|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #99:
This Blessed Plot: Seeds, Conflict, and Other Non-Plots
December 12, 2002 - I've spent a decent amount of ink in this column talking about plots. I've discussed the problems of interacting with players and with other gamemasters. I've mentioned differences between episodic and one-off plots, and how to build bridges between them. I've talked about Marrach's Big Plots, Lovecraft Country's Expeditions, and all the things that come in between.
However, as Jessica Mulligan suggests somewhat stridently in Biting the Hand #37, Don't Tell Me a Story, Mommy, plotting isn't necessarily the only answer to creating things to do in online games. This week, as I've written close to nearly a hundred articles that have touched on plot here and there, I want to briefly talk about some of the other alternatives.
The Problem with Plots
Before I really get started, it's probably somewhat useful to ask, "Why would you want alternatives to plot?"
Over in that Biting the Hand column I refer to, Jessica Mulligan suggests that plots are a poor math for the whole idea of interactive storytelling. I understand what she's saying, as a bad StoryTellers can easily railroad players into storypaths that make them feel impotent.
On the other hand, similar arguments have been made in tabletop roleplaying games for twenty years, and that hasn't stopped gamemasters from plotting. In fact, some of my favorite tabletop experiences ever centered on the gamemaster plotting out a story in such a way as the players could take starring roles. (Difficult in a massively multiplayer game where everyone wants to be a hero, yes, but that's a topic that's very much for another day.)
However, there's another factor that makes plots a problem in online games, a factor that's pretty inconvertible and can't be argued against: time. I've said it before: you have limited StoryTellers and (hopefully) scads of players. Your StoryTeller:player ratio might well be 1:100 or more. Thus, you need to figure out ways to multiply your administrative plotting effort in a sensical way.
For two and a half years I've been talking about ways to do that. And, I think you should create lots of cool plots in your online games using some of the methods I've suggested. But, you're still never going to be able to entertain all of the people all of the time.
The way you solve this problem has to do with what type of game you're running.
If you're running a MUD-like game, you're probably already dealt with this issue. You've written systems which allow players to improve their skills, gain equipment, and run around and beat things up, all without StoryTeller help.
However in a MUSH-like game, where plots and stories are the core of gameplay rather than achievement, you need to figure out other methods. So, this week as a temporary conclusion on plots I want to offer a cornucopia of tools that you can use to supplement your MUSHy plots, and to fill in the spaces where you're too busy to entertain every individual in the game.
Some of what I'll be saying this week was succinctly summarized under my category of "events" in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #86, This Blessed Plot: Events, Expeditions & Other Alternatives. However this week I plan to expand upon the idea, to show its possibilities, and generally to try and make it easier for StoryTellers to adapt this type of lower-maintenance plotting.
Overall, I've outlined two major techniques.
Firstly, you can introduce seeds, wherein a StoryTeller does a tiny bit of work, then stands back and lets what develops develop. I've broken up seeds into two major types: weird happenings, everyday life. I'm also covering repeatable plots, where you introduce a seed, grow it a little bit more, then let go.
Secondly, you can introduce conflict, and then stand back and let players go at each other.
But first, those seeds...
Seeds: Weird Happenings
In Castle Marrach, weird happening seeds have been a very successful way to introduce non-plots to players since day one. Typically, an individual, inexplicable event occurs and then players are allowed to riff off of that event in any way that they want.
A few examples, some drawn from Marrach, some not:
The beauty of a "weird happening" seed is that StoryTellers don't necessarily ever need to follow up on them. The players will begin to weave their own stories. They'll use your seed as a springboard to interact with each other in a meaningful way.
On the other hand, perhaps StoryTellers will return to the happening at a future time, simply to affirm the conclusion that the players have come to though this isn't a necessity. In a collaborative storytelling environment, everyone's stories have validity, and by giving players seeds, storytellers can help original stories grow.
Seeds: Everyday Life
Rather than building upon strangeness and mysteriousness, you can instead offer seeds which solidly center upon everyday life. And when I say everyday life, I should clearly note I mean the interesting parts of everyday life, not the drudgery.
In Castle Marrach we introduced everyday life through guilds. These are organizations centered around occupations, interests, and ideals. They're the Duelists, the Winter Watch, the Poets, and many more. The success of these guilds in giving players everyday things to do above and beyond plots is made pretty obvious by The Castle Marrach Calendar. Almost every entry on the calendar has between half-a-dozen and a dozen daily guild events.
When you introduce guilds or some other type of organization into you game, you can quickly follow up with a number of everyday life events for those organizations, including:
In Lovecraft Country we expect to have similar organizations, but appropriate for a 1930s settings. Fraternities and sororities are obvious organizations for a college town. Colleges also tend to be absolutely full up on clubs of any type. The college communists? Perhaps. The Friends of the Miskatonic Library. Almost definitely. And that's to say nothing of the various occult and fraternal organizations which fill Lovecraft's stories and the many followups. The Order of the Golden Dawn? Freemasonry? The Cult of Dagon? The Elk's Club? All possibilities.
For some more interesting ideas of everyday life events, also see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #79, The Elements of Good MythTelling, Part Five: Ritualizing Backstory and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #80, The Elements of Good MythTelling, Part Six: Ritual Structure.
Seeds and More: Repeatable Plots
Sometimes you might want to take a seed and do a little bit of work to expand it into a mini-plot. Doing so can still save you time as is the entire point of this week's article if you make sure you're creating a "repeatable plot".
Take, for example, the ceremony required to become a member of the Winter Watch. It's a public event. There's swearing of oaths, drinking of wine, and other tomfoolery. Nowadays, this sort of thing is common enough that members of Marrach might not give it much thought, but the first time we inducted someone into the Winter Watch, it was very definitely an event that took considerable plotter and coder work. (As I recall, just producing a cup that could be drunk from stretched the edges of our codebase, back in that day.)
But, from a plotter's perspective, that original work paid off in spades because it was something that could be reused time and time again whenever someone new needed to be inducted into the Watch.
To create this type of repeatable plot, you need to consider the following criteria:
In Castle Marrach these repeatable events have been most closely tied to guilds, but that's by no means required. Repeatable events could be related to tasks needing to be done (snow that needs to be cleared out from courtyard); to timed events (a tournament that occurs every full moon); to people (every day someone must bring a meal to the madman); or to just about anything else you want.
You just need to figure out a seed, build it into a mini-plot, then let it go.
Conflict: Fightin' Players
The non-plots I've discussed thus far all center around seeds which allow players to act on their own without StoryTeller overview, but they're not the only technique that can be used. The other proven possibility is to provide the players with storytelling "conflicts" reasons they'll want to interact with other players in adverserial ways without StoryTeller oversight.
We've tried to do this Marrach to only limited success. We set up a number of conflicts between existing groups say the Duelists and the Winter Watch and tried to encourage those conflicts whenever we could. We've had Veteran Players take on the roles of the leaders in these guilds, and they've tried to build the conflicts as well. But, the players generally haven't been interested in playing along. The reason, I suspect, is that we only went part way in enabling the conflict.
Overall, to give players reason to actually participate in a conflict without constant storyteller involvement, I think you need three factors:
In Marrach we've only ever provided the first point, the background. However, it would have been easy to add the other points. Now, the community is too strongly established to make this type of dramatic change to the gameplay, but here's what we could have done:
The reward for conflict could have been status within the Castle. We could have given a half-dozen Inner Bailey residents the ability to "recognize" Marrachian guilds. This recognition could have led to improved favor for all members, access to special foods/clothes/drinks, nicer guild meeting rooms, whatever. Thus, you'd immediately have limited resources which could be won in the conflict.
The way to improve standing could have been through official all-guild meetings (call them Castle Council Meetings or Castle Peer Meetings or something) which would be attended by all the guild leaders and their seconds and the half-dozen IB residents who would provide status. These meetings soon would have become places where guilds could politic against each other, bringing up recent successes and failures, and at which the Inner Bailey Elders would have the option to change their peerage. If these Elders were played impartially enough, you could thus use them to mark the success or failure of groups in their conflict.
Overall, I think this particular gameplay example has some nice results. First, it creates a new everyday life which doesn't require StoryTeller overview, and second it creates a way to really make the player/guild conflict an important part of the game.
My original design for Lovecraft Country, which we're not using, played on a variant of this theme that went something like this:
Who knows if this Lovecraftian design would have worked. It's definitely more computer-arbitrated than a lot of other stuff that we've done, but it presented the same strong core idea which I've been discussing here. It gave players reason and ability to conflict, away from StoryTeller control (and without running into largescale PvP problems).
I've said it a couple of times, but I'll say it again: plots are cool things. However, from our experience with Castle Marrach I can clearly state that it'd be foolish to try and create a game solely based upon StoryTeller plots. There just isn't that much time.
Thus, in MUSH-like games, you give players new ways to tell stories without oversight. You either introduce seeds and have players build upon those weird happenings, explore those everyday life events, or repeat those repeatable plots. Or you create conflict, making sure that it includes background, reward, and measurable standing. And you let the players go from there...
I should offer special thanks to StoryPlotters Deri and Xios, as I'm pretty sure some of the ideas in this article came from talks I had with them a few months ago when I was preparing the Marrach anniversary article, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #91, Advice from the Castle.
And that's it for this week. Next time, finally, the big TT&T #100. I'll be taking you on a tour of the inside of Skotos Tech, to try and remove a bit of the mystique of game design.