Telling Stories: I do not build a maze, I assemble tools

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.I’m in the midst of planning for a big roleplaying plot right now.  That means integrating plots, making a couple of alts, planting the seeds of resolutions that won’t come for quite some time.  It starts with an injury, I already know that.  And it ends with…

Well, it could end with anything.  That’s the whole point of this right now – creating a lot of potential outs.  Oh, I have a fairly clear picture of what many of the long-term effects will be, but that’s not the same.  There is no ending, just a variety of potential conclusions.

I’ve said many times in the past that roleplaying is not storytelling.  This extends to events, storylines, and the like.  If you have an ending ready when you have started the event, go back and try again, because you are doing it wrong.  A good storyline isn’t about having a specific ending in mind, it’s about putting the pieces out and letting other people assemble the result on their own.

But all of that's in the future.

It starts at one point, but it can’t have a fixed conclusion by its very nature. To attempt it is to weaken what’s been done.

The problem is that this is plotting, but it’s not the kind of plotting you learn about if you read about good storytelling beyond the most fundamental levels.  Most things you’re taught about storytelling emphasize having a strong ending in mind, because it’s essential to creating callbacks, making later developments echo earlier ones, producing an environment wherein it feels like everything feeds into a central purpose.  But most of what you’re taught about storytelling also involves characters who are, ultimately, completely under your control.

You do not have that in roleplaying.  Tabletop or online.  You have some characters under your control, but the vast majority of them are controlled by other people, and if you’re doing it right, all of the ones you really care about are.

The characters being played should be the most interesting people in the story.  They should be the ones doing stuff that would inspire action figures and fannish devotion in others, because otherwise, what’s the point?  No one wants to read a story about a group of random chumps who aren’t doing anything interesting.  (Unless, of course, the random chumps are made more interesting by nature of their random chumpiness… but that’s a different sort of story than you can really do in roleplaying, and even then, it’s still a matter of making them the most actually interesting cast members.)

You can’t assemble a plot as a straight line, because no matter how many other people are on board with your exact vision, they’re not going to do what you expect them to do unless you give them a script to follow.  They’ll come up with new ideas.  They’ll try something random.  Every single novice GM has had a tabletop game derailed for hours when a player notices an obscure detail you slipped in and becomes certain that this is the important detail, something that everyone else missed but they caught it.

A solid GM will, of course, simply tell them that it’s not important.  A better GM will use that detail to redirect the players to what’s actually important – or simply let that previously irrelevant detail become a big deal.

This goes doubly in online roleplaying, when you have players with vastly different playstyles who will often have access to a range of resources you can’t research ahead of time.  It’s like casting a television series from shows that are already running and with little regard for genre.  Trying to write a straight plot with a beginning, middle, and end is going to result in either constantly restricting characters from taking logical actions or a horrible derailment happening roughly every dozen seconds.

No, the better option is to assemble tools.  Put things in place that players can latch on to, obvious points of interest.  Let them latch on to one, and let the others drift away.  They’re not important any more.  Yes, that means you’re putting in work knowing that it’s not going to be seen, but the end result is that people will feel as if they not only took the “right” course of action, but they’ll have done that for themselves.

Players assume that a plot has a predetermined ending and progression.  If you set up the tools right, they’ll build it for themselves.  Give yourself four or five obvious endpoints, and they’ll fight over which one is worth pursuing, with the implied assumption that one of them is the “right” path and the other ones are red herrings.  Of course, that’s the trick – they’re all equally right and all equally red herrings.  If a player assumes something ties into their character backstory, let them use it.  Don’t tell them it’s wrong, let them run with it.  Shift.  Adapt.

The ending is really just where a story stops, not where it always was going to end.

This wasn’t in the cards. But maybe it should have been.

It’s complicated, without a doubt, because rather than building up a set of rules about where players will go, you’re trying to build a framework of where they’ll be encouraged to go.  And there’s always the chance that you have seven or eight paths for them to pick, but they all pick something you hadn’t seen, which requires some quick thinking and sometimes serious changes to what you had planned.

But you have to change the way you think about plotting.  Rather than assembling the maze, you’re giving players the tools and letting them assume that the maze is there in the first place.  Given enough options and a little bit of faith, they’ll seize on plot elements and run with them, often assuming that they’ve got intimate connections to other elements – and they’ll be right.  Because if a player assumes that Item X is related to Cult Y, your best bet while running is to say that it’s completely correct and start shuffling Cult Y onto the stage.  Maybe you had already planned on that, maybe you hadn’t, but once the idea is floated, if it’s a good one, don’t box yourself in.  Let yourself try new things, venture into unfamiliar territory.

Plotting in this sort of environment is a collaborative thing.  It’s about letting players experience the kind of story they want, and letting the story change to fit their expectations of what it ought to be.  That requires thinking on your feet, but it’s well worth it when the story finishes coming together… and you only planned a fraction of it.

Next week, I want to talk about serial roleplaying compared to building roleplaying, and make something of an unusual value statement.  The week after that, I’m going to talk more about how you assemble these tools and how to plot for an event in the longer term.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

One response to “Telling Stories: I do not build a maze, I assemble tools”

  1. wolfyseyes says :

    There was this roleplaying guild in XIV that had actually handed me a literal, honest-to-God script of an event they were going to have play out over the course of several months. I was confounded, flabbergasted and even a tiny bit offended by the idea.

    Great post for the RP’ing GM’s out there. :3

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