Series Info...#16: Dirty Words, Part 1: Plot

by Travis S. Casey
September 7, 2001

There are some things that, when you mention them, you can always count on getting a reaction from someone – usually a bad one. People in gaming are, well, people, and so there are things like that in gaming as well. I'm going to spend the next couple of columns talking about some of them.

The first one is plot. I've talked about plot before, back in my column on scenarios, and I'm not going to repeat what I said there – you can go back and read it if you haven't already. That time, I was focusing on plot as it applies to a single scenario – but plot can go beyond the level of the single scenario, to encompass a series of scenarios, all linked together by a single overarcing plot.

Most people don't have a problem with the idea that a scenario has a plot – after all, there has to be something about the scenario that players are supposed to do, and that naturally leads to having a plot, right? (Well... not necessarily right. But we'll get to that in a bit.)

However, when you start talking about long-term plots, some people get worked up over the very idea. There are two common objections:

  • Some people associate long-term plots with leading the players around by the nose. It is easy to do that, but doing so isn't something that having a plot requires – it's a symptom of poor plotting.
  • If an overarcing plot is going to be significant, it's likely to lead to changes in the setting. This by itself would be enough for some people to dislike the idea – there's some people who just don't like change, and any change is likely to have at least some players who are, or feel that they are, losing something through it.

The first objection is valid in cases where it's true, but a good designer will try to make plots that don't lead people around by the nose. Doing that is harder than making plots that do lead by the nose, but I think it's also ultimately more rewarding, both for the players and for the designer. Here's a few things that you can do to avoid leading players by the nose:

Design with multiple paths in mind. A linear "start here, do this, do that, end here" plot is easy to set up, but players put in such a plot are justified in feeling led around. Instead, a plot should have multiple entry points, multiple ways to go from event to event in it, and, perhaps most important of all, multiple endpoints.

Let's take an example. Our game designer, we'll call her GD, has decided that a local wizard is going to take over a tribe of orcs, whip them into shape, and try to use them to take over a city and install himself as overlord. She's already decided on several "events":

  1. The evil wizard takes over the orcs. Players might not be allowed to take part directly in this part, but I'm including it as an event because there should be some signs of it having happened that are visible to the players.
  2. The evil wizard begins training the orcs. Again, there's not much directly happening here, but there should be signs of something happening.
  3. The orcs are sent out to start gathering materials and information to be used towards taking over the city.
  4. Other agents, and possibly some highly trained orcs, are sent out on special missions. Following fantasy tradition, GD decides that her evil wizard wants a particular magic item that will help in taking over the city. She's also decided that there's a secret way into the city, which the orcs will discover. They'll make a few scouting forays into the city through it.
  5. The attack on the city is the last major event. Exactly what forces will attack, by what routes and with what equipment, will depend on what's happened during the prior events.

In outline form like this, the plot is pretty linear. However, GD can break down each step into multiple parts that can be happening concurrently; there's already a suggestion of that in the fourth step. More could be added there, step three could be broken down, and even step five can be – while the attack is one big event, it's going to consist of a lot of little events.

Further, a player could get involved at any point. In steps one and two, players could notice clues that something's up, and there could be scenarios designed around investigating what's happening. In step three, there's lots of possibilities for players to become involved by running into orcish scouting teams, getting caught in or finding the aftermath of an orc raid, etc. In step four, players could get involved with any of the various special missions the orcs are on – by getting in their way accidentally, learning that the orcs are after a particular thing and deliberately going to stop them, or, again, by finding aftermath of the orcs having done something. And a player could easily get involved in stage five – when orcs attack the city, it's kind of hard to ignore if you're in it at the time.

There's enough going on that many players can be involved, rather than just a single small group. And further, the setup is structured in such a way that a single player suddenly disappearing in the middle of the plot shouldn't completely derail it.

I haven't mentioned anything about the endpoints yet... mainly because that's important enough to be an item on its own.

Expect that things will go wrong. It's been said that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. While players aren't enemies, they do have a tendency to manage to do things that game designers didn't expect. Therefore, in building a robust plot, you have to think about that sort of thing. What if, in step one, a large group of players gets it into their heads that something's going on with the orcs who live in those hills, and they're going to find the orc camp and wipe them all out, now? Well, you need to have something in mind to handle that. If this were a paper RPG, a GM could improvise something quickly – but that's a lot harder to do in an online RPG, so you need to think ahead.

If all the orcs are wiped out, that's obviously the end of this plot – but if the wizard wasn't caught, he might go "recruiting" a new group of cannon fodder... I mean, helpers. If the wizard is killed, but some of the orcs are left, what are a bunch of highly-trained orcs going to do? Maybe they could go join the forces of some other villain. It's important to note here that, while it makes sense for the evil wizard to have some contingency plans in place, this isn't an exercise in making the plot happen no matter what the players do – the idea is just to think about logical consequences of the events if the plot gets stopped at any stage.

There's also the reverse possibility – that the players don't get involved, or not enough players get involved, the evil wizard's plans go swimmingly, and the city is taken over by orcs. Now what? One response is to have some NPC or NPC group waiting in the wings to set things right, but to me, that feels like a copout. If the plot can't possibly end in the wizard's favor, then why should the players get involved at all? If, on the other hand, the wizard really can take over the city, affecting players' access to any homes they have in the city, to the services available in the city, etc. The orcs are likely to... well, act like orcs generally do in fantasy. And the evil wizard probably has further diabolical plans – what did he want the city for anyways? A mass sacrifice to raise power for a diabolical ritual?

Well, this is already getting pretty long... so tune in next time for more on plot! And, if I get done with plot, the next dirty word will be... can you stand it? – realism!

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