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Thinking Virtually

#22: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Two

by Shannon Appelcline
August 13, 2001
edited by Drew Meger

TV logo  

"The plot thickens," he said, as I entered.
--A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Welcome to week two of my ten-week discussion of plot for MCRPGs. Last week I kicked things off by explaining how Hollywood "W" plots can be used to lay out plots for singular episodes (or very short arcs) in an online game. If you haven't already read last week's article, I suggest you do so. I'll wait.

Though I offered examples from Star Wars in last week's article, it still was a little abstract. This week I'm going to make things more concrete by creating a real plot using the movie plot structure. Along the way I'm going to make sure that I'm creating not just a good movie plot, but also a good game plot. Next week I'm going to finish up discussion of singular plots by explaining what I did--and thus what you need to do to make movie plot structure work well for online games.

Choosing an Example

When I first started exploring movie plot structure and online games, about six months ago now, it was as part of my column for Skotos Tech. Thus, I decided to write up a sample movie plot using the background of Castle Marrach, Skotos' first game. Because I was quite pleased with the plot when I was done, I've decided to reprint it here. But, that means that I need to offer you a little background on Castle Marrach.

So, bear with me a minute. We'll get to the nuts and bolts of adopting that movie plot structure in just a minute ...

Castle Marrach, as you could probably determine from the name, is an online game set in a fantasy world. In particular, it's set in a very constrained setting--the inside of a Castle atop a high mountain. Food and goods magically appear. There is no contact with the outside world. Think Mervin Peake's Gormenghast, though not as big.

The tone of the Castle is very much centered around socialization, politicking, and scheming. Combat is almost totally absent, except as part of ritualistic duels. When problems arise, spirited debate is the first option, and violence is about the last.

Within Castle Marrach there are two distinctive cultures. The Outer Bailey, where Newly "Awoken" guests appear, is somewhat rough and tumble. Meanwhile the Inner Bailey is the heart of chivalry and romance. Or so the cliches go.

There are lots of organizations in Castle Marrach, and they're really the heart of how people get involved with the online community. You'll see a few of them mentioned peripherally in my plot, such as the Winter Watch--who are the "police" of the Outer Bailey.

For my plot, though, the most important organization is the Duelists, also of the Outer Bailey. These are a group of daring-doers who's fondest wish is to become knights of the Inner Bailey and servants of the Queen. They're like the Three Musketeers--sort of--full of honor, chivalry, and bravery. In fact, it's important to note that they're organized into fraternal groups of three brothers (or sisters), and as you'll see that becomes important by the end of the plot.

The Duelists have had the occasional bad apple, such as fellow named Victor Savary who was kicked out many years before. But, for the most part, they're OK chaps.

You'll meet a few personalities of Castle Marrach along the way, including the Chamberlain Launfal, who pretty much runs things in the Outer Bailey, and Boreas, who is the consort to the Queen and ultimately in charge of most judicial matters. I'll try and introduce them as the need arises.

And that's the background for my fictional movie plot ...

Building a Plot

To start building a plot, I need an idea. Sometime between when I wrote last week's article and when I first sat down to write this one (all six months ago), I started to brainstorm and came up with an idea: "The Fall of the Duelists." It's a story intended to affect an entire organization, and thus a large number of players--which, as I'm going to discuss next week, makes it a great choice for a plot in a multiplayer game.

The best way to lay out a movie plot is to start with the big events and move inward. As you'll recall from last week, there are four major plot points in a movie: the turning point that ends Act I; the high point in the middle of the story; the low point that ends Act II; and the battle scene that ends Act III.

Continuing to brainstorm I come up with the following major events for this story:

  1. Act I / Turning Point. The Duelists are disbanded by order of Lord Chamberlain Launfal due to evidence of a conspiracy within their ranks.
  2. Act II / High Point. The Duelists gain an appointment to see the Lord Chancellor Boreas and present new evidence that they have been framed.
  3. Act II / Low Point. All former members of the Duelists are imprisoned in the New Dungeons after an attempt upon the life of Boreas.
  4. Act III / Battle Scene. The Duelists confront their opponents and have one final opportunity to restore their honor.

Pretty abstract still, but I now have enough of a skeleton that I feel comfortable laying out the rest of the story ... or at least to add a little bit of flesh to the bones.

Act I

Looking back at last week's article, I see that Act I should include an inciting incident, the establishment of characters and setting, and a turning point. I just need to figure out how to get to that turning point I've already determined.

The inciting incident is what gets things rolling. A candidate for the Duelists is rejected due to his lack of understanding of honor and the ethos of the Duelists. Worse, he's not just rejected, he's rejected in a humiliating and public way by Eduoard, one of the three elders of the Duelists, and the one who never knew quite when to keep his mouth shut. The candidate now has a grudge and he's approached by a dark, cloaked figure who offers him a way to get even.

The cloaked figure offers the rejected candidate a magical quill which can be used to forge signatures and then begins working with the candidate to compose a number of letters which will be signed with the names of leading Duelists. The letters discuss a conspiracy to blackmail three nobles of the court and force them to sponsor numerous Duelists to be knights--slowly, so as not to attract notice, of course.

The cloaked figure also offers the rejected candidate keys to the Duelists' private room and to the Guest Rooms of Eduoard and Mark, another Senior Duelist. He suggests that a signet ring be stolen from Eduoard's room and that letters be planted in all three places. Afterward, a few letters, along with the signet ring, should somehow make it into the hands of the Winter Watch.

Finally, the cloaked figure suggests that any disloyal members of the Duelists should be found and turned ... a possibly dangerous proposition.

And so the plot proper begins, with one (or more) character(s) trying to frame the Duelists. Soon, the Winter Watch will be presented with the evidence via some route and eventually word will make its ways to Lord Chamberlain Launfal, who is the ultimate arbiter of law in the Outer Bailey. Launfal will speak with prominent members of the Duelists, but will ultimately be forced to take action because of the mass of evidence--both evidence turned over to the Watch and that which was discovered by the Watch during their subsequent investigation. Launfal's surety about the case will only be increased if any disloyal Duelists that have been turned lie to him, saying the accusations are true.

At last, Launfal only has one option: The Duelists must be disbanded. They are told that they may no longer congregate together under threat of imprisonment, and all their swords are confiscated.

The Duelists are thrust into a new world ...

Act II, First Half

Looking again at last week's article, I see that the first half of Act II should include the beginning of a journey, a series of challenges, and a high point.

Being honorable yet heroic types, the Duelists will probably obey Launfal's command in part. They can be expected to officially "disband" and turn in their swords ... but they'll doubtless keep meeting in private in order to try and clear their names. Trying to clear their names begins a journey, though it isn't a physical one.

In the first half of Act II, the Duelists should face a number of obstacles. Three major ones are suggested here.

First, the Duelists will try to find evidence that they have been framed. This will involve trying to locate witnesses who might have seen the evidence being planted or trying to find how the evidence might have made its way into the Watch's hands. Many people will be interviewed. This may also involve trying to prove that the letters are forged. Word is that the Sorceress or her apprentices might be able to discover the author of a letter, but their aid will require a service of its own. The Duelists might also try and see who is causing continued problems (more on those continued problems in a second) by staking out locations and building a network of spies.

Second, the Duelists will face an increasingly hostile environment. Our friend, the disgruntled rejectee, is told to gather his friends and begin building more resentment to the Duelists. (The cloaked figure says, "They must not be just disbanded, but also disgraced.") A few more letters are written, some rumors are suggested, and some swords are offered up--to be given to duelists who were particularly resentful about losing their blades. Hopefully, the Duelists can overcome these problems in an honorable fashion.

Finally, when the Duelists have collected enough evidence to try and present it to Launfal, they are told he will hear no more of the case. (Perhaps the cloaked figure has gotten to Launfal in some way? A question for another day.) If the Duelists wish a new hearing, they must speak to the Lord Chancellor Boreas himself, Launfal says. At this point, none of the Duelists are welcome in the Inner Bailey (even if some were Honored Guests before, which would have given them access to that area of the Castle) and Boreas will not respond to their scrolls. The Duelists must speak with Honored Guests to convince them to personally petition Boreas on the Duelists' behalf. Only if this is successful will the Duelists be invited to speak with the Chancellor.

In the end, all looks well. Boreas invites the Duelists, heavily ladden with evidence, to meet him.

Act II, Second Half

According to my last article, the second half of Act II should include a sudden turnaround, a point of no-return, another series of challenges, and a low point.

After entering the Inner Bailey the Duelists are surprised to discover that they are not alone at the audience. The trio of nobles that the Duelists are alledged to be blackmailing are there as well. Each one of the nobles swears that members of the Duelists have, in person, threatened them with blackmail if they didn't begin sponsoring Duelists for knighthoods. Each of the nobles points to the Duelist who spoke with them (each a player, of course).

"Arrest them," shouts Boreas, and members of the Royal Guard begin moving in.

"Run," someone shouts. (This would be the point of no return.)

The Duelists face more obstacles throughout the second half of Part II, including: a frantic flight through the Castle--trying to avoid the Royal Guards--and a time spent underground trying to gather resources.

They will probably continue investigations during this period, with targets of the investigation including: the three nobles and probably the disgruntled player who set them up (the sorceress Serista may have given them his name or the Duelists might have figured it out through their own detective work). In their investigations of these four people, the Duelists should gain access to their personal rooms and there the Duelists should find a scroll discussing an attempt to be made upon Boreas' life, at a specific time, in the Royal Gardens.

The threat is a false one, meant to lead the Duelists into a trap. If the Duelists contact officials with the message, they will be arrested at once. Friends might be willing to carry the message, but it should be obvious to the Duelists that nothing is actually being done despite their best attempts to communicate this information.

Most likely, even though they may suspect a trap, the Duelists will feel honor bound to stop the assassination themselves. So, they will descend upon the Royal Gardens when the attack is supposed to occur. It will probably not be a great surprise when they find, instead of Boreas, a full company of Royal Guards who seal off the exits and then capture the Duelists, hauling them down to the New Dungeons.

The Royal Guards are already certain that the Duelists were trying to assassinate Boreas, for they were warned that such an attempt would be made by the Duelists in the Garden this eve. Hopefully a few Duelists will be carrying the swords quietly distributed in Act I. If any of the Duelists is carrying the (unsigned and unaddressed) note about the assassination, the Duelists' fate will truly be sealed, as the Guards will find it.

With proof of the Duelists' attempted assassination, a general round-up of Duelists in the Outer Bailey will occur.

Huddled into a few cells in the New Dungeon, the Duelists feel that all is lost.


In Act III we should have a moment of truth, a final set of challenges, and a battle scene.

The last echoing footsteps of the Royal Guard disappear just as a shimmering image appears simultaneously in each of the cells where the Duelists are held. It is Serista (or perhaps another magician who the Duelists might have asked for aid). She tells the Duelists that she has detected a new magic in the Castle--enchantment--and that she suspects its at the center of their recent troubles. She says that she has seen emerald brooches in her dreams and believes that the enchantments are centered there (Duelists may recall that each of the three nobles wore an emerald brooch). Only by destroying them may the enchantments be ended.

Finally Serista says that the Duelists must find power within their triads, for only through their organized power can they release themselves.

By acting in unity, though their triads, the Duelists should be able to get out of the Dungeons, knocking down the doors with strength they thought impossible. They'll still need to stay undercover once they're back above ground, but this time they'll have a solid goal. They need to get into the quarters of the three nobles and find their brooches. Afterward, Serista can destroy them.

The action of the third act is taken up by three main goals: getting into the nobles' quarters; taking the brooches; and destroying them. The first action will require gaining the trust of any one member of the Royal Guard, who can requisition such a key. The second action will require getting across the Castle. Destroying the brooches will turn out to be harder than thought, for as the Duelists make away with the brooches, taking them to Serista to be destroyed, they are suddenly accosted by a cloaked figure and a number of men-at-arms. And worse, anyone carrying a brooch (preferably the elder duelists, to give the players the limelight of the duel to come) switches sides, leaving the remaining Duelists greatly outnumbered.

"It shall be a duel," the mysterious figure says. "A duel against me and winner takes all. Who shall fight for the Duelists?" He steps forward, pulling a rusty two-handed sword from beneath the folds of his cloak and sweeping back his hood to reveal the face of ... Victor Savary.

And I'll leave the story there, at that final battle scene, with the outcome up the air.

If Victor loses he will shrug and limp away with his fellow ne'er-do-wells, disappearing into the catacombs beneath the Castle. The enchanted Duelists are left behind. They will return to normal after the brooches are destroyed, as will the three nobles, who will attest to the innocence of the Duelists.

If Victor wins ... then life will be difficult for the Duelists for a while, as Victor will make away with the brooches (and the three nobles, and perhaps the three enchanted Duelists as well). The last opportunity for the Duelists to prove their innocence is gone. Players might be forced to disappear into the catacombs themselves, but that will be a story for another day.


Let me say, that was a single brainstorm from start to end, with just a tiny bit of editing on my second draft (and a tiny bit of clarification as I prepared this draft for RPGnet). With more work I could tighten things up, probably better foreshadowing a few things, such as the possibility of enchantment. The main point is this: I used the structure of movie plots that I laid out last week to develop a fairly simple idea (five words worth of idea in fact: "The Fall of the Duelists") into a fairly complex story with depths and heights that should make it interesting.

Along the way I fairly inctinctively did a number of things to make my story not just into a good movie plot, but into a good multiplayer interactive plot.

As already promised, I'll talk about that a little more next week, discussing what things I made sure to do when building my story and what things I still need to be careful of ...

We'll get to that in 7 days.

The majority of this week's column was drawn from a similar column originally run as part of Shannon's Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities.

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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