Telling Stories: Serial roleplaying or building events

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.One of the things that has made my wife and I both develop an affection for Netflix-produced shows is the simple fact that these shows don’t have to work like traditional television.  They can break a cardinal rule that’s long been accepted as fact – they can be completely non-serial.

Most shows have to be designed so that you can sit down and watch with a minimum of overall knowledge.  This isn’t always a bad thing; after all, Batman: The Animated Series ran on the idea of boiling down the characters to their essences, and it was one of the best animated shows ever.  But when you get shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you feel the writers struggling against the restrictions imposed by a format that relied upon standalone episodes.  It’s kind of a miracle that Lost ran as long as it did while putting up a wall for any new viewers.

There’s something of the same issue when it comes to roleplaying.  You’ve got a tug-of-war between the serial version or a more constant continuity.  The trouble is that one is a lot more rewarding than the other, and the benefits of serial roleplaying are mostly conceptual.

Yes, this actually qualified as "subtle means."

There’s a difference between keeping the character recognizable and kneecapping any growth before it happens, and it expresses itself through subtle means.

Serial roleplaying, for those of you unfamiliar with the construction, is roleplaying wherein not much changes.  At the end of the day, all of the pieces are back in place and everything’s hit a comfortable reset button.  You see it all the time in comedies; The Simpsons made an entire running gag of systematically resetting everything to the default state as soon as the final credits were showing up, with several episodes even lampshading the way the show completely undoes any threat of forward motion on a regular basis.  It works well enough for comedies.

However, it also has a hidden downside.  Working in a purely serial format means that you don’t have to keep track of an ever-increasing pile of continuity, but it also means that you have no reason to come back for another outing.  If nothing changes, you won’t miss anything, and every experience will be much like the last.

Groups who go for serial roleplaying tend to be more interested in a light experience that’s fun for everyone and doesn’t run the risk of shutting anyone out.  On paper, this seems like a good idea – no one needs to read up on the story thus far to take part.  The problem is that serial roleplaying, despite the implications, accomplishes neither goal.  The reason it doesn’t accomplish the first one should be obvious – if you prefer more serious roleplaying, you’re going to be disappointed, and more serious character concepts are going to be squashed down in favor of heavily exaggerated one-note caricatures.  There’s no point in going for nuance when everyone else is playing Ned Flanders or points related.

But at least you aren’t dragged down by continuity, right?  Except you are, because human experience does not work like that.  You don’t get to compartmentalize what events did and didn’t happen in your head.

Any group that’s been roleplaying together for a while is going to have a certain degree of momentum.  Longer-running players get to know more people.  In-jokes develop.  Players get more familiar with other characters.  Cliques form.  All of this is an inevitable result of time and familiarity, and you can fight it with roughly the same degree of success as you can punch out a thunderstorm.  The person who’s new to your group is still going to feel like just as much of an outsider, because they’re not going to have any in-jokes or familiarity with their character or any ins for whatever is going on.

This has been done with varying degrees of skill.

There are advantages to a moderately serial approach, but that alone is breaking out of the serial mold and kind of gets left by the side of the road, so to speak.

The difference is that in heavily serial roleplaying… well, again, why get involved?  If all the pieces are going back at the end, your character’s contributions amount to a fart in a closet.  And since the group already has its various mascots, at best, you’re along for the ride.  At worst, you’re along to watch the ride.  Better to just stay out.

This is one of the reasons I talk a great deal about avoiding a hard script for events and the like, because you wind up in a situation wherein player actions do not have tangible outcomes.  Or, really, any outcomes whatsoever.  Heavily serial roleplaying has much the same problem, where there are no real consequences for your actions outside of where you were when the irrelevant stuff went down.  Nothing ever changes, no one gets any smarter or grows at all.  The only goal you accomplish is keeping things light and inconsequential, and if that’s all you want, why have a storyline at all?

I have no problem with the fact that there are some people for whom roleplaying mostly consists of hanging out with a very thin sketch of a character to layer over normal behavior.  But that’s not something that needs a story, nor is it substantially helped by having a plotline in which nothing changes.

At its core, roleplaying isn’t about getting or maintaining viewers, it’s about using the time of others in such a way that they do not feel it was a wasted investment.  It’s about giving people something fun to do that they enjoy.  That means you want investment, and the whole selling point of serials is that they destroy investment in both directions.  You don’t have to play the first nine Final Fantasy games to enjoy Final Fantasy X, and enjoying it doesn’t mean you’re going to like Final Fantasy XX automatically.  Which is great when you’re constantly trying to pick up new people without locking them out, but not so good when you want people to be invested and feel rewarded.

In short, if you’re more interested in serial roleplaying, you might want to have second thoughts before taking on any sort of storytelling leadership role.  It works for The Simpsons, but odds are you’re not as funny.

Next time around, I want to talk about how you can assemble the tools to let players build an entertaining little maze for themselves, a concept I discussed in some depth last week.  The week after that, let’s talk about character growth, character mistakes, and making flawed characters grow and change without removing what you like about them.

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: Serial roleplaying or building events”

  1. Dryope says :

    I’m going to begin with gushing here, sorry. My husband linked me to some of your storyboard articles on massively and you always had such great insight, but I am terrible at regularly checking anything and thus only just found your site. I’m glad you’re still writing about roleplaying, though.

    I had to re read this several times, because I have a need to know where I fit. But ultimately I think that my roleplay format of choice divides along a different line. I roleplay primarily via forum, and so we tend to have sandbox RP versus narrator controlled/overarching plot. So at first I was reading your essay thinking of my sandbox style being your serial, but that’s not right since we do have continuity and character growth. The admins simply provide a setting and players pursue whatever story they want as long as they don’t fundamentally break the setting. Sandbox players and storyline players do tend to come into conflict though; since the appeal of a sandbox is getting involved to the extent you want or don’t, and storyline people often try to impose grand plots that would require everyone to pay attention. I enjoy both styles, but I’ve drifted away from storyline games as I’ve had less free time. However, there is still continuity. I really can’t imagine having *no* character growth, even if most of my current character growth is probably super boring to anyone not me and the people I play with. (Look, one of my favorite character arcs involved my character struggling with diet changes due to high blood pressure. I’m a boring person.)

    I had a point here and it got away from me. My point is, it’s interesting to see how the roleplay cultures differ depending on the different formats! Sometimes I’m so caught up in my personal Rp bubble I forget there’s such a wide variety of ways to roleplay, so it’s good to be reminded. And since I keep telling myself I will one day have the guts to roleplay in an mmo I should probably keep these differences in mind.

    I really look forward to your next roleplay piece

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