February 15, 2001 - I dreamed about Marrach last week. I didn't dream about playing the game I don't think anyone does. I dreamed about being inside the game. I was a real person in a real Castle taking part in real life.
It was only my second dream of the Castle. I had just finished a grueling week writing the new player's guide for Marrach. I had just completed reading a superb book called Return to the Whorl which centered around themes of redemption, identity, and self-sacrifice. It's obvious to me where the impetus for the dream came from.
In the dream I was trying to gain readmittance to the Duelists for Victor Savary long ago cast out from that organization by winning a place myself and then offering it to the man. I had been uninterested in the Duelists when I began vying for a position in their guild; I had been acting with purely innocent motivation, trying to help out a man who I believed wanted to regain his honor. But my time with the Duelists had changed me they had become my brothers. The only way that I could accomplish what I had promised to do was to give Victor my place with them severing myself from my new found family by allowing him to become me.
Castle Marrach. Redemption. Identity. Self-sacrifice. Those were the puzzle pieces, born directly from my every-day affairs in the week previous.
Upon waking I struggled to hang onto my dream. I managed to keep it from fading away in the early morning light as dreams so often do. And, upon reflection, I began to understand why I had clung to it so carefully. There was a good plot there, an interesting story. The thematic elements that I had stolen from my favorite author, particularly the ideas of redemption and self-sacrifice, were powerful ones. But there were some additional ideas that were particularly suited for interactive game play. The moral dilemma I was faced with was just the type of problem I like to present to my own players when I gamemaster (or StoryTell). It required deep thought; all choices were equally good and bad, so there was no simple answer. Even better, there was some real opportunity for change in character both in myself (Did I discover I was the type of person who kept promises? Or were personal connections ultimately more important to me?) and in Victor Savary (Was his redemption true? Would he turn over a new leaf due to my good acts? Or would he ultimately return to his old ways?).
It was a neat plot, and it made me want to talk about plot, hence this column, the third in a mini-series. (I've got at least one more lined up, when the muse strikes me.)
I've long stated that my purpose in this column is to help out StoryBuilders those folks who create the games at Skotos. Yet, on occasion, I've crossed the line and instead offered advice of direct applicability to StoryTellers instead those folks who run the games at Skotos.
This article too is going to be for StoryTellers. I think the timing is particularly apt because in the next-few weeks we'll be bringing allowing players to become StoryPlotters in Castle Marrach.
For those new and future StoryPlotters, let me offer a short listing of the articles I've written thus far offering specific advice for running games:
With that said, let me get back to plots ... and to change. As I stated back in my article on villains, conflict drives story. But, that's not exactly right. Conflict does drive stories, but it has to be a very specific type of conflict. Just two people sitting around hitting each other isn't enough. Conflict drives stories, but only when that conflict causes change.
That's a pretty easy rule to follow for books (or movies or plays) because the characters are more firmly under the control of an even-handed creator. The creator understands that change is required for stories to be emotionally moving, and so he incorporates that change into his plot.
In The Lord of the Rings the nine-fingered hobbit who stands at the lip of the Cracks of Doom, listening to the last gurgling screams of the creature that had followed him across half the world, is very much not the same hobbit who attended a birthday party 1,500 pages before. The process of seeing him change and seeing the whole world change as armies march across kingdoms and a dark shadow slowly spreads is what makes the trilogy exciting.
People change, perceptions change, realms change, worlds change. That is what plot centers on.
But such is not always the case is online roleplaying games. When a StoryBuilder creates an online roleplaying game, he makes a huge investment. He spends months building people, places, and things. There's a lot of disincentive to break those neat toys that the StoryBuilder made. Players face a similar problem. They have no real reason to change their own characters. Sure, it makes for good stories, but people are usually happy with the characters they're already playing and aren't always willing to look at the bigger picture at what can turn online gaming into interactive fiction.
To truly create interactive fiction to truly tell stories in our online games we need to think differently.
What's Good for the Host ...
My first advice to StoryTellers this week is pretty simple: Build Plots that Cause Change. Sure, some plots that don't cause change are OK. They're easy, they don't require a lot of thought, and they don't require a lot of additional work afterward. We've run plenty of them in Castle Marrach: scavenger hunts, simple mysteries, that type of thing.
But the plots that we've run that have had the most resonance and will be the best remembered are those that caused change. A few examples:
Ultimately your plots can cause changes in any aspect of an online game, but the following may well prove to be some of the most effective ones:
... Is Good for the Player
The above suggestions that I offer are easy to implement. They're totally under the StoryTeller's control, requiring only a change in how you think about online plots and a willingness to sometimes sacrifice what you've created. However, I haven't yet talked about another area of plots that can be powerful through the change they cause: plots that change characters. (Let me pedantically offer: Don't be afraid to change your players.)
There are two types of things you can do here: change your players in some tangible way or change your players in some intangible way.
The former is easy. You simply need to consider plots that will offer some change in status for players. Plots that allow players to join organizations, or gain some higher status, or discover some new knowledge, or make new friends all fit into this category and are pretty easy to accomplish with forethought.
Plots that change your players in intangible ways are more difficult. I'm really talking here about plots that change what your players feel or think or believe. They're difficult because, as I've already mentioned, players don't necessarily have incentive to change. Despite that, this type of change will probably result in the most fulfilling plots because they'll involve meaningful emotion and will have lasting impact on players.
So, if you want to support this type of plot, you need to encourage this type of plot. You need to Give your players incentive to change. The "what" of this is pretty easy to state, but the "how" is a little harder. I'm not entirely sure how to accomplish it well, but I can offer a handful of suggestions:
Much of what I'm going for here is pretty simple: ordinary people in extraordinary situations will do extraordinary things. Try and draw that out, to let players surprise themselves and you with what they do.
It'll cause change and change is good ...
After I started writing this article I began reading a book for my latest class on writing. It's a screenwriting class and the book is imaginatively called Screenwriting 101. I was bemused my the name of the first chapter, which so clearly echoed my statement of three weeks ago; it was called "Drama is Conflict". I was even more surprised, however, when I got to end of that first section. It said:
Drama is conflict. It is about somebody who acts against somebody else. Yet, it is more than mere opposition because drama is about conflict that results in a significant transition in the lives of the participants it alters both the characters and their surrounding society.
Always nice to have people agree with me.