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RPG theory/design/philosophy journal
Who controls the plot? 
3rd-Jul-2006 07:50 pm
chiang 2
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.
4th-Jul-2006 05:32 am (UTC) - Dogs
All this is very interesting... yes.

In the example of Dogs I would say that a GM need not look for flags on the character sheet because when a 'dog' begins to interact mechanically, that is dice are used to resolve a conflict, the only option a PC has is to use the traits (or flags, if you will.) In other words any town the GM presents will automatically include the use of the traits because that is the only way the player can interact with the game.

So, in this example plot is a non-issue. When playing the players have to figure out how to incorporate their traits, this gaurantees that the traits gets used.

I think that there is a problem with using the term plot to describe what is happening when a GM creates an adventure/campaign. Plot means a specific coarse, where the coarse in game play is only determined, well, during the play of the game, not before. There should be a better way to describe this action, and once it is better describe I think you're question will be answered.

So, I ask if a GM is not plotting what is he/she doing?

thanks alex
4th-Jul-2006 08:08 am (UTC) - Re: Dogs
You may be right about Dogs although I also think it depends on the group and just how much control the players enjoy assuming outside of their characters. E.g., if I've got a character who was beaten by his drunken father every day until he ran away, and he has something related to that as a trait, then putting alcoholism or child abuse into a town is going to make it easier for me to activate that trait--in effect, express his character--than a scenario involving other social ills.

Now in a series of towns, the traits your character picks up are often going to be related to the moral choices he makes, so there it doesn't matter if the GM gets his cues from your character sheet or from observations in play.

In any case I don't want to get hung up on interpreting the Dogs text. I was just suggesting it as an example of one approach to creating engaging scenarios: work from a focused core story that the players find interesting, then customize with details based on thematically interesting developments and/or Flags.

I personally agree with you about "plot" but I've seen many people use the term to mean, not the specific course of events, but the setup for a story. Things are further confused by varying usages in literary criticism and film theory. The terms I like to use are "campaign framing" and "scenario framing".

Which reminds me that another technique for campaign framing is collaborative setup: collaborative campaign building. "Dungeons" and "missions" limit the range of characters and allow players to self-select based on interest in the game. Meanwhile the Flags paradigm has the GM customizing the campaign/scenario to the players' interests as expressed via character creation. In collaborative campaign building, the GM and players work together to create a campaign framework. What should emerge is a corpus of shared interests and assumptions which the GM and players can work from even as they resume more-or-less traditional roles, with the players creating their characters and the GM the initial scenario. It seems natural that the players will already be thinking about the types of characters they want, as they help set up the campaign. Which means that if you take the idea far enough in a certain direction, collaborative world building could be like Flags on steroids. On the other hand, collaborative world building also gives the players the option of only inserting the elements which they consider essential. It may be preferable for players who prefer not to have the world center too strongly around their characters--who wish to enter and explore the game-world instead of having the world reach out to them.
4th-Jul-2006 06:29 pm (UTC) - Re: Dogs
In my last Dogs game, my character's thing (violence against women--by other Dogs) came up only tangentially. I mean, I did get to use my traits--but not to their fullest effect. So, yeah: I would say that the game could've been far more powerful and meaningful to me if it had been partially tailored to my play.

Not that it wasn't good--but the idea that no customization is necessary is something I'd question.

5th-Jul-2006 12:21 pm (UTC) - Rune
IIRC, having read rune once, the lack of plot influence of players is pretty much explicit.
There are action (often fight) scenes and plot development scenes. The latter kind is totally explicitly beyond player control.
E.g. plot scene: Evil guys attack PCs' home village and steal a magical toy.
Fight scene: PCs must stop the bad guys from slaughtering the village.
Plot: PCs track the foes (or action, with successful roll giving some edge in the following action scene).

Most of the adventure is action. The plot scenes are there to provide colour (and possible hints). The game is very much about dungeoncrawling, and recognises it.

Scenarios must always be built before they see action. The guidelines for building scenarios are tight (at least half of scenes must have fighting); the builder must compensate each difficulty with treasure, exit, beneficial shrine or possibility of minor boost (acquiring these is what nonmartial skills are largely for).
GM gains experience for hurting PCs. GM loses experience for killing PCs.

This is as I remember the game and might not perfectly match reality.

-Tommi Brander
5th-Jul-2006 05:28 pm (UTC) - Re: Rune
Thanks for the summary. I haven't read Rune but what you describe matches up with what I've heard; it's also very close to the way many computer action games work--which is what Rune is based on.
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