Series Info...#21: This Blessed Plot, Part Three

by Shannon Appelcline

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.)

On StoryTellers

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:

On Change

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:

  • The Poets' Convocation. In the weeks leading up to the convocation a mysterious organization wrote scandalous poetry about the Queen. At the convocation of the players got to meet several the nobles of the Castle for the first time. The change here was one of perception: people learned that there might be secrets within the walls of the Outer Bailey and also that the nobles of the Inner Bailey might not be quite as noble as they seemed.
  • The Duel Between Edouard and Roland. After hasty words and growing animosities Edouard, an elder of the duelists, finally faced Armsman Roland in battle. Much to everyone's surprise Roland died, the victim of a strange and deadly poison. Not only was the death of Roland a very direct change, but it also caused a change in the feelings between two groups: the duelists and the Winter Watch.
  • The Knight's Challenge. In this event three players were given the opportunity to change themselves by competing for knighthood. The results of the event will continue to cause changes in the Castle: as knight hopefuls consider the tests that were used to determine the worthiness of the three and as members of the Castle react to the change in status of one of their fellows.

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:

  • Don't be afraid to change your NPCs. Though you may have grown attached to the dozens of characters which you use to help tell your stories, don't forget their purpose. They're there to help you drive plots. That's it. As much as you might enjoy playing them, they're not your alterego in the same way that a player character would be. You need to subsume their interests to the interests of the story. So don't be afraid to kill or maim your NPCs if it'll make for a good story. Likewise, don't be afraid to lift them up, raising them above their current status. Perhaps the most powerful change is an internal change of philosophy. Through the actions of a plot an NPC might come to question the tenets of his life: his attitude toward life, death, religion, war, marriage, love, hate ... whatever. And this questioning can eventually lead to moving change.
  • Don't be afraid to change your backstory. As you developed your game, or as you've run it, you've doubtless come up with an interesting backstory upon which everything is built. That doesn't mean it's set in stone. In fact: Your backstory isn't actually part of the game until you've revealed it to the players. So, don't be afraid to create plots that change your imagined backstory. Even after you've revealed backstory, don't be afraid to modify it and change it in ways that make sense when creating plots. Perhaps the last king actually had a bastard son, or perhaps the last Queen kept her lunatic mother locked in the dungeons and she's still there, or perhaps ... The possibilities are endless. You can add details that change players perception of the backstory, even without invalidating what has come before.
  • Don't be afraid to change your background. Finally, even after you've built out an extensive background, full of towns and villages and churches ... or space stations and asteroids or whatever ... don't hesitate to make major changes to it. Sure, it might hurt to destroy that neat little village that you lavished a week of work upon, but wouldn't it make a great story to have a disaster strike the hamlet, with players forced to try and rebuild in the aftermath? And, not all these changes have to be destructive. When a mysterious tower appears in the middle of a previously empty field or when a secret door reveals a passage down to unknown catacombs, the world has changed.

... 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:

  • Create plots which include hard decisions that force players to decide between multiple things that they believe in.
  • Create plots which force players to reconsider what they believe by presenting things as true which they had believed to be false, or by presenting things as false which they had believed to be true.
  • Offer changes to player's status – either by giving or taking away – and see if their new circumstances cause them to react in a different way.
  • Place players in situations that are unusual or unsuspected based on their normal activities, and see how they react there.
  • When players do begin to change, help to push them along by offering commentary on the change from NPCs; encourage other players to do so as well.

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.

– Neill D. Hicks, Screenwriting 101

Slightly more carefully considered words than what I wrote above, but the same basic idea.

Always nice to have people agree with me.