Series Info...#24: Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Three

by Shannon Appelcline

March 8, 2001 - Welcome back to my third and final week discussing the structure of plot in Hollywood movies and how it might be applied to online games.

If you haven't already, go back and read the last two TT&T, which describe what movie plot structure is and how it might be used to create a plot for an online game. This week I want to offer up the final part of the discussion: when Hollywood plot structure is inappropriate for online games.

Hollywood movies tend to include certain aspects which are not appropriate 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 online prose games. So, though the movie plot structure offers an excellent basis for 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.

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 StoryTellers to StoryPlayers that's going to leave a lot of players pretty unsatisfied.

So, to start off with, you should 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 many 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.

Those are ideas for involving a large number of protagonists in a plot, but you also have a rather unique advantage when you're designing a plot an online game: you can also involve players as antagonists. (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 StoryTeller 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.

There's a corollary: There must be enough stuff for a large number of players to do. In my example of last week, 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 to 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 make sure you're sparing and wholly aware when you do 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. 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 let them do it. So, in my example I offered up a bad situation (being framed) and then tried out 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 StoryTeller 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 and enchanting a few members and having them actually attempt an assassination.

Even after you've looking 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 StoryTeller character – 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. 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? In the plot I outlined last week at the end 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. I'm going to talk about this more someday when I discuss serial plots in general. But, 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 upon Martel's duel with Victor, especially if Martel is the one that must face Victor in the last duel, which would be likely given Martel's skill with the blade.

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.

  • Why did Victor plant evidence on Mark and Eduoard but not Allenya, the other elder duelist?
  • Why did Launfal refuse to hear future appeals from the Duelists?
  • 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.

Hopefully some of the StoryPlotters just not coming online in Castle Marrach will consider the possibilities ....

A Blatant Plug

Before I sign off this week, let me offer a blatant plug for that other column I'm writing for The second column is now up. It's called Coca-Cola or Pepsi? and discusses the differences between tabletop and online RPGs.

After this week, Thinking Virtually is going to reprint Kimberly's five-part The Elements of Good StoryTelling series. I'll let you know here when there's another original article.

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