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Thinking Virtually

#9: StoryTelling in RPGs, Part Two

Shannon & Kimberly Appelcline
April 23, 2001  

Welcome to last lap of a month and a half long marathon. If you've been reading this column to date, you've already seen Kimberly's five-part series on The Elements of Good StoryTelling, which outlined the core elements required for any type of fiction. Setting, character, plot, and backstory. Kimberly's five articles were mostly theoretical, describing the big picture of how those elements should be used.

Just before I wrote last week's article, Kimberly and I brainstormed on how her theoretical ideas could be made concrete--how they could be applied to RPGs, made to work with the genre's strengths and weaknesses. Last week I covered setting and character in roleplaying games; this week I'm going to close things up by discussing plot and backstory. Just like last time around I'm going to analyze both tabletop roleplaying games (TRPGs) and multiplayer computer roleplaying games (MCRPGs).

Plots in RPGs

I touched upon plot a little bit last week, noting that in TRPGs "plot is king". In most tabletop RPGs it really is plot that's driving things--that is causing players to get out and do things. The importance of plot falls off somewhat in MCRPGs where so much of the action revolves around interactions with other players and with the setting--but it's still something that a StoryTeller needs to consider carefully.

TRPGs and MCRPGs share three characteristics which force plot to work in very different ways in their mediums: they are interactive; they are ongoing; and they encourage roleplaying. I want to look at each of those in turn.

The interactivity of roleplaying games has the largest effect on plot. You actually can't just lay out a plot and expect things to work that way. Instead you have to give players the opportunity to make their own choices and let the plots develop around them. Exploring all the ramifications of the interactivity of roleplaying games would require several articles, but the following are a few of the ways that you can insure plots are more interactive

  • Be Ready for the Unexpected. This is required no matter what method you use to try and increase the interactivity of your plots. No matter what preparations you make, your players are going to do something unexpected. Be ready for them to make a totally unexpected decision. Be ready for them to fail when you thought they would succeed. Be ready for them to run off on their own path, 180 degrees from where you thought they'd go.
  • Determine Key Events. There are, however, ways that you can try and keep players from running too far afield: one of these is by plotting out key events. These might be "choke points" that the plot has to move through to continue or they could be "core events" which occur no matter what the players do. By having these key events you can keep some control over where players go without totally railroading them--in the end they return to a point that you're familiar with.
  • Plot Situations. Of course you can ignore the whole problem of how to determine where players are going by not trying to figure it out beforehand. I've known many a gamemaster who has espoused the virtues of only plotting out situations, then letting players go whichever way they want. You can't necessarily plot our as good of a story with this method but you get a huge win in interactivity.

Before I finish talking about interactivity I'd like to offer a pointer to Digest Group Publication's later MegaTraveller adventures. They used something called the "Cinematic Nugget Format" which offered players the opportunity to go off in multiple directions while still drawing them back to "key nuggets". Silly terminology; good design.

The ongoing nature of RPGs offers plotting problems that are also found in television shows and comic books. Games don't have beginnings, middles, and ends; instead they form continuums. There might be well-plotted stories inside that continuum, but the question remains: what do you do with the overall shape of the campaign or game? As a StoryTeller you need to figure out how form arcs which carry plot beyond individual stories; you need to figure out how to change characters from story-to-story. It's a delicate act of constantly building tension, of intertwining and overlapping plots.

Finally, we're brought to the question of roleplaying. The fact that RPGs are a medium where you take on other roles doesn't change how you form plots. Rather it changes what plots you should run. In general you want to create plots that do not center around intellectual questions. Mysteries and puzzles are two types of plots that should be avoided. These both depend upon intelligence, and inevitably that's going to fall back to the intelligence of the player not the intelligence of the player character. Letting a player figure out problems in ways that his character might not be able to can cause a temporary suspension of roleplaying, dropping players out of your world's reality.

(Does this last point sound pretty dogmatic? It is. But I'll contend that while it's very possible to roleplay a different character it's quite hard to roleplay a different intelligence. A good roleplayer might be able to play a character dumber than himself, but how about one that's notably more intelligent?)

As I've already mentioned MCRPGs face all the same plotting challenges as TRPGs. Everything above applies to both mediums. However MCRPGs also face one additional issue: numbers of players. A tabletop gamemaster might run a game for 3-8 people but in the multiplayer online world those numbers multiply. A good StoryTeller for a MCRPG has to figure out how to create a plot that might entertain hundreds of people, either sequentially or at the same time.

Not a simple task.

Backstory in RPGs

That brings us to the last of the four major elements of good StoryTelling: backstory. As with plot, the changes you need to make for backstory tend to be the same for both TRPGs and MCRPGs. However, there are two types of distinctive backstory in an RPG: that created by the StoryTeller and that written by the players.

The StoryTeller's backstory follows most of the rules discussed in "Imagining Backstory". There are two big questions however: how do you communicate the backstory and how much backstory do you give out?

In "Imagining Backstory" Kimberly describes three ways to communicate backstory: narration, dialogue, and description. The first two work pretty well in all RPGs, while description has some application in TRPGs and a lot more in MCRPGs, as noted in the discussions of setting last week. However, these three methods are often not enough.

When reading a work of fiction a reader comes in without any past knowledge of the setting and the author doles it out on a need-to-know basis. This is not the case when a player takes on the role of a character who has lived his entire life in a fantasy world. He should know a lot about the world. The StoryTeller has three options, all of which I've seen employed:

  • Dole out a minimal amount of information about backstory, then pause and offer more whenever it is required, just like a fiction author does.
  • Make players read huge tome-like quantities of information on backstory.
  • Offer a compromise by writing short Q&A forms detailing the high points of backstory.

Of course a StoryTeller could short-circuit the whole problem by deciding that the players' characters actually don't know anything. In order to accomplish this a StoryTeller must offer a good reason why, such as: the characters are from another world; the characters are from an isolated culture; or the players have all experienced blunt trauma to the head.

Unfortunately, limiting backstory can have adverse effects because it's backstory that will interest players in a game and that will help them find motivation for their actions. Limiting backstory can also limit plot. A StoryTeller must find the right balance.

The question of the player's backstory raises some other interesting problems, primarily because of the possibilities of a disconnect between the backstory of a player and the backstory of the StoryTeller. A StoryTeller must simultaneously encourage players to develop their backstory--because it lends depths to their characters and thus the entire campaign--and discourage backstory that's inconsistent with the game world. But, at the same time, a StoryTeller needs to respect the backstory desires of a player. Though a StoryTeller offers the main vision for a game, the players are contributing to that story as well and they shouldn't be totally ignored when they have backstory desires that might be different than the StoryTeller's.

Player's backstory in RPGs can have one other interesting characteristic which sets it apart from most other media: it can be dynamic. A player might have a strong idea of his character's backstory in his head, but he's only going to be able to transmit so much of it to the other players. At any time a player can choose to modify his unrevealed backstory without affecting the integrity of the overall game.

This modification could be a change ("I've decided that my character comes from a monastery rather than a sacked village") or an addition ("Ah yes, the monk that we just met, I think I might have known him in my childhood"). A gamemaster will often have to choose whether to accept this new backstory or not, but if it makes a better story, he often will.

I mention this possible technique for backstory in the player's section primarily because players might be unhappy with a gamemaster if he suddenly changes things ... but he could if he wanted. This technique is also very common in comic books, where it tends to be called "retroactive continuity" (or "retcons").

A Summary

Let me finish up with a quick summary, as all the articles in this series have. Both TRPGs and MCRPGs face many of the same challenges in adapting the rules of plot and backstory.

When creating RPG plots a StoryTeller should keep several things in mind:

  • RPGs are interactive. Thus RPG plots must account for player freewill.
  • RPGs are ongoing. Thus RPG plots should build into larger arcs which define entire campaigns or games.
  • RPGs are roleplaying. Thus RPG plots need to avoid story types which might break down the fourth wall between player and character.

In addition there's one more plot rule for MCRPG StoryTellers:

  • MCRPGs are massively multiplayer. Thus MCRPG plots should be written to entertain large numbers of players.

Different concerns arise regarding backstory for StoryTellers and players.

A StoryTeller must remember:

  • Backstory can be limited; he must decide how much to reveal to new characters.
  • Backstory Information dumps may be required for characters in an existing culture.
A player should remember:
  • Backstory must be consistent with the gamemaster's view of the world.
  • Backstory can be dynamic as the game progress.

And that brings me to a close on The Elements of Good StoryTelling. The last seven week have laid a foundation, but it's really just a start. There's lots more room for discussion on all of these topics: I've got nearly a dozen articles on plot alone, either written over at Skotos or planned for new columns either here or there. I hope to return to lots of these topics in the future as we continue building a foundation for RPGs in the virtual age.

Next week I'd like to take a pause and offer a statement of purpose for this column. With two months under my belt I think I've figured out what I'm talking about.

See you in 7. Kimberly Appelcline is the author of the original Elements of StoryTelling series. Shannon Appelcline 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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