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Thinking Virtually

#28: Many Users, Many Plots

by Shannon Appelcline
October 15, 2001

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"We plot the books together, we talk about them before any writing is done, and then we share, almost every day, whatever it is we've written .... We give it back and then the other person rewrites the draft. We've gotten to the point now where we just don't argue anymore. We just take the suggestion of the other person. And then it goes back and forth, and then before the book goes out, we sit around for a couple of weeks and read it out loud to each other. So before it leaves the house, we agree on every word."
--Michael Dorris, quoted in "Behind Every Great Woman ...? Louise Erdrich's True-Life Adventures" by Geoffrey Stokes, first published in Voice Literary Supplement 48.

The Multiplayer Computer Roleplaying Game (MCRPG) medium is a complex one because it is quite multifaceted. MCRPGs can center around plots and stories, just like the more traditional storytelling venues of movies and books. However, when creating these plots, there are many additional aspects that a gamemaster needs to carefully consider-- aspects that one would never have to think about in other mediums. Some of the most notable ones include:

And finally, there's one more aspect that I want to cover this week:

  • Multi-userism - How do you support multiple players and multiple gamemasters in your game?

There are three major topics that need to be discussed when thinking virtually about the problem of multiple users. First, you need to figure out how to entertain multiple players. Second, you need to figure out how to coordinate multiple gamemasters. Third, you need to carefully lay out the ground rules for a weird middle ground, where you can let players contribute to the plots of a game.

I plan to cover each of these topics in turn this week.

I should also note that this week I'm going to be talking more specifically about what's involved in the running of MCRPG plots. Much of what I discussed in the first seven parts of this series was abstract--creating plots at a theoretical level. The reality is that MCRPG plots have two portions: the theoretical outline you create beforehand and the reality of what happens when you actually roll up your sleeves and start running it in-game. In the latter part of plotting you'll often be playing NPCs and engaging in rapid behind-the-scene manipulations to keep your plot rolling. Some of the discussion this week will go to that more direct, in-game style of gamemastering, rather than the theoretical planning discussed to date.

Entertaining Multiple Players

The fact that an online gamemaster needs to entertain multiple players probably won't be a surprise to anyone. After all, that's what the "M" stands for in MCRPG. It may be a bit of a surprise, however, that online gamemasters tend to have to entertain many more people. Where a tabletop game might have a gamemaster to player ratio of 1:5, and a LARP gamemaster might have a 1:10 ratio, a MCRPG gamemaster is much more likely to have a ratio of 1:20, 1:100 or more. You can solve this problem a little bit, by empowering players to tell plots as will be described in the last section of this week's article, but even then you're still going to have a lot of players that you need to entertain.

I already covered the topic of entertaining multiple players in brief in Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Three. There I called it "The Problem of Multiplayer Applicability" and suggested the general rule that online plots should involve multiple people.. I'm only going to briefly reiterate my advice from that column, so if you want to know more you should go back and read the original. But, briefly, I suggested you should:

  • Create a plot with more than one protagonist, be it an organization or numerous people who are flocking to a central event.
  • Let players be antagonists too.
  • Make sure multiple people will all have something to do.
  • Allow different people to be different heroes at different times.

This all remains good advice, so I'm just going to try and generalize things this time around.

As a gamemaster in a MCRPG you need to maximize the number of players directly affected by your plots. I've already discussed how this relates to writing plots that involve lots of people. When you center plots around events, you need to make sure those are big and important events in your gaming environment. If you take the time out to play an NPC to advance a plot, you need to make sure you'll get big bang for your buck and be able to interact with a lot of people.

You won't be a very effective gamemaster in a MCRPG is you spend your time running events for very small groups or whispering sweet nothings in the ear of a single PC, advancing their own romantic plot, but nothing else in the game.

This might seem a little alien; you might wonder, how are you going to entertain players on a personal level? The easy answer is: you don't. As a gamemaster of a MCRPG you need to figure out how to get players to multiply your plotting work.

As I noted above, you can let players be antagonists in a plot. That's multiplying your plot efficiency. All you need to do is set the plot gears in motion, then see what unfolds. Create a situation, but then let players question each other, and seek info from each other, and fight each other, and argue with each other.

Simple arithmetic makes this an excellent way to plot. You just need to figure out how to push over the first domino; then if you've correctly let players multiple your effort, they'll do all the hard work knocking the rest down.

Finally, it's very important in MCRPGs to disallow single players from road-blocking plots. It's tempting in creating RPG plots to make that first domino a singular object that players discover. Someone comes across a piece of paper that talks about a plot or a unique artifact falls into someone's hands.

Unfortunately, that can fail badly in a MCRPG. There's often enough flux in these games that even supposedly reliable players can disappear. Or, you might give a singular object to someone who has no motive to follow up--and without an on-site gamemaster, like you'd have in a tabletop game, the administrators might never understand why the plot isn't moving.

In MCRPGs you have to ensure that your plots have multiple points of failure. Make sure that singular players can never foul up an entire plot by their lack of interest or by being away. Instead, you'll often want to introduce multiple paths into the same plot or alternatively have multiple identical objects that can get players started (or continue them along their path).

Coordinating Multiple Gamemasters

Given the task of entertaining multiple players with your plots, you'd think that having multiple gamemasters would be a clear win. After all, if you thought a 1:20 or 1:100 player to gamemaster ratio were bad, imagine what it would be like if there were just one of you. 1:1000? Worse?

And, having multiple gamemasters is a clear win. Each one of them will be able to write his own plots, and thus entertain yet more players. However, this does raise issues of coordination. Each of those gamemasters isn't going to be creating plots in a vacuum. They'll need to write plots that work well with others and also they'll need to take into account what plots other people have written. Enter collaboration.

The quote that I began this week's article with is from one of many interviews with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, collected in a book called Conversations with Louise Erdrich & Michael Dorris ( 1 ). Louise Erdrich is known for her award-winning and best-selling Love Medicine ( 2 ) and numerous other novels. Michael Dorris is known for books such as A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

As the opening quote noted, Erdrich and Dorris collaborated on many of their books. And, they did so in a manner that is awe-inspiring for its totality and unity. According to many interviews, they practically worked as one when putting together their works of fiction.

Gamemasters in MCRPGs probably won't be able to expend quite as much effort on perfect collaboration. But, they will want to try their best to work together with their peers.

First, they should try and be aware of other gamemaster's plots. This is really the easiest way of making sure that things go smoothly; it can be easily supported by mailing lists, regular chats, cooperative web environments like TWiki, and other out-of-bandwidth communications.

Second, they should clearly establish hierarchies and realms of responsibility. At the most basic level, if you have multiple plotters you need to say that one of them is the "boss"--the guy who gets the final plotting say. However it's also beneficial to give different gamemasters different realms of responsibility. One gamemaster might be responsible for all plots involving magicians, and another for all plots involving new players. This doesn't mean that gamemasters can't tell stories in each others' areas, just that they should work with the person responsible for that realm and make sure that their plots support the controlling gamemaster's plots and don't work against them.

Third, gamemasters should cooperate with each other fully. This means that if another gamemaster is trying to create a plot that has some impact on yours--perhaps something that causes you to change one of your plot points, perhaps something that forces you to offer a little bit of additional support--then you should try your best to make the other plotter's plot work. You're not obligated to mess up your own stories, but you should make sure that you don't offer another gamemaster a knee-jerk "No!" answer just because he wants to do something that impacts you.

All of that advice has to do with preparing stories in advance. However, as I'll briefly discuss in two weeks, plots rarely survive the first engagement with the enemy--which is to say the players. Thus, as a gamemaster telling live stories in a MCRPG, you'll probably need to improv. And that can get particularly sticky when you have multiple gamemasters.

One final advice to MCRPG gamemasters that speaks to this issue: support each other fully when improving in-scene. If you and another gamemaster are working together in-scene on your plot, it's entirely possible that he'll go off on a wild tangent that has the possibility of totally destroying your ideas. You have to go along with him in order to preserve in-game reality.

In the worst case, one of your plots will be ruined and you'll have to start over. However, what's much more likely is that the story will go off in a slightly weird direction and you'll have the opportunity to repair that later, when you're not in the heat of the moment. Or, you might decide that the new direction is really cool.

Allowing Player Plots

Even with a full staff of gamemasters plotting a MCRPG, keeping all of your players entertained can be a very daunting task--particularly if your game is "plottist", meaning it centers around plots, rather than "gamist", meaning it centers around game mechanics. Keeping a step and a half ahead of your players will always be a pretty immense task.

Fortunately, you have a secret ally: those same players. The best thing you can do to keep your game filled with intriguing, exciting, and constantly new plots is to empower your players. Let them create their own stories. Even allow them to make changes to your overall game if doing so will entertain a large number of people.

In empowering your players you need to do a couple of things. First, you should do the development work required to make their plots work. In other words, don't only allow player plots that take little work on your part. Be willing to consider plots that require you to create objects and run NPCs and even do plotting work of your own.

By doing so, you're following one of my earlier suggestions: you're multiplying your effort--this time through the player's plotting work. Sure, you need to be picky when you do this. You're going to want to most fully support plots that entertain a lot of people and otherwise follow the rules of good MCRPG plots. But, use those as criteria for pushing player plots, not just whether they're work for you or not.

It's also a very good idea to treat player and gamemaster plots equally. In the real world this turns out to be pretty hard to do, as there's always some feeling that your own plots are going to be more true to the world of your game than those created by players. But still, try and make sure that the good player plots get more support than the bad gamemaster plots, just as the good gamemaster plots should get more support than the bad player plots.

Finally, as between gamemasters, you should make sure that players understand that all plotting is based on a firm model of cooperation. If players expect gamemasters to help with their personal plots, they should also expect to change their plots to match and support gamemaster plots that are being created.

With that said, and player plots placed firmly in a place of honor, I'd like to offer a few caveats.

First: if you empower players to create plots you also need to take steps to protect your game world's reality. Be ready to crush bad player plots, just like you'd crush bad plots created by other gamemasters.

Second: figure out some way to highlight the most important plots, whether they're created by players or gamemasters. Once you've empowered players, you've really opened up the floodgates. Where once a half-dozen or a dozen gamemaster plots were running at any one time, suddenly you might have a hundred player and gamemaster plots. Consider bulletin boards or some other method to keep the most important stuff clearly in the public eye, so that it doesn't get lost amidst all of the other interesting, but less important, chaff. Finishing Up This Week's Column

And that does it for this week. In brief summary my suggestions this week are to think about the multi-user element by:

  1. Figuring out ways to entertain multiple players.
  2. Ensuring that multiple gamemasters work together well, both in planning and in-game.
  3. Empowering players to create their own plots.

I'll be back next week to revisit episodic plot structure one last time (for now) by talking about continuity and change. I'll see you in 7. Endnotes

  1. Published by the University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 0-87805-652-1.
  2. An excellent exercise in episodic storytelling all on its own. Love Medicine is a "mosaic novel", constructed of a number of overlapping short stories that cover a wide span of time.

I'd once again like to take a moment to clearly credit this article. Although it is a new piece for RPGnet it's based on a whole slew of articles I originally wrote for Skotos Tech. More specifically, I offered suggestions on entertaining multiple players in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #13, This Blessed Plot, Part Two; I wrote about coordinating multiple gamemasters in TT&T #7, Hosting on Your Toes; and I talked a little bit about player plots in TT&T #4, This Blessed Plot, Part One. Those original articles may include some expansions and examples that didn't make their way into this piece. I'd also like to thank my wife, Kimberly Appelcline, who offered some thoughts on player plots and cooperation while I was still planning this week's piece.

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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