Often times creators of any kind of game attempt to write plot. We see this a lot in table top RPG’s and Live Action Role Playing games. But also often in computer games. Plot is a terrible thing to write in a dynamic situation like a RPG or LARP. It can cause really problems in sandbox games. The greatest gaming advice ever is a way to counter the trap that ‘writing plot’ represents.
Plot: 4. The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama.
Why is ‘writing plot’ a trap? In dynamic scenarios like a RPG or a LARP you can’t know ahead of time what the players will do. The future is unpredictable. The pattern of events in an RPG or LARP can’t be known until the players make decisions. This makes pre written modules problematic. In a computer game we can form a more narrative structure that hides a branching set of limited options. We can provide the appearance of choice while still moving a character through a mostly linear plot.
The problem stems from causality and timing. Lets say you have broken down your event into logical chunks of plot. You have a plot point C, an Item B, and a location A. To complete the plot the players must find item B, and bring it to location A. Plot point C then happens. That seems simple and straight forward… when writing it ahead of time. And probably describes 50% of the events you’ve ever attended.
However inevitably there will be a player who wants to own item B. Why? Because it’s shiny and they are playing a ‘thief’. Or it’s magic, and they are playing a collector of magical items (not really a character trait really more of a player fixation). Or they mis understand what item B is. Or where location A is. Or they find the location first, but don’t have the item. So the NPC’s just stand there and don’t say anything. This should remind you of the other 50% of events you’ve ever been to.
The answer to avoid the trap of ‘writing plot’ is to break this chain of causality by changing how you think of the game entirely. Instead of a chain of things that must happen, create characters with motivations which are likely to produce some of those same outcomes.
Let’s say Item B is literally a Key. And it’s in possession of an NPC. The NPC does not know what the key does or where it’s used. They posses a key, and their goal is to find out what it unlocks. Location A is a chest. Not a place, it could get picked up and moved around hidden, stolen, etc. Plot Point C is undefined. In this design pattern, there’s no need to define what plot point C is because it hasn’t happened yet.
We have an NPC and we have a chest. The players get to define what the plot point is. Maybe they find the chest, and just tell the NPC it’s location, offer to escort the NPC to the location, where they can try the key on the chest. Or maybe the players attack the NPC and take the key. Maybe they buy the key. Maybe they find the chest first and hide it. Maybe someone picks the lock on the chest. Maybe all those things do happen, at various points during the event, in comedic fashion. Now we have a dynamic situation which may or may not resemble a major scene in a Disney movie about Pirates. Or an Improvisational Combat Larp.
This is of course a simple example using only a few elements. The real fun comes in when there are many elements running simultaneously. The more characters interacting makes the situation highly dynamic, but as long as the characters stay true to themselves, the players will experience something like a story line. The real question is, how do we design a game engine which creates great characters? Characters deep enough, and nuanced enough to be able to generate a plot on the fly.
Great writers do this. Some of the best writers say they don’t know where the stories come from. They just create great characters. Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to write a great story. Notice each point talks about people, or characters. How do game designers execute this? Create interesting characters, and let players breath life into them.
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