I ought to be doing something else right now, so I only have time for an introduction and one or two examples.
Anyway, it's a trick question.
Over on RPG.net, I wrote
What is plot? Popular definitions cover a continuum, with the extremes at:
a) A situation involving the characters, a "problem" or "setup", that the player-characters then engage and resolve.
b) A sequence of events constituting the action of a story.
Many if not most modules (and GM prep based thereon) contain a "plot" in sense (b). Scenes are arranged sequentially--or they only branch in the sense that they can be "experienced" in a varying order, but each one is still expected to play out in a certain way. "After the PCs overcome the guards, they will find themselves in the data center." What if they don't overcome the guards? What if they don't go to the data center? If the GM controls the plot(b), then those are non-issues; the GM will make sure they get to the data center if that's what it takes to advance "the plot".
On the other hand, if "the GM controls the plot" means only that there are some things that the players don't control or initiate, you've got plot type (a). If the GM concocts a town riven by factionalism, he "controls the plot" but the player-characters get to resolve it--they can decide which faction to side with, or whether to take advantage of the situation for their own ends.
I think a lot of people say "the GM controls the plot" and then slip back and forth between (a) and (b). This is foolish at best, dishonest at worst. If we nail it down, then it's easy to spot some trends. The issue of control over (b) really doesn't interest me here. I've heard that somehow Feng Shui
(and apparently Rune
, both by Robin Laws) makes a fun game out of herding the PCs from preplanned scene to preplanned scene. And I know that games of follow-the-trail-of-clues are often used. I've played in a few. They're okay, I guess, if done well.
But what I want to look at is (a). Even if the players are completely free to resolve a scenario any way they want, who decides what the scenario is in the first place? How?
I'd like to do something a little bit like what John Kim did in his overview of RPG design innovations in the area of adventure prep
. But here, the question isn't what the adventure looks like structurally. It's how the adventure is (or isn't) designed to engage the players' interests, or conversely how the players are persuaded to "buy in" to the scenario. Or indeed, instead of speaking of adventures or scenarios, we can talk about entire campaigns.
Two examples. Back in the day, I played D&D because I liked the basic scenario: exploring the unknown, facing dangers, and finding treasure. You didn't have to ask how to create a scenario. If you wanted to play D&D, you dove into a dungeon, and if you wanted to dive into a dungeon, you played D&D. The scenario was resolved through the collision of player choices (starting with character creation) and the prepared dungeon. End of story.
These days, if you're playing, say The Riddle of Steel
, things are different. At least according to the guidelines, when you, the GM, write a scenario, you look at the characters' abilities, flaws, and Spiritual Attributes, and you make an adventure to match (some of) them. This is the idea of Flags (I think the term was coined by Chris Chinn): whatever is on the character's sheet--mostly mechanical elements, but not necessarily--is taken as a sign that it's something of interest to the player, and the GM constructs the scenario accordingly.
Did I say two examples? Okay, two more. In Dogs in the Vineyard
, you have something a bit in between. Town construction is premised on the notion that the players are interested in playing moral shepherds--the core story is: visit a town beset by troubles due to some moral failing, and engage those troubles and failings. However, the GMing guidelines also state in several places that the GM should watch the players carefully, see what sorts of answers they give to the moral problems, and then challenge them in future scenarios. I don't recall if the guidelines also say to use the characters' traits as Flags for the types of moral problems to raise, though it seems like an obvious thing to do in the general spirit of the game. On the other hand, actual play of the game often seems to involve "canned towns" shared over the Internet, drawn from the examples in the book, or saved up and reused by GMs. Clearly these aren't handcrafted to match the PCs, and furthermore, a player who's not really engaged by the basic idea of telling people how to live their lives might have a little trouble with Dogs
And finally, you have the "mission" approach found in many "troubleshooter" type scenarios--starting at least with Top Secret
. The basic premise of any given character is that he or she is in the employ of some kind of authority or organization which supplies mission goals and guidelines; however, once the mission is assigned (by the GM), the player-characters now have considerable leeway to negotiate its challenges and overcome the enemy. In a sense this takes us back to the dungeon: creating a character implies interest in the sorts of mission-based scenarios that go with the game.
Well, that's enough for now. Comments on these examples, as well as further examples, are welcome.