Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #75:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part One: Episodic Plot

by Shannon Appelcline

With thanks to Eric Shanower and the Age of Bronze

May 30, 2002 - In late April and early May I offered a three-part series which discussed mythology from its beginnings in Egypt and Sumeria to its modern incarnations in urban legends and super-hero comics. Not too surprisingly I also discussed on-line games, and how they could be built upon mythical archetypes. If you haven't yet read my earlier articles, I highly suggest it. Go ahead; I'll wait.

My first three articles were all pretty big picture, pie-in-the-sky things. Over the next few weeks I'd like to make those abstracts ideas concrete, and suggest a number of ways that mythical trappings can influence specific parts of your game development.

As I outlined this new series of articles, I began to realize that the topics I wanted to cover here matched the major creative elements that Kimberly Appelcline discussed in her series, The Elements of Good Storytelling: plot, character, backstory, and setting. Hence my name for this new series of mythological articles. I'm going to be discussing most of the major storytelling elements in the weeks to come — as they appear in mythology. The only topic I'll be skipping is setting — because setting frankly isn't that important for mythological stories. Myths tend to be universal, and thus storytellers set them in locales that could be anywhere.

Plots, character, and backstory, however, we'll each get to in turn, starting this week.

What is an Episodic Plot, Anyway?

I've decided to build this column series from the top down, starting with the biggest concept and digging downward until, in the final article, we'll reach individual events within a game. And, it all starts with episodic plot.

Episodic plot isn't really a topic that I've discussed much in this column. Certainly, I've talked about singular plot enough. Singular plots are those individual, independent stories that fill games. They don't necessarily take place entirely within one gaming session, but they definitely do have clear beginnings, middles, and ends, and they don't take too terribly long.

In Castle Marrach, the preparations for the Queen's recent visit to the Outer Bailey, the mass arresting of the Duelists, and the actual visit, and what happened there, could all be consider a singular plot. Looking back to the previous Queenly visit, a year and a half ago, there was a singular plot that involved seditious poetry and a resulting quarrel between the Muses and the Poets.

However in any medium with continuity (for discussion of which, see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #69, The Power of the Medium: Continuity), singular plots are just building blocks. They're part of a much larger story which can span months, years, or even decades. Which is to say, they're a port of episodic plots. Within Castle Marrach the two queenly visits I described, each a singular plot in their own regard, are clearly related data points in the overall episodic plot. The way the Queen reacts to this newest visit (and quite possibly the arresting of the duelists) are related to what happened the last time she was here — and what happened at the last Winter Ball, and what people have said to certain court members about the Duelists, etc., etc.

In any continuous medium you can fairly clearly delineate singular and episodic plots. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer individual television episodes form singular plots; they combine to form episodic plots which are season-long, and even longer episodic plots which are show-long. You could make the same analogy between individual issues of comics and longer stories. In fact, I have, in what I think are my best RPGnet columns which were never published here at Skotos. I don't mean to be overly referential this week, but if you haven't read these columns of Thinking Virtually, and want to know more about episodic plots, wade in:

When reading through those articles you'll discover that most longer episodic plots can be classified as two main types:

  • Character Arcs. These are long-term stories about individual characters, who slowly change and evolve as the episodic plot progresses.
  • Plot Arcs. These are long-term stories about an individual thing. The story reaches some conclusion by the end of the arc, and usually has repercussions to the ongoing storyline.

And that brings us to mythology.

Episodic Plots in Myth

One of the most interesting aspects of mythology — and perhaps the most difficult to replicate in any other medium — is the approach it takes to episodic plotting. Some stories that have been running for a few long time — for example, the comic books I discussed back in my continuity article — may have experienced continuous episodic plots for a very long time. For example, stories about Superman have now been told for 64 continuous years. As a result hundreds of character and story arcs have gone by and thousands of singular plots. There's been lots of mystery, suspense, and change in that period.

But, I'm not convinced they have anything on mythtellers.

This was all really brought home to me when I read a comic book called Age of Bronze, created by a brilliant author and artist named Eric Shanower. Shanower has also illustrated a number of Oz stories, one of those modern corporate-controlled mythologies. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Shanower's plan in Age of Bronze is to tell the entire ten-year story of The Trojan War. A lot of us, not too familiar with the story, might think, "Oh, he's retelling the Iliad. That's not very interesting." However, anyone who's actually read The Iliad should know that it actually only tells the story of a small bit of the Trojan War, right at the end. There are actually many other stories regarding the war, told by many other authors, and Shanower is incorporating many of those into his own story.

Here's just a sample of the sources:

  • The Iliad tells the story of conflicts between Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector. It is set in the 10th year of the Trojan War and was written by Homer around 750 B.C.
  • The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus trying to get home after the Trojan War. It was also written by Homer around 750 B.C.
  • The Oresteia tells the story of how Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon following his return from the Trojan War, and is in turn killed by her son, Orestes. It was written by Aeschylus around 460 B.C.
  • Iphigenia in Aulis tells the story of the Greek fleets becalmed on their way to Troy and how Agamemnon is asked to sacrifice his daughter. It is set just before the war. It was written by Euripides in 410 B.C.
  • The Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan prince Aeneas who escapes following the fall of Troy and sails to Italy. It was written by Virgil around 30 B.C.
  • Troilus and Criseyde tell the story of a tragic romance during the Trojan War. It was written by Chaucer around 1380 A.D., and was doubtless a source for Shakespeare.
  • Troilus & Cressida is a very different version of the same story. It is also set in the 10th year of the Trojan War, beginning before The Iliad and later recounting some of its events; it was written by Shakespeare around 1600 A.D.

I trust I've made my point, that there are a lot of stories about the Trojan War. You may have noted, in fact, that none of my bullet points above mention two of the most famous events in the Trojan War: the slaying of Achilles by a poisoned arrow to his heel, and the sacking of Troy due to the Trojan Horse. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, none of the above stories actually dramatize those events. Perhaps there are long-lost ancient stories that do, perhaps not. And, no mention is made of other, connected, Greek myths, such as that of Theseus, set a generation before the Trojan War, or that of Herakles, who stopped at Troy while accompanying Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Eric Shanower says it more concisely than I in his afterword to the first volume of Age of Bronze:

One thing that drew me so strongly to the Trojan War was the story's development over the millennia. So many writers, poets, artists, and playwrights — both great and not so great — have added to, refined, revealed, or otherwise made their marks upon the story, until the permutations and divergences seem endless. The challenge of forging all these disparate versions into one continuous, coherent storyline fascinated me — and I continue to find this the most interesting part of working on Age of Bronze.

This consideration of the Trojan War could equally be applied to any other richly detailed mythic cycle. The Arthurian and Charlemagne cycles are merely two of the most obvious candidates.

Looking carefully at the episodic storytelling of the myth of Troy, we can see a number of distinguishing characteristics:

  • Singular stories are told by numerous storytellers.
  • Each storyteller is willing to tell a very small singular story that's a portion of a coherent whole (ie the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia).
  • A larger story arc is laid out to cover the entire episodic plot; each individual storyteller tends to adhere to that larger episodic plot.
  • Individual storytellers aren't afraid to dramatize undramatized events in the overall story arc, or to expand unimportant characters in order to tell their own stories (ie, Troilus, who is mentioned in a single line in The Iliad).
  • Individual storytellers aren't afraid to find loose ends and tell their own stories about them (ie, Virgil's answer to the fate of Aeneas).
  • Individual stories may evolve based on the mores of the time or the eloquence and importance of individual writers (ie, the way the story of Troilus and Cressida evolved from Chaucer to Shakespeare).

There's no doubt that the unique episodic storytelling methods of mythology, and the almost Darwinian evolution that they encourage, are much of the reason that mythological stories survive for millennia.

The question is: are these techniques at all applicable for other mediums — such as online games — which are much more about telling coherent stories?

Episodic Mythology & Online Games

Most online game designers have probably seen one important factor which their games hold in common with myths: both depend upon large numbers of storytellers to create a truly great story. Sure, there are online games out there that are totally automated (Quake, Diablo, many MUDs), but how memorable are they, really?

Because online games depend upon multiple storytellers you can actually fairly easily adopt many of the episodic plot techniques used in mythology:

  • Assign a Lead StoryTeller. This person's purpose is to lay out the big picture — the framework which others will use to hang their own stories upon. This person need not oversee what everyone else is doing, but just needs to create the basic consensual reality that underlies a game.
  • Trust Other StoryTellers. If you really want to use the mythical model, you then have to trust other people to fill in the details. These StoryTellers don't change the big picture, but they do pick up sub-elements within the story and make them totally their own.
  • Allow StoryTellers Control of their Spheres. Once a StoryTeller has decided that he'll be building out a certain character or event, he needs to be given fairly unilateral control over that area. This isn't necessarily how things work in mythic episodic plot, where anyone can grab a story element and do what they want, but it's a necessary expansion in the more cooperative online medium.
  • Communicate in Simple Ways. Mythic storytellers learned what other storytellers were doing by hearing their stories. This can prove a bit cumbersome in a rapidly changing online medium. Thus, StoryTellers need to update each other with what they're doing, via short summaries, fairly frequently.
  • Let Stories Evolve. Don't be afraid if StoryTellers contradict each other. Let those contradictions stand and see which element the players like better. That one will naturally rise to the top, becoming the true story — just like in myths.

Players of Skotos games will recognize this method of episodic plotting as not too different from what we do in Castle Marrach. We have a Lead Storybuilder, and other StoryPlotters who work under them, and Veteran Players who take on the role of specific NPCs and thus control very limited spheres.

The big difference, really, is that in Marrach the Lead is truly an overseer, while in a game built upon mythical episodic plots, no one is really in control, and everything is much fluid. I'm not in any way deriding the Marrach structure, which I think has worked marvelously, simply portraying a different method, based on mythic stories.

This more individual method of episodic plotting has pluses and minuses. In stories built using mythic episodic plots, individual elements tend to be much more consistent — The Iliad or Troilus & Cressida does a great job of telling the story it intends to without undue interruption from other StoryTellers whose stories need to be accounted for too. However, the overall episodic plot tends to be less consistent — just between Chaucer's version of Troilus & Cressida and Shakespeare's there are remarkable changes.

Is this good or bad? It's hard to say. Mostly, it's different. Whenever considering singular plots versus episodic plots, there's a bit of a balancing act. Which is more important? It depends on the feelings of the individual StoryTellers.

What I've discussed up to this point is somewhat common sense, and not too far of a stretch from what's done in online games today. However, looking at episodic plotting in myths also opens us up to some exciting and innovative possibilities which are totally different from current online games. They might seem way out there, but then innovation always does:

  • Don't Tie Yourself to Time. The stories of the Trojan War are interesting, at least in part, because we can see an entire epic. We see Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter at the start of the war, argue with his fellows ten years later, and then we see him slain upon his return home. Looking at most other mythic cycles we can see similar stretches of time — from Arthur the boy, freeing the sword from the stone to Arthur the aged King, slain by his own son; from Herakles the babe, slaying snakes in his crib, to Herakles the man, accompanying Jason on his sheepish quest; etc. Why can't online games cover that same timespan, with different StoryTellers each telling parts of the same story, but separated by time?
  • Don't Tie Yourself to Space. Less interesting, but equally important, stories can cover wide spans of geography as well. For example, why not have a game where one of the StoryTellers runs his portion of the game in the afterlife, and gets ahold of characters after they've died?

The whole mythtelling tradition is dramatically different from the stories we're used to in the twenty-first century where one author "controls" a fiction — but that doesn't mean that they're any less appropriate to use as a model when expanding into new frontiers of storytelling, as we're all doing now, on the Internet.

Summing Up

This article was the most abstract of the four I have planned on mythtelling, primarily because it's been the least explored, to date, in online games. As we go on, things will become more concrete.

The original seed for this article appeared in a short section I wrote about mythology in Thinking Virtually #27, Episodic Plots, Part Four: MRPGs. And that's how I've managed 75 columns on game design: by expanding scant paragraphs into 2,500 word columns.

Next week: singular plots and the Hero's Journey.

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