Sunday, November 13, 2011

Plot in RPGs

I've been reading in and partaking in lots of discussions online lately of the role of "story" in RPGs, and the merits and weaknesses of "plot" in relation to role playing. I thought I'd start out this blog by expressing some thoughts on the subject.

I'll crib from the Wikipedia entry on plot:

"Plot is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence."

Patterns may be developed by players or GMs. Time in an RPG is generally linear, and events tend to play out sequentially. However, it is certainly possible to present RPG's via flashbacks, or to incorporate time travel. The sequential nature of events is not a given.

Cause and Effect

Cause and Effect are generally determined by player action, and by the stage set by the GM. Either the DM or a player may be instigate the "cause", and either may respond with an "effect"

Coincidental effects are typically governed by roll of the dice or other means of probability.

"One is generally interested in how well this pattern of events accomplishes some artistic or emotional effect."

One  emotional effect we are looking for is "fun". We hope to create a memorable experience that will be looked upon as being worth the time and effort that went into preparing and playing the adventure through character creation, adventure design, and setting aside time to actually play the game.
The goal is to create an experience deemed worthy of repeating. As a GM and designer, my goal is to create an artistic effect that somewhat emulates fiction that I enjoy. For me, in an ideal game, when looking back on the course of events, they should feel less like events that took place in a game, and more like events that took place in a short story or novel.


"In his PoeticsAristotle considered plot ("mythos") the most important element of drama—more important than character, for example."

Now here's where things get muddy. Player Characters are arguably the most important part of the drama of role playing games. Yet characters may die, and a storyline (or plot) continue. More often (hopefully), a storyline may be completed, and the characters continue into future stories, with only continuity of character and setting tying multiple stories together. There is no single protagonist. There are no "minor" player characters from the standpoint of the game. But there may be from the standpoint of any particular storyline. Player characters' dramatic stakes in a story tend to vary throughout gaming sessions.

"A plot must have, Aristotle says, a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary, or probable."

Sometimes, a beginning is the hardest thing to achieve. Why are all these assorted people, with seemingly little in common, gathered together at the start of the gaming session? Are they a group that has a shared history, and have chosen to remain together because they can at least manage expectations of each other? Are some looking out for themselves and profit, and are seeking to "piggy back" on the motivations of others in the group? Have they been summoned, hired, impressed, or otherwise motivated or forced into cooperation? Who decides this motivation, the GM or the players? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. As a GM, one of my priorities is to maintain the design aesthetic of the campaign world. My goal in that it to create a gaming world distinct enough that any group of players who play in that world under my GMing would recognize it as being the same world.
It is important for me that player character backgrounds do not shatter the artistic vision of the game world. A half-minotaur with a Harvard education shopping for magic items in the markets of the cities of Calabria is NOT part of that artistic vision. While I cherish player input into character background, I personally prefer to be involved in crafting a background for a character that makes game world sense of all the skills and abilities they have chosen, and perhaps ties into parts of the game world history that the player has no clue about. To me, it is a cooperative affair, in which lets say a player decided he wants his character to be the son of a wealthy merchant, but it is up to me to decide just who that merchant is, and what his role is in the game world.

The "middle" would seem to me to be the point at which the player characters have learned information about an adventure, and decide to embark upon it.

The "end" can be quite ephemeral, as the story of the characters does not end with the completion of a gaming session.

As for the events causally relating to one another as being necessary (or even probable), I'm afraid Aristotle has to take a back seat here. Events are causally related to one another by choices of the players, which may or may not make sense in "story" terms.

As this is a game, not a theatrical production, we are looking more for this:

Than this:


Gustav Freytag

Gustav Freytag

Freytag breaks plot down into 5 parts which might be more helpful.

1) Exposition

"The exposition introduces all of the main characters in the story. It shows how they relate to one another, what their goals and motivations are, and the kind of person they are. The audience may have questions about any of these things, which get settled, but if they do have them they are specific and well-focused questions. Most importantly, in the exposition the audience gets to know the main character, and the main character gets to know his goal and what is at stake if he fails to attain his goal."

In game terms this is interesting, because the villains are arguably some of the "main characters" of the story. 
 One question and area of discordance in role playing games is the role of exposition. In a true sandbox style game, where player choice can affect the story in any number of unseen ways, it is possible that the introduction of the villain into the story immediately results in the death of the villain or all of the player characters.  As a GM, I tend to take an approach that to many is considered to be a "railroad" at this point. "Chance"(or dice rolls) may take a back seat to "Fate" (or GM fiat), and a villain make have the advantage of "plot immunity" for a short while.
Also, the player does not "get to know" his goal, so much as choose it. I like for the players to "get to know" their options and what is at stake if they fail to engage a storyline. I sometimes do this by introduction of the "villain". I do not want to be a slave to the dice, and be hesitant to introduce the villain for fear that he may be outright killed. Nor do I want to escalate a game world arms race, in which the villain has so much firepower that he is effectively, un-killable. As a GM, I have no issue taking narrative control of the game, and dictating the nature of the villain's escape.

A second issue is at stake here, and that is the meta issue of GM time in preparing a game, vs. player freedom in making character choices. I like to design narrow and deep, rather than shallow and broad. The latter works well for a true sandbox experience, where the GM can improvise nearly any choice the players make. It is essential that both GMs and players know what type of game they are playing, and that both are willing to play the same game. 

2) Rising Action

"Generally, in this phase the protagonist understands his goal and begins to work toward it. Smaller problems thwart his initial success, and in this phase his progress is directed primarily against these secondary obstacles. This phase shows us how he overcomes these obstacles."

I would rather say that at this point the players have chosen a goal, and begin to work towards it. The smaller problems can be puzzles and traps, the henchmen of the villain, dealing with townsfolk, wandering monsters, or any number of things that tend to make up the bulk of a gaming session.

"Thus, at the end of this phase and at the beginning of the next he is finally in a position to go up against his primary goal. this part begins after the exposition.It consists of a beginnings of a tension or complication that continues with the development of conflict between the characters."

During this phase, the villain may or may not retain plot immunity. The easiest thing from a GMs perspective is to tuck the villain away so that the players can't even get to him until they overcome all of the "smaller problems". However, it can be fun to engage the players with a choice NPC. There is enormous room here for GM and player conflict regarding "railroading".

3) Climax

"The beginning of this phase is marked by the protagonist finally having cleared away the preliminary barriers and being ready to engage with the adversary. Usually, entering this phase, both the protagonist and the antagonist have a plan to win against the other. Now for the first time we see them going against one another in direct, or nearly direct, conflict."

Nothing nearly about it. This is where players and the villain come to blows. Tactical plans are made, and battle is engages.

"This struggle results with neither character completely winning, nor losing, against the other. Usually, each character's plan is partially successful, and partially foiled by their adversary."

Hold the presses! Talk about pissing players off. I'm all for exposition and allowing for story development. But once a GM allows combat to take place, all bets are off. Trying to force a game into this type of story structure is almost certainly sure to result in a bad experience. Might the villain get away? Sure. Might he be in a position to "off" the players, and choose not to? Sure. But the players should have a very real opportunity to vanquish the villain here, once and for all (assuming they have done their homework, know how to vanquish him, and have the means to do it).

4) Falling Action

"Freytag called this phase "falling action" in the sense that the loose ends are being tied up. However, it is often the time of greatest overall tension in the play, because it is the phase in which everything goes most wrong.
In this phase, the villain has the upper hand. It seems that evil will triumph."

Ok... now we're just getting campy. "Might" everything go most wrong? Sure. But that is dependent on player choice and the roll of the dice. Even the most die hard "railroading" GM should think three times about employing this type of story element. There is enough drama in the rolling of dice and doing actual battle without having to milk the situation by forcing the game into some pre-conceived structure of a well crafted plot.

5) Resolution

"5th -In the final phase of Freytag's five phase structure, there is a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, where one or the other decisively wins. This phase is the story of that confrontation, of what leads up to it, of why it happens the way it happens, what it means, and what its long-term consequences are."

NOT a good example of rpg plot!
This last phase seems perfectly reasonable. The only exception it that it may be synonymous with #3, or in a true sandbox game, may occur at #1. However, most of the "meat" of adventuring comes in #2. In my mind, if phase #1 isn't well crafted, and joined into willingly by both GMs and players, the game just becomes rolling so many dice, or spending a few hours at the improv. If GMs force a progression of #1 through #5, then it isn't so much a game, as a narrative experiment.


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