting a-third of the strip doing so (1).

The limitations of an overly strict plot structure, as well as the advantages that may be accrued by stepping beyond it, are both notable here.

Other Stuff. Am I missing episodic mediums here? Sure, lots of them. Movie sequels offer a strange sort of episodic plot. So do all sort of books, from series like The Hardy Boys to carefully constructed trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and free-wheeling loosely-connected sequences like that of Discworld. And, for that matter, our lives offer the most important sort of episodic plot at all.

But I'm going to consider my overview of the field good enough for now and (finally!) take a look at what MCRPGs have done to date before I offer my summaries and conclusions.

Singular Plots in MCRPGs

Before I get to episodic plots in MCRPGs, however, I want to briefly touch upon the same topic that I have in every episode of this particular serial: how the medium deals with singular plots. It's, perhaps, not too surprising to learn that MCRPG singular plots are have some strong similarities to RPG singular plots, already discussed.

Let me briefly rehash what I said last week when talking about RPGs. I said that most singular plots were founded on one of two things--background or events. By background I meant the actual locale of an adventure. If you stumbled through a dungeon, going from room to room, and as you did you pieced together a larger story--that was a background-oriented plot. If, on the other hand, there were chronological events occuring, or if you were taking actions based on something other than just the contents of locations--that was an event-oriented plot.

I'm going to use those same definitions this week when talking about MCRPGs.

Background-oriented plots are probably the most popular type in MCRPGs. They first appeared in MUDs of all types and are now the crux of all the big MMORPGS like Ultima Online and EverQuest. And, there's a good reason that background-oriented singular plots are popular. They take advantage of a power of the medium: computer moderation.

Background-oriented plots work like this: an engineer programs an "area"--often called a zone--in a game. He fills it with puzzles, tricks, traps, monsters, and treasures. Then he opens up the area and lets players plunder through it. When the area is fairly cleared out, it gets "reset", with all the monsters resurrected and the treasures restocked. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Just as with with RPGs, these singular plots tend to follow an Episodic Plot Structure or a Mountain Plot Structure. You get individual obstacles which must be overcome, and which may or may not lead to something bigger.

There are actually two different types of event-oriented singular plots in MCRPGs. Some are repeatable, mostly because they're computer moderated, while others are not very repeatable, mostly because they're human moderated.

We'll start out with the computer-moderated event-oriented singular plots. These have been quite popular in online games for almost a decade. They even have a name, one much simpler that than the one I use above: Quests. In a Quest a player is given some task to do: take item A to place B, learn information C from person D and tell it to person E, that type of thing.

Again, this is all preprogrammed, but in this case the plot actually tries to be a real story, rather than just a conglomeration of rooms (background) which might form a story if you look hard enough. There are big problems with Quests, which deserve their own column some day, but for this time I'd like to end my discussion with only this sparse definition.

And that finally brings us to human-moderated event-oriented singular plots. They're a bit rarer, because of that requirement for a human gamemaster to take a lead role in a story. These "stories" or "events", as they're often called, first started to appear around 1989, with the advent of TinyMUSH; they've been the heart of any number of MUCKs and MUXes since. In addition, they're nowadays used to supplement the computer moderated zones and Quests of more traditional games.

Our own Eternal City game over at Skotos runs event-oriented plots on an almost daily basis, even through background-oriented plots are the heart of play. Asheron's Call has also featured big, event-oriented plots that shape the world from day one. With the advent of more recent games like Anarchy Online these human-moderated plots seem to have become almost a requirement of the genre.

Event-oriented singular plots can take on almost any of the forms that Kimberly described back in the much referenced article, Plot Strategies. Hero's Journey, "W" Plot, or Three-act Play? It depends on the whims of the gamemaster running the plot.

Episodic Plots: The Story So Far ...

And that finally brings us to the ultimate question, the topic that I've been circling around for a month: how do MCRPGs create episodic plots?

You know what? I'm not entirely sure.

The whole idea of episodic plots in MCRPGs is a pretty new one. It was at least 1989 before it was even an inkling in anyone's mind, and in those early, mainly volunteer, games, I'm sure the stories were pretty haphazard. Players and gamemasters alike came and went. Continuity, and for that matter the lifespan of most of those games, were closely linked to the ebb and flow of students as they arrived at colleges and eventually graduated or flunked out--the latter sometimes a more likely fate for the MCRPG gamers I associated with.

It's only been recently that MCRPGs with episodic plots have really gone professional, with games like Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and EverQuest.

I know what we did in our own game, Castle Marrach. We laid out a hierarchical plot, building from an overall plot arc down.

But is that the right thing to do?

Well, that's what this four-part series has been about. So, let me put together the pieces of the last few weeks, suggesting a great overall structure for episodic plots in MCRPs

Puzzle Pieces: Singular Plots

Before getting too far into a theory of MCRPG episodic plots, it's good to take a few moments to examine singular plots. After all, these are the building blocks that your episodic plots are going to be built upon. We've already learned about the three-act structure used for movies, but television shows, comic books, and RPGs have all offered some interesting insights.

The following ideas are all notable:

  • The three-act structure is an excellent highly structural basis for laying out any type of story [ #21 ].
  • But, if you're loose with how you apply it, you'll probably improve your stories [ #24 ].
  • You can also use any other plot structure that you're comfortable with [ #6 ].
  • You should learn to incorporate episodic plot elements as regular elements of your singular stories, taking advantage of cliffhangers, continuing villains, and all the rest, because that won't make you lose your audience as it might on television [ #25 ].
  • You should also think about the foundation of your plot. Does it come out of the background--those locations that you've set down. Or does it comes out of events which occur [ #26 ].
  • And finally you need to think about whether your singular plots will be computer-moderated, and thus probably repeatable, and human-moderated, and thus probably one-time [ #27 ].

Puzzle Pieces: Building Continuity

At the most basic level, in order to create episodic plots you need to have continuity. In other words you need to have continuing and recurring elements, even if they don't form stories in and of themselves.

  • Almost every type of episodic medium contains continuing background and characters. It's not very interesting, but it is a requirement for continuity [ #24 ].
  • You can make your continuing background much more interesting if you build a whole world that is larger than the individual settings that the characters find themselves in [ #26 ].
  • Villains and supporting characters are another way to create easy continuity without worrying about arcs [ #25 ].
  • An easy rule is to build on an old plot point for each singular story and also to provide a couple of new plot points for the future [ #26 ].
  • When you have multiple gamemasters, each can tell a tiny part of a story--working on the same overall tapestry without worrying about having to weave the same threads, as it were [ #27 ].

Puzzle Pieces: Building Plot Arcs

The easiest way to create true episodic plots is with plot arcs.

  • Plot arcs are episodic stories where the continuity is based around some event or place, not just a person [ #24 ].
  • At the most basic level, a plot arc can just be a long story or a mini-series. You'll be taking good advantage of the fact that your story is episodic if you build in cliffhangers and other elements which acknowledge the fact that the story is told over multiple sessions [ #24 , #25 ].
  • You can begin to build more complex plot arcs by braiding them together, like the ABC plots in television shows or like braided comic book plots [ #24 , #25 ].
  • Many plot arcs connect to each other like movements in music. A new plot arc builds out of a minor element from a previous plot arc [ #26 ].
  • Many plot arcs are built around changes in the large, continuing background [ #26 ].
  • A fully hierarchical plot arc that builds from master arcs to overarcs to arcs to mini-arcs to singular episodes is the most powerful type of plot arc--and also the most difficult to pull off right [ #25 ].

Puzzle Pieces: Building Character Arcs

Character arcs are very well-used in most other episodic mediums but because those pesky characters in RPGs have free-will they're slightly harder to use here:

  • Character arcs are episodic stories where the continuity is based around some person, not just events or places [ #24 ].
  • Though you don't see character arcs much in RPGs, remember that that's because there's a gap between game designers and game masters--the former never gets to actually meet your players and thus can't really decide what character arcs might be appropriate for them, Dragonlance being a notable exception [ #26 ].
  • The simplest type of character arc is the aforementioned idea of simpling having continuing villains and supporting characters [ #25 ].
  • Having periodic events that slowly change a character is a great way to start building character arcs [ #25 ].
  • In true character arcs, these changes are more gradual [ #25 ].
  • These character arcs can not only influence the character, but also the way he interacts with singular and ongoing plots [ #24 ].

Natural Continuity

As already discussed above, one of the best things you can do to make your episodic plots seem very realistic is to be loose and casual in how your structure them. You can make this easier to do by adopting a chronological continuity.

  • TV shows often offer a daily continuity, where events happen hour by hour, day by day, and arcs evolve in a very natural way [ #24 ].
  • It's easy to expand this idea out to longer-term continuity: days, weeks, months, even years, with specific events happening at specific times [ #25 ].

And At Long Last, A Rest!

And that, at long last, is the conclusion of my thoughts about how to take full advantage of plot in an episodic medium. In the final three weeks of this article series I play to look at a few aspects of a final problem--how to make plotting work in an interactive, multiplayer world. It's something I briefly touched upon in Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Three, but which deserves a fair amount more discussion.

Before I start that final lap, however, I'm going to take a week off, as I've gotten way behind while writing these last four very long articles.

So, I'll see you in 14!

End Notes

  1. Prince Valiant has been collected in a series of beautiful trade paperbacks by Fantagraphics Press. Most of them are probably in print right now. The first one is called "The Prophecy" and is ISBN 0-930193-46-6. Take a look; they read amazingly well.

Shannon regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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