|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #86:
This Blessed Plot: Events, Expeditions & Other Alternatives
August 29, 2002 - For about a month now I've been concentrating fairly intensely on the design of a new Skotos games Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night. It's very exciting because it's the most concerted design effort that we've involved the entire office in since Castle Marrach, two years ago. It's also going to be a source of distraction in this column, and through that, hopefully, a source of new game design ideas (and trials and triumphs) that we wouldn't have otherwise encountered.
I've talked in the past about online plots and how to run them with multiple plotters. My favorite discourse on the subject is Thinking Virtually #28, Many Users, Many Plots, which is actually hidden away over on RPGnet. There I talked about how gamemasters could entertain many players through big plots.
What I've been learning since, through my work on Lovecraft Country, but also through the work I see being done on the player-created Devils Cay, is that there are actually many ways to manage plotter-hosted player entertainment in online RPGs. This week I want to step through a set of them. Honestly, I don't know which is the best, but they're all great possibilities to consider.
The Problem: Entertaining Players
It doesn't really need to be said that in creating an online game the main goal is to entertain players. That's pretty simple in achievement game. You create systems that are fun. (For more on game types see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #25, Telling Stories, Classifying Worlds and as a followup perhaps Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #42, Apples and Orangeclines; for more on keeping players happy in achievement games see Thinking Virtually #33, The Fun Factor and Thinking Virtually #34, The Psychology of Rewards.)
However, in games oriented around social roleplaying, like Castle Marrach, Lovecraft Country, and many MUSHes and MUXes out there on the net, we've set ourselves a harder task. We need to entertain players through stories, plots, and roleplaying alone; if there are systems within the game, they exist to hang plots upon, not necessarily to entertain in and of themselves.
So, how do you do that? What's the best way to tell stories, weave plots, and keep your players happy? There are many different possible answers to this question.
(I should note that though I, in each of the following cases, mention which games tend toward which types of storytelling, in actuality any game will use a lot of different methods.)
The Big Plot
In Castle Marrach our prime answer to this question has been the big plot. In other words, storytellers make a concerted effort every couple of weeks or months to create a story that can involve large portions of the Castle.
We've done a lot of these. The first, many moons ago, was a very public duel between newlie Martel and villain Victor Savary. There was a Poet's Convocation, beset by Cats and Rats; another duel, between Eduoard and Roland and the first Winter Ball as well all within the first three months of the Castle's opening. More recently players have seen events such as the Estrella Festival, the Disk of the Longest Day plot, and the Rituals of the Elements.
In all of these cases the goal of the plot has been to involve as many people as possible. (Really, that's the goal of any of my storytelling techniques, but in some of the other methods that's done by breaking people down into groups, or by indirectly involving people; in the big plot you're trying to deal with them all as one big mass.)
This has some really nice benefits. You can allow genuine change in your setting and characters because you're telling big stories. In addition you can really ensure that your entire game comes together as a unit afterward, everyone will be able to tell the story of a particular plot.
A few months ago I might have said that this type of plot had an implicit size limit that when your game got to be too big you could no longer run big plots but the Marrach StoryPlotters proved me wrong when they ran their recent Rituals of the Elements plot; during that plot they cleverly divided people up, and created an overarcing plot with many substories. (I'm actually, I must say, a bit in awe at their coordination, and that's actually increased, not lessened by knowing that some of the ideas for including everyone were somewhat last minute.)
However, big plots do seem to have a specific flaw: most players don't get to be the hero or even get to be spotlighted. In a very well constructed big plot, many of those players can be supporting cast members, who are important to the plot, but more frequently they're participants.
Big plots also may lead to railroading, where a specific outcome is planned and hard to change, especially once you're deep in a story that you're coordinating, live, with numerous other plotters.
And finally, big plots are somewhat uncontrolled because you never know who might suddenly pop up and do something crazy, like shouting "The Queen is a Whore!" in the middle of a formal social event.
These big plots are the traditional way that I've looked at plots. And, though I do note some flaws, every method I'm going to describe has flaws. Maybe in a few years we'll have an idea at which plotting method is best, but more likely, I think, we're going to find that different methods work for different people.
In Lovecraft Country we're working out a new storytelling method that we call expeditions. The idea comes from the traditional adventure in Lovecraftian literature and games where, upon learning of blasphemous secrets, a young scholar goes to another land and does something digging up graves, excavating pyramids, buying rare and forbidden books, or whatever.
We're expanding the idea a bit to say that an expedition is any discrete event that happens to a select group of people, most frequently, though not always, beyond the borders of Arkham, which is our home base in Lovecraft Country. The archaeology club might sponsor a dig in Egypt or the friends of the Miskatonic University library might go to a book auction in Germany. More domestically, but still meeting our criteria, the Daughters of the American Revolution might sponsor a parade in Arkham itself.
Some of the benefits of expeditions as we outline them, go beyond the scope of plotting. Most specifically, by setting criteria before an expedition can be begun (money, experience, approval, occupations, etc.), we can give players continuing goals, even after they've joined an Arkham organization. That type of entertainment, that doesn't require direct plotter plotting, is actually something I want to get to in the next weeks or months.
More importantly for today's discourse, there are a number of plotting related benefits as well.
Most specifically, expeditions are much more tightly controlled than big plots. A plotter can be sure of who will be on the expedition, and who won't, and will thus have a better handle on how to control things.
In addition, since it's a smaller group, there will be a smaller number of plotters working, and thus there is more opportunity to allow the story to dynamically expand, because there's less worry about trying to coordinate unfurling events with numerous storytellers.
Finally, expeditions give each player more opportunity to shine in the sun. In a big plot a player might be 1 in 100. On an expedition a player might be 1 in 20 and, more specifically, the only newspaper writer who was invited on the trip, or the only geologist, or the young student with the occult secrets (which the plotter was able to very carefully plant because, once more, he knew who would be there).
The idea of expeditions isn't tried yet, but I already see that the biggest concern will be that there isn't always a big story, but rather lots of smaller stuff going on. Thus, there will be more concern about overall coherence. There may also be some other concerns about how much work they'll really take, but I've talked about those more down in Appendix I, because I didn't want to spend too much of this overview of plotting methods on expeditions...
We play with player plots some in Marrach; we talk them up and try and offer support when we can. Some people swear by them, others hate them. However, there is possibility for other games to be entirely built around player plots. Devils Cay, from what I've seen thus far, will at least lean in this direction more than Marrach does.
There's been some talk in Devils Cay about giving players the occasional ability to emote (ie, describe some arbitrary action they do) or emit (ie, describe some arbitrary action that occurs in the world), at a cost. This gives players the ability to, as part of a story, show anything happening to them and to the world.
The benefit is pretty clear. Anyone call tell a story. There's that much more ability for each and every player to create entertainment and jointly come together to tell an every evolving multi-woven story.
The deficit is pretty clear. Anyone can tell a story. There's that much more ability for each and every player to create chaos and jointly destroy what everyone else is trying to do.
I don't know all of the plans for Devils Cay. I'm sure player plots will be backed up by big plots or expeditions or something else... but whether they are or not the idea of really giving players the power to totally create their own stories is exciting, and something that I'm sure will work for some fraction of players.
A technique used somewhat by all games is the event. The idea here is that you simply have something happen, and then let all of the players react to that, and interact with each other based on that event. Some events may foreshadow future stories, and thus now have that immediate of an effect. Other events may build upon complex backstory in such a way that the introduction of a simple event can cause weeks worth of troubles and conflict.
A sighting of a ghost, the dropping of a black rose, a mysterious meteorite, or the discovery of bloody boots these events can all have great repercussions that could reverberate for weeks.
The great benefit of an event is that it's simple. A plotter introduces the event, and then stands back while the players interact with each other based upon it. The deficit is that you have to have provided sufficient infrastructure in your game to allow that interaction to be meaningful.
Finally, a last type of story is the scenario, which is in some ways a cross between an event and a big plot. In a scenario the plotters set up something big, that could potentially effect the whole game. However, they don't try and plot out the results, but rather react as the players take action.
If, in the bloody boots scenarios, there were many possible courses of actions, and the plotters rapidly followed up as the players took those actions, then you'd actually have a scenario on your hand, rather than a simple event.
The benefits of scenarios are that you're probably working with a smaller group of more interested players, and telling a more dynamic plot.
The deficits are that they can be a lot of work and can often go nowhere.
Numbers & Ratios
The real difference I see between all of these methods for storytelling is the ratio between storyplotters and players. Also of relevance is how much work each involved plotter needs to do and how much interaction each involved player enjoys. If I laid them all out in a chart, they'd look something like this:
In all likelihood, by jiggling your "fews", "somes", and "manys" you can find even more methods for telling stories in online games. As I said, I don't really know which are best. It could be they all are; it could be just one of them; it could be one that I haven't even mentioned here.
Simply keep your possibilities open and be aware there's more than one way to tell a story.
Thanks to Story Plotters Deri and Xios, Chris Knight, and Christopher Allen for various comments on this article.
Next week, back to the topic I began 7 days ago: retaining players once they've tried out your game. Probably. Unless I see something shiny at WorldCon.
But first, two appendices, one offering a lengthy example of an expedition, another following up on my mythology discussion from recent weeks.
Appendix I: An Example of an Expedition
It's the idea of expeditions that are really new to me a totally different way of looking at story. Because it's new, it's also a bit more nebulous, and thus I've seen some people react with an, "Agh! That sounds like a lot of work." That's possible, and we won't know till we really try them, but it's not our intent.
My vision is that, in a three-month period, rather than having 6 StoryPlotters come together for one massive story, instead each might run an expedition, and so there'd be one expedition every couple of weeks. We also figure that each organization in a game will only see an expedition or two a year. In the meantime they'll be working hard preparing for the next expedition.
And, because they get much more personal attention during their own expedition they won't begrudge another player that time when it's their turn.
To further describe the idea of expeditions, Christopher Allen recently wrote up a very long example, which I didn't want to include in my overview in the column proper, but which I reprint here in its entirety:
To give a little more explanation of an Expedition-style plot, here is an example of how it might work using Marrach as an basis. Note that I don't recommend that Marrach do expedition-style plotting, but since Marrach is well known this is probably a better example then a Lovecraft Country specific one.
Appendix II: Some Final Words on Myth
In Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #83, Modern Myths, Part Four: Legends Live I finished up my twelve-week discussion of mythology. In that particular article I also mentioned that one of the ways myths live into the modern day is through retellings of old stories, such as the Arthurian legends.
Since I penned those words, I've gotten my author copies of Legends of the Pendragon, an anthology of stories set before the foundation of the Arthurian Round Table. The first short story in there is a piece I wrote early last year, called "Keystones". If you're interested to see what Ye Olde Game Designer does during his spare time, you can go order the book from Amazon.
In any case, I've read through about a third of the anthology now and have found it absolutely fascinating in light of my recent discussion of legends. Within this anthology twenty different authors take parts of the Arthurian mythos and make them their own.
The first three stories in the anthology each touch upon King Vortigern, a predecessor to Arthur who overthrew one of Arthur's uncles, Constans, and then was overthrown by another. His chief claim to fame is probably inviting Jutes into England, and promising them land in exchange for fighting his enemies.
The oldest source I know of for Vortigern's story is Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. It really doesn't offer much description of him, other than saying that he's power hungry.
Somehow, from that description, every one of the three authors writing about Vortigern came to describe him as a physically decaying man.
The first description comes from my own story, "Keystones":
Vortigern is small, and this always surprises Merlin the first time he sees the man. His dirty brown hair is graying. He huddles forward in his throne as if he were shouldering a great burden, and perhaps he is. He bears the burden of guilt from two kings betrayed; he bears the burden of hatred from two brothers bereaved; and he bears the burden of fear from his own too-human heart.
Nancy Varian Berberick offers an even less flattering description of Vortigern in her "Hel's Daughter":
Vortigern's hand lay like the corpse of a bird upon Rowenna's, bony, dry, and light. He leaned close to kiss her, and smelled of sweat and thick layers of unwashed clothing. His lips touched her cheek; his breath stank of rotting teeth.
Finally, Peter T. Garratt concentrates upon age and infirmity in his description from "Dragons of the Mind"
Vortigern walked more as he got older. He could hope for another ten years, if he did not allow himself to become lazy or decrepit like the old men who had been so common in his youth. And as a British High King, he could not be carried in a litter like Nero. He did not ride either, but that was because his joints, which could still cope with a walk, did not allow him to sit easily in a saddle.
I can only think of one Arthurian series which I've ready in the past which ever gave any particular attention to Vortigern (Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles). Thus, I think these new stories will paint much of the story of Vortigern for its readers, and those readers will recall him as a pained old man not as the arrogant fighter of Geoffrey.
Thus mythology evolves.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History mentions one other event related to Vortigern which is of some particular note. When he tries to build a tower it continuously collapses, and his prophets tell him that he must sacrifice a fatherless son in order to secure its foundation.
This fatherless son is, of course, Merlin. Vortigern has him brought forth, but when the lad reveals that the tower is actually being built upon a lake (that perhaps contains two dragons), Vortigern's old prophets are cast out, and Merlin is accepted as a new seer.
Remarkably this specific scene makes it into all three stories, and it helps to point out how the same event in mythology will be reinterpreted constantly by different authors.
I use it to clearly show that Merlin is the only true prophet in all the world (and to foreshadow some connections to Stonehenge later in the story):
"If you must build your tower," Merlin says, "know that your prophets are false." It is the truth, too, fair exchange for what Vortigern has given. Merlin knows that there are no actual prophets but he, and perhaps one other. Of all the people Merlin has known and will know, only he is unsurprised by the future.
In "Hel's Daughter", Nancy Varian Berberick uses it as a point of high drama, late in her story. Merlin is a doom sayer and truth speaker:
"Your towers will fall!" cried the truth-speaker, a beardless boy with the kind of eyes that look sometimes hard, sometimes tender as a babe's. This is how their eyes look who are all the time seeing what others cannot. But this Merlin did not keep what he saw secret. He did a magic before the king and his queen. He called dragons into their hall, a white and a red, and they grappled with each other, the two terrible beasts. Men and women screamed, some fled the fall, other prayed to their god and shouted for angels to deliver them.
Finally, in "Dragons of the Mind", Peter T. Garratt uses this scene as a moment of levity, to show the skill of Merlin as a scholar, and again to climax his story:
People hissed, and the young witch snapped: "If you want a head, bury your own!" Aren't you going to let him try with his book?"
Prophet, doom sayer, or scholar which role does Merlin take during this particular event? The answer is all of the above, for Merlin is born of myth, and when we enter into that realm, when we write stories or create games that draw from its well-spring, we can manipulate the story in whatever way we want.
And, if our story is the best, in the end it will be the truth.