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Thinking Virtually

#23: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Three

by Shannon Appelcline
August 27, 2001  

When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model,
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection,
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or at least desist
To build at all?
--Henry IV, Part Two, William Shakespeare

Welcome back, to the third and final week discussing the structure of plot in Hollywood movies, and how that structure might be applied online games. If you've been with me to date, you've already read my description of how plot works on the big screen and seen an example of how to apply it to an online game.

And, if you haven't been, you should go back and read the last two weeks of articles:

For the last two weeks I've been talking about how great the Hollywood movie plot structure was for online games. This week I want discuss how that actually isn't the case at all.

You see, Hollywood movies tend to include certain aspects which are totally inappropriate for online games. They tend to be about a single protagonist or a pair of protagonists--true ensemble films are fairly rare. There's no interactivity; the writer figures out what's going to happen and the audience doesn't get a vote. And, except when they succumb to sequelitis, movies are one-off stories. The author doesn't need to worry about building a narrative that's part of a longer story.

None of these things are true of MCRPGs. So, though the movie plot structure offers an excellent foundation for singular online plots, it must be built upon very carefully.

That's what I'm going to talk about this week, addressing each of these three major points in turn: multiplayer applicability, interactivity, and continuity.

Some of these topics I'm also going to expand upon in the weeks to come.

The Problem of Multiplayer Applicability

Unlike Hollywood films, online prose plots should involve multiple people. You could run a plot for just one person, but barring a 1-to-1 ratio of gamemasters to players that's going to leave a lot of participants pretty unsatisfied.

So, to start off with, when you're plotting you need to figure out how to make sure you have more than one protagonist. In my story last week, I did this via the simplest method. I put an entire organization in jeopardy and thus forced all the members of that organization to participate. Less dramatically, you could present a plot that will be of interest to an organization, and then some members will participate.

You can also expand the pool of protagonists for a plot by having a large event. Balls, festivals, tournaments, contests, and recitals are all excellent ways to involve a lot of people.

Finally, you could also involve a large number of people by having something happen that's big enough to be noticed by many of the participants of your game world. Inevitably a number will band together if the results of the event require some action.

But, in an online game you can go beyond all of this. You don't have to just attract protagonists to a plot. You can attract antagonists too. (In fact, the line between the two can often become blurry in this medium.)

If you look back through my plot last week you'll see I did this as much as I could. A disgruntled player sets things into motion. Members of the Winter Watch and the Royal Guard have major roles in the fall and rise of the Duelists. I do use a few gamemaster characters (Serista, Launfal, Boreas, and Victor), but I try and do it sparingly and mostly at crucial points in the narrative, so that most of the time players are at the center of the story, doing things. (And, to be honest, the whole idea of gamemaster characters can become totally superfluous in an online game. If you trust someone to be a really good roleplayer, why not give them a major "gamemaster" character to play?)

There's a corollary to the rule I presented above: There must be enough stuff for a large number of players to do. In last week's example, there's probably a lot of room for a multitude of players to take important parts in the plot. The investigations can be widely carried out and there are a few places where a group of people get to react--together--in response to surprising situations.

I do narrow the plot down to a single player in the final battle scene. I'm not convinced it was the best choice, but it fit my dramatic sensibilities, and it made sense for the story I was telling.

Despite the fact that you do need to involve a lot of players, you also need drama and heroes. Just don't do it a lot and be aware when you choose to push a single hero forward in a plot, and also make sure that different heroes can rise up in different stories.

The Problem of Interactivity

Interactivity is a lot harder problem to resolve. In fact, it's the core difficulty of introducing plots to any type of RPG.

Put quite simply, unlike Hollywood films, online prose plots should not be entirely predetermined. That's slightly difficult to reconcile with the whole idea of laying out a structure for your plot, but it is possible. You just need to describe the most likely series of outcomes and be aware that things might not end up that way.

In an online prose game, characters will want to make choices, so you've got to allow them that opportunity in your plots. You need to lay out the scene, make the best guesses you can about how the players will react, and then see what actually happens. So, in my example I offered up a bad situation (being framed) and then tried to guess what the protagonists would do (investigate via a few different routes).

If you have any pivotal points in your plot that can be spoiled by players not taking expected actions, you should pinpoint them and figure out alternatives. Looking at my plot from last week I can find quite a few:

  • Antagonist doesn't frame the Duelists or doesn't do it well. This could be offset by giving a few people the opportunity to frame the Duelists or by supplementing it with gamemaster character work if needed.
  • Duelists can't gather evidence to clear themselves. If there was plenty of evidence and they just didn't find it, then the Duelists should be allowed to fail. Otherwise, more evidence might need to be offered up.
  • Duelists don't run when Boreas threatens to imprison them. This would short-circuit the second half of Act II, but would still end with the Duelists where we want them, in prison at the end of Act III.
  • Duelists don't try and stop the assassination of Borea. Our antagonists are forced to come up with another stratagem to put the final nail in the Duelists' coffin. This will take some more thought, but possibilities include a second frame of the Duelists or enchanting a few members and having them actually attempt an assassination.

Even after you've looked through your plot and identified trouble spots where things might go off track, you should be aware that two times out of three players will do something really unexpected and everything will go to hell. If you can get your plot back on track later, great, but definitely make sure you give the players' actions fair consideration and that you allow the world to respond to them in a rational way.

Finally, in an interactive story you must allow opportunity for either success or failure. This is why I ended my final scene last week without listing an outcome. I didn't want to influence myself when the outcome should be open and fair. This would be even more important if I'd set up another player or organization as the main antagonist rather than a gamemaster character (Victor)--in that case you'd need to be sure that the story was fair to both the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Problem of Continuity

And that brings us to our last consideration: continuity. I'm going to be spending the next four weeks on this topic, in various forms, but it's worth some introductory notes here.

Unlike Hollywood films, online prose plots should be a part of a larger story. As with my discussion of multiple protagonists, I didn't use the word must here. It's not a law, just a really good idea.

First, this means that there must be change (though to be honest that's a requirement of good plots in general). How are things different at the end of the plot than the beginning? At the end of last week's plot someone has fled into the Catacombs beneath Marrach ... perhaps Victor and his evil friends, perhaps the Duelists. In addition, the stress caused by the dissolution of the Duelists might have caused change in many relationships among the Duelists.

Second, you should make use of past plots and set up future plots. This is what I'm going to start talking about next week. However, looking back at last week's example, I think you'll see how I accomplished this.

The plot is built entirely upon the animosity that Victor Savary feels to the Duelists due to being cast out years before (it's exaggerated; if I actually ran this plot I'd show Victor's growing animosity over a period of months beforehand). It also echoes an early duel in the history of Castle Marrach, where Martel, a young Duelist, faced up against the evil Victor; when I wrote the plot, Martel was still one of the best young duelists in the Castle, so the likelihood would have been high that he would face Victor again ... which wonderfully fit my dramatic ideas of repetition and reflection.

The plot also leaves a lot of questions open, solely with the purpose of offering hooks for future plots. Some of these questions are subtle, others blatant.

  • There are three elder duelists. Why did Victor plant evidence on Mark and Eduoard, but not Allenya?
  • Launfal declined to talk to the Duelists. Why did he refuse to hear their further appeals?
  • The gems of enchantment were a "new type of magic" in Marrach. How did Victor get the power to enchant the three nobles?

There are also a few future plot opportunity made available solely by the state of things at the end of the story: Victor has (probably) fled to the Catacombs to cause future problems; and three nobles of the Inner Court may owe the Duelists a debt of honor.

Using the structure for movies that I've been discussing for the last three weeks, it'd be easy to turn any of these ideas into a fresh three-act plot.

Moving on to the Future

And that is where I'm going to start off next week.

While movies might provide a great structure for laying out singular plots, they don't provide good guides for serial plots, and that's what's truly important for RPGs of any type.

So, beginning next week I'm going to make a three-week inquiry into how three different mediums treat serial plots: television, comic books, and classic RPGs. And then, in #27, I'm going to tie it all together into a suggested structure for serial plots in RPGs.

Wish me luck. I've been gathering notes on this stuff for at least half a year!

And before I go, I'd like to offer one reminder: in column #30 I plan to offer some points and counterpoints about the use of plot in RPGs. I figure I have the good side covered, but if you think plot is bad I'd love to get some comments for possible inclusion in Thinking Virtually. Email ShannonA@skotos.net with the subject "RPGnet: Plot is Bad!"

I'll see you in 7.

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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