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Thinking Virtually

#29: Changing Stories, Changing Plot

by Shannon Appelcline
October 22, 2001


TV logo  

Drama is conflict. It is about somebody who acts against somebody else. Yet, it is more than mere opposition because drama is about conflict that results in a significant transition in the lives of the participants--it alters both the characters and their surrounding society.
Screenwriting 101, --Neill D. Hicks

A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is--full of surprises.
--Isaac Bashevis Singer

For the entire month of September I talked about the concept of episodic plot--how you can build stories that can weave through months and even years. It's a crucial skill for any type of episodic medium, including RPGs and MCRPGs alike. If you haven't read those articles then you might want to, at the least, take a look at my conclusions:

In my columns on episodic plot I talked about two major ways in which episodic plots could be constructed--through plot arcs and through character arcs. I concentrated mainly on how you construct these arcs, carefully putting together the puzzle pieces into a cohesive whole. What I didn't talk about much was the core of what makes arcs good:

CHANGE.

Neill Hicks said it very well in the quote I offered from his Screenwriting 101. You need to have a "significant transition". In plot arcs this transition might be some change in the environment: the inn that players used to get together at could be burned down; or a new tavern could be built in town. More often in plots arcs, though, and almost always in character arcs, the transition occurs to a character.

A number of months ago, when I was finishing off my discussion of design, I laughingly offered up a few cliches: "Who lives? Who dies? After this issue nothing will be the same." These are cliches, but they're also truth. In order to create interesting episodic plots that will maintain your player's interest, you need to ensure that your singular plots involve change. It's that change which actually allows singular plots to be used as the building blocks for character and plot arcs.

On Change

In actuality plot is centered on two ideas. First of all, you have to have conflict. As it happens, that can be a bit of a challenge in many MCRPGs, where players don't want to be villains, and everyone wants to be nice to each other. But that's a topic for another day ...

What's relevant here is that conflict is just the first element, and it doesn't mean much unless it results in change or some type. If your singular plots are changeless, then your episodic plots get mired in what I called "No Future Syndrome" in previous articles. Your players could go away for months or years and come back to find your world unchanged.

Which would be pretty boring.

It's pretty easy to ensure change in most mediums because the characters are firmly under the control of an even-handed creator. The creator understands that change is important for the continuity of his entire piece--important to keep things interesting--and so he incorporates that change into his plots. (In fact, when we see a lack of change in a medium like comic books or television it's usually because a corporate sponsor or a vice-president of a vice-president's secretary has nixed changing a character.)

We can find a great example of change as part of a singular plot in The Lord of the Rings. The nine-fingered hobbit who stands at the lip of The Cracks of Doom, listening to the last gurgling screams of the creature that had followed him across half the world, is very much not the same hobbit who attended a birthday party 1,500 pages before. The process of seeing him change--and seeing the whole world change as armies march across kingdoms and a dark shadow slowly spreads--is what makes the trilogy exciting.

People change, perceptions change, realms change, worlds change. That is what plot centers on. It should be true in any good story you see in any traditional medium.

Unfortunately, this tends to be much less the case in MCRPGs. When a gamemaster creates an MCRPG, he makes a huge investment. He spends months building people, places, and things. There's a lot of disincentive to break those neat toys that he made. Players face a similar problem. They have no real reason to change their own characters. Sure, it makes for good stories, but people are usually happy with the characters they're already playing and aren't always willing to look at the bigger picture--at how singular plot changes will contribute to a fun and interesting episodic plot that they'll remember for years or decades to come.

What's Good for the Gamemaster ...

So, how do you encourage plots that involve true change? The first thing that you, as a gamemaster and worldbuilder, have to do is set a good example.

Plots that don't cause change are very easy to write. In many ways they're a staple of MCRPGs to date. A gamemaster puts together a scavenger hunt, a simple mystery, or a fun little puzzle. The players run through the plot. They get a sense of accomplishment, but beyond that everything is the same.

A good MCRPG author will break that pattern by making sure that every single singular plot makes some change to the world or its inhabitants.

One of my suggestions for MCRPG episodic plots, two columns ago, was that you always leave yourself two "threads" that could generate additional plots in the future. Those plot threads represent change; they represent how things are different, and how players might have to react to those differences. Think about those threads and those differences when plotting.

Over at Skotos Tech our first game, Castle Marrach, was very plot-heavy. There were actually very few game systems when the game first came online over a year ago, and thus a lot of weight was put on telling stories. In the first few months of the game the plots that were the most interesting, intriguing, and fun, were those that caused change:

  • The Poets' Convocation. In the weeks leading up to the first modern convocation of poets in Castle Marrach, a mysterious organization wrote scandalous poetry about the Queen of the Castle. Then, at the convocation, the players got to meet several of the nobles of the Castle for the first time. The change here was one of perception: people learned that there might be dissension among the peoples of the Castle and also that the nobles of the Inner Bailey might not be quite as noble as they seemed.
  • The Duel Between Edouard and Roland. After hasty words and growing animosities Edouard, an elder of the Duelists, finally agreed to duel Armsman Roland, a member of another martial group, the Winter Watch. Much to everyone's surprise Roland died, the victim of a strange and deadly poison. Not only was the death of Roland a very direct change, but it also caused a change in the feelings between the Duelists and the Winter Watch.
  • The Knight's Challenge. In this event three players were given the opportunity to change themselves by competing for knighthood. The results of the event will continue to cause changes in the Castle for a long time: as knight hopefuls consider the tests that were used to determine the worthiness of the three and as members of the Castle react to the change in status of one of their fellows.

If you look at the example singular plot that I wrote back in Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Two you'll see that it also had the opportunity for dramatic change. I suggested that the Duelists might be destroyed and forced to go underground, or that, alternatively, Victor Savary, an old villain in the Castle, might be outcast. I also offered some unanswered mysteries and introduced a new type of magic whose origin was unknown. All of that was change, and all of it introduced singular plot threads which could be expanded into new episodic plots.

As a gamemaster, plot developer, and world builder you should always be willing to introduce change into your world--into every plot. You should be willing to change absolutely everything that you have created, in the name of good stories. More specifically:

Don't be afraid to change your NPCs. Though you may have grown attached to the dozens of characters which you use to help tell your stories, don't forget their purpose. They're there to help you drive plots. That's it. As much as you might enjoy playing them, they're not your alterego in the same way that a player character would be. You need to subsume their interests to the interests of the story.

Also remember that the episodic medium of MCRPGs makes it somewhat hard to develop character arcs, because those pesky characters never go quite what you wanted them to. NPCs offer a great alternative, a great way to portray a significant transition in a person without having to railroad a PC in the process.

So don't be afraid to kill or maim your NPCs if it'll make for a good story. Likewise, don't be afraid to lift them up, raising them above their current status.

Perhaps the most powerful change is an internal change of philosophy. Through the actions of a plot an NPC might come to question the tenets of his life: his attitude toward life, death, religion, war, marriage, love, hate ... whatever. And this questioning can eventually lead to moving change.

Don't be afraid to change your backstory. As you developed your game, or as you've run it, you've doubtless come up with an interesting backstory upon which everything is built. That doesn't mean it's set in stone. In fact: Your backstory isn't actually part of the game until you've revealed it to the players. (With thanks, I believe, to Robin Laws' Hero Wars for that philosophy.)

So don't be afraid to create plots that change your imagined backstory. Even after you've revealed backstory, don't be afraid to modify it and change it in ways that make sense when creating plots. Perhaps the last King actually had a bastard son, or perhaps the last Queen kept her lunatic mother locked in the dungeons and she's still there, or perhaps, perhaps ...

You can change backstory, invalidate backstory, add backstory, or even just change how your players view the backstory. The possibilities of endless.

This, along with the changes to background noted next, are some of the most common results of plot arcs.

  • Don't be afraid to change your background. Finally, even after you've built out an extensive background, full of towns and villages and churches ... or space stations and asteroids or whatever ... don't hesitate to make major changes to it. Sure, it might hurt to destroy that neat little village that you lavished a week of work upon, but wouldn't it make a great story to have a disaster strike the hamlet, with players forced to try and rebuild in the aftermath? And, not all these changes have to be destructive. When a mysterious tower appears in the middle of a previously empty field or when a secret door reveals a passage down to unknown catacombs, the world has changed.

    ... Is Good for the Player

    Changing backgrounds and backstories and NPCs are all things that you as a gamemaster or world builder have the ability to do. That type of change is correctly at the heart of most singular plots that you'll write. However, it ignores an important point in MCRPGs--one that I'll touch on briefly again next week.

    INTERACTIVITY.

    There are players in your game, and your stories will be better and much more personal if their characters can significantly transition too. There are a couple of possibilities here, which can be neatly grouped into two categories: tangible changes and intangible changes.

    Tangible Changes are easy. You simply need to create plots that will offer a change in status to players. Plots that allow players to join organizations, or gain some higher rank, or discover some new knowledge, or make new friends all fit into this category and are pretty easy to accomplish with forethought.

    Intangible Changes are harder to implement because they change what characters feel, think, or believe. The problem is that players don't have much incentive to make this type of intangible change and you don't want to force them to do it either. However, this type of change will probably result in the most fulfilling plots because they'll involve meaningful emotion and will have lasting impact on players.

    In order to support this type of change in your plots, and not be a ham-fisted Dragonlancian gamemaster, you need to subtly encourage change. Give your players incentives, not requirements. This can be a bit tricky, but I've had success with a variety of methods:

    • Create plots which include hard decisions that force players to decide between multiple things that they believe in.
    • Create plots which force players to reconsider what they believe by presenting things as true which they had believed to be false, or by presenting things as false which they had believed to be true.
    • Offer changes to player's status--either by giving or taking away--and see if their new circumstances cause them to react in a different way.
    • Place players in situations that are unusual or unsuspected based on their normal activities, and see how they react there.
    • When players do begin to change, help to push them along by offering commentary on the change from NPCs; encourage other players to do so as well.

    Most of these rules follow the same basic precept: ordinary people in extraordinary situations will do extraordinary things. Try and draw that out, to let players surprise themselves and you with what they do.

    It'll cause change and change is good ...

    Afterword

    Next week I'm finally finishing up my discussions on plot by covering a few minor topics that didn't quite make a full article each. I want to talk about revision--how to smooth out a plot. And, I want to talk about why plot is a terrible thing in MCRPGs.

    I'll see you in 7.


    Once again I need to credit an original article from Skotos Tech. This is a rewrite of a piece I did early this year called This Blessed Plot, Part Three. I went through redrafting it paragraph by paragraph to represent my new understandings about the line between singular and episodic plot, but still it's very definitely not an original 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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