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Thinking Virtually

#26: Episodic Plots, Part Three: RPGs

by Shannon Appelcline
September 24, 2001  

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
--Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

For the past two weeks, I've been closing in on a target: the episodic medium of Multiplayer Computer Role Playing Games (MCRPGs). But, though I've wanted to investigate how to tell great episodic stories in MCRPGs, I felt that getting there would take a little bit of zeroing in.

Television shows offered a great first example of how episodic mediums can work. They're well known and well understood by just about everyone. However, they concentrate a lot more on singular plots than episodic plots; it's a rare television show that doesn't offer a high degree of closure for each individual episode.

After that I moved on to comic books, another episodic medium, and one that's much closer to the medium of MCRPGs. Like MCRPGs, the audience of comic books is somewhere captive; they tend to keep coming back week after week, and this allows comic books plots to be much more episodic. There often isn't plot closure for months, sometimes even years at a time.

If you haven't read the first two articles in this mini-series, I suggest it:

This week I want to take yet one more step toward MCRPGs by investigating a third and final episodic medium: tabletop RPGs. Again, like comic books and MCRPGs, RPGs tend to have a captive audience and thus can concentrate on episodic plots without worrying about losing their audience. In addition, RPGs have another great benefit: they're interactive. And thus they provide the closest analogy to MCRPGs that we're going to find before we actually get there.

This week's article is going to be structured like the last two--first examining how the medium creates singular plots, then looking at episodic plot structures. Next week, I'm going to bring this whole examination of episodic plots to a close when I try and draw my discussions to date together into a cohesive whole--a blueprint for MCRPG gamemasters.

Interlude: Singular Plots in RPGs

As with comic books, the structure for singular plots in RPGs is little discussed and poorly understood. Yet, there is structure there that you can discover if you consider some of the more frequently used plot structures. I believe that the two most common singular plot structures for RPGs, both described by Kimberly back in Plot Strategies are probably: The Episodic Plot, where characters meet and overcome obstacles, but the overall tensions doesn't increase; and The Mountain Plot, where each new obstacle ratchets up the level of tension for the overall story. Either way, there's usually a really big climax at the end.

That's the structure of most singular RPG plots, but it doesn't really describe their foundation--what the plots are built upon. In RPGs singular plots usually are built on one of two things: background or events.

In background-oriented singular plots, the entire "story" is built into a preexisting locale. Think of classics like The Tomb of Horrors (1978) or White Plume Mountain (1979). The obstacles to be overcome are built into the landscape of the location, and as heroes advance forward they will often meet increasingly dangerous obstacles, ramping up the tension level.

Done poorly this type of singular plot only deserves the title of "dungeon crawl". And, indeed, many RPG adventure designers have turned away from this type of story because there is so much opportunity to do it badly.

However if done well rooms will not just be places where characters kill things. Instead individual locations in a background-oriented singular plot can help characters to put together a story and thus participate in it.

A few years ago I wrote an entirely background-oriented singular plot for the Pendragon supplement Tales of Magic & Miracles called "The Adventure of the Holy Sword". In it I carefully laid out the story of what had happened when a previous group of adventurers had tried to solve the mystery of a magical Golden Glade. Their decisions, and the curses that they that group had accidently fallen afoul of, laid out the setting for what the player characters faced. Hopefully, as players participate in that story they put together the pieces, see what happened before, and figure out how they can avoid meeting the same fate.

Much more common nowadays are event-oriented singular plots. Many elements of plot are still keyed to specific physical locations, but there's also an underlying set of events which will either occur on their own or be set off by players as the plot proceeds.

The epic campaign Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Call of Cthulhu is a good example of an event-oriented plot. You still do have specific locales, like the ancient city that lies beyond the Mountains of Madness, but the majority of the adventure is keyed to careful descriptions of what can happen on a day-by-day basis.

Interlude: Plot Nuggets in RPGs

Digest Group Publications, who used to produce some of the best supplements for Traveller made the only attempt that I'm aware of to actually structure singular plots in RPGs. They created something called "The Cinematic Nugget Format" and used it to outline how their event-oriented singular plots worked.

Here's a description of the format, taken from an ad for Knightfall which appeared in The Travellers' Digest #21 (1990):

Each scenario is composed of several nuggets: some are just for atmosphere, but others are identified as key nuggets that must be played.

Each nugget has a scene (information for the players on what they see, hear, taste, and feel at the start of the nugget) and an action (information to referee on how to run the action in the nugget). Each scenario has a referee's summary on the first page, with a brief description of each nugget by number. This summary includes a special synopsis diagram showing visually how the nuggets fit together.

A diagram would then lay out how those nuggets fit together. For example, nugget 1 and nugget 2 might both be "Key" nuggets--with nugget 1 leading to nugget 2 in most adventures.. You might be able to get to non-essential nugget 3 from either 1 or 2. In addition, there might be two nuggets, 4 and 5, which you could get to either from nugget 3 or from each other.

Easy. It allowed for dramatic tension thanks to the key nuggets, but also provided for a lot of free will because players didn't have to do everything in exactly the right way to succeed.

Query: What is an Episodic Plot?

The exact question of when a singular adventure becomes an episodic adventure in RPGs is actually a somewhat difficult one. The main reason for this is that there is a disparity between creators and consumers.

In television or comic books the creator can usually presume that a single episode will be consumed in a single sitting. You're usually going to watch all of a television show or read an entire comic book at one time.

However, the same thing can't be said about RPGs. A creator makes a cohesive whole of some type, whether it be a 16-page adventure or a 500-page campaign. Then an individual gamemaster takes that cohesive whole and may or may not break it up into individual episodes, depending on the time constraints of his own gaming group and the length of the supplement.

So, in this entirely different type of medium, how do we define a singular plot versus an episodic plot?

I'm going to take a dogmatic view and say that a singular plot is defined as an entirely cohesive written unit with a solid beginning, middle, and end and a fairly coherent plot and set of characters. This usually corresponds to an individual supplement, though in cases of anthologies it would probably apply to an individual adventure in that supplement.

Why am I insisting that a very long adventure, that might be actually played in numerous episodes, is still singular? Mainly because gamemasters don't usually worry about pulling in players at the start of a night's play or climaxing things at the end. Most plot structures will be built into the written adventure rather than an evening's night of play, and thus even when run in multiple segments, long adventures tend to remain singular.

Connected Adventures

And that brings us to the episodic adventures which, as it turns out, have been around since almost the beginning of the RPG medium.

The first module put out for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). It told the singular story of adventurers cleaning out a clan of hill giants. It was a mere 8 pages long (1).

However, as the year progressed, it became obvious that G1 was a part of something bigger. Before 1978 was out two more episodes had appeared: G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, also 8 pages, and G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King, a 16-page monster. You could argue by my earlier definition that these three adventures actually made up one singular story because they were fairly cohesive, but on the other hand each had a different setting and characters and its own beginning, middle, and end.

And, no matter if those G-modules were three singular plots or one, what came next was clearly a part of an episodic plot.D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978) took a plot thread from G3, which had introduced the underground Drow, then spun it into a whole new series of supplements which later included D2: Shrine of the Kuo-toa (1978) and D3: Vault of the Drow (1978). With the Drow and Kuo-Toa dealt with, the players would eventually move on to face the evil demigoddess, Lolth in Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

Stringing together series of related yet separate modules never was a huge thing in the roleplaying industry, but there are quite a few other instances. TSR published the Aerie of the Slavelords series (1980-1981), The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985), and the Desert of Desolation series (1982-1983). FASA's famous Sky Raiders trilogy (1981-1982) is one of the few series put out by a company other than TSR.

So what do these connected series of stories tell us about episodic plots in RPGs?

Mainly they point out that the art of creating episodic plots in RPGs is something like creating a musical score. In the GDQ series there were certain repeating themes, such as fighting giants in each of G1 through G3. In addition, as one theme slowly faded out (the giants), another one would rise to the fore (the drow). Another good analogy is the braided plots that I described last weeks for comics. By bringing these different elements together, and overlapping them in time, you create a true episodic plot.

The other thing that's interesting to note is that all of these continuing stories involved plot arcs, not character arcs. This isn't a big surprise, given that the characters tend to to be players, and that the module writer has no idea what their stories might be. It's somewhat of a flaw of the published RPG genre, where there's a basic disconnect between the module writer and the gamemaster on the issue of characters.

In any case as we progress forward we'll see that plot arcs are the prime mover in RPGs, with the exception of a notable experiment which ran from 1984-1986, and which we'll get to eventually ...

Campaign Settings

But right now we're just at the cusp of the "Me" decade and the introduction of the next important step in the evolution of episodic plots in RPGs: The World of Greyhawk (1980). There had been campaign settings before, notably as the basis of RuneQuest (1978) (2) and Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). But, it was Greyhawk which first really put campaigns center stage and brought them into the public view.

A campaign offered a very different way of looking at things. Adventures were no longer self-contained, connected together solely by the personalities who happened to journey through the individual adventures. Instead they became part of an actual physical place.

The copy of the World of Greyhawk that I own is the second edition, published in 1983. I still remember the feeling of revelation when I chanced across page 30 of the Glossography and found a list of twenty-four TSR modules, and a careful listing of where exactly each one took place in the World of Greyhawk. It was like I'd suddenly learned that a number of puzzle pieces I had before thought disconnected were all part of the same puzzle.

In and of themselves campaign settings can be dry and dull things. Your players probably don't carry what style of hat they're wearing in Furyondy this year or what the coinage of the Pomarj is or whether the Grand Duchy of Geoff is an oligarchy, a democracy, or a plutocracy.

But campaigns can also give you considerable power because they offer a background which can change and react to what the players do--a place that can change in response to their adventures, that will still exist even when individual adventures are completed.

And that was a great start.

An Evolving World

Game publishers were pretty quick in catching on to the fact that static campaign settings didn't necessarily add a lot to the gaming experience. In 1979, actually a year before World of Greyhawk was published, the second issue of a little magazine called The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (JTAS) appeared--and it expanded upon the idea of a static campaign world quite a bit.

The background of Traveller before this had been a fairly vague "Imperium". In fact, it was years later before Atlas of the Imperium (1984) appeared. Despite that, though, back in 1979 JTAS offered an interesting new way to look at campaigns. Where TSR would concentrate on backgrounds with their 1980 Greyhawk release, Traveller instead concentrated on events with its regular "Traveller News Service"--which listed some of the most important happenings in one corner of the Imperium.

Gamemasters could take random events from the TNS and introduce them into their own campaigns. Every new issue of JTAS would feature a few more pages of TNS--each time advanced forward a few months in time. If gamemasters continued to include TNS excerpts, players would slowly see a background story evolving: of the war against the Zhodani and the secrets of the Ancients and more.

In later years Traveller would take its background events to an extreme, where things were changing so much that their players became frustrated and mad. In MegaTraveller (1987) they killed off the Emperor (maybe) and threw the entire Imperium into chaos. In Traveller: the New Era (1993) they blew up the whole Imperium with a computer virus and left players to pick up the pieces. Both of these events butted heads against a major problem in plotting RPGs which we'll look into more in depths in the weeks to come: taking away free will from the players. We'll get back to that ...

In the meantime it's worthwhile mentioning that many other RPG companies have created not just campaign backgrounds, but evolving campaign backgrounds--just like Traveller did. A few are notable for how differently they did things.

Torg (1990) offered a continually advanced plot arc which was moved forward in just about every supplement. And, it tried to bridge the gap between game designers and individual gamemasters by allowing gaming groups to report back on what had happened in their individual campaigns; West End Games then evolved the published plot arc based on average responses. It was a strategy that probably made some of the people happy some of the time ... but also made obvious the grave problems in trying to push a plot arc down from the publisher.

The Boy King (1991), a supplement for Pendragon briefly outlined a 75(!)-year arc for a campaign, but did it in very broad strokes, and even noted that players might change how things turned out. This offered gamemasters a great skeleton for a campaign, but gave them unprecedented freedom in using it.

Although some fans had issues with how each game advanced it own plot arcs, there's little doubt that every one of them was effective in creating large, changing game worlds which were bigger than the individual episodes that made them up. And thus they advanced the idea of episodic plots in RPGs.

Overall, the medium of RPGs offers quite a few new lessons which we can use to improve our understanding of episodic plots, as first discovered in television shows and comics books.

  • In a medium where the plot designers and those people who run the plots are actually different, the question of what is singular and what is episodic can be difficult.
  • Though RPGs have typically pushed plot arcs rather than characters arcs, this is because of the aforementioned limitation. Individual gamemasters are hopefully developing character arcs of their own.
  • Individual arcs can be strung together by thinking of them like songs: some themes will rise to the forefront as others fade away.
  • Looking at the bigger world that surrounds individual adventures can begin to shape plot arcs in and off itself.
  • When that overall world beings to evolve--and not just in reaction to players--you have greatly increased opportunity to tell longer, more intricate stories.

Digression: The Dragonlance Experience

Before I close up the world of published RPGs I want to look at an interesting departure from the standard ideas about RPG plots. I want to look at the Dragonlance modules, published between 1984 and 1986, for the AD&D system.

The Dragonlance adventures were truly innovative because they made it their goal to tell an extended story. Supplement by supplement--to sixteen total, including one war game and one set of short adventures--a single plot arc advanced: the War of the Lance. Ancient evils were unleashed and the players slowly uncovered the mysterious magics necessary to combat them.

But, there was something else that made this series of adventures different: the players roleplayed preexisting characters who naturally evolved as the supplements proceeded, no matter what the players did. In other words, the Dragonlance authors incorporated character arcs by telling gamemasters what happened to the characters as the adventures went by.

Totally innovative and interesting. It turned roleplaying into something more akin to improv theatre. Players could still roleplay, but they now did so within constraints which allowed for meaningful changes in their characters.

The Dragonlance modules did very well, but as far as I know that was primarily due to the simultaneously released novels. I know of few people who actually tried to play the railroaded plots and characters and lots who, like me, purchased the Dragonlance adventures just because we'd enjoyed the plots of the novels and figured we'd want to run the adventures ... someday.

In talking about Traveller I already mentioned the dangers of not giving players (or gamemasters) sufficient free will. It really becomes an issue when you start thinking about plot arcs and character arcs--where you want to figure out what happens not just for a single adventure, but rather for a more extended campaign. Clearly, this danger was a big issue in Dragonlance too, and I think ultimately a failure of the adventures. Players had too little free choice.

This is something that we didn't encounter when looking at the entirely receptive genres of television and comic books, but something that we'll have to keep watching for when we move into MCRPGs

Reflections on Reality

A lot of what I've discussed in this week's column is really big picture--specifically the episodic plots being passed down to gamemasters from game designers. And, as we've seen, it's hard for game designers to hand down plot arcs and character arcs because they may run at odds with the realities of an actual game.

In games that I've gamemastered I've had the ability to be a little more sophisticated in how I run episodic plots--because I can react to the character's actions and continue to develop plots in a way that doesn't railroad them.

Here's a few techniques that I've personally used:

Continuing Characters. For most RPGs I've had a folder of NPCs who occasionally interacted with the characters. Whenever I had a big gathering--a tournament in Pendragon or a tribunal in Ars Magica--I'd bring back numerous old friends, often advancing their own character arcs as I did by asking the question: "What has this NPC been doing since I last saw him?"

Player Character Arcs. I've usually spent a lot of time building and advancing player character arcs based on interests, advantages, and disadvantages that an individual might possess. In Pendragon this might have been a missing father or a beautiful woman that was being courted. In Ars Magica this was frequently moving forward on a major character goal or dealing with problems of the past.

Home Bases. Pretty much every type of arc--plot arcs, NPC arcs, and PC arcs--can be improved by giving players a strong home base: a covenant, a manor, a castle, an inn, whatever. This provides a dramatically increased palette of NPCs to constantly interact with and also allows for extended arcs which might center around specific locales, because the locale doesn't change.

1 + 2 = 4. One of the simplest techniques that I used for introducing episodic plots into games was a really simple rule: "Build on one old plot thread each session; leave at least two loose ends that can later be build on." This allowed me to constantly revisit the people and things which were most interesting to the players and slowly weave them into larger narratives.

I have the good fortune of having written logs about a lot of my favorite campaigns. If you've an Ars Magica fan you might want to check them out, particularly the "Vardian's Tomb" campaign, as an example of using episodic plots in a real environment; if you're not an Ars Magica fan, they're probably bore you because they're very, very long. In any case, they're at my home web site.

And that's about it for this week. Next week I'm going to bring the discussion of episodic plots to an end by hitting a few episodic mediums I've ignored, seeing how things have traditionally been done on MCRPGs, and finally putting together the pieces from these last weeks into one cohesive whole.


I'll see you in 7.

End Notes

  1. Other than my RPG collection my prime resource this time around was a superb book called Heroic Worlds by Lawrence Schick. It calls itself "A History and Guide to Role-playing Games" and is highly, highly recommended if you'd like to know what was published in the medium from the dawn of time to 1991. The downside, clearly, is that it's now a decade out of date.
  2. RuneQuest offers a great microcosm for the entire RPG genre in looking at how much things have changed regarding campaigns and other sorts of episodic plots. In the first edition of RuneQuest (1978) it was obvious that there was a strong background in the world of Glorantha, but it didn't get a lot of screen time. There were a few maps of Dragon Pass and the nearby lands, but not much beyond that. Later supplements introduced some lands and gods but in a sporadic way. It took the third edition of RuneQuest (1985) for real comprehensive views of Glorantha to be offered, in supplements like Gods of Glorantha (1985) and Glorantha: Crucible of the Hero Wars (1988). And it wasn't until the publication of Hero Wars (1999) that the events of Glorantha really came alive and that it became obvious that a narrative thread would slowly draw the plot arc of the world forward.

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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